Worker and community-owned enterprises like worker-owned cooperatives are on the rise again. They are a promising part of the broader labor movement’s ongoing fight for emancipatory futures for all workers. Legislators across the US are promoting coops, spurred by activists, unionists, and entrepreneurs from the bottom. Recently, cooperatives have notably attempted to tackle worker exploitation, lack of community-based economic development, racial injustice, and the marginalization of immigrants.
Own This is a guide to optimistic experiments in co-operativizing the gig economy, putting technology platforms in the hands of workers, and building more democratically governed services for us all. In Own This, we find lessons from tech-enabled co-ooperative projects around the world. These lessons buoy our work in San Diego to build a cooperative taxi platform to serve the city. As a team of designers from UC San Diego and taxi organizers at United Taxi Workers San Diego, we’ve been building for three years together – we’re on the verge of launching a union-taxi dispatch app backed by a drivers cooperative. We are grateful that Own This can focus conversations on what policy makers, funders, planners, workers, and socialist organizers can do to build platform cooperatives that have a chance of survival.
A century ago, Rosa Luxemburg offered a warning about cooperatives – one that informs our work helping organize with United Taxi Cooperative in San Diego. The cooperative enterprise competing on the open market, Luxemburg observed, has to make use of “all methods that enable an enterprise to stand up against its competitors in the market.” These methods include the same ones capitalist bosses employ, whether that be lengthening the working day, cutting wages, or outsourcing. Workers are in charge, but their actions are necessarily shaped by the law, their competitors, and consumers. If worker-owned cooperatives don’t secure an exclusive market or a dominant position in one, they are at risk of either assimilating into capitalist logic or dissolution, thus not achieving their emancipatory goals. While Own This acknowledges critiques of cooperatives (p. 57-58), we think it does not take the challenges seriously enough, risking surprise or burnout for those who start on the platform cooperative path to building. Taking Luxemburg’s warnings seriously means cooperative builders can identify strategies to mitigate the dynamics she identifies. Optimism of the will, we agree with Gramsci, benefits from pessimism of the intellect.
Regulations and Public Funding: Conditions for Sustainable Cooperativism
Regulations and public funding can set the stage for capitalist companies to dominate, especially when those companies influence the law or are able to evade it to their own advantage. Uber and Lyft spend millions to ensure they do not have to compensate workers for the full cost of their time and equipment, even during a pandemic. Companies, Scholz warns us, can squeeze labor and trash the environment to turn a profit (p. 54) while not charging consumers the full cost. That’s what worker-owned cooperatives are competing against.
But growing communities of practice that have focused on public funding and regulations show promising signs of resistance and policy innovation. Correo Compras is a state-owned Amazon competitor built by the Argentine national postal service. CoopCycle is a federation of bike delivery co-ops across the world that pooled their resources, and continues to be funded by multiple state entities in order to build and maintain a customizable app platform for bike couriers. The drivers co-op is a driver owned and app-based platform cooperative that has been able to stabilize itself in the New York rideshare market through philanthropy, loans, crowdfunding, and municipal contracts.
A common thread emerging from these recent examples is the importance of policy makers and funders supporting and incentivizing worker-owned cooperatives. Erik Olin Wright argued that sustainable economic democracy required not only democratic production, but also state policies to advantage those more democratic forms. Jason Spicer also shows in his work on cooperatives that state-mediated institutional arrangements play a significant role in the prevalence of cooperatives. He concludes that governments need to transform their policies to make economic democracy viable.
In San Diego, United Taxi Workers (UTWSD) is building a worker co-operative, United Taxi Cooperative, as well as an app Ride United. Our work is of the sort that Trebor Scholz advocates for in Own This! The work reveals to us that we need policy makers, funders, and public administrators to open their minds, open their budgets, and open their procurement processes.
United Taxi Workers San Diego: Mission and Struggle
United Taxi Cooperative is built on a history of labor organizing by UTWSD, formed a decade ago to break the medallion system in San Diego so driver-workers could drive and earn for themselves. But over the past decade, UTWSD has had to switch focus to the survival of the taxi business, decimated by Uber and Lyft. Too many still see Uber and Lyft as innovators, but much of the success of these firms stems from venture-capital fueled lobbying to carve themselves out of taxi regulation. Under regulations they have shaped, Uber and Lyft are able to exploit workers through wage manipulation and punitive surveillance, and simultaneously exploit customers by manipulating prices.
In response, San Diego taxi drivers have lowered their prices while still submitting to the city-regulated price cap that protects customers. Mikaiil Hussein, President of UTWSD, and Peter Zschiesche, a long-standing unionist and UTWSD board member, developed a vision of a “public option” for point to point transportation, regulated as public infrastructure in the public interest. As we championed the vision locally, its shape shifted. We learned that people need to connect to the public transit network. They also need wheelchair accessible rides on-demand. Our cooperative could fill these transportation gaps. Like Uber and Lyft, we will also have an app.
This vision tries to form a coalition between elites and workers – what Erik Olin Wright called a symbiotic strategy (p.337) for creating alternatives to capitalism and durable social empowerment in his book Envisioning Real Utopias. In our workshops, taxi workers pointed out that they were already heavily regulated to protect customers – meter certification, background checks, and rate restrictions. With a cooperative, they wanted to become the preferred partner for public agencies with transit needs.
As we worked with planners, policy makers, and funders, however, we fell through institutional cracks. They expected that someone else, or maybe workers themselves, funded the app and the hardware required to operate it. Most philanthropies, on the other side, were used to funding capital projects in the form of land and building, not in the form of software or hardware. Public procurements pitted the taxi cooperative against companies with private capital for tech, including Uber and Lyft.
This realization led our team down the path of negotiating, testing, co-designing, and implementing platforms with small tech contractors, cobbling together funds from allies along the way. Working with software companies, We tested the software, submitted bug reports, designed user interface improvements, installed iPads in drivers’ cars, trained drivers in the software, and spent weeks negotiating pricing models that sustained the contractors’ software maintenance costs while feeling fair to drivers. We did this with a patchwork of grants and, at times, volunteer labor, but the organization’s belt is often tight and our financial future uncertain.
Some may be tempted to suggest low-interest loans or raising capital from more social justice- oriented venture capitalists as a remedy. But those pathways only serve to increase pressure on worker-owned cooperatives as they have to cede control. Venture capital subjects cooperatives to significant funder control especially with regards to funding recovery. Loans of course charge interest and threaten to seize collateral. Furthermore, taking on debt of any kind may not be compatible with the cultural practices of the Muslim drivers we work with. We want public and philanthropic investment in these infrastructures that can serve all workers and riders, and make the path easier for cooperatives that come after us.
As we approach our launch, we look to local labor and social justice communities for business. We have also advocated with our regional planning agency to make procurement processes more accessible to worker-run cooperatives. We continue to lobby electeds to grant exclusive contracts that ensure publicly necessary transportation work treats workers and passengers with dignity. But with our launch approaching, we heed Rosa Luxemburg’s warnings, being vigilant to stay true to our emancipatory goals in the face of pressures to compete with capitalists. And we share with Erik Olin Wright the belief that, in many cases, policy change is needed to sustain economically democratic projects. But for future platform cooperatives, we hope it will be easier.
Platforms for the People
We need policy and philanthropic action to support economic democracy at work. Public authorities can play an important role by providing publicly funded, and regulated platforms as infrastructure towards creating better jobs. In Platform Socialism, James Muldoon proposes city-scale platforms, co-governed by cities and workers through democratic committees. And cities can play an even bigger role in the sustainability of these platforms by prioritizing public service provision through them. Let’s bring this future closer. Organizations like UTWSD have already begun this work and made their call for support. It is for policy makers, funders, and researchers to answer that call in order to ensure worker platform cooperatives like United Taxi Cooperative survive and thrive.
Cooperatives can only meet their emancipatory goals through coordinated strategic actions in spheres of exchange, production, and politics. And cooperatives are only one of many approaches that workers are utilizing to fight back against capitalism. It is going to take workers fighting together through cooperatives, unions, and advocacy coalitions to achieve the emancipatory societal transformation necessary for our collective liberation.
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Udayan Tandon is a PhD student in Computer Science at UC San Diego and a member of the Just Transitions Initiative at the Design Lab.
Lilly Irani is an Associate Professor of Communication at UC San Diego, where she co-directs the Just Transitions Initiative at the Design Lab, and serves as the Faculty Director of the Labor Center. She also serves on the board of United Taxi Workers San Diego.
Peter Zschiesche is a board member of United Taxi Workers San Diego and was the founder of San Diego’s Employee Rights Center.
Mikaiil Haji Hussein is the President of United Taxi Workers San Diego.