This is a profile of Drivers Cooperative, a Data Futures Lab awardee. In conversation with Erik Forman.
From trying to unionize his local Starbucks in college 15 years ago, to serving as a teacher and joining a teacher’s union and eventually working with Uber drivers in New York City, Erik Forman noticed a common thread among workers - the desire to own the places they worked in. Because this was strongly expressed by drivers, Forman, “a dutiful union staffer” as he describes himself, undertook the challenge of finding the necessary resources to bring the drivers’ dream to life by helping them create their own driver-owned rideshare app.
Through a grant from Capital Impact Partners, Forman and several drivers mapped out a potential ownership structure - one that became the foundation for The Drivers Cooperative. The idea was further cultivated and the co-op was incorporated in April 2020.
“And then began the long process of trying to scrape together the resources to be able to launch, and the rest is history,” said Forman.
“From our core group we began recruiting in December 2020 and pretty rapidly grew to over 2000 drivers. We’re now over 6000 drivers and we continue to grow,” he added.
From our core group we began recruiting in December 2020 and pretty rapidly grew to over 2000 drivers. We’re now over 6000 drivers and we continue to grow
Erik Forman, co-founder The Drivers Cooperative
The New York City-based collective was started by Forman alongside Ken Lewis, a black-car driver in New York City and Alissa Orlando, a former head of operations for Uber in East Africa. Orlando told the New York Times she left Uber when she started noticing driver frustration with pay decreases.
It’s no secret that across the world, drivers have been exploited by e-hailing apps like Uber (globally), Bolt (EU and Africa) and Lyft (US and Canada). Secret algorithms determine what riders are going to pay and how much drivers get – sometimes shortchanging them by giving the platform more than the 25% it claims to take off the price customers pay. Algorithmic bias has also led to racial discrimation of drivers, and drivers being kicked off the platform unfairly.
The abovementioned problems like job security and fairness are just some of the issues that a platform like The Drivers Cooperative solves. Being a driver-owned app puts drivers at the forefront of the agenda and ensures that they are not overworking themselves simply to make ends meet, as the gig economy often leads to.
The co-op will incorporate data collection and algorithms with human intervention to address emerging problems during a trip protecting both the driver and the rider. It’s a little more expensive to maintain and labor intensive too, but Forman says this is worth the investment.
“If there’s a problem on a trip instead of that complaint being adjudicated by a secret algorithm, we have a board of drivers who are elected by their peers who look into what happened and talk to the driver, get their side of the story and find a solution which only in the most extreme cases would lead to someone losing their right to drive,” says Forman.
He says sometimes Uber customers try their luck by complaining about a driver in the hopes of getting a free trip, and that often the customer complaints that lead to drivers being fired by gig economy companies follow patterns of racial and religious bias, and that no one should lose their job because of biased complaints.
“We shockingly receive few customer complaints about drivers and I think that’s for two reasons. The drivers who opted to build the co-op are motivated and committed and want do a good job because they own the company. When you’re driving for Uber you’re making somebody else rich all day long,” Forman says.
The drivers who opted to build the co-op are motivated and committed and want do a good job because they own the company. When you’re driving for Uber you’re making somebody else rich all day long.
Erik Forman, co-founder The Drivers Cooperative
“On the other side, the riders who opt to ride with us are people who want to do right by the drivers and they want the co-op to succeed and so they’re less likely to submit specious complaints because it’s not about ripping off Wall Street — it’s about building wealth for our community,” he says.
Through collective driver ownership the co-op is trying to help some of the most disenfranchised members of the community in New York City. Because drivers own the platform, any profit made goes back to the drivers themselves. The Drivers Cooperative also pays 10% above the required minimum wage - Uber and Lyft pay the required minimum. Forman adds that by taking less profit, they are also able to charge riders about 5% less.
One of the ways in which The Drivers Cooperative is hoping to expand its mission is through an online class for drivers and their allies , accessible worldwide, where drivers can learn how to start their own drivers cooperative.
“Through that class we’re really hoping to start a network of groups that will launch a federation of cooperatives that will be able to compete at scale with Uber and Lyft,” Forman said.
The class started on 16 March and will continue until 4 May. It’s not too late to join– drivers and allies can sign up at https://drivers.coop/academy.