Erik Forman, Co-Founder, The Drivers Cooperative
Over the last 15 years, technology has dramatically reshaped the taxi and driver-for-hire industry. While the advent of rideshare apps has increased convenience for consumers, research shows that the business model of the platform giants has eroded job quality and expanded low-wage work. According to Erik Forman, co-founder of the Drivers’ Cooperative, “In the rideshare platform economy, conventional corporate approaches have led to a massive degradation of job quality for workers. Uber and Lyft fail to even grant workers the statutory minimums for wages, benefits, and rights on the job.”
The Drivers’ Cooperative, the nation’s largest worker-owned cooperative, has a mission to end exploitative conditions in the for-hire vehicle industry through systems change, putting drivers in the driver’s seat of the platform economy. The organization currently includes over 6,000 for-hire drivers as members, 91% of whom are immigrants, and 100% of whom have low incomes, according to Erik.
Prior to helping start the cooperative, Erik was the education director at the Independent Drivers Guild (IDG), a labor union supporting for-hire drivers in New York City. The Guild helped drivers win some concessions and help the city pass a higher minimum wage for rideshare drivers. Even as victories were won, Erik saw the for-hire companies gaining more power. Erik says, “It seemed that a new approach was needed. I did what labor organizers are supposed to do – I listened to workers. And what I heard, over and over again, was that drivers wanted to launch their own app to compete with Uber and Lyft. So I decided to try to gather the resources to allow drivers to make this dream a reality.”
Erik worked with a group of drivers and other partners to gather the resources to start the cooperative in May 2021 with 2,500 member-owners. The cooperative’s work is centered around three job quality strategies. First, the company has developed and launched a driver-owned rideshare app to compete for market share. Second, the Drivers’ Cooperative is building cooperative purchasing strategies to help drivers reduce their expenses. And third, the organization is building and pursuing a member-driven policy agenda to transform the industry.
Strategies to Build a Democratic and Supportive Workplace
“We believe workers should have decision-making power over the design of the systems that they operate, and how the wealth that they create is distributed. Our organization is living these values through participatory democracy,” says Erik. “Job quality is defined by what workers want…. Every strategic decision we make is guided by what workers want,” he says.
In addition to hearing drivers’ perspectives through traditional methods such as surveys and company meetings, the cooperative has developed other ways to ensure decision-making power rests with the drivers. First, drivers make up half of the board of directors, which is elected by the members. The cooperative also has another distinct Driver Board, made entirely up of drivers, that helps make all of the decisions that directly impact the drivers, ensures management decisions are respectful of drivers’ cultures, and that members have due process when complaints arise. The Driver Board and members also develop the organization’s policy agenda.
Decision-making processes and bodies are underpinned by a strong value of inclusion. The Driver Board includes at least one representative from the top seven cultural and language groups that drivers represent. Processes exist to add more representation if a group feels they are not being represented.
Drivers are also part of the organization’s staff. Erik shares, “We attempt, whenever possible, to train and hire from within, creating pipelines to professional job opportunities for our driver members – many of whom hold advanced degrees and have leadership experience from their home countries that are not recognized in the United States, or who have been disadvantaged in the labor market by discrimination.” All job postings are circulated internally and hiring criteria favors candidates with driving experience.
Good communication structures and processes are an important part of a democratic workplace, especially in organizations where English is a second language for the majority of the members. According to Erik, “We take special care to use best practices for English language learners in written communications and meetings, translate key information and meetings, and through our Organizing Fellow program, provide a bilingual translator to connect with members in their first languages.”
Since ridesharing is now a tech-based industry, digital literacy is also important to helping workers build the power they need to influence their job quality. The cooperative provides members with training in a variety of digital tools to support this. The engineering team also collaborates with drivers on the continuous development of the app. And the cooperative is supporting drivers who want to pursue training in software development with the hopes these drivers will eventually work for the organization.
The Drivers Cooperative ridesharing app is owned by the workers. The cooperative takes a 15% commission for operating expenses and to support driver training, onboarding, app development, and customer service, compared to the 25 to 40% the large companies take. Erik says, “We have structured our pricing so that customers pay 5% less than on Uber, but drivers are paid 30% more. We are the only transportation company that guarantees more than the minimum wage in NYC, and of course our members also share in profits.”
The second pillar of the cooperative’s strategy centers around reducing drivers’ expenses. The cooperative partners with a credit union to help members finance or refinance their vehicle purchases, helping some members save over $1,000 a month, according to Erik. The cooperative and the credit union have also won a grant to open a new credit union branch in the Bronx. A big expense for drivers is car maintenance, so the cooperative partners with the United Auto Merchants Association, a network of immigrant-owned, auto-repair businesses, to provide discounted repairs to cooperative members. The Drivers Cooperative is working with faith organizations to establish accessible charging stations and is partnering with the city and the University of New York and Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation to establish low-cost driver education programs to help drivers obtain and renew necessary licenses.
The cooperative is engaged in a number of policy efforts and campaigns aimed at improving job quality standards across the industry. “Our members have come up with a policy agenda that will reshape the context in which we operate. Just as Uber and Lyft seek to reshape the industry in their interest, the Drivers Cooperative is committed to reshaping the industry in the interests of drivers and the cooperative,” Erik states. Members are currently focused on efforts to increase the minimum wage, gain universal access to restrooms, start a retirement fund for drivers, pass paid leave laws, expand electric vehicle access, and more.
The organization understands the challenge of taking on large corporations. Erik knows these challenges personally. He started his organizing career attempting to unionize a Starbucks as a college student, and eventually educated and organized workers in the fast food industry all around the world. The cooperative is starting strategically, looking for opportunities to begin gaining some share of the market and transforming systems that are not working for workers or customers. The organization is putting a lot of initial focus on medical transportation provided to Medicaid recipients through efforts such as the Access-a-Ride program. It is also working with the City of New York Deputy Mayor’s Office and Small Business Services Administration on identifying other procurement opportunities.
In early 2022, the cooperative was averaging 12,000 trips per month and paying $400,000 a month to its members. The organization expects to more than triple the number of its drivers and trips per day in 2022 while continuing work to change the industry at large. Erik says, “Our philosophy is that as a co-op, our job is to raise the ceiling – to be the best company that can exist within a sector that has been aggressively reshaped by predatory players. At the same time, we believe collective action, regulation, and unionization are necessary to raise the floor.”
Tweet Worker Owned and Worker Driven: A Profile of @AspenJobQuality Fellow @_erikforman, Co-Founder of @thedriverscoop.
Tweet While the rideshare apps have increased convenience, they’ve eroded #jobquality. @_erikforman co-founded @thedriverscoop to end exploitative conditions in the industry, putting drivers in the driver’s seat of the platform economy.
Tweet As co-founder of @thedriverscoop, @_erikforman is leading the charge to raise #jobquality standards across the rideshare industry — including minimum wage, paid leave, retirement benefits, restroom access, electric vehicles, and more.
Tweet [email protected] — co-founded by @AspenJobQuality Fellow @_erikforman — has three #jobquality strategies: managing its driver-owned rideshare app, helping drivers reduce their expenses, and pursuing a member-driven policy agenda to transform the industry.
Tweet “#JobQuality is defined by what workers want… We believe workers should have decision-making power over the design of the systems that they operate, and how the wealth that they create is distributed.” @_erikforman @thedriverscoop
Erik Forman is a member of the Aspen Institute’s Job Quality Fellowship, Class of 2022-23. The Job Quality Fellowship is convened by the Economic Opportunities Program.
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