Green Taxi Cooperative: Building an alternative to the corporate "Sharing Economy"

New worker-owned taxi cooperative set to launch with 800 drivers in Denver
Posted by: 
Michelle Stearn

The “Sharing Economy” is comprised of corporations like Uber and Airbnb—that don’t actually do much sharing. But real alternatives that build community and cooperative ownership are under development across the country—like Green Taxi Cooperative, an emerging worker-owned business in Denver, Colorado that just received the regulatory approval they need to launch the 800-driver strong cooperatively-owned and union-organized company. As Nathan Schneider and Trebor Scholz put it in “The People’s Uber: Why The Sharing Economy Must Share Ownership,” the majority of the app-based services like Uber and Lyft provide a platform for “‘collaborative consumption,’ but not of control, real accountability, or ownership.” Green Taxi Cooperative, by rooting ownership and control with the drivers themselves, is helping bring equity and sustainability to Denver’s taxi scene.

Why is worker ownership so important, and why are unions increasingly interested in supporting it?  The reality is that rapidly emerging services like Uber and Lyft, despite feel-good rhetoric about sharing and disruption—are just as profit-driven and extractive as your average corporation. Uber and Lyft can easily mistreat drivers, continue to extract profits, and drive down wages under the guise of flexibility they offer. The actions of these companies are proof that ultimately the people who own and control the services stand the most to gain from their success, often at the expense of the workers who make the platform run. As Schneider and Scholz put it, “[o]ver the long term, whoever owns and controls these platforms will determine who benefits from the emerging future of work.” So, in a world where convenience reigns and demand for these services continues to increase, can we build alternatives to Uber and Lyft that live up to the spirit of sharing the sharing economy pretends to embrace?

Worker-owned taxi cooperatives already have a foothold in Colorado. Union Taxi of Denver, founded in 2008, already houses 264 drivers. But as driver advocates and organizers looked for ways to reach a scale that can compete with Uber and Lyft—according to estimates, there are approximately seven times more uber drivers on the streets of Denver than regulated taxis—they ran up against a regulatory roadblock: transportation licensing laws in Colorado made it easier to form a new worker-owned firm rather than submitting applications to expand Union Taxi.

With this in mind, a new organization made up of 800 driver-owners from 37 countries formed in the summer of 2014, when a diverse group of hundreds of taxi drivers banded together with an idea to start a just and sustainable business that they could call their own. Thus, Green Taxi Cooperative of Denver was born. Some of them worked for Uber and Lyft, others for the incumbent taxi companies, and still more worked for several companies simultaneously, just to try to make ends meet amidst extractive business models of transportation network companies like Uber (which funnels 28% of earnings out of drivers’ pockets), as well as with increased car rental charges from Denver’s incumbent non-cooperative taxi companies (which, to compete with Uber and its equivalents, have increased the rents taxi drivers must pay to operate their vehicles by hundreds of dollars per week). So not only did this group of drivers see forming another cooperative as a potential pathway to take back the means of production—the vehicle itself—but they also realized they had the power to cultivate control and ownership of the corporation for which they work.

Since then, with the unwavering support of Communications Workers of America Local 7777 (CWA), the same union that in 2009 helped incubate Denver’s Union Taxi, they’ve embarked on the journey to launch their new business. CWA provided political leadership, lobbying, and outreach to change a key law blocking Green Taxi Cooperative from obtaining a license. The union went beyond just serving as an incubator, becoming an essential component of the cooperative's development and allowing them to expedite the licensing process from a trajectory of several years to just 10 months. This support complements the determination and strength of the cooperative's internal leadership: according to attorney Jason Wiener, who has worked with the organization to help it through the lengthy licensing application process, the leadership and board of the cooperative is made up entirely of immigrant drivers from East Africa and Morocco who will best represent the diverse needs and desires of the driver-owners. The current president of the cooperative, Abdi Buni, was one of the co-founders of Union Taxi and has been a transportation advocate and organizer for years.

With some additional support from the Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center, the group created a robust business plan and developed financial projections. They then collaborated with Baltimore-based tech company IT Curves to develop a fully integrated smartphone-accessible app and were poised to make their entrance into the market. But their initial approval from a Colorado judge was challenged by opponents (including incumbent taxi companies in the area), putting the launch of the company in jeopardy. Undaunted, the worker-owners and their allies  pushed forward  in a lengthy legal process that recently came to a head: After days of hearings, witness testimonies, and document presentations, the judge issued a recommendation that the decision be reviewed at by a panel of governor-appointed “public utility commissioners”—it was at this final meeting that Green Taxi Cooperative successfully obtained a unanimous affirmation of the original court decision to approve the cooperative’s license.

For Wiener, the approval from the Public Utility Commission was a “watershed moment for a regulatory body that has typically supported conventional business owners.” The Chair of the Commissioners, noting the high number of cooperative members who consistently showed up to the courtroom during the process, lauded the members for soldiering through an especially drawn-out court approval process, as opponents contended that the group would not have enough capital to operate at the scale they proposed. But the members proved their opponents wrong: the sheer numbers of the group allowed them to pool their resources and aggregate the startup capital needed to launch from member contributions alone. Several witnesses provided powerful supporting testimony in the court appeals process, including M. Samama, the CEO of the international tech company providing mobile hailing and metering integration to the co-op. Samama, who is familiar with regulatory technology and reporting, vouched for Green Taxi Cooperative, saying he believed fully in their ability to succeed in Denver.

Now, a wave of excitement is washing over the cooperative and its supporters, as they now have official approval from the Denver Public Utilities Commissioners to operate their fleet of 800 driver-owned vehicles in the Denver metro area, the most densely populated region in the state. One of the commissioners responsible for the decision, herself a child of first-generation immigrants, explained that she hoped this decision by Colorado’s regulatory system would enable them to succeed in their entrepreneurial pursuits.  The math is indeed impressive—not only is this new company now the largest worker cooperative in the state and one of the largest worker cooperatives in the country, they’ll have 57% of the market share of cabs on the street in Denver when they launch. This scale, combined with well-earned support from transportation advocates in the area, as well as plans to seek procurement preference from anchor institutions like hospitals and universities in the area, should (hopefully!) rocket them to success.

Green Taxi Cooperative sports an exemplary set of practices that ensure ownership is distributed among the drivers in true cooperative fashion. Other taxi cooperatives across the country have thrived in the past by following these tenets. Among them is Union Cab of Madison, Wisconsin, which shares some of the same cooperative ideals of workplace democracy and shared ownership as Green Taxi. “Co-operatives exist as democratic organizations. At Union Cab, democracy is part of our identity, our values and our mission,” said Butch Hanson, former Union Cab president. Extending that value to the community at large scale can prove difficult when competing with convenience-oriented Uber and Lyft, which until recently operated outside of the regulatory arena in Colorado. But like Union Cab in Madison, the founders of Green Taxi are dedicated to remaining as true as possible to cooperative values, focusing on transparent management, driver-ownership and -operation, and an orientation towards the scale that will let them make a real difference. Green Taxi is bringing together strongly rooted democratic values with forward-thinking technology that will allow them to thrive as the largest taxi cooperative in the nation. As Wiener said, Green Taxi Cooperative has “leveraged the best of both worlds to provide a truly equitable sustainable alternative.”

Photo credits: Demetri ParidesStamen Maps, AFL-CIO