This profile is an interview with Matthew Bair, founder and worker-owner of People’s Ride, a rideshare worker cooperative start-up in Grand Rapids, MI.
Name: People’s Ride
Can you tell us a little bit about People’s Ride?
People's Ride a rideshare on-demand business, like Uber. We're currently based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and are organized as a worker cooperative where drivers own and direct the business. We are about a year old at this point. Right now, there are 15 drivers involved at different degrees serving a customer list of about 100 people. Recently, a couple people interested in taking a real, active role in the business have joined and I am working on utilizing that potential.
What inspired you to found People's Ride as a worker cooperative as opposed to a traditional model?
I wanted it to be a cooperative that was horizontally organized instead of vertically organized; a democratic institution that everyone involved would have a vote in. I wanted workers to have a stronger say in policies, from manager selection to pay to how profits are spent. On rides in Grand Rapids, Uber takes a 30% cut that drivers never see again. With People's Ride, drivers keep everything and decide what to do with additional profit together, helping each other, our families, as well as the larger Grand Rapids community.
I substitute teach in inner city schools. When talking about People's Ride, I try to explain the business in a way that will relate to the students' real-life experiences. I try to explain what it would look like if Uber was organized in a non-capitalist way. Control over profits. I call this the “secret to infinite wealth," which always grabs their attention. I ask: what would you do with a million dollars? "By a new pair of Beats headphones," one student says. Another high school student says: “I would give the money to my Mom so she didn’t have to work two jobs and had time to take me to Cedar Point.”
Uber is a multi-billion dollar company. Imagine what would happen if that money stayed with the drivers. How would that much money help the workers, their family, friends and community? This is a job where employees bring most of their own capital, too: the car, insurance, customer service, driving, promotions and referrals, and in our case, developing the People's Ride app software.
What did the start-up process look like?
Start-up meant financing a car, finding insurance, making some pamphlets to hand out and recruiting our first customers. Because I was the first founder, all the money came from my own pocket. A small bit was raised using a GoFundMe page
. The insurance we found is called Livery Insurance, a newly developed insurance for this type of work. It's about double the cost of regular insurance, but covers almost everything for our drivers if something was to happen while giving a customer a ride. It is probably the biggest cost in running our company, but we see it as necessary for running a responsible business. Admittedly, the insurance was probably the reason people hesitated before getting more involved in the company. It's a large chunk of money that could be used for a lot of other business costs. We are currently exploring other insurance options, including what Uber and other rideshare services use, that are company-wide policies.
What has everyone found are the benefits to being organized as a worker coop?
Instead of feeling like robots who drive, we interact with the customers on a level that builds an organization and future. We build social capital, advertise, market, flyer and decide where the money will be invested. Personally, I try to talk with people and try to provide preferential options on rides, offer solutions to real-life stories I hear from people, and that has effects in the community and my own life.
With Uber you make maybe $11 an hour - barely enough to take care of yourself, let alone save anything to rely on as you get older. With our business model, a driver can earn 55% more than driving with Uber or other rideshare services. It is hard to describe; being organized as a worker coop just provides a more fulfilling experience.
The million-and-some interactions that you would otherwise ignore, because you are rushing to the next ride in order to make a dollar, are present. Working for a typical rideshare you feel as if you are always squeezing out a product and getting screwed in the end...it never fulfills. A worker coop returns the social aspect. This comes from the feature that we're all equally involved: solutions to problems come from us, the drivers, and sometimes customers. When I don’t have an answer to something, another driver or customer comes up with an idea. Something like that shouldn’t be appropriated by a capitalist company that did not work for it.
What are some challenges to being organized as a worker coop?
Speaking for myself, the challenges in our particular case have been to find enough time to recruit drivers, find customers, handle administrative responsibilities, and drive enough hours to pay my bills. Outreach has been an issue, in part because not a lot of people understand what a worker cooperative is, and some believe it cannot be a viable model for our type of business. Having enough start-up capital is definitely a roadblock. We do not have the money or investors that Uber, Lyft or Steadyfare (another local start-up) has to promote and offer incentives for people to join. Though I'm sure it is out there - if seen as necessary the community in Grand Rapids and working drivers can decide to distribute what is needed to make People’s Ride work. I studied physics for three years in college before moving on to humanities and I always come back to the lessons I learned. The number one thing that I've learned from starting a coop is that it's like solving a long mathematical equation: it's solving one small problem after the next.
What have you learned specifically about running a rideshare business as a coop?
The dynamic of customer/driver involvement has been a balancing act. It takes a lot of work on the business end to recruit customers and keep drivers so both stick with People's Ride. The on-demand aspect requires a lot of people be involved at the same time. There needs to be someone always available to drive so customers find the service useful. And vice versa, there needs to be a lot of customers so drivers see it beneficial and are getting enough work. The strategy I have been using as of late is to just pile on both customers and drivers with the company.
If I might make a plug here, I think one thing a lot of leftists have to learn is that they need to bite the bullet and spend the money for administration, organizers, managers and office workers. It might seem bureaucratic, or feel as if you are giving up power, but it is not - as long as the oversight is given to the general assembly of an organization. It flips a typical business structured like a pyramid completely upside-down. The Left can shooting themselves in the foot by trying to do everything using volunteers. It overworks people and you get half-quality results.
What’s next for People’s Ride?
There is a company developing an app for us. It costs a pretty penny, but is ultimately less than the 30% that Uber or other rideshare companies would take for every ride for eternity. You can access the app on our recently created website.
We want to become a rideshare alternative for West Michigan, from Grand Haven to Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids all the way to the capital of Michigan, Lansing. There is a lot of demand for rides in the outlying places like Muskegon, Saugatuck, Sparta, Rockford and Battle Creek that big rideshares do not find profitable to put resources into. We've also gotten interest in establishing a presence out in California. The demand for rideshare services is huge there. There have been people contacting us saying they'd rather use a rideshare service organized like ours. One driver is moving out there (shout out to Jacob!), taking on the mantle to start People's Ride out West.
We're also looking into teaming up with a labor union. There are untold benefits, beyond support and solidarity, to working with a larger network. I have been part of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC) and the Union-Coop Council since it started in Massachusetts. We've found that a union provides the capacity to run a democratic organization. They're best at bringing to the forefront the needs of the interest involved, whether at work or in the community.
What advice, if any, do you have for anyone interested in starting their own worker coop?
Just do it! Quit hemming and hawing and just talking about it or complaining about how everything is wrong and won’t work. Nobody's perfect. It is the future you strive to obtain that defines you. Do something, show something different to people. My motto is: act and adapt.
The profession I have honed and developed for my adult career is as an union organizer. I have a Master's Degree from the University of Massachusetts in Labor Relations, where we've studied the kinds of systems proposed here: Solidarity Economies, Unions and Coops. For over five years I organized professionally for the biggest labor unions including SEIU, UFCW, and the best of them all UE (United Electrical Workers).
From my experience a union job has always provided better work conditions and compensation. Three things that were taught to me in helping people realize the union difference is: (1) people need to see how something will be a solution to their problem, (2) people need to know how their benefits are determined by a boss, and (3) people need to be shown examples of different solutions in real life. UE taught me what it takes to have a truly democratic organization and win campaigns; strong organizing committees, well equipped with the resources. Momentum is built by walking people through their fears and leading them forward with solutions based on their issues and interest. When unions unite with worker coops they help provide what is needed for the worker to feel fully human, because they help direct the company that the person makes a living at and spends most of their waking life in.
Yes coops or unions are not perfect or a Utopian solution. It is still necessary to march, protest and bring attention to wrongs in the world. This not only provides invaluable experience but also educates others to how the world really works, and it opens up a space for new ways of organizing our institutions, like worker coops. In order to keep those gains won, prevent them from being taken away or diminished, we need real systemic change: democracy at work.
Matthew Bair is the founder and worker-owner of People’s Ride, a rideshare worker cooperative start-up in Grand Rapids, MI. He can be reached via email: [email protected]
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