Nov. 4 2015: Uber comes to town

By Paul Chislett:

Although not in Windsor – yet, the Uber ride sharing company has caused comment in the local media and online. Driving speculation about Uber in Windsor is former Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak’s private member’s bill which is meant to open the regulatory door for Uber and other app based enterprises in Ontario. Windsor Mayor Dilkens, in perhaps a supporting role for his provincial ‘brother in arms’, was quoted in local media recently saying he thinks Uber is coming “… whether we want it or not”, and he added “ I see a net benefit to the community myself”. In the same media report, John Toth, vice-president of Unifor Local 195 representing local cab drivers, revealed that “[d]rivers have been worried to the point of anger for years and years over the threat of Uber coming in”. Toth added that 320 workers rely on cab driving to make a living wage.

Uber image

In the past neither Mayor Dilkens, nor especially, Mr Hudak have displayed sympathy for unionized working people and one could be forgiven for believing there is an ideological underpinning for the move to create what would arguably be a sea of independent contractors all competing with each other to the point no one could earn a living wage. In a de-industrializing city like Windsor one would expect careful consideration before causing any more living wage jobs disappear through careless de-regulation. The issue of a sharing economy – which ride sharing is a part of – is a timely one to discuss as politicians get on the app bandwagon.

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research made this reasonable assertion: “It is appropriate for taxis to be subject to safety and insurance requirements. The ones in place now may well be excessive, but it can’t make sense to have a traditional taxi sector bound by these rules and then a group of upstarts to which no rules apply.” Mayor Dilkens says Uber “employs people too, [that] Uber drivers are employees [who] work and they make money, they pay taxes.” His assumption is that Uber work will have no impact on existing workers who get paid a living wage, pay fees related to their work and taxes as well. What are we to make, then, of new technologies and decent work at a living wage? What is the sharing economy and what alternatives are there to a Wild West scenario of independent contractors jostling to make a living?

U.S. based academic Juliet Schor leads a six-year project on the sharing economy for the MacArthur Foundation’s Connected Learning Research Network. In an October 2014 paper, “Debating the Sharing Economy” she explores the realities of the sharing economy writing that “…new technologies of peer-to-peer economic activity are potentially powerful tools for building a social movement centered on genuine practices of sharing and cooperation in the production and consumption of goods and services. But achieving that potential will require democratizing the ownership and governance of the platforms.”

Schor describes a 2014 conference called to investigate the sharing economy and offers that the “…term covers a sprawling range of digital platforms and offline activities, from financially successful companies like Airbnb, a peer-to-peer lodging service, to smaller initiatives such as repair collectives and tool libraries.” The idea of the sharing economy has many boosters but many at the conference questioned the “…popular claim that the sharing economy is fairer, lower-carbon, and more transparent, participatory, and socially-connected…”. Schor writes that “[c]oming up with a solid definition of the sharing economy that reflects common usage is nearly impossible: … Airbnb is practically synonymous with the sharing economy, but traditional bed and breakfasts are left out. Lyft, a ride service company, claims to be in, but Uber, another ride service company, does not.” For example, Uber is said to be worth $18 billion or more, is backed by venture capital, and run by another wunderkind CEO Travis Kalanick. Schor quotes lawyer Janelle Orsi asking, “[h]ow are we going to harness the sharing economy to spread the wealth?” The question worrying Schor and others is if the sharing economy will “…evolve in line with its stated progressive, green, and utopian goals, or will it devolve into business as usual?” Business as usual would be for profit corporations moving in to claim the sharing economy territory.

Schor explores why people want to participate in the sharing economy and finds that “[s]ome participants are drawn by the trendiness or novelty of the platforms[,]” … and warns that the “…novelty about which many participants … talk can be an expression of classism and racism…”. Schor explains that “…sharing remain[s] more common in working-class, poor, and minority communities. The discourse of novelty employs a false universalism that can be alienating to people who have maintained non-digital sharing practices in their daily lives.” Here I am thinking of the cab drivers who already share their lives with each other through work and the customers they serve every day. As well, I am thinking of the very stark divide in Windsor between Walkerville and South Windsor, and the Glengarry neighbourhood including the entire swath of the city from Gladstone to Sandwich.

The latter are the parts of the city where newcomers to Canada settle and are also home to working class people stuck in the lower end of the social-economic scale. In other words, for well off households the Uber experience is cool and people can believe they are sharing with everyone, yet a great chunk of the population remains invisible and out of the digital sharing loop. Yet, obviously, sharing isn’t new for working class people and I am reminded of my grandparents who used their home as a boarding house during the Great Depression. The question is does the sharing economy means inclusion and a sense of ‘we’re all in this together’, or is it reproducing inequality and exclusion?

At this point it’s useful to look at the work of two other researchers, Tawanna R. Dillahunt and Amelia R. Malone who wrote “The Promise of the Sharing Economy among Disadvantaged Communities”. The authors state that

[b]ecause of the economic crisis, unemployment rates have risen; the purchasing power of consumers has declined; and bank loans have become more difficult to obtain. Such factors have resulted in individuals looking to both earn and save money. Sharing is a common method in which individuals, particularly among low-income groups, have saved money. For example, close-knit, low-income individuals often share expenses and transportation. They also provide social and emotional support and barter services such as childcare.

The concern for Windsor is summed up in this quote cited by Dillahunt and Malone: “How can we take these sharing mechanisms and torque or re-purpose them from the point of view of people for whom sharing is not a cool, optional, sexy, ‘I-don’t-want-to-be-burdened’ thing, but for people for whom it’s an absolute necessity because they don’t have the resources for traditional ownership?” That is a crucial question for Windsor and the answer will take real leadership far beyond the ‘Uber is coming and I’ll change regulations to make it easier for living wage jobs to disappear’ kind so far offered. It really is a question of who needs the access to new technologies the most, and are we enhancing what we already have in terms of living wage jobs while we collectively figure out how to transition to new ways of working.

Getting back to Schor’s paper, there are alternatives to the destructive aspects of the sharing economy. That alternative must be led by people organizing to create a movement which can, according to Schor

…make a critical difference in realizing the potential of the sharing model” in that that “…organizations that are part of the solidarity sector, such as unions, churches, civil society groups, and cooperatives, could create platforms for their members. They could build alternatives to the for-profits, particularly if the software to operate these exchanges is not too expensive. These platforms could be user-governed and/or owned.

She cites a taxi cooperative in Portland Oregon that will use ride sharing technology that will evolve the business into a driver-owned version of ride sharing. Schor argues that “…sharing entities [must] become part of a larger movement that seeks to redistribute wealth and foster participation, [as well as] ecological protection, and social connection.” It’s a matter of putting ‘share’ in the sharing economy. Concluding, Schor offers this:

The emergence of [Peer 2 Peer] (P2P) communities that share goods, space, and labor services can be the foundation of a new household model in which people are less dependent on employers and more able to diversify their access to income, goods, and services. But the early stage goodwill from the big platforms will dissipate as they become incorporated into the business-as-usual economy. We are at a critical juncture in which users’ organizing for fair treatment, demands for eco-accountability, and attention to whether human connections are strengthened through these technologies can make a critical difference in realizing the potential of the sharing model.

Uber is just the tip of the iceberg. What we’re really talking about is the wholesale change in the very nature of work: increasingly robotized manufacturing work, autonomous cars and trucks, and the increase in low wage work, for example. There is the potential for hundreds of millions of people looking for work of all sorts around the world and turning to app based opportunities. In the de-industrializing City of Windsor clinging to history that is rapidly evolving, with the fourth most diverse population in Canada completely unrepresented in local government, and with the highest unemployment rate in the country we are in desperate need of real leadership.

We need to be looking at a basic annual income so people can do more than just survive in these changing times. Workers, unions, churches and civil society groups need to organize together for the creation of a climate of cooperativism and mutual aid that breaks down barriers in this economically, and yes, ethnically divided city. And while we are doing this, we need to preserve what living wage jobs there are, as well as enhancing existing social assistance programs, including shelters and affordable housing, so people don’t fall further behind.

What Mayor Dilkens offers is a cold shoulder to the very concept of a sharing or solidarity economy. Such a thing is within reach, but we cannot expect it to come from above.

As an addition from further research there is this:

Take, for example, Uber’s app, with all its geolocation and ride ordering capabilities. Why do its owners and investors have to be the main benefactors of such platform-based labor brokerage? Developers, in collaboration with local, worker-owner cooperatives could design such a self-contained program for mobile phones. Despite its meteoric rise, $300 million in VC-backing (and its $18 billion evaluation bubble), as well as massive international reach, there is nothing inevitable about Uber’s long-term success. There’s no magic when it comes to developing such a piece of software; it’s not rocket science. Of course, technology is only one part of the equation and instead of letting techno-determinism run its course, I’d rather point to the long history of worker-owned cooperatives, EP Thompson and Robert Owen.

From: “Platform Cooperativism vs. the Sharing Economy” by Trebor Scholz

If you are interested in being part of a discussion group on the sharing economy in Windsor please contact the author at paul.chislett@gmail.com or by phone at 519 252 1212.

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