From the gig economy to the unfairly shared spoils of global capitalism, inequality threatens to drive the UK apart. Could the answer be to work together, owning and controlling the things that really matter to us? Lucy Douglas meets the co-operators
“What we were seeing wasn’t a case of taxi v taxi. It was an asset grab. We decided that the only way we could try to insulate ourselves was to come together to form our own app as a co-operative of drivers.”
Sean Paul Day is one of eight co-founders of Taxiapp: the UK’s first taxi app to be owned by drivers in a co-operative form. It allows passengers to book and pay for black cabs via the app, in cash or by card. Its newest feature is designed to protect an aspect of the trade of which Day is particularly fond: the ‘ritual’ of hailing a cab. Customers will be able to view at a glance of their phone if black cabs are waiting on the street or at a rank, and hail one without needing to book.
The best known of the existing taxi apps, San Francisco-headquartered Uber has proved a soaring global success: it is now valued at around $69bn (£52bn). But the company has come under fire from governments, drivers and trade unions across the globe for ‘unfair’ business practices. In September, London mayor Sadiq Khan announced that Uber was “not fit and proper to hold a private hire operator licence”. Critics say that Uber’s bypassing of local licensing and safety laws amounts to unfair competition. Other apps – Lyft, Hailo and Gett – are generally considered slightly fairer to drivers – but Day says that none truly have employees’ interests at heart.
“That, to us, was the problem. The moment you bring in outside investment, then the bottom line isn’t the drivers – it’s a shareholders’ world. You get homogeny when the money men get involved, and that’s a bit boring, isn’t it? It feels very empowering to be working together instead.”
Black cab drivers, who have traditionally been self-employed, pay £5 a week to appear on Taxiapp. The founders have paid a year’s worth of subscription costs upfront to cover development costs. Now, 1,500 drivers have signed up and about 5,000 people have downloaded the app. Every driver on the app will become part of the co-op. And all Taxiapp drivers have passed the Knowledge.
Day believes that black cabs are part of London’s cultural identity, but this isn’t about preserving the trade for its own sake. “People using black cabs have consciously made that decision to support us, whether it’s because of safety or skill. A lot of the time, our cabs double up as offices: people want to get in, settle down, and don’t want to have to wonder whether you’re driving the right way. We add a valuable choice: we’re the only taxi service in London whose drivers don’t work from GPS.”
The New Economics Foundation is also developing a driver-owned alternative. The think tank is working with trade unionists, tech partners and passengers to build “something better than Uber” – a driver-owned alternative that they hope will be as convenient and competitive on price, but “treats its passengers and drivers with respect”. They are provisionally calling the service CabFair and aiming to raise £30,000 through crowdfunding to make it a reality.
You get homogeny when the money men get involved, and that’s a bit boring, isn’t it? It feels very empowering to be working together instead
Co-ops take many forms, from community groups to for-profit employee-owned enterprises. Like any enterprise, their aim is to generate revenue. But unlike traditional businesses, they’re owned by stakeholders: employees or customers.
They’re nothing new in the UK. The movement dates back to the late 18th century, and it was the Rochdale Pioneers Equitable Society, founded in 1844, that established the principles of modern co-operatives. These include the concept of returning profits to members, and the all-important one member, one vote rule.
But there is a fresh momentum behind the movement. “Recently, there has been a lot more interest in developing co-op models,” says James Wright, public policy officer of Co-operatives UK, the national trade association for co-ops. “It had always been there in the background but in the last few years we’ve seen enthusiasm in particular parts of the economy really pick up.”
According to Co-operatives UK, there are now 6,815 co-ops in the UK, employing 226,000 people and turning over £35.7bn per year. Seeing a particular growth of workers’ co-ops, Wright says, are the tech sectors, and creative disciplines such as design. For freelancers, co-ops allow resources such as expensive equipment to be pooled.
But as Taxiapp shows, the new challenges of the so-called gig economy are also turning more heads co-operatives’ way. Home ownership is at similar levels to in the 1980s and the number of households renting property is on the rise, while executive pay is spiralling and the spoils of a globalised economy are clearly not benefiting all.
As the introduction to Co-operatives UK’s 2017 report puts it: “A growing split between the have and have nots is dividing Britain. It’s time to reimagine the economy. It’s time to co-operate.”
Sisters Anna and Tatiana Baskakova set up Ceramics Studio Co-op in south London in 2014. They run classes in ceramics, as well as offering fully equipped studio space for ceramics artists, and firing services using their kilns. “The art sector is extremely precarious and hardly ever gives people any stable or dignified jobs,” says Tatiana.
They wanted to create something with values they believed in, but that was also a sustainable business. “Being able to create a healthy economic model was really important.”
Amy Hall, a freelance journalist based in Brighton, is a member of Shoal, a newly formed co-op of writers and researchers from the UK and France who write about social justice. “The collective works together to apply for funding, collaborate on projects, and support each other, share contacts and advice,” Hall says. “I don’t feel like I’m working on my own, competing with lots of other individuals.”
The number of community groups forming co-operatives to save local assets is rising. According to the Plunkett Foundation, which helps communities overcome challenges through co-operative models, there were 348 community-owned shops trading in 2016 (up from 138 in 2006) and 57 community-owned pubs will be operational by the end of 2017, compared with just 10 in 2011.
“It’s very often driven by the need to protect a service,” explains James Alcock, general manager of the Plunkett Foundation. “But beyond that, the impacts are really wide and varied. On one level, you’ll have volunteers. Community shops, for example, engage an average of 30 volunteers per shop. Other benefits are economic: 95 per cent of community shops sell local food so they benefit local producers. They also often go beyond the original service. For example, pubs might offer school dinners, libraries, allotments, meeting rooms.”
Co-ops often make successful businesses too. At a time when 21 pubs are closing in the UK each week, Alcock says there have so far been no closures of community-owned pubs. The Plunkett Foundation puts the long-term survival rate of community-owned shops at 95 per cent. The five-year survival rate for small businesses in the UK is just 41 per cent, according to the Office for National Statistics.
It is not difficult to see why workers might turn towards an employment model that is inherently democratic and allows greater control over work and how we’re compensated for it.
It was a desire for more control that encouraged Ieva Padagaite and Simon Ball to set up Blake House Filmmakers Co-operative. “We got frustrated with how our industry worked and future prospects seemed grim. Our generation grew up with this idea that we can choose to do what we want. When we get stuck in jobs that vaguely fit in with our professions but don’t have any benefit to society, we become very disillusioned,” says Padagaite.
It was a desire for more control that encouraged Ieva Padagaite and Simon Ball to set up Blake House Filmmakers Co-operative. “We got disillusioned and frustrated with how our industry worked and future prospects seemed grim. But we still loved making films so walking away wasn’t an option for us.”
Blake House only works on projects for not-for-profit organisations. The co-operative draws from a pool of freelancers in disciplines such as sound mixing and production design, on a project-by-project basis. It is also a member of co-op networks which gives the team an opportunity to pitch for bigger contracts alongside other organisations that share their values.
“In a way, we’re a generation for whom meaningful work is key: we grew up with this idea that we can choose to do what we want. When we get stuck in jobs that vaguely fit in with our professions but don’t have any benefit to society, we become very disillusioned,” says Padagaite.
“The main difference now is that I have collective support. I love my job – and I have a voice.”
Know your co-ops
Owned and controlled by their customers. Members usually get access to fairly traded goods, and can benefit from a dividend based on how much they buy.
Owned and controlled by their employees. Some are managed collectively by all members; others through a smaller board of directors. Boards are democratically elected by – and from – the employee members.
Enterprises that are owned and controlled by people belonging to a particular community, usually engaging in activities that benefit the whole community. Members may receive a share of profits at the end of each financial year depending on their level of investment.
Agricultural and fishing co-operatives
Co-operatives of farmers or fishermen who sell collectively, allowing them to get the best price for their produce. They often also work together to lease premises, buy equipment or market their members’ produce and products.
Co-ops of independent organisations or individuals. Members improve their commercial opportunities or reduce costs on things such as equipment and leases.
Formed by groups of tenants who share ownership and control of their housing. Combines the individual spirit of home ownership with community support structures.
Main image: Travis Hodges
This series is guest edited by Vivian Woodell, founder of The Phone Co-op and head of The Phone Co-op Foundation for Co-operative Innovation