Denver Taxi Drivers Seek Cooperative Ownership to Compete with Uber

by Sean Riley

The Nation

The largest taxi company in the Denver metro area is still mostly secret. On Sunday morning, the parking lot behind the Communication Workers of America Local 7777 office filled up with cars. Some already had the black or green paint of Green Taxi Cooperative, its name inscribed in Wild West-style type. But many were still unmarked, or bore the branding of one of Denver’s other cab companies, for whom drivers were working even after putting down the $2,000 investment to become a member-owner of Green Taxi. Some were still doing Uber. All 800 slots for Green Taxi members are full, and there’s demand for more. But nearly 150 drivers are out on the road so far. The rest are waiting, keeping their status as business owners quiet, biding their time to see if this will really work.

“I’ve never heard of a meeting on the Sunday before Labor Day,” Shiela Leider, the local’s political director, told the assembly of about 90 co-owners, nearly all of whom were born and raised in places where Labor Day does not exist.

Green Taxi drivers come from 37 countries, I’m told, especially East African ones. In a moment when the taxi industry here and virtually everywhere faces an existential disruption from Silicon Valley apps, these immigrant workers are self-funding a business model that puts them in control, turning Uber’s model on its head. They hope that without bosses skimming profits they’ll be able to take home enough to make driving a decent livelihood in the age of apps—with an app of their own. They’re wagering they can fight automation with democracy and shared ownership. “When we talk about the company, that’s you,” Abdi Buni, the board president, reminded his co-owners, “and when we talk about the drivers, that’s also you.”

With the backing of CWA, including an office Green Taxi rents in the local’s basement, Buni and his fellow founders have been clearing regulatory hurdles since 2014. The company’s slow, quiet start began when the office opened on July 1 this year; the first cars hit the streets later that month. It’s part of an international surge of taxi co-ops that are trying to turn the industry’s disruption-by-app into an opportunity for worker ownership—in suburban Virginia, in Portland, in Grand Rapids, as well as throughout Europe and beyond. Green Taxi’s scale, however, is especially ambitious. For the local taxi scene, it’s game-changing. For members, it’s a necessity.

“I paid extra to use the owners’ license before,” said Kidist Belayneh, who has been driving taxis about half of the six years since she moved to Denver from Ethiopia. “Now I’m an owner. We don’t pay extra.” She was one of just a handful of women in the room. She’d never felt tempted by Uber.

The trouble, however, is the airport. In a car-culture city, the backbone of the taxi industry is the $55.57 flat-rate fare between the airport—nestled in the high prairie, far from everything—and downtown. It’s $88.57 to Boulder. And according to how the airport has typically granted permits, proportionate to market share, Green Taxi’s 800 members should entitle the company to about a third of the 301 available slots. But so far, the company has only received 20—admittedly, still generous considering the number of Green Taxis on the road. But with 800 drivers, according to Buni, 20 airport permits wouldn’t be enough to keep the business afloat. What’s more, the airport is planning to change the whole system, just as Green Taxi organizes to claim its market share. The airport’s Web site now includes a notice about an impending contract bid for taxi companies, replacing the permits. An airport spokesman told me, “That would result in a higher level of service, vehicle consistency, branding, operating standards etc.” It could also reshape the city’s taxi business, and make or break Green Taxi’s plan to cooperativize—and unionize, with CWA—a third of the market. Rumors are flying about an insider deal, and nobody at Green Taxi seems to be in on it.

“I have really deep concerns about how this is being done,” Leider told the drivers. She said she’d been trying to reach people all over government about it and not hearing back. “Something stinks about this.” [MORE]