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PROVIDENCE, R.I. — On a brisk early-autumn night, two members of the Sol Chariots Pedicab Cooperative pedaled their bright-yellow rickshaws, nicknamed Blinky and Clyde, through Dexter Park and downtown, stopping for human cargo. John Bitondo wore his signature tank top, trouser shorts and suspenders. Ally “Azar” Trull, dressed in a purple and black ensemble that contrasted sharply with her fair complexion, picked up a father and two children. The passengers giggled and leaned back in their carriage like royalty in a rolling palanquin. Sol Chariots is new and tiny — just six pedicabbing members and the two three-wheel vehicles, named after ghosts from the Pac-Man arcade game — but the cooperative’s faith in the sharing economy is outsize.
A year ago, when Trull and her twin sister, Ashley, or just Ash, founded this worker-owned, worker-controlled business, they had just wrapped up a second summer pedicabbing in Newport, about 30 miles to the south. Amid grand mansions and seaside bars and restaurants, they pedaled vehicles rented from the owner of a fleet. They were independent contractors under the law but had no say over their hours or the rental fee, which had to be paid regardless of what they earned.
This is standard in the pedicab industry and, likewise, for automobile taxis and livery cars. Drivers all fear that they’ll “go negative for the night,” said Bob Farr, a pedicabber in Austin, Texas. In New York City, rickshaws are usually rented out for $100 to $200 per week to drivers who may earn only $500, according to Ibrahim Donmez, a driver and pedicab activist.
By contrast, the members of Sol Chariots jointly own Blinky and Clyde — bought used on Craigslist — and divvy up the week’s shifts, paying 20 percent of individual earnings into the cooperative. “We make decisions by consensus, which works most of the time,” Ally Trull said, adding with a laugh that discussions are sometimes interminable.
At their Tuesday-night meetings, held at a tidy worker-owned grocery in Providence, the members decide what fares should be charged, how to compensate members for hours spent on clerical tasks, what to do in the winter months and whether to invest in a third vehicle. “We all have a position and communicate with each other. In the meetings, we talk about tours (and) events. We always know what’s happening,” said Frances “Red” Mateo, a mother of two from Puerto Rico who joined the co-op in August.
The egalitarian structure of Sol Chariots upends the conventional employer-employee relationship and represents an alternative or complement to union-based worker organizing. “I’m totally in favor of workers’ rights and workplace democracy, whether that comes in the form of a co-op or an organized workplace,” member Mark Goldberg-Foss said. Some unions, like United Steelworkers, are pursuing an emergent hybrid model of union co-ops.
To maintain and grow their business, Sol Chariots’ members take part in Co-op Academy, run by the nonprofit Worcester Roots Project, which organizes low-income residents of Worcester, Mass. Ally Trull and Mateo represented the pedicab group on a recent Wednesday night. They learned about marketing and competitive advantage with members of other cooperatives diverse in age, gender, race and income. The class ate a hearty vegan meal while exchanging ideas across industries — African-American youth from a hot-sauce-manufacturing co-op comparing notes with middle-aged Caucasians from a cooperative farm. “It’s not just about developing businesses," said Asa Needle of Worcester Roots. “It's about being intentional in how you are in the world. The thread running through these groups is not harming environment (and) wanting to serve the world in some way.”
Participants in Co-op Academy defy the stereotype of hippie cooperatives formed by economically privileged leftists. In fact, the sharing economy, which advocates modest growth and mutual aid over high consumption and cutthroat management, has been embraced by those typically disenfranchised. The members of Sol Chariots, for instance, are majority female, and everyone has worked low-wage jobs — in animal care, retail, food service — in which they felt underappreciated and lacked a voice. Some came to the coop having faced significant personal adversity: Bitondo lost his father to heroin addiction; Ash Trull suffers from rheumatoid arthritis.
These pedicabbers are part of a growing network that seeks alternatives to mainstream capitalism. In the context of historic levels of inequality, they reject the divide between haves and have-nots. The new sharing economy comprises commercial and social relationships — from credit unions, community gardens and tool-lending libraries to car shares, time banks, local currencies, barter networks and worker cooperatives. Some are expressly political, led by activists and iconoclasts. Others are pragmatic and draw disenchanted employees or artists and parents who want flexible schedules.
The U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives estimates that some 300 worker-owned co-ops employ over 3,500 people and generate more than $400 million annually. In Europe, where there’s an older, more mainstream co-op tradition, businesses owned and controlled by workers have fared better than other types during and after the recession. According to a study by the European Commission, cooperatives in the E.U. have been more likely to stay in business and rebound from job losses than traditional enterprises have. Worker co-ops generally maintain significant financial reserves and low debt ratios, and in times of crisis, members can make collective decisions to reduce costs.
“The living standards that we (once) expected are not going to be there for future generations,” said Sushil Jacob, an attorney with the East Bay Community Law Center in Berkeley, Calif., who assists low-income entrepreneurs in setting up home-based food production businesses and cooperatives. “To that extent, I think the worker co-op movement allows for everyday people to get more of the pie.”
Increasingly, entrepreneurs from marginalized populations have been helped along by co-op incubators — organizations that support, train and connect nascent co-ops with legal and financial resources. Incubators have helped launch cooperatives for Latina nannies and housecleaners, construction day laborers and workers trained in soil remediation (a Worcester Roots coop), with varying degrees of success.
The Center for Family Life, a branch of SCO Family of Services in Brooklyn, N.Y., has incubated a range of co-ops for low-income Latino immigrants, mostly women in the care sector. “There’s an aspect that’s inspiring (and) women-led to moms who haven’t been in the workforce before,” said director of cooperative development Vanessa Bransburg. “And (co-ops are) a nice way to get in there and still have time with their families.”
Work-life balance has been a key benefit for Sol Chariots’ Mateo, who gave birth to her second daughter three months ago. Her husband also pedals a rickshaw, and they do their best to stagger schedules. Meanwhile, her Sol Chariots peers have brainstormed child-care options that would allow Mateo to take on more shifts. “My co-workers — it doesn’t feel like co-workers. It feels like really close friends, people you can actually trust,” she said.
One of those co-workers, Bitondo, appreciates the camaraderie built into the cooperative structure. “I wasn’t sure (about Sol Chariots) going in,” he said while pedicabbing me through downtown Providence, “but I wanted a nonhierarchical workplace. We’ve all had really lousy bosses and dealt with interpersonal politics, and it seemed like the co-op was really trying to establish a workplace free of that.”
As he pedaled under a darkening sky, past Italian restaurants and curious pedestrians, Bitondo described his abiding love for dogs and the memoir he was writing about his father. Pedicabbing, he said, has meant “fresh air and constant activity,” the sheer pleasure of being outdoors. “It’s my first job in 16 years where I’m not dreading showing up.”