The True Sharing Economy

Hint: It’s not Uber, Lyft, or Airbnb — and it’s been quietly thriving in the East Bay for years.

…Uber promotes its service as a liberating alternative to taxi driving, its traditional economy counterpart. The company claims that 73 percent of its drivers would rather have a job in which you “choose your own schedule and are your own boss” than a 9-to-5, salaried job with benefits. In 2014, the Uber news blog quoted an Uber driver and former taxi driver from Denver who proclaimed, “I feel emancipated.”.

But over the past year, Mario’s job satisfaction has declined, along with his income and the number of customers he has each day. He thinks the Bay Area market has become saturated with Uber drivers. As it gets harder to find passengers at any given time, he spends more time driving or sitting outside an airport with his app turned on, waiting for a “ping.”…

Mario is also acutely aware that his pay could erode further or disappear completely without notice. Every so often, he receives a curt notice from Uber about the company lowering rates in his area, which directly lowers his income. Mario also has driver friends whose accounts have been abruptly deactivated because of a low customer rating — even if that customer happened to be drunk or having a bad day when grading the driver. Although driving for Uber provides some helpful income right now, Mario said he hopes he can find a new job soon. “There’s no security,” he explained, “because it’s not something you get paid hourly for.” (The precarious nature of working for Uber is also why the Express has agreed to requests by Uber drivers that we only use their first names in this report.).

The recent announcement by Uber that it will expand its global headquarters to the old Sears building in Uptown Oakland has been accompanied by a heightened interest in the company and its business practices, as well as those of other companies in the sharing economy. Many local political and business leaders have hailed the arrival of Uber as a sign of the city’s long-sought revitalization. But from the perspective of critics and labor activists, the term “sharing economy” is grossly misleading, because companies like Uber are just offering a new form of unstable, unregulated employment — and there isn’t much actual sharing going on.

The word “sharing,” of course, connotes generosity and fairness — of equal access to something. It appeals to more than just convenience and immediate gratification — to a type of transaction that ideally might be more sociable and less wasteful than the regular economy. The idea of sharing is also attractive because it seems to address real problems in the current economy: unemployment and underemployment, the insufficiency of the minimum wage, consumer waste and environmental impact, and even social alienation…

But critics say that, in reality, Uber does little to address these issues. Moreover, as politicians and business leaders have celebrated the arrival of Uber, they’ve overlooked the local organizations and cooperatives that have been engaged in actual sharing for years. In fact, Oakland and the East Bay have long been home to innovative businesses that have established equitable structures and share risk, decision-making, ownership, and profit.

These small cooperatives and socially minded businesses, including Arizmendi Bakery and the Missing Link Bicycle Cooperative, have not generally been recognized as part of the new “sharing economy.” In fact, in many ways, they’re the polar opposite of Uber.

They make up what some advocates call “the true sharing economy.”… (more)

The term “sharing economy” came into common usage among journalists and publicists in the mid 2000s to describe a class of technological platforms that allowed people to consume collaboratively. The idea was popularized among a young, budget-traveling set with CouchSurfing, a website that facilitated a free exchange of hospitality. “Sharing” referred to the use of personal assets in this exchange: a user allowed a stranger to sleep on his or her couch simply because of a shared belonging to CouchSurfing, which is often referred to as a community. This free, communal exchange continues to thrive through platforms like FreeCycle, or even Craigslist, among others…

Eight years ago, before the dawn of the Uber age, Janelle Orsi started a law practice in Oakland and began calling herself a “sharing lawyer.” She said that when she told friends about it, “People thought it was a joke, or they raised a lot of eyebrows and thought, ‘People aren’t going to want to share.'” But Orsi forged ahead and later co-founded the Oakland-based Sustainable Economies Law Center, or SELC, and published two books on sharing law, dedicating her career to advocating for and advising businesses and organizations that share. Today, Orsi observes of economic sharing: “Now, it is a big thing. And it’s a big thing in part because people are using the ‘sharing economy’ phrase to refer to other activities that are more commercial in nature, but also because, truly, there are many more worker coops started, or at least in formation, than there were eight years ago.

Orsi defines a “true” sharing economy in terms of “the commons,” a concept that originally referred to a shared piece of land in a community from which any member could benefit by grazing cows, hunting, or harvesting. Now, Orsi notes that “a commons can be created anytime we take a resource — and that resource could be a workplace, it could be water, land, cultural information, anything — and manage it collectively with the goal of stewarding it in the long-term and with the goal of creating equitable access.” She has supported projects in co-housing, community agriculture, car-sharing, and other shared resource management.

This philosophy of the commons is present in some aspects of the popular sharing economy — CouchSurfing, for example, treated the resource of space in a house as a commons within the CouchSurfing community, allowing anyone access to it without having to pay. But it’s harder to make the connection between Uber and the commons, because the property of a car and the labor of a driver are rented temporarily for a fee. While Orsi acknowledged that some of the dominant sharing economy companies are “helping people use their resources in new and efficient ways,” she focuses on much more equitable arrangements. The sharing economy structures that SELC supports are usually cooperatives, or coops. They’ve been around for centuries in various forms, but they have gained particular popularity in recent years, especially in the Bay Area… (more)


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