Taxi Drivers Turn to Unions in Battle vs. Unregulated On-Call Car Services


Taxi drivers nationwide are turning to unions, including the Teamsters and the National Taxi Workers Alliance, in their battle against unregulated on-call car services whose drivers and vehicles don’t have to meet – and often flout – simple requirements such as insurance.


And the taxi drivers, in some cases in coalition with cab companies, are making headway with state and local governments in demanding and getting a more-level playing field with Uber, Lyft and other such services.


The latest successes come in the Washington, D.C., area.  D.C. is regulating the on-call services, after the Teamster-member taxi drivers showed their power through a mass taxicab parade, lane to lane, which tied up major downtown streets, including Pennsylvania Avenue, for hours. Unionized taxi drivers have also had successes against the unregulated services in Chicago and New York.


The wins are important.  Taxi drivers are another group of the growing mass of low-wage exploited workers fed up with no pay and lousy conditions. Like the other such workers  nationwide – fast food workers, warehouse workers, Wal-Mart workers, etc. – they increasingly take to the streets to demand decent pay and working conditions and the right to organize.


Federal data show the average taxi driver nationwide made $22,000 last year.  Most are considered “independent contractors,” not protected by labor law.  Thus, they must also pay their own shares and management shares of Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes and buy their own workers’ comp – if they can – along with insurance, gasoline and tires.


But the taxi drivers have an extra incentive: The unregulated, on-call car services, such as Uber and Lyft, summoned by apps.  Those firms and their drivers flout virtually all requirements.  Those firms claim that all they’re doing is offering “ride sharing.”


The threat has led some 2,000 D.C. taxi drivers to join Teamsters Local 922, up from 1,000 when the local started organizing drivers almost a year ago.  Local 922 has also had the most success in lobbying government officials.  The city’s taxicab commission recent ruled the on-call ride services must buy insurance for their vehicles, put their drivers through background checks and put the vehicles through city safety inspection, just like regular cabs.


“The D.C. drivers have seen the protests across the United States and around the world,” Local 922 President Ferline Buie told the Teamsters.  “It is their turn to join the growing chorus calling for these services to follow the same rules and regulations that they must follow. All they want is a level playing field.”


The on-call car service firms “are basically stealing work from drivers who are doing everything completely legal,” Teamsters organizer Joel Wood told a Washington Post blogger.


“Doing everything legal” includes obeying D.C. taxi commission’s rules.  The new rules  led cabbies to join Local 922 in the first place.  The cabbies sought a voice in such mandates as ordering them to install credit-card readers in every cab, repaint every cab in a red-and-gray color scheme and installing new roof dome lights.  All those moves came at cabbies’  expense.

In Virginia, the pressure from the cabbies in Alexandria, who are also considering unionizing, pushed Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to negotiate minimum requirements the on-call ride services must follow.  He did so, thus ending an injunction against one of the services.  He disappointed the cabbies, but he also set a minimum requirement for the on-call services.


The 1,000 taxi drivers in D.C.’s northwest suburb of Montgomery County joined the National Taxi Workers Alliance not only to level the playing field against Uber, Lyft and other on-call car services, but also because they had their own problems with the cab companies – such as an 8.5 percent company-imposed share of each fare paid by credit card.


“You’ve taken a city where drivers have been invisible and exposed their exploitation.  The overwhelming majority of workers in this industry are immigrants, exploited and disenfranchised, told that you have no rights, but that changes now, not just in Montgomery County but throughout this region, which is such a critical place because it’s the capital,” said alliance President Bhairavi Desai.


In New York, the alliance, which represents 18,000 cabbies, has pushed the city into enacting new rules the on-call services, too, must follow. They’re now considered commercial carriers and must follow the same rules taxis do.  Lyft, refuses, and the city and state banned it from operating in the Big Apple.


New York drivers felt “a lot of vulnerability and anger” over the on-call services, Desai said.  That spurred her group’s organizing drives in the Big Apple and in Philadelphia.


The Chicago taxi drivers unionized with the Taxi Workers Alliance and then sat down with city officials to negotiate similar rules that all on-call and for-hire services must follow.  They also lobbied the city for a 22 percent fare hike.  Chicago taxi fares last rose in 2006.

As a result “Chicago ranks as the 125th lowest cab fare of all U.S. cities and 27th of large cities,” says the United Taxidrivers Community Council, the alliance affiliate there.


“Since 2005, the cost of living has increased by 19.1 percent and lease rates for taxicabs have increased 20 percent-36 percent and gas prices have increased 60 percent,” the UTCC adds.  “Taxi drivers work an average of 13.1 hours per day for less than $5 per hour.”


The threat from Uber and Lyft also exists in Europe, sparking widespread protests by taxi drivers in London, Paris and Berlin.  In those cities, taxi drivers must pay up to $270,000 each for a “medallion” – the city license to drive for hire.  Uber and Lyft, by calling themselves “ride-sharing” services, pay nothing.  And they’re unregulated.


“The drivers’ fight in Europe is our fight,” Teamsters Local 922’s Buie said.  “Their demands for government action are our demands here in Washington, D.C.  We are watching these protests carefully and they inspire our drivers to keep up the fight for fairness.”