Taxi Driver Solidarity Through National Union

Taxi Driver Solidarity Through National Union
Pinched by Ride-Sharing Services, Cabbies Seek a National Union

Peter Ali Enger, right, chief organizer for the United Taxidrivers Community Council, at Chicago O’Hare Airport.
Nathan Weber for The New York Times

CHICAGO — Never timid in its rush to expand, Uber, the app-based car service, skirted city law when it told drivers in its UberX ride-sharing program last month that they could start picking up passengers at O’Hare International Airport.
The fledgling union for Chicago’s taxi drivers complained, citing an ordinance barring anyone but taxicabs and limousine services from serving the airports. Chicago officials were soon shooing away the UberX drivers, although Uber defended its actions by saying O’Hare desperately needed additional transportation options.
But the taxi drivers’ victory was short-lived. The Chicago City Council voted 34 to 10 on May 28 to give ride-sharing companies much of what they wanted. The new law set no limits on the number of companies, vehicles or ride-sharing drivers and would let those drivers operate at the city’s two main airports, O’Hare and Midway.

As services like UberX, whose drivers often use their own vehicles to transport passengers, make inroads in city after city, traditional taxi drivers are facing a loss of clout and livelihood. Years of rising gas prices and, in many places, stagnant fares have contributed to lower incomes for many drivers.
Eager to reverse the trend, taxi drivers in Chicago and other cities are for the first time seeking to form a national taxi drivers’ union — not just to gain leverage against UberX but also to pressure city officials and taxi companies to heed their concerns. The powerful taxi drivers’ union in New York City, with 17,000 members, is spearheading this effort, bringing its organizing expertise to Chicago, where it is pushing to unionize thousands of drivers and to link up with drivers’ unions in Philadelphia, Miami, Houston, northern Maryland and Austin, Tex.
Here and elsewhere, drivers express similar grievances: low pay, high leasing fees, police who issue too many tickets and taxi companies that cheat them. Despite those common problems, forming a national union will be difficult, in part, because taxi drivers are an independent, disputatious group with roots in dozens of countries.
“It’s definitely a United Nations,” said Karen Chamberlain, who has driven a taxi in Chicago for two decades. “This is a hard business to get people to come together and agree. There are so many different nationalities and different languages. Nobody trusts each other.”
Ms. Chamberlain says she drives seven nights a week, more than 70 hours, but nets only $20,000 a year after factoring in gasoline and a $752-a-week taxi lease. She said she earned less than half of what she made a decade ago, when gasoline cost 45 percent less and her leasing fee was lower.
Aside from a surcharge that partly offsets higher gasoline prices, Chicago has not raised meter rates in nine years. Currently, the base fare is $3.25 to hire a cab, and $1.80 per mile after that. A trip from downtown to O’Hare usually costs about $40 before tip.
“I’m hoping the union will attract a significant number of drivers so we can push to finally get a meter increase,” Ms. Chamberlain said. “For too long, the city and the cab companies would ignore what we want — the drivers were helpless because there was no group to speak up for them.”
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The A.F.L.-C.I.O. supports the idea of a national taxi drivers’ union as part of its broader strategy to reverse decades of decline in union membership and power. Labor groups are realizing that they can no longer afford to ignore sectors like the taxi industry that employ many immigrant workers, whom unions view as a vital source of potential membership growth. And taxi drivers, whether Ethiopian, Haitian or Pakistani, are often leaders in immigrant communities around the country.
One snag these unionization plans face is that taxi drivers are usually independent contractors who are barred by antitrust law from colluding to set prices (although they can lobby city officials to grant fare increases).
Drivers say that some organizing efforts have been paying off. For instance the 1,200-member drivers’ union in Philadelphia helped secure three fare increases, lower fines for violations like having bald tires and a reduction in the fee for accepting credit card payments to 5 percent of the fare, from 10 percent.
Ronald Blount, president of the Philadelphia union, sees benefits in going national. “We can learn from each other. We can see what forms of pressure worked in other cities,” he said.
If they were successful in forming a national union, the taxi unions would be able to tap the mighty A.F.L.-C.I.O. and its 56 unions to get behind their cause.
One recent Sunday afternoon, three leaders of the New York City Taxi Workers Alliance met with 10 Chicago taxi drivers on Chicago’s North Side to strategize about expanding the union here and trying to halt UberX’s expansion. To enlist drivers, they planned to set up tables at airport taxi lines, hotel entrances and popular food trucks. And they planned to lobby the City Council to put a brake on UberX.

The fledgling Chicago union, the United Taxidrivers Community Council, has 300 members but hopes its organizing drive this year will increase the number to 2,000, out of the city’s nearly 10,000 drivers.
Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the New York union — who first made a name for herself by orchestrating a strike of thousands of drivers in 1998 — asserted that taxi drivers were an exploited lot ripe for unionization, saying this was especially true in Chicago.
“Poverty among the drivers in Chicago is just palpable, worse than elsewhere,” Ms. Desai said. “Most drivers work 60 to 70 hours a week and earn below the minimum wage, and that’s sad because Chicago is the second-largest taxi market in the United States. Drivers have been suffering in such deep poverty, and that’s been compounded by the threat of the ride-sharing companies.”
A University of Illinois study done in 2010 found that Chicago taxi drivers worked more than 70 hours a week on average and earned just $4.81 an hour after subtracting gas, taxi leases and other costs.
But John Moberg, who manages several taxi companies and is president of the Illinois Transportation Trade Association, rejected those findings as too low.
“That number isn’t factually based,” Mr. Moberg said. “Drivers are notoriously good at reporting just a portion of their income. Drivers make way more than that. If things were so bad, they have the freedom to do something else, but they like a job where you can come and go as you please.”
Instead of railing against fleet owners, Mr. Moberg said, drivers should cooperate with the owners to combat UberX and other app-based companies. “For us, the biggest issue in Chicago is the ride-sharing companies,” he said.
In recent months, drivers and fleet owners have complained that the city has set no limits on how many commercial ride-sharing drivers can pick up passengers or what they can charge. And while a growth in ride sharing would reduce waits, taxi drivers fear that it would create such intense competition that few drivers could earn a living. Bills in the Illinois legislature would mandate background checks and chauffeur’s licenses for drivers at ride-sharing companies, under certain conditions.

Similar fights are going on elsewhere. In Virginia this past week, the Department of Motor Vehicles demanded that both Uber and Lyft stop operating in the state unless the companies complied with certain requirements for taxi and livery companies. Both companies have defended their operations in Virginia.
In an interview about the Chicago situation, Lane Kasselman, a spokesman for Uber, said taxi drivers overall should not be angry at the company. “The reason that taxi drivers are experiencing miserable conditions is because of the taxi companies — it has nothing to do with Uber,” he said. “The taxi industry is broken. It hasn’t worked well for more than 40 years. It has refused to keep up with customer needs; it has refused to keep up with driver needs.”
Mr. Kasselman said thousands of taxi drivers across the country had joined Uber, seeing brighter income prospects, partly because they will no longer have to pay leasing fees — although they must pay Uber 20 percent of their fares.
Peter Ali Engler, the chief organizer for the Chicago union, agreed that drivers had it better 40 years ago, when they were employees of taxi companies and were often unionized. But they lost their status as employees when taxi companies adopted a leasing model.
Mr. Engler considers the rise of UberX an added impetus for unionization efforts but said companies like Uber would in ways make organizing more difficult. He acknowledged that the growing popularity of ride-sharing companies weakened one of the cabbies’ most potent weapons.
“I don’t think a taxi strike is going to be very successful in the future, because it will just be an excuse for more ride-sharing drivers to be working,” he said.