SF cabdrivers vote to unionize as industry continues to take beating from ride services

SF cabdrivers vote to unionize as industry continues to take beating from ride services
• By Jessica Kwong
September 18, 2014
• City taxi drivers could become a recognized union by the AFL-CIO by mid-October. They need more drivers to sign up for the new union and pledge to pay dues.
A new taxi union in San Francisco is well on its way to getting enough members on board to become an official affiliate of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.

At the San Francisco Taxi Workers Alliance's meeting on Sept. 9, about 350 cab drivers signed up and paid their dues, and the next day about 40 more joined, leaving the union about 100 paid members away from joining the AFL-CIO network. Union members say the numbers are estimates because they have been receiving pledge forms and payments daily and are backed up in manually entering them into their database.

Based on hundreds more pledge forms from drivers indicating they intend to pay dues, the designation could occur by mid-October, said Beth Powder, a union board member and driver and dispatcher for DeSoto Cab Co. And they're not stopping there. The union's goal is to have 1,000 paid members by December.

"It's promising," she said.

In the meantime, Powder said taxi union members are already finding that some workers from other unions are treating them differently.

"A lot of people have welcomed us into the larger labor family," she said. "People who are part of organized labor have been very warm to us, people in the activism community have been very warm to us and encouraging, saying, 'It's a good thing,' and 'Keep it up.'"

The union is still ironing out what its long-term goals will be, but one issue likely will be a health benefits package for drivers using the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's driver fund, which has accumulated $3.8 million and grows by $10,100 per month. So far, that fund, formed in 2010, has been untapped. The transit agency has considered putting the funds toward benefits for drivers.

Another long-term goal is legislative work.

"We really need to triangulate with other groups to compel the California Public Utilities Commission to change their designation of transportation network companies," Powder said of ride services such as Uber and Lyft. "They are private citizens using their own vehicles commercially as taxis."

Nazeer Sadiq, 58, a Yellow Cab driver for 21 years, said the union is "critical" for the cab industry's survival this winter, a traditionally low season that he foresees could trim the driver pool by at least 25 percent.

Taxi drivers in The City have long been a disjointed group. Some drivers banded together to form organizations with no official labor union ties such as the United Taxicab Workers and Association, headed by Mark Gruberg, 72, a taxi driver for three decades currently with Green Cab.

Gruberg said his taxi association is "fully supportive" of the union and will eventually fold into it once established.

Retired cab driver John Murnin, who is helping with the cause, said he preferred the union to go with the Teamsters -- which many taxi drivers decades ago were affiliated with -- instead of AFL-CIO, but if the majority preferred the latter, he would support it.

Harbir Batth, 50, a Yellow Cab driver and union founder, admitted that some drivers were hesitant about joining and unsure about whether the labor organization will accomplish anything.

"We have nothing to offer as of now, but we are telling them we need to build up," he said. "We are like a baby trying to crawl and get to our feet."