Austin taxi drivers join AFL-CIO

The Taxi Drivers Association of Austin (TDAA)  announced recently that it has received a charter from the National Taxi Worker Alliance, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO. The Austin taxi drivers are classified as independent contractors and thus are barred from engaging in collective bargaining, but they think that joining organized labor will give them added strength in their collective effort to fight for better pay, benefits, and job security.

“The bare minimum protections required for a taxi driver to have a dignified life are not available to us today because of the economic instability we work under,” said Merga Gemada, vice president of TDAA at a press conference announcing the group’s affiliation with the AFL-CIO. “At the same time, drivers are not covered by workers’ comp or disability and have no insurance to protect themselves in the case of an accident. Today’s affiliation is also the launch for the TDAA’s campaign for economic rights and dignity, in which drivers are demanding greater job security and a safety net against their precarious working conditions.”

A report issued in 2010 by Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid describes in detail just how precarious it is being a taxi driver in Austin. According to the report, the average taxi driver in Austin earns about $200 a week before taxes, $90 a week less than a Texas minimum wage worker who works 40 hours a week.

But taxi drivers work an average of 12 hours a day, six and one-half days a week, and 51 1/2 weeks a year.

Because they are classified as independent contractors, they have no company sponsored health care or pension benefits.

They must also compete against unregulated transportation options such as the numerous pedicabs in downtown Austin, and Super Shuttle, which drives people to the airport.

Taxi drivers have few if any protections against unfair personnel actions such as the termination of their contracts with Austin’s three cab companies.

Even though TDAA can’t bargain collectively, it has been standing up the rights of taxi drivers especially in dealing with the City of Austin, which regulates the cab companies. Through various forms of collective action TDAA has won a minimum fare from the airport, stopped an effort to impose a maximum fare from the airport, and increased the number of cab stands in downtown Austin.

TDAA has also won the right to represent taxi drivers at the Austin transportation department and to have presence a various stakeholder meetings where transportation issues are discussed and plans developed.

TDAA has been opposing plans supported by the cab companies to increase the number of taxi licenses in the city. Doing so would increase cab company profits but lower pay for those already working as taxi drivers.

Taxi drivers in Austin are largely immigrants, trying to eke out a living in a city where the cost of living has been rising rapidly.

By granting them their union charter, the AFL-CIO has recognizes that their effort to improve their conditions through collective action is an important form of struggle to improve the lives of working people even though it does not conform to the traditional collective bargaining paradigm.

By joining the National Taxi Workers Alliance, TDAA becomes part of family that includes taxi workers in New York and Philadelphia.

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