More taxi drivers organize

More taxi drivers are uniting to form organizations affiliated with labor unions.

Taxi drivers in Newark and Washington DC recently organized union affiliated groups. In Newark, CWA helped taxi drivers create a new organization called United Transportation Alliance of New Jersey (UTANJ). UTANJ members are also members of CWA Local 1039.

In Washington DC, Teamsters Local 922 helped taxi drivers organize the DC Taxi Drivers Association.

In addition to the two new organizations in Newark and Washington DC, taxi drivers have formed union affiliated organizations in Austin, Denver, Eugene, Oregon, New York City, Philadelphia, and Portland.

Taxi drivers across the country face similar problems: low pay, long hours, no benefits, and cab companies that charge excessive fees for cab rentals, insurance, and other things that drivers need to operate.

They are also vulnerable to violent crime and face competition from unregulated competitors.

Before Thanksgiving taxi drivers rallied in New Jersey to announce the formation of UTANJ.

According to a CWA newsletter, Newark taxi drivers “work 12-14 hour days, barely making minimum wage with fares coming in at a mere $6 to $10 per trip. If they’re lucky or put in extremely long shifts, they’ll make ten rides a day.”

“Newark’s taxi drivers work long, hard hours with little pay and even less protection,” said Chris Shelton, CWA District 1 Vice-President. “Right now, these hard-working men and women are forced to deal with all the negatives of being an independent contractor, yet they enjoy none of the benefits or protections. The UTANJ will change all that. The days of ripping these drivers off is over.”

Like those in Newark, most taxi drivers across the US are classified by their employers as independent contractors. As such, they usually do not have access to benefits like employer sponsored health insurance or pensions.

They’re status as independent contractors also makes it hard for them to have a unified voice in matters concerning their jobs.

But these union affiliated taxi driver organizations are giving the drivers such a voice.

When Washington DC began impounding taxis that did not have new dome lights and credit card machines required by the city, the DC Taxi Drivers Association organized hundreds of cab drivers to rally in front of the DC Taxicab Commission.

“Drivers are fed up with not having a say in the rules and regulations that affect their lives every day,” said Ferline Buie, president of Local 922.

Drivers were mad that the commission had been unresponsive to their complaints that the city was impounding  and ticketing taxis even though there was a shortage of the required equipment making installation impossible for some. There were also reports of vendors selling unreliable equipment and price gouging.

“The city is hell-bent on destroying our livelihoods at any cost,” said Jesse Black, a 40-year D.C. taxi driver. “This is an honorable profession that has a proud history in the District of Columbia of giving African-Americans and immigrants the ability to provide for their families. It’s shameful that the city wants to kill off our good, middle-class jobs.”

In Denver, taxi drivers have taken another approach. In 2009, taxi drivers affiliated with CWA Local 7777 formed a co-op and named it Union Taxi Cooperative.

At the time of its formation, more than 250 drivers, most of whom had immigrated from Africa, joined the worker owned taxi business.

“They came together to form and run their own company so that they can put a little more money in their own pockets, rather than paying someone else for the privilege of driving a cab,” said Phil Roselli, an attorney representing the drivers to the Denver Business Journal when the co-op was formed.

According to the Rocky Mountain News, at the time of its formation, Union Taxi drivers paid “$800 a month for insurance, meter and dispatch service – well under the nearly $2,100 that drivers . . . have to pay the (other) cab companies.”

CWA helped the co-op get started in a number of ways. For example, CWA legislative representatives succeeded in getting the legislature to amend  statutes that made it difficult for new taxi companies to get started.

The union also provide counsel and advice as the drivers maneuvered through the difficult Public Utilities Commission approval process.

“Having the backing of the CWA and the AFL-CIO was very important to us,”Ed Szmajter, one of the co-op’s founding drivers to the Rocky Mountain News. “And being in a regulated industry, (we’ll) need continued union help at the legislature.”

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