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 It's a Wonderful Life - Part I

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PostSubject: It's a Wonderful Life - Part I   1/22/2008, 6:22 pm

From the Chicago Dispatcher, December 2007

It's a Wonderful Life
Organizing Chicago Taxi Drivers
By George Lutfallah

“We need a union,” drivers would tell me as I would walk through the O'Hare lot passing out the Chicago Dispatcher five years ago. Drivers were saying that when I first started driving a cab 15 years ago. They're saying the same thing now.

But I've learned that when cabdrivers say they want a union, what they usually mean is that they want someone to help them with their problems. In other words, cabdrivers want empowerment. That's it. It's not about unionizing or organizing. What they generally want is some avenue to solve their problems so that they don't feel like they're being pushed around all the time without being able to push back.

But unfortunately most cab driver groups that emerge with the intent of solving driver problems fail or are otherwise ineffective. And they invariably fail for the same reasons.

The main reason is that cabdrivers can't legally organize in the traditional sense. A traditional union consists of employees and has legal protection once they unionize. They can compel their members to pay dues. Cabdrivers are not considered employees. They are considered independent contractors. They can't take a vote to unionize and then force every worker to join if they get a simple majority of the votes.

And since they are considered independent contractors and can't unionize, the tools of a union are not necessarily effective tools for taxi drivers. Take strikes for example. Since taxi drivers have no employer, the only people they really hurt when they try to strike are themselves and their customers.
Even if a strike is pulled off with a modicum of success, it can't be sustained before drivers just go back to work or hacks sitting on the sidelines start driving again because of the opportunity to make a quick buck. The city knows this and can always wait out a taxi driver strike. Strikes only serve symbolically; the only thing to really gain is enough public awareness so as to embarrass the city and prove to be enough of an annoyance that the city feels the need to address some issues to pacify and reassure the public's perception - not necessarily for the purpose of satisfying the drivers' needs.

The more the city needs cabs, the more cabdrivers will likely want to work to make money, which means the more cabdrivers will cheat, which means the less effective the strike. Economics dictate that taxi driver strikes will be short lived.

That's why strikes don't work. A strike is an effective tool when you have an employer because your employer is losing money and both the employees and the company know it. But they don't work as well when your employer is yourself. The strike this past July was successful in terms of getting participation among many drivers but it was a Pyrrhic victory, because not a lot has changed and drivers still don't have a fare increase. However it did get attention, whether the city and general press want to admit it or not, and it has raised awareness among drivers that something can and should be done to address their problems.

Another reason cab driver organizations tend to fail is that there is no intrinsic unity of cabdrivers. If a man is being abused because of the color of his skin, he has to deal with that problem in one way or another. He has no choice. If a cabdriver isn't satisfied with his situation, he can solve that problem by becoming a janitor or a lawyer or a newspaper publisher. That's why cabdriver rallies at City Hall almost never work. Rallies work when you are backed into a corner and have no alternative but to fight your way out - not when it's a lot easier to simply do something else or to keep your mouth shut and continue working since you can leave the industry whenever you want if you think things will get much worse. When drivers don't show up for these rallies, the reason is often attributed to fear of retribution by the city or driver apathy. But these aren't the reasons. These are merely symptoms of the real reason, which is that taxi drivers generally have no real loyalty to the profession and they have little incentive to develop any loyalty.

There are lots of other factors, but I'll leave it at those two for now.
So, given these two major constraints, how do you organize taxicab drivers?
What I'm going to say might upset some people who have been working very hard lately to organize taxi drivers. Let me assure you that the purpose of this is not to discourage anybody from working to improve the conditions of taxi drivers. The purpose is to help people focus in the right direction so that they don't spend the next 20 years of their lives futilely trying to create an organization of drivers in a way that simply won't work.

All too often, taxi driver groups and those who say they want to help them will misdirect their efforts. They will start in the usual and necessary way by creating an organizing committee and will even elect a president. But that president will have no real authority to act on anybody's behalf. And that president will have no money. They'll realize they need money to offset the sacrifice they're making by not driving their cabs. Otherwise they won't be able to take off very much time at all, especially when the realities of life set in, when the rent is due and the kids have to be fed. So they'll take up a collection from cabdrivers.

“Hey, cabdrivers should give, right? We're doing this for their benefit and they trust us, right?”

Wrong.

Drivers won't give money. Oh sure, a few will at first. But after a while, they'll stop giving and they'll start wondering what their money was spent on and they'll have nothing to show for their investment. Then they'll start wondering about the organizers themselves and the committee members, even if they were close friends before, and they'll wonder why they don't see them driving as much any more. They'll start to question if it is because the organizers are working for the betterment of cabdrivers or if it is because they are sitting at home, living on the money drivers donated. And when drivers who have contributed don't start seeing results, and the collectors start coming around again, these drivers don't give money as easily anymore and they start to look at the organizers with contempt. The leaders are seen as ineffective, at best. Some will think they are corrupt. The rumors start to fly. And no matter how much integrity the organizers have, they won't be able to eliminate the doubt and mistrust that has already festered.

But whether or not the organizers collect money from drivers, suppose that every cabdriver in the city of Chicago said they support that committee. What good will that do? The verbal support of cabdrivers is meaningless. Just because every cabdriver says they support you, you can't compel them to pay dues, as you would if you were an actual union. You can't compel them to strike. You can't compel them to write letters. They'll tell you they're going to attend your meetings but most won't. They'll tell you they'll strike, but most won't. They'll tell you they'll rally behind you, but most won't. You can't compel them to do anything at all.

So the president of the taxi drivers organization will not be listened to by the city in any greater capacity than any other taxicab driver or general citizen off the street. Actually, probably even less because the city might not want to lend any credibility to the organization by meeting with the president or its committee. Now is the place where somebody who doesn't understand Chicago politics to say, “Hey man, they work for us. They have to do what we tell them to do. Power to the people. Solidarity, my brothers and sisters!” This is Chicago. Wake up.

So the problem is that when cabdrivers try to organize in a traditional way, without the legal avenue in which to do it, they are bringing a knife to a gunfight and end up stabbing each other in the back. They will find themselves spending more time trying to organize and fighting over control and meaningless victories than on actually empowering themselves or fellow drivers. Groups split up, unity is broken and everything fizzles away.

Then a new generation of cabdrivers will emerge who will be naïve enough to believe that something can be done by “organizing” and will make exactly the same mistakes. Even if they have some knowledge of history, they'll believe that they can do it better or they will mistakenly believe that they have the support of the drivers or that some minor change they make in their organizing rules and policies will make all the difference in the world. It won't. History will repeat itself. And the cycle will never be broken so long as taxi drivers operate under a “workers rights” mentality, when everybody else with any kind of authority sees them as business owners.

Am I saying that cabdrivers can't organize? No. That's not what I'm saying at all. What I am saying is that taxi drivers have basically one of two choices: They can either work to change their classification from independent contractors to employees, or they can accept that they are independent contractors and use those tools which are already available to them. They can accept that they are business people who have their own means of addressing problems that are very different from - and in some ways more effective than - the tools employees use.

Changing the classification from independent contractor to employee would be difficult and would be met with a lot of resistance from owners, insurance companies and drivers themselves. A lot of drivers like the benefits of being independent contractors because they don't want a boss and they want to work when they want. Go ahead, try this: Ask a driver what she or he thinks about working for someone now and being given a set schedule about when to drive, eat lunch and take breaks. See how many of them like this idea. So for now I'll assume that the legal status of taxi drivers will remain as independent contractors and will discuss empowering taxi drivers accordingly.

But there's a problem that needs to be addressed right now.

Click here to read Part II of "It's a Wonderful Life"
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