Divided and conquered
Last week's taxi strike revealed a cab-driver community unable to join forces for change.
Members of the United Taxidrivers Community Council (UTCC) who began a 24-hour strike November 30 in the quest for a 16 percent fare increase had a lot going for them.
The forecast called for winter’s first significant snowfall—perfect cab weather—and it was the tail end of Thanksgiving weekend, one of the busiest travel times of the year. Stranding a bunch of freezing, jet-lagged, luggage-toting travelers on O’Hare’s sidewalks could potentially make a big statement to the city, the UTCC thought. The organization had even gathered 4,000 drivers’ signatures on a petition supporting the strike. Yep, all the ingredients for success were there…except unity.
Scab cabbies sporting signs with slogans such as STOP SENSELESS STRIKE swooped in like vultures to pick up the fares left by those on the picket line. (Some had even signed the UTCC’s petition.) The strike’s intention was to “paralyze the city,” but it had about as much effect as a stubbed pinky toe—a dull annoyance that quickly fades.
“The strike was embarrassing,” says George Lutfallah, a driver who opposed the action. “They said they had 3,500 drivers participating, but it seemed more like 35.” Last week, Lutfallah hired a labor attorney to represent the Chicago Taxidrivers Union—an advocacy organization he and some of his fellow drivers are starting. “We’re going to address the problem, instead of the symptoms of the problem,” Lutfallah says. “How much money we make is only a symptom of the [real] problem: that we don’t have the legal representation we need.”
Lutfallah is just one of many cabbies out there who think they have the answer. As any driver will tell you, the cabbie community, numbering 15,000, is fractured into myriad formal and informal groups with little solidarity. The cracks tend to form along racial, national and ethnic lines. “There is also friction between newer drivers and older drivers because there have been different waves of immigration,” says Prateek Sampat, organizer for the American Friends Service Committee, the group that helped form the UTCC.
Vacuuming his cab the day after the strike, UTCC chairman Fayez Khozindar expresses disappointment that cab drivers can’t seem to put aside their differences and fight for their rights. “It’s very, very difficult to unite,” Khozindar says. “I saw people driving their cabs during the strike and I wasn’t totally surprised because it’s the first of the month and drivers need to pay their leases and rent. Some are just greedy. It’s human nature.”
The human condition aside, taxi drivers have the deck stacked mightily against them. Taxi driving is highly competitive, relatively low-paying and staffed by people with little esteem for and investment in the job, says Colgate University professor Graham Hodges, author of Taxi!: A Social History of the New York City Cab Driver. Moreover, the vocation exists in an employment limbo—some might call it purgatory—between employee and independent-contractor status.
This occupational gray area prevents drivers from organizing and collectively bargaining the way trade-union professions can. “Taxi drivers get the worst of both worlds,” Sampat says. As leasees of their vehicles, cabbies don’t get health insurance, workers’ compensation and other benefits guaranteed to employees, yet they don’t have the control afforded independent contractors—their rates are regulated, and they’re forced to do things like accept credit cards. Some companies even have dress codes. “[Cab companies] can’t have it both ways,” Lutfallah says.
You’d be hard pressed to find a cabby who disagrees with Lutfallah’s sentiment, yet there remains much division in the ranks about a suitable means of opposition. “The only way that we can really move the mountains that we have to deal with here in Chicago—the mountains of oppression—is if drivers realize that being organized is in the best interest of everyone,” Sampat says. “We’re all in the same boat.”