Making Change: Organizing Drivers

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Kevin Fitzpatrick, a rotund, spirited cabbie with a face full of white hair–imagine a taxi-driving Santa Claus–enjoys berating the union that, at least on paper, is supposed to be organizing him. “Local 74 is like the Osama bin Laden union–no one can find ’em,” he rasps. Others at the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), where he is on the organizing committee, share his sentiment, even if they wouldn’t put it quite that way.

Instead, they might say that the union that is supposed to represent New York City’s 20,000 working yellow cab drivers has gone from bad to nonexistent. Like other groups of workers across the city, cabbies are organized for action–but not by their union. In their fight to increase take-home pay and provide services for themselves, about 3,300 yellow cab drivers have relied instead on the NYTWA, a nonprofit grassroots group run by and for taxi workers. “When we go and do outreach we say we’re the union,” explains NYTWA organizer Chaumtoli Huq, who hails from a union family herself, “because to us, ‘union’ means who represents the workforce, the rank and file…. It’s a word that people understand.”

If anyone could benefit from a union’s strength, clout and lobbying power, it’s taxi drivers. Under the leasing system set up by the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), owners lease their cars, medallions, or both to drivers, instead of hiring them as employees. So cabbies start the day in debt: They must first make back the leasing fee, usually over $100 per shift, before they can begin to make any money. At the end of a typical 12-hour day shift, drivers might take home $75. They have no health or unemployment insurance, paid vacation, or pension, and usually work seven days a week. They cover their own insurance, gas and car repair. The irony of this system, which some have called “urban sharecropping,” is that the yellow cab drivers’ own union helped put them in this wicked predicament.

Back in the 1970s, cabbies had a functioning, though much-reviled, AFL-CIO-affiliated union. But in 1979, the Taxi and Limousine Commission legalized leasing; then, under pressure from garage owners and over the vociferous protests of the union’s own members, their union ratified a contract that allowed for “voluntary” leasing. By making it possible for owners to hire drivers as independent contractors, the new contract cost them the protection of the National Labor Relations Act and made it perfectly legal for the garage owners to refuse to bargain collectively with them.

Whether the union was complicit in this deal or merely failed to fight hard enough, all sides agree it was a mistake. “I certainly felt they were complicit in it,” fumes Henry Zeiger, a rank-and-filer who organized a dissident group within the union. While Ed Ott of the AFL-CIO’s New York Central Labor Council flatly disagrees with that notion, he concedes, “There’s no doubt the union was wrong.”

Which has left Local 74 with only one viable course of action: trying to overturn the leasing system. While NYTWA represents cabbies against the TLC, Local 74 is collecting pledges from City Council members to end leasing. The union’s last contract expired in 1997; Local 74 hasn’t collected dues since then.

Larry Goldberg, Local 74’s business representative, is the first to state simply that “there is no union” for the drivers. “If somebody says we’re not doing enough, we’re probably not,” he retorts, with a frustrated laugh. “The reality is we’re not doing enough because we can’t! Legally, it’s just not gonna happen until they’re not independent contractors.”

To that end, the union also appealed a National Labor Relations Board decision confirming that independent contractor status. And even though other AFL-CIO unions can’t organize taxis–that would be “raiding,” a jurisdictional trespass–Local 74 won’t do it until that happens. “There was no value in throwing money away until you settle that case,” Goldberg laments. “To bring in a slew of organizers to fight for workers you can’t even represent would be foolish.”

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Yet groups like NYTWA often do just that. As surges in immigration and subcontracted labor have transformed the workforce, community-based worker centers have come up like wildflowers through cracks in the labor foundation. Normally powerhouses for workers’ rights, unions sometimes lag behind community groups in organizing low-wage laborers. In industries that are virtually impossible to organize, worker centers are often the first line of defense. “To join a union, your shop has to be organized,” says labor activist Saru Jayaraman. “To join a center, you just have to walk in.”

As worker centers make inroads where traditional unions have floundered, unions have taken note, and once hostile and competitive relations between the two have begun to thaw. “What we’re doing is not working,” admits Ott, so there’s “more dialogue with community organizations and labor groups now than there has been even, say, 10 years ago.”

In some cases, community worker centers have even begun to function, for all practical purposes, as unions. Wheels of Justice, a new independent project of the NYTWA, mounted a serious challenge to the union/ community-group divide when organizer-turned-lawyer Huq filed a federal lawsuit against the TLC for revoking cabbies’ licenses–essentially their livelihoods–without review.

In late December 2000, lawyers for the city challenged NYTWA’s right to bring the suit, claiming they didn’t have the legal standing to collectively represent drivers’ interests in court. Looking to the back of the room, where several taxi drivers were sitting, Brooklyn Federal Court Judge Raymond Dearie noted that the cabbies themselves would likely disagree: “If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck,” Huq says, paraphrasing the judge’s reply, “it must be a duck!” It led to a small but important success: In early May, NYTWA won its temporary injunction against the TLC’s revocation of licenses without hearings.

To represent drivers, Huq is drawing on whatever legal means she can find. “We’re going backwards and seeing, what did labor use before the NLRA,” explains Huq. Such creativity spawned of desperation is a mainstay of worker center methodology. One community-based workers’ group has even succeeded on what many consider exclusively union turf: collective bargaining. Using union tactics like card-signing campaigns and even strikes, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a grassroots collective of tomato pickers in Florida, negotiated pay raises for seasonal farm workers, who fall outside the protection of the NLRA. In 1997, after talks with an arbitrator appointed by Governor Jeb Bush, all four huge national growers located in and around Immokalee agreed to a pay raise. The win represented millions of dollars to over 450 workers.

For some groups of workers–especially those who are immigrants, poor, or excluded from the NLRA–“unions just don’t think they’re viable,” says Immokalee coalition staff member Greg Asbed. But that doesn’t alleviate the need for action: “It just comes down to who’s got a stronger base, and how creative you can be.”

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In the two years that it has operated its Workplace Justice Project, the Bushwick-based nonprofit community group Make the Road By Walking has recouped over $200,000 for about 50 people in overtime, wage and hour disputes, and back wages through its mix of lawsuits, media pressure and pickets. When Make the Road filed a Department of Labor complaint on behalf of one worker, as it recently did at a notorious local sweatshop, all 175 workers stood to win back money, because the government agency is obligated to investigate the entire factory.

But that doesn’t necessarily make for a significant, ongoing presence in the workplace. For all its victories, Make the Road “still can’t do what unions do,” sighs staff attorney Stephen Jenkins–namely, secure collective bargaining agreements. “The Department of Labor investigating and awarding back pay doesn’t necessarily change the power dynamics in the shop,” says Jenkins. “The next day when they say ‘Fuck you, you can’t go to the bathroom,’ people either have to take it or leave it.”

To change that, they’d need a broader base, a much bigger operating budget, and legal bargaining power–all of which are more accessible to unions. “A union represents the fact that the workers have the collective strength to challenge the employer,” Jenkins explains. “Whether you call it a union or a banana, that’s the most effective way to improve working conditions. We rarely can do that, if at all. We don’t have enough workers in any given shop.”

For these reasons, Make the Road and many other worker centers, including groups for greengrocers and WEP workers, have reached out to unions for help. At the same time, a few unions have chosen to direct capital to their own community-based worker centers. With foundation funding, the hotel and restaurant workers’ union HERE Local 100 just opened its Restaurant Opportunity Center of New York to serve a group of workers who are not, technically, part of any existing shop: Windows on the World employees displaced by the destruction of the World Trade Center. But unlike most unions, HERE is also offering job training, career help and ESL classes at ROC-NY for workers who are not its members. Using ROC-NY as a base, HERE hopes to build a “separate, parallel membership that’s non-union,” says Jayaraman, who directs the center.

“This model is not a magic formula,” says Danny Feingold of Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a broad coalition of unions and community and religious groups, but it is “essential to maintaining and expanding the ranks of unionized workers.”

It’s not always as easy as it sounds, though. Unions and grassroots groups that organize in the same industries are hardly ever on good terms. The animosity runs deepest in sectors where workers are treated the worst.

Yet the ability to organize workers in unrepresented industries–even, perhaps, taxi workers–may hinge upon unions and community groups listening to each other and collaborating. “If we’re not effective representatives, people are gonna struggle to find other forms,” says Ott. “It makes sense, and it’s not something to be threatened about.”

At least some coalition-induced stress is avoidable, says Thomas Wheatley of the New York branch of Jobs With Justice, a network founded nationally in 1987 by union leaders looking to expand and experiment. “Too often, we see that tensions arise because it wasn’t until the last moment that they started talking,” says Wheatley, adding that unions and community groups often have very similar interests but different institutional cultures. “They tend to engage the entire community in the fight,” Ott says of grassroots labor groups, “from the clergy to the tenants to whatever social structures are in the neighborhood.”

For the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, groundbreaking victories were possible because they were backed by unions, other community groups, religious organizations, and students. As the coalition wrapped up a nationwide tour of Taco Bell boycotts, the protesters, roughly a hundred in number, had to have places to stay and food to eat. Often, unions or churches stepped up to meet these needs.

“We go to union actions, rallies, pickets, with as many people as we can,” says Asbed. Speaking like a union man, he says, “What we can put on the table is not money, but we can put 30, 40, 50 people at actions. We’re strong in mobilizing an action, and we’ll lend this to unions.” On the other hand, “unions are stronger in terms of resources,” he says. “More and more, there’s a willingness to share.”