Hailing cab drivers: Labor's lost opportunity


by Henry Zeiger

The author drove a cab for ten years from 1976 to the beginning of 1987. For nine of these, he was on the shop committee or the shop chairman of his garage. He was a member of the executive council of Local 3036, Taxi Drivers and Allied Workers, SEIU, for three years and ran for local president in 1980 and 1986. He was active in the caucus which opposed the 1980 contract which authorized leasing. He helped found the Lease Drivers' Coalition, a predecessor of the Taxi Workers Alliance. This is the concluding installment of two.

II. How the AFL-CIO Failed

n the mid-60s Harry Van Arsdale organized taxi drivers into a union which at its peak had over 35,000 membersin almost 40 garages. The formal demise of Local 3036, Taxi Drivers and Allied Workers, took place only a few months prior to the recent strike although the union has been practically dead for over a decade. It was mercifully buried by dissolution-merger into SEIU Local 74, a school janitors' local.

The model of top-down organizing which made Local 3 a powerhouse in New York construction failed for taxis. Van Arsdale told his staff they needed a hiring hall in order to control the industry; they never got it. Worse, they never controlled the daily shape-ups which allowed company dispatchers to extort payoffs from drivers and to discriminate against union activists.

Union democracy was not an abstract concept for taxi drivers. Staff organizers, loyal to Van Arsdale, couldn't win the respect of drivers in the garages. Badly needed was a vigilant rank-and-file presence in the garages which could police the contract on a daily basis, but the union discouraged member involvement.

When Van Arsdale agreed to a concessionary contract in the early 70's after a bitter strike, he and his staff were run out of a meeting by a hailstorm of folding chairs. That contract was only brought to a vote when a federal judge ruled that the local's constitution required a membership contract referendum. Soon after, Van Arsdale won another term as president, not with a majority vote, but only with a plurality when the opposition split into two factions.

Meanwhile, brewing in the background was leasing, outlawed when the medallion system was established in the 1930s. Shortly after the Koch administration legalized leasing, a proposed new contract endorsed by the union officialdom, would allow leasing on a "voluntary" basis in union garages. An ad-hoc coalition opposed the contract and defeated it by a 3-1 margin at a tumultuous meeting. The union devoted the next six months to demoralizing its own members, insisting that they were powerless to resist. It became a classic case of vote again until you get it right.

By this time, Van Arsdale had removed himself from the taxi wars. His successor, Ben Goldberg, claiming that the rank-and-file didn't understand the contract, met with fleet owners for several hours and announced that nothing could be done to change it. Meanwhile, the owners declared an impasse in negotiations and imposed the terms of the rejected contract. The union did nothing. A wildcat strike in one garage petered out.

After six months, the union prepared for a second vote by rallying hundreds of pensioners to a special dinner for them at a high class New York hotel conveniently near the meeting where their votes put the contract over. That was the beginning of the end for taxi unionism.

Opponents,jeering at the concept of voluntary leasing, had warned that if the contract passed, "You will be kicked from here to Canarsie until you lease a cab." They were right. Shape-ups were manipulated with scant opposition from the union until it became obvious that the real choice was to either lease a cab or wait hours on a shape-up only to be sent home without work. It meant: lease or starve!

The terms of the leasing contract made New York cab drivers "independent contractors," outside the scope of the National Labor Relations Act. The joker was that the fleet owners agreed not to try to decertify the union and gave the union control of a Lease Drivers Benefit Fund, which depended solely on forced contributions from drivers; the owners never chipped in a nickel.

he fund was corrupt from its inception; in its sordid history less than half the money it spent went for benefits. It provided excessive profits to vendorswho had an overly friendly relationship with the union leadership. One example: the union printer hired people to campaign for the incumbents in a contested election, thencharged ten times the going rate for certain printed matter. Between $100,000-$200,000 went west. Called on to investigate, the U.S. Labor Department confirmed the overcharge but said that it had no jurisdiction since the drivers were independent contractors. Throughout its existence the fund was an unregulated insurance scam.

As the union continued to decline, business agents went on the take. Toward the end, drivers were forced to pay an additional $3 per day over the cost of leasing for a combination of benefit fund contributions and dues. Even then, health coverage was not assured, since the union demanded another $75 per month to cover the meager benefits. Pensions and paid vacations were not included.

Finally, the fleet owners pulled the plug. After a year without agreeing to a contract, they declared an impasse and cut off dues and benefit fund checkoff. Drivers were overjoyed to see the end of an organization they regarded as an additional parasitical burden on their paltry earnings.

Taxi organizing today is ethnically oriented. Many organizations are dominated by small-fry medallion owners. The Taxi Workers Alliance, which called the strike, claims approximately 800 members, but a New York Times reporter who visited their office found 20 activists, not all cab drivers, and an unpaid $200 phone bill. What makes it all the more amazing is that with only a leaflet this small group brought out almost every driver in the city.

Real control of the taxi industry still resides with the money guys, the brokers and fleet owners, who give to campaign war chests and get the kind of regulation that guarantees them obscene profits. Drivers know that the Mercedes-Benz in which the fleet owner cruises away from the garage is paid for with their sweat.

Spontaneous eruptions like those that rocked the taxi industry are excellent opportunities for organizing, but no AFL-CIO union is positioned to seize the opportunity. As the successor to the discredited Local 3036, SEIU Local 74 lacks credibility. No other union has shown any interest; and even if one did, it would be barred by the AFL-CIO’s no-raiding pact.

Yet Mayor Giuliani openly boasts of his strike-breaking and "destruction" of the drivers’ protest movement, which should trouble the NYC Central Labor Council which endorsed him. But no one from that body said a word to protest Giuliani's rough handling ofthese low-paid, badly abused, immigrant workers.

In its reincarnation, the labor movement preaches the duty of organizing workers such as these and the goal of economic justice for all, including immigrants. Taxi drivers fit the description exactly and have demonstrated that they are willing to take risks to fight for better conditions. Time now for the AFL-CIO to show solidarity toward them but organized labor has not made a gesture in that direction.

Cab drivers, at least for the moment, are not in the mood to listen to the siren song of outsiders who seek to organize them into a traditional union. But drivers are desperately seeking a way out of the impasse which decades of exploitation has imposed on them. An injury to one is still an injury to all. Nothing prevents the AFL-CIO from sitting down with drivers and saying, "Let's talk; we feel your pain; how can we help." That gesture could begin to heal the mistrust which has built up over the years.

So far, cab driver organizing has been a tragic failure of organized labor. In the past, the labor movement deserted the cabbies. In current events, it has ignored them. The future could offer hope —- or just another lost opportunity.



September 98