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About 100 LA taxi drivers vote to unionize, as the industry feels heat from Uber and Lyft

Taxi cab driving on a street at night.
Ben Fredericson/Flickr CC
Taxi cab driving on a street at night.

More than a hundred Los Angeles taxi drivers voted unanimously Saturday to form a local union affiliated with the National Taxi Workers Alliance (NTWA) - a move they said would help defend their industry from app-based ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.

The taxi drivers met at a union hall near downtown L.A. Attendance was small compared to the more than 700 drivers who’d previously signed a petition calling for the union, and a tiny fraction of the more than 2000 people estimated to drive cabs in the city.  

But organizers said they were still encouraged by the size and diversity of the turnout. 

“The drivers that came to the meeting were true community leaders from different ethnicities, different backgrounds, and different driving arrangements,” said NTWA Secretary Biju Mathew. “It gives us a clear position to work from towards building a truly impressive mass base. I’m confident about building a strong union.” 
In addition to voting to endorse the formation of the union, the drivers discussed its potential relationship with the taxi companies they drive for. Mathew told KPCC they agreed to send a message of cooperation with the larger industry as it faces a major disruption from App-based ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. 

“At one level or another, this is a fight to save the taxi industry, this is a fight to rebuild the taxi industry, while it’s going through an epochal change,” Mathew told KPCC. 

Long before Uber and Lyft became household names, cab drivers in Los Angeles have tried to organize for better pay and working conditions. They formed the Los Angeles Taxi Workers Alliance in 2005, which, for a few years, challenged the leadership of the cab companies and won drivers two rate increases. Their efforts trailed off after 2010. 

When asked to comment on the current move to organize, William Rouse, general manager of Yellow Cab of Los Angeles, issued a statement to KPCC. It read: "Five years ago, our democratic, driver-owned local taxi industry rejected an attempt by outsiders to organize the drivers. Today, the industry is still democratic and still owned by the drivers. It remains to be seen if organizing has any value at all for the drivers in our environment." 

The National Taxi Workers Alliance (NTWA) began as the New York City Taxi Workers Alliance in 1998. Thirteen years later, it became an affiliate union of the AFL-CIO. It was the first time the national labor federation granted membership to workers classified as independent contractors and not paid an hourly wage.  

Since then, drivers in five locations have joined the NTWA: New York, Philadelphia, Austin, TX, San Francisco, and Montgomery County, Maryland.  In addition to Los Angeles, the alliance is currently organizing taxi drivers in San Jose and Houston. 

"Everybody in the U.S. where Uber and Lyft, etc. operates is being pushed into a part-time wage situation," said Mathew. "Fundamentally, if you've got to come out on top, taxi drivers need to be organized."

In Los Angeles, the city regulates taxi franchisees as a public utility. Currently, about nine taxi companies operate taxi franchises in LA.  In 2012, the L. A. Department of Transportation counted 2,361 taxi cabs in the city's fleet. As independent contractors, drivers hold operating permits but must be associated with a company. 

Abate Teferi, who's driven cabs in Los Angeles for 24 years says he works, on average, six days week at least ten hours a day to earn the equivalent of $3600 per month.  But he pays out about $1400 per month as the cost of doing business.  The largest of the expenses:

  • Insurance - $500+
  • Management fees to franchise - $525
  • License fee to L.A. department of transportation – $106

This does not include the variable cost of fuel, which he must also pay.  Different taxi companies charge different insurance rates. But, he says, "if we’ll get together, we can get one insurance and less cost for our insurance."   
"It’s going to be a lot of negotiations around all of these issues to bring some of these costs down so that taxi driving remains a viable industry in Los Angeles," Mathew of the NTWA, told KPCC. But Mathew and Teferi agree the most important focus is "fighting Uber," as Teferi put it.

Mathew pointed to the recent $7.3 million dollar fine levied against Uber by the California Public Utilities Commission.

"Seven-point-three million dollars is pocket change for Uber, and so these fines are not going to be effective," Mathew said.  "What is required is strong legislation and that’s what a regional [union] strategy in California will achieve.  San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Jose are going to be important in this fight."