AFL-CIO members have traditionally come from employer-employee arrangements, seeking better wages, hours and conditions. This fight has different goals: the survival of an industry under siege.
The San Francisco Taxi Workers Alliance was voted into formation by local cabdrivers Wednesday as a way to seek a greater political and legal leverage against Uber, Lyft and similar app-based ride services. Cab companies in The City that talked with The San Francisco Examiner following the union vote said they didn’t feel pitted against drivers in the labor effort — at least not yet.
The companies welcomed any measure that would help them compete with ride services. But the vote also raised questions about how effective the union could be to strengthen the troubled industry and whether the move could at some point harm company-driver relations.
Drivers work as independent contractors with cab companies. Instead of being paid for driving, they pay a gate fee — currently capped at an average weekly ceiling of $106.25 as set by The City — to lease vehicles.
Hansu Kim, president of San Francisco-based DeSoto Cab Co., said that 20 percent of his vehicles are not leaving the lot due to a lack of drivers. He said he also charges less than the gate-fee cap to try to incentivize more drivers to take shifts.
“If my driver income is high, more people will lease cabs from me, so it’s actually in my interest to make sure drivers have a strong income and have a good professional representation,” said Kim, adding that, in his opinion, the union “is going to improve the situation by going against the same force as I am.”
Charles Rathbone, assistant manager at Luxor Cab, said his company has “no fear or hatred of unions” and its maintenance and body shops and gas pumps have been manned by union workers for some 80 years.
Should the taxi union move the industry away from its independent-contractor model to an employer-employee setup, the public might ultimately pay more because the industry makes money through fares, Rathbone said.
“It’s inherently a more expensive operation because you have payroll taxes, you have benefits of some sort,” he cautioned. “If the public is willing to pay the price, you’re talking about higher cab fares at some point and, I don’t know if it would work, certainly not with an outfit like Uber pushing prices down.”
Richard Hybels, owner of Metro Cab, a 21-vehicle fleet, said that in his 35 years in the industry, cabdrivers in The City have not been able to organize and added that his company could not handle any added costs.
“I’m steadily losing lots and lots of money so maybe that could be the death note, who knows,” he said.
Jim Gillespie, president and general manager of Yellow Cab, the largest taxi company in The City, started off as a Luxor Cab driver in 1969 and immediately joined the Chauffeurs’ Union, which dissolved shortly after. Luxor Cab at the time had already moved toward an independent-contractor model, but Yellow Cab still belonged to a union and operated in a split meter system, with drivers and the company sharing the profit 50-50.
That led drivers to “really make less money,” Gillespie said.
Bhairavi Desai, president of the National Taxi Workers Alliance and executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, said startup ride services like Uber have “exacerbated the longstanding exploitation that San Francisco drivers have faced,” and that the union ultimately has more labor battles to win.
“I hope that when this fight unwinds through the years, [cab companies] don’t forget the role that drivers will play and turn their backs on the drivers,” she said.