Cabdrivers seek to unionize to push case for fare hike

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Tired of waiting nine years for a fare increase and being pushed around as independent contractors, Chicago cabdrivers are trying a different tack to press their case for a “living wage.”

The United Taxidrivers Community Council on Monday signed a memorandum of understanding with the National Taxi Workers Alliance, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, in hope of unionizing Chicago cabdrivers and bolstering their political clout.

To pull it off, the UTCC will have to more than triple its membership—from 200 to 300 members to more than 1,000.

UTCC secretary Peter Enger believes that’s achievable, considering the fact that it only took a few weeks to gather 1,000 signatures on petitions delivered Monday to Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

“We are ever more united. They are behind this movement that’s building nationally,” he said.

At a City Hall news conference before the signing, Enger and other UTCC officials were joined by Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the 17,000-member New York Taxi Workers Alliance and the president of the National Taxi Workers Alliance.

Desai called cabdrivers among the “most exploited” workers in America because they are universally “misclassified” as independent contractors. But she called the working conditions for Chicago cabbies a new low.

“It’s unacceptable to have conditions where thousands of taxi drivers are earning below minimum wage after laboring 60 to 70 back-breaking hours” a week, Desai said.

“This is a grueling job. People are working hours that are basically two jobs in one shift. Yet, at the end of that, they’re not even making enough money equivalent to one job that most Americans earn. That is unconscionable.”

In New York, Desai said the union got a 2012 fare hike that put “every dollar” into drivers’ pockets, with 6 cents earmarked for what she called the “first-ever health care and disability fund to benefit 30,000 active drivers.” New York City also created a special unit to prosecute lease over-charges, she said.

In Chicago, cab fares have been frozen since an 11.7 percent increase imposed by the City Council in 2005.

Emanuel’s 2012 taxicab reforms raised the lease rates drivers pay — by as much as 31 percent for the most fuel-efficient vehicles — while cabbies walked away virtually empty-handed. The mayor’s only concession to drivers was to make the $1 fuel surcharge permanent and to fold it into the cost of entering a cab, known as the “flag pull.” Desai called it more of a “ploy” than a raise.

“For the drivers’ bottom line, there was no increase. Then, the mayor turned around and allowed the taxi companies to increase how much they could charge on the lease, which actually meant drivers lost income,” Desai said.

“Drivers in Chicago are more organized than they have ever been. And with this memorandum of understanding, they have found new allies…Every attempt that’s been made to isolate the drivers politically in Chicago, what our affiliation seeks to do is break that isolation . . . We are ready to give the organizing resources necessary for the drivers of Chicago to continue this fight to victory.”

Earlier this year, cabbies filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court accusing four of Chicago’s largest cab companies and their owners of “misclassifying” their drivers as independent contractors when they should be employees eligible for overtime and the state’s $8.25-an-hour minimum wage.

The class-action lawsuit not only seeks a declaratory judgment that drivers are employees — not independent contractors. It also seeks millions of dollars in damages and back pay for “all persons who have worked as taxi drivers in Chicago over the last 10 years” while paying the companies to lease their vehicles for $90 a day and $500 a week.

Enger, one of five named plaintiffs in that lawsuit, said Monday the UTCC has a comprehensive plan to boost driver income that includes, but is not limited to, a fare increase.

He refused to discuss the details, except to say, “Besides just a strict meter increase, there are many other ways the city can pass ordinances and rules to put more money in peoples’ pockets.”

Enger added, “It’s time for a massive overhaul of the whole taxi industry nationwide. The medallion system is broken. We have [ride-sharing] and new kinds of transportation options that are creeping into taxi industries all over the country. We need a new model. These lawsuits are one of the ways to challenge what has been happening to these disenfranchised workers who are working these long hours for less than minimum wage with no workers’ rights.”

Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Commissioner Maria Guerra Lapacek was on maternity leave. Her first deputy, Jeff Lewelling, could not be reached for comment.Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), chairman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee, could not be reached.

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