Taxi Workers Become a Union—Officially

On the top floor of AFL-CIO headquarters, overlooking the White House, a new union was born this afternoon.

Or more accurately, it was given an official blessing. Taxi workers in New York had built their union for 15 years at the city’s airport taxi stands, restaurants, and kitchen tables, but today they became the first new union chartered by the AFL-CIO in five years.

Javaid Tariq, an executive committee member of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, called the AFL-CIO’s issue of its 57th charter “a first step toward a new kind of labor movement for the excluded workers, the workers without rights and benefits.”

“We gain political power and more strength,” Tariq said. “But we are still in charge of our movement.”

The new Taxi Workers National Alliance can organize affiliates where a local taxi organizing group reaches 10 percent dues-paying membership of that city’s driver population. New York’s Taxi Worker Alliance has that strength, and Philadelphia’s is close.

“We’ve become troublemakers for the city of New York,” Tariq said, “and we’re going to bring that trouble to taxi bosses everywhere.”

The union may also affiliate groups in California, where some taxi workers are directly hired employees and not independent contractors. The distinction is crucial because independent contractors are shut out of labor law and bargaining protections. The taxi workers share a similar status with domestic workers, who, along with hospital unionists facing intense contracting out and freelance TV writers, all spoke today of their fights to create organizations that can win and defend gains for workers outside of traditional employment situations.

Misclassified

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said the Labor Department is partnering with the IRS to ramp up investigations into unscrupulous employers who misclassify workers as independent contractors to cheat them out of wages. AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka connected that kind of misclassification—to escape benefits and bargaining rights—to the current attack on public sector employees. But in many industries, workers lost these rights decades ago—and are fighting hard to win them back.

New York’s taxi alliance staged two strikes in a decade, relentlessly contested city regulatory changes that disadvantaged taxi workers, and fought the overwhelming money power of the billion-dollar taxi industry with driver power.

A union charter won’t change the misclassification of taxi drivers or hand them bargaining rights, of course. But it’s an acknowledgment that unions will help the taxi groups in their struggle to shape an employment model that gives them labor law protections.

The taxi organizations expect they will become full members of city and state labor federations. Like Domestic Workers United, which won a groundbreaking bill of rights for New York’s domestic workers last year, taxi organizers predict affiliation will aid their fights in the political arena. New York’s governor is currently sitting on a bill that would expand the number of taxi permits for the city, part of a grand bargain that the taxi alliance struck with city leaders to win enforcement against garage overcharges and illegal pick-ups.

Eventually, they hope, the deal will bring them a long-awaited health care fund for drivers. “It’s good to see that even though we’re independent contractors and most of us are immigrants, we’re not going to be left out in the cold anymore,” said Zubin Soleimany, an NYTWA organizing committee member.

The AFL-CIO calls the taxi worker alliance an organizing committee, referencing the nascent unions spawned by the CIO in the ’30s that figured out how to bring collective power to industrial workplaces.

“From the beginning we’ve always called ourselves a union, no matter what the law says,” said NYTWA executive director Bhairavi Desai. “Affiliating with the AFL-CIO sends the signal that our labor is to be respected. It opens the door to millions of other workers like us.”

Saying he’s proud to call these immigrant workers brothers and sisters, Trumka praised the new forms of representation emerging from worker centers and acknowledged labor is looking for new ways to organize, even hinting that he’d like to present more new union charters.

“They lost their right to bargain, but they organized enough collective power to be treated like a union by the city,” Trumka said.