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Teamsters & Taxi Drivers


Review of:

Taxi! Cabs and Capitalism in New York City
By Biju Mathew
CORNELL UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2008

Outside The Box: Corporate Media, Globalization, and the UPS Strike

By Deepa Kumar

UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS, 2007

In the late 1990s, it looked, for a while, like organized labor was making a comeback, particularly as a voice for contingent workers. As Deepa Kumar recounts in Outside The Box, 185,000 Teamsters went into battle against United Parcel Service (UPS) in 1997, under recently re-elected reform leadership. The result was a successful ten-day strike that protested mistreatment of part-timers not only at UPS but throughout the U.S. Still basking in the glow of his own election two years before, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney applauded the walk-out because it demonstrated the much broader appeal of unions when they defend the interests of all workers. As Sweeney noted, "you could make a million house calls, run a thousand television commercials, stage a hundred strawberry rallies [for the United Farm Workers], and still not come close to doing what the UPS strike did for organizing." In 1998, as Biju Mathew reminds us in Taxi, another group of drivers—24,000 cabbies—staged an equally inspiring work stoppage in New York City. Theirs lasted only a day but showed that a group of "independent contractors"—the Taxi Workers Alliance–could make gains though lobbying, publicity, and direct action even when deprived of formal collective bargaining rights.

 

Last September, nearly a decade after the Alliance successfully challenged then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, TWA members again stopped work, producing what the N.Y. Times called "frustrating waits on corners, long lines at airports, and angry exchanges" over whether cabs should have GPS devices and credit card machines. Drivers contended that the latter device would penalize them financially, but were unable to stop the introduction of either form of "new technology." Other unions rallied behind the TWA, which has become the first "workers’ center" of its type to affiliate with a big city central labor council. In nearly twenty other cities, cabbies similarly lacking in coverage under the National Labor Relations Act have formed TWAs modeled on the New York one. Meanwhile, the much bigger and stronger Teamsters union—now under different leadership—celebrated the tenth anniversary of its UPS strike by bargaining away much of what it won on pensions and part-timing in 1997. The rank-and-file involvement, internal communication, and creative PR tactics described by Kumar were all jettisoned in favor of what Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) calls  "the most secretive negotiations in Teamster history."

 

Notwithstanding the different post-scripts to their books, Kumar and Mathew have both produced case studies of lasting value. The workers involved represent two ends of the spectrum of working class life and organization in the U.S. Unusual among "workers centers, the Alliance has built a relatively stable dues-paying membership among South Asian, African, and West Indian immigrants struggling to earn $25,000 to $35,000 a year. Most NYC yellow cab drivers lease their vehicles for $130 a day and pay for gas themselves. They don’t earn a dollar of their own until they’ve picked up enough passengers to recoup these fixed costs. They have no pensions or job-based health care coverage. Many operate outside the Social Security system and, according to Mathew, "haven’t seen a doctor in years, and if they have, it would be a different doctor in a different emergency room each time." TWA members are "predominantly dislocated males, unencumbered by the trappings of the full lives" (and sometimes professional jobs) they were forced to leave behind in the Third World.  As Mathew movingly describes, the city’s taxi driving workforce—thanks to the forces of globalization—has been "structured almost permanently into a culture of masculine bachelorhood" due the forced separation of so many drivers from wives and families in their country of origin.

 

In contrast, UPS Teamsters, both male and female, are employees of  an $80 billion company, with America‘s largest private sector labor agreement. They work all around the country—and their ubiquitous brown trucks are as familiar in small towns as yellow cabs in the teeming "global village" of New York City. Under their last contract, full-time UPS inter-city truckers and local delivery drivers earned $28 an hour, about $75,000 a year with overtime, year," according to The New York Times (citing information from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters).  IBT pension and welfare funds—while currently under siege—provide far better benefits than most Americans enjoy, including employer-paid health insurance for Teamster family members and retirees. That makes total compensation for full-timers more than $40 an hour (although, as noted above, contract concessions in late 2007 will adversely affect part-time package sorters and leave many of them far behind, in terms of starting pay and benefits.). Seventy percent white and overwhelmingly native born, Teamsters at UPS—if fully employed–could easily be mistaken for a "labor aristocracy" when compared to the immigrant taxi drivers who work equally hard for much less.

 

The historical trajectory of upward and downward mobility among Teamsters and taxi drivers seems to intersect. New York cabbies were once "fleet drivers"–direct employees of companies that owned city-awarded "medallions" permitting them to operate. In the 1960s and 70s, these outfits bargained with Local 3036, a union run by Central Labor Council President Thomas Van Arsdale. Back then, cabbies had pensions and health benefits but started to lose them when the union agreed to internally divisive "differential commission rates." This two-tier pay structure weakened driver solidarity and helped pave the way for leasing in 1979. "Those left out in the cold—new occasional or part-time drivers badly served by the contract—felt no commitment to the union and had every reason to serve as a ready-made scab force," Mathew writes.  To introduce leasing, a former cabbie explains, the industry "scare[d] one set of workers about losing their union benefits to create a system that robs every future worker of exactly the same."

 

In short order, the demographics of NYC cab driving changed dramatically and Local 3036 was out of business. "Prior to the advent of leasing, under the commission system, more than 50 percent of the drivers were European or African-American. Only a few were Third World immigrants…By the late 1980s, you could hardly find a white driver."

 

Today, owner-operators—the only true "independent contractors" in the industry–represent just 12 to 15 percent of the workforce. The remaining 22,000 or more active drivers "slave under the conditions of ‘horse hiring’ "—Mathew’s term for the "primitive practice" of daily leasing.  According to TWA director Bhairavi Desai, this makes taxi driving "one of the few professions in the world where not only are you not guaranteed an income, but you might end a long twelve-hour workday losing the money you started with."

 

As Kumar explains in Outside The Box, contingent labor at UPS has been used–just as in the taxi industry– to reduce labor costs, enhance management flexibility, divide the bargaining unit, and, whenever possible, weaken the union. Since part-time jobs were first implemented at UPS in 1962—in a deal negotiated by Jimmy Hoffa—the workforce has become 60 percent part-time. More than 80 percent of all new jobs created prior to the union’s 1996-7 contract fight were part-time–with such slim opportunities for moving to full-time employment that turn-over was huge and many new hires never even qualified for benefits. With an emphasis on how the media covered the walk-out ten years ago, Outside The Box reminds readers of what it took to reverse, at least temporarily within one company, the societal trend toward part-timing.

 

Unlike his benighted predecessors (or his not much better successor) then-Teamster President Ron Carey refused to treat the second-largest contract talks in the country–only GM bargaining was bigger at the time–like a special interest game, played out of sight from UPS members, their families, and the public.  Carey’s election in 1991 enabled the rank-and-file activity long promoted by TDU, within UPS, to become part of the union’s official bargaining strategy.  Scores of TDU members were finally able to mobilize their co-workers with national headquarters support, even if their own local union leaders remained in bed with the company. Many months of intensive  education, discussion, and internal communication within the IBT’s newly-created "member-to-member networks" built a broad consensus about UPS bargaining goals–and how best to articulate them.  

 

The IBT’s main goal was to convert more jobs from part-time to full-time, thus thwarting management’s plan to further expand its part-time workforce. A second Teamster priority was keeping UPS as a lucrative participant in its multi-employer retirement funds–at a time when management was already pushing the idea of coverage via a separate, less solidaristic company plan. As Kumar concludes, proper "framing" of the first issue proved to be a critical factor in generating unusual public sympathy for the strikers and an outpouring of picket-line support from other unions.

 

In all its innumerable pre-strike research reports, press releases, and  Ron Carey interviews, the union insisted that "Part-Time America Won’t Work!" The well-prepared Teamster rank-and-file was equally "on message." As Atlanta driver Randy Walls told Reuters on the first day of the walkout: "We’re striking for every worker in America!" UPS is notorious for its authoritarian systems of workforce control, systematic internal propagandizing, and ever-vigilant supervisors. Nevertheless, management was caught off-guard by the unexpected unity between full- and part-time workers–and the public pummeling incited by the union’s high profile contract campaign. "If I had known that it was going to go from negotiating for UPS to negotiating for part-time America, we would have approached it differently,"  company executive John Alden confessed in a Business Week post-mortem.   

 

Kumar is clearly a Carey fan, as evidenced by a rare interview with him appended to the book, which describes his personal jousting with the "Big Brown Machine" when he was a UPS worker himself. Like many others on the left, she laments Carey’s post-strike ouster in a Teamster election fundraising scandal that dealt a major blow to TDU. Yet, at one point, this Rutgers Professor of Media Studies turns post-modern Marxist, faulting the now-retired "militant union leader" for his administration’s use of a "nationalist narrative" in organizing the 1997 strike. She notes that strike publicity repeatedly invoked the "American dream" and denounced "big business for frustrating national aspirations for ‘good, full-time jobs.’"  According to Kumar,  "labor nationalism is based on a reformist ideology that claims that workers can fully realize their interests under capitalism or, more specifically, within a particular type of nation that ensures the fair treatment of its workers."  In Outside The Box, a widely-acclaimed PR campaign—orchestrated by Matt Witt, Rand Wilson, Craig Merrilees, and others–is deemed deficient because, among UPSers, "an international class-based identity was not counter-posed to a national identity."

 

Kumar does not suggest alternative rhetorical devices that might have elevated the union’s discourse to a more politically correct level. (Perhaps the slogan "A Part-Time World Won’t Work?") And her book overlooks the fact, under Carey, the IBT did try to build links with UPS unions in Western Europe, some of which held coordinated workplace demonstrations of solidarity with Teamsters here in 1997.

 

In the meantime, a more familiar obstacle to the forward march of labor at UPS has interjected itself—in the form of James Hoffa, son of the IBT negotiator who first opened the door for part-timing. Thanks to the current Hoffa Administration, UPS management was indeed able to do things "differently" in the latest round of bargaining. During "early negotiations" in 2007 (on an agreement not scheduled to expire until this summer), the Teamsters dispensed with contract campaigning altogether—leaving future analysts like Kumar with much more to criticize than a flawed "narrative" about "nationalism." The IBT bargained away language, won ten years ago, that turned 40,000 part-time jobs into 20,000 full-time ones. As Labor Notes reported last December, this deal will "end conversion of part-time into full-time jobs" and "widen the gap between full-time and part-time standards, freezing part-timers starting pay [at $8.50 an hour for five years] and forcing new ones to work for a year before they are eligible for health coverage." In addition, the settlement  moved "44,000 Teamsters out of the union’s multi-employer Central States pension plan" and put them into a company plan with "benefits frozen at levels negotiated during the 1997 contract and accrual rates lower than those in other IBT funds."

 

Despite opposition in Carey’s home base in New York City (where rejection of the contract led to more favorable renegotiation of the Local 804 supplement to it), the results of the  IBT’s 2007 bargaining were generally accepted elsewhere out of a sense of fatalism and futility. In 1997, as Kumar recounts, the full resources of the Teamsters were devoted to raising membership expectations and encouraging militancy, while elevating the consciousness of the general public as well. Ten years later, the propaganda machinery of the union was just put to work internally—and only after a tentative agreement was reached. UPS workers who had heard little or nothing about bargaining for months were suddenly bombarded with PR mailings and robo calls to their homes urging them to "Yote Yes" in a fast track ratification process.

 

With greater continuity in its core leadership and a more consistent rank-and-file approach, the TWA is—by necessity—still operating "outside the box." Mathew’s book delves deeply into the daily lives, workplace and community relationships, and immigration-related legal problems of TWA activists. Their compelling individual stories are very well told and reflect the author’s strong personal connection to New York cabbies, based on his on-going TWA organizing committee role. Originally from India himself, Mathew is a professor of management at Rider University—and thus personally bridges the gap between what he calls the "suburban immigrant middle-class" and TWA’s far less assimilated or secure working class members.

 

Taxi also lends itself more comfortably than Kumar’s book to explorations of "international class-based identity" formation and related media coverage. In addition to his occasional invocations of Fanon, Foucault, and Robert Fitch, Mathew includes many telling anecdotes like the following:

 

"The atmosphere at strike headquarters [in 1998] was electric as the media tried to fathom how immigrants of so many different ethnicities had united in the action. Many reporters found it difficult to understand how, just one week after India’s nuclear test, followed by Pakistan’s ominous promise to respond in kind, Indian and Pakistani drivers could be brothers on the streets of New York…."’Listen, man,’ said Ilyas Khan. "when a New York cop stops me, he isn’t asking if I am Indian or Pakistani. To him, we are all the same."

 

 

 

First published by New Press in 2005, Taxi will now hopefully reach a wider audience via Cornell’s new paperback edition, which includes an updated introduction on recent TWA activities. My one disappointment with Mathew’s book is the absence of a full-fledged portrait of Bhairavi Desai. As Mathew notes, she has "led the organization with rare vision and brilliance for all of its years of its existence."  Perhaps out of modesty on her part and/or the author’s deference to it, her role is downplayed in favor of a collective organizational portrait and personal details about rank-and-file members. While this is a refreshing change from the usual tendency to focus on charismatic leaders, female organizers of Desai’s caliber get too little, rather than too much, attention and recognition. I’m sure other readers will be equally curious about how a young woman, with radical politics and a degree from Rutgers, became the key organizer of a large, diverse but almost entirely male immigrant workforce. Maybe we’ll just have to wait until "Taxi-2," the sequel appears, to find out more about her.

 

 

Steve Early served for 27 years as an organizer and international union representative for the Communications Workers of America. He is a longtime supporter of Teamsters for a Democratic Union and has written about Teamsters politics since 1977. In 1992, he was loaned by CWA to work with the administration of TDU-backed Teamster President Ron Carey. Early is currently writing a book for Cornell University Press on the role of Sixties radicals in the U.S. labor movement. He can be reached at [email protected]

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