Union cab driver activists from across the country, plus a couple from Europe, convened last month for a council of war in the Taxi Workers Alliance’s recently expanded new offices in an industrial area of Queens.
“We have gathered to expose the reality of what is happening,” piped Bhairavi Desai, the diminutive leader of the union’s New York chapter. “To send a message of urgency, and to say unequivocally that taxi drivers are organizing ourselves to mount an offense, and to defend our rights.”
The main subject at the two days of meetings: Uber, the smartphone app turned global transportation phenomenon that is undercutting traditional taxi drivers by bringing thousands more into the marketplace.
In many cases, the taxi incumbents have succeeded in getting judges and regulators to crack down; parts of what Uber does have been banned in dozens of countries and individual cities across the world. Much of the meeting last week was devoted to complaints about Uber’s buccaneering attitude toward regulation, and representatives vowed to keep up the pressure.
“We will send this message to every country, every government, that Uber is not welcome,” said Mac Urata, the London-based head of surface transportation for the International Transport Workers Federation. “They have no place to hide. Everywhere they go, we will fight them, shame them, and get them out of business.”
But the worker groups also know that asking for a government response may not be enough. Many cities have updated their regulations to accommodate Uber after realizing how much citizens like the service. That’s why Desai and her equivalents are working to come up with their own app that would work only with licensed drivers.
In San Francisco, most cabbies have signed up with Flywheel, which works the same way as Uber — only with licensed drivers and without Uber’s practice of jacking up prices during periods of high demand. But representatives from the San Francisco Taxi Workers Alliance say that Flywheel hasn’t gained as much traction as Uber.
“For us as taxi drivers, we’re there to serve the public,” said Mateos Chekol, an organizer with the AFL-CIO who has been working with drivers in Montgomery County, Md. “And if you take away the convenience of the app, the ability to go from point A to point B on your cellphone, what else does Uber have?”