Nov. 19 2014 09:40 AM

United Taxi Workers won a huge grassroots victory

Members of United Taxi Workers of San Diego express themselves during last week’s City Council meeting.
Photo by Joshua Emerson Smith

"Taxi drivers work 70 hours to make what a minimum-wage worker makes in a 40-hour week," Sarah Saez told the San Diego City Council last week before a vocal crowd. It wasn't the first time that Saez, program director for the 700-member United Taxi Workers of San Diego, or others with the labor group had presented this statistic to elected officials. But it might be the last.

Held in Golden Hall in Civic Center Plaza to accommodate a large turnout, the council meeting drew hundreds of cab drivers wearing blue United Taxi Workers T-shirts and waving signs emblazoned with slogans such as "Raise the cap on opportunity."

Also present were taxicab permit holders dressed in red T-shirts, whose smaller numbers but political power had until recently dominated the debate over regulating the industry. For years, the group has controlled the large majority of the city's 993 taxicab permits, leasing their vehicles at rates drivers have said mires them in poverty.

"Companies like Uber and Lyft use our failing taxi industry as part of their marketing to their customers," Saez told the council. "The CEO of Uber said, ‘People need to stop riding taxis because of the taxi cartel.'" In one of the most remarkable labor victories in the region's recent history, the City Council voted on Nov. 10 to lift the cap on the number of taxi permits. The only council member in opposition was Lorie Zapf.

"People have been working for next to nothing, volunteering full-time," said Richard Barrera, who heads the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council. "This has been a very, very grassroots effort."

Councilmember Mark Kersey said his decision to support the move had nothing to do with either group's political influence. "Lifting the permit cap on taxicabs was a council decision that embraced free-market principles," he said in an email.

The policy decision, spearheaded by progressive Councilmember Marti Emerald, broke permit holders' longtime monopoly on the city-issued permits, which were originally given out for $3,000 but in recent years have been traded on the open market for more than $100,000.

Issues surrounding the taxi industry caught the public's eye in May 2013, when the Center on Policy Initiatives think tank and San Diego State University released a report called "Driven to Despair." The study painted a stark picture of the industry, with permit holders selling permits for tens of thousands of dollars and lease drivers working 12-hour days and making an average of $5 an hour.

However, efforts by drivers to reform the industry first started at least four years prior to the report, said United Taxi Workers (UTWSD) Executive Director Mikaiil Hussein. Before becoming the head of the labor group, the 45-year-old refugee from Somalia was one of the city's roughly 2,000 taxi drivers, 70 percent of whom are East African immigrants.

As early as 2009, drivers had been meeting informally at Colina Park in City Heights to discuss industry conditions, he said. "A core group of guys got together because we couldn't obey the lease; the lease was so high."

Although no one knew it at the time, this would be the genesis of an influential movement. Within months, the gatherings at the park grew, and soon Hussein and others were holding meetings with dozens of drivers in attendance.

In December 2009, after several failed negotiations with permit holders, more than 150 drivers went on strike. While the work stoppage strained finances for many drivers, they held out for 12 days until permit holders agreed to lower lease prices.

"We were pooling money, giving to somebody to pay their rent, or maybe some of them they have car loans," Hussein said. "We were a kind of a unit, and every day, we always go to the Colina Park because we don't have a place to organize."

The idea to walk off the job came about "naturally," said Abebe Antallo, 54, UTWSD lead organizer. "They don't have no choice. The only thing they can do, the one choice is organizing together and making a strike."

While it wasn't long before permit holders started to slowly increase lease prices for individual drivers, workers now had a taste of victory.

In January 2010, drivers organized the fledgling UTWSD and Hussein was elected to a five-person organizing team. A few months later, the Employee Rights Center, a local advocacy group that assists workers who don't have union representation, recruited college interns to help organize taxi workers.

By that spring, the taxi workers had rented an office space in City Heights, in a former rundown motel, for $625 a month. At first, they sat on the floor for meetings but eventually got donated furniture and a few computers.

A few months later, Hussein spoke out for the first time at a Metropolitan Transit System Taxi Advisory Committee meeting. Permit holders with large taxi fleets dominated the 17-member committee, which guides city policy.

A few days later, he was fired from his job and blacklisted from the industry, he said. "I knew that's the risk I have to take. To be honest, it was the best thing to happen to me. Up to today, I struggle, but it's worth it."

Despite the loss of income, Hussein was now free to organize around the clock. The Employee Rights Center found him a grant for $1,000 a month. He applied for food stamps and moved in with his mother.

By 2011, UTWSD had started holding open houses that brought in hundreds of drivers, Hussein said. People started paying membership dues more regularly, and the group gained momentum.

At the same time, Saez started volunteering with UTWSD. Deeply inspired by the cause, she eventually dropped out of law school, secured funding through AmeriCorps and started organizing with the drivers full-time.

"I've been following Mikaiil down a rabbit hole ever since," said the 33-year-old, still cheerful from the group's victory.

After months of pressure and often-combative meetings with MTS officials, in December 2011, UTWSD was able to get two lease drivers elected to the advisory committee. At the decisive meeting, drivers pack the room, putting tape over their mouths in a symbolic gesture.

In large part, the shift on the committee was possible because of City Councilmember Emerald, who took over for City Council President Todd Gloria as the head of the committee earlier that year, Hussein said.

"The mood was totally changed," he recalled.

UTWSD used its influence in City Heights to campaign for Emerald, who in November 2012 was reelected to represent City Council District 9. Part of the labor group's success resulted from campaigning by taxicab drivers who spoke many of the neighborhood's ethnic languages.

By August 2013, the group had become an affiliate of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council and moved into an office space at the council's building in City Heights at reduced rent.

"You don't just say, ‘The world is not fair,' and there's nothing you can do about it,'" Barrera said. "What taxi workers have proved is that if you have a vision, and if you're persistent, you can win."

Despite a modest annual budget of roughly $53,000, UTWSD plans to continue to increase its political organizing, Hussein said. The group is preparing to help drivers apply for small-business loans so they can obtain their own permits under the new system. To compete with permit-holder-controlled dispatching companies, the group's also getting ready to launch a worker-run dispatching service.

With about 20 volunteer organizers and resources for just two full-time staffers, no one at UTWSD is getting rich anytime soon. But that hasn't limited its effectiveness.

"No one is going to come to this organization to help us unless they love it," Hussein said. "We are all family."

Write to or follow him on twitter at @jemersmith.


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