SF cabdrivers vote to unionize as industry continues to take beating from ride services

San Francisco cabdrivers have decided that it’s time to form a union.

The local industry has been reeling for years as venture capital-backed ride services like Uber and Lyft have proliferated and taxi companies’ calls to The City to level the playing field have done little to help.

On Wednesday, cab drivers voted to initiate the San Francisco Taxi Workers Alliance, an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) — marking the first time cabdrivers will be unionized in The City in more than four decades.

“If we don’t form a union, we’re toast,” said Beth Powder, 35, a union organizer and driver and dispatcher for DeSoto Cab Co.

Cabdrivers discussed unionizing for a couple of months, but in a “standing-room-only” meeting at the Verdi Club on Wednesday night, they voted unanimously to move forward with making it official, said Barry Korengold, president of the San Francisco Cab Drivers Association.

About 150 taxi drivers signed up for the union and pledged to bring more drivers with them, Powder said.

A number of meetings and conference calls have been held with the AFL-CIO and the National Taxi Workers Alliance, the umbrella affiliate that includes alliances in New York; Philadelphia; Austin, Texas; and Montgomery County, Md.

The San Francisco Taxi Workers Alliance will be the fifth member — and the first independent — contractor union in California. Also coming onboard the national organization are drivers in Chicago, Houston and Prince George’s County, Md.

Among the benefits of being unionized, Powder said, is reversing the public — and, to a degree, real — perception that the taxi industry is disjointed.

“Cabdrivers are very independent people, and that’s one of the beauties of this industry — that you have a diverse group of people who bring all these different elements to the table,” Powder said. “Unfortunately, what it translates to for everybody else is that we can’t get together and find consensus. But we’ve done just that.”

Becoming unionized would also give taxi drivers access to legal resources. Taxi drivers are independent contractors with cab companies, who provide workers’ compensation but not health insurance. Powder said getting health insurance from cab companies is not a priority at the moment considering other battles they face.

“That doesn’t mean that in the future that’s never going to be a conversation,” she said. “But right now, we’re in the same battle together. The cab companies want us to be able to have a place to work and for us to form a union means we can work side by side with the cab companies.”

Some taxi drivers have organized in smaller groups — the San Francisco Cab Drivers Association, the United Taxicab Workers and Association of Burmese Cab Drivers — but they often pushed their own initiatives and weren’t able to garner mass support. And they felt their pleas to City Hall to do something about unregulated app ride services like Uber and Lyft were not heard.

Those enterprises, called transportation network companies by regulator the California Public Utilities Commission, have eaten up a large chunk of the taxi market in just a few years.

“We’re in crisis mode because the legislators and city officials have ignored us,” Powder said in reference to the ride-services issue. “We see in cities across the country, people stepping up and taking action at a municipal level. They’re clamping down on illegal ride services. And the city of San Francisco for some reason can’t get anybody to budge.”

Bhairavi Desai, president of the National Taxi Workers Alliance and executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, said the San Francisco union will become official once it has 500 paid member drivers.

San Francisco drivers’ vote Wednesday signifies their readiness to defeat attacks on labor, Desai said.

“San Francisco used to have progressive working conditions, in that every driver could earn a medallion and it was a very progressive

model,” Desai said. “But in the last 10 years, San Francisco has been faced with very bitter attacks, with [rideshares] being the latest of the attacks.”

In New York, the largest market for taxis, Uber and Lyft have been limited to black-car operations and cannot operate as transportation network companies as they do in San Francisco, Desai added.

Taxi drivers unionized as early as 1904, evidenced by a “hackman” union that staged a four-month-long strike, according to Charles Rathbone, 65, owner of the website www.taxi-library.org. By 1909, the Chauffeurs’ Union had successfully organized drivers and they earned the highest wages in the country.

“In 1967 a [Chauffeurs’] union official described local taxi contracts as the best in the nation, with drivers earning $13 a day plus tips or 50% of the fares, whichever was greater, plus health care and pension,” Rathbone wrote in the article “Taxis and San Francisco Labor History” on his website.

The taxi industry, through its long history, has proven itself to be very adaptable to change, added Rathbone, who is also assistant manager at Luxor Cab.

“I think the industry is going to continue to be just fine,” he said. “Union or no union, Uber or no Uber.”

San Francisco taxis were unionized dating back to pre-World War II, but they tore away in the late 1970s, according to Mark Gruberg, 72, a taxi driver for 30 years who is currently with Green Cab.

“There’s a new breath of life in unionism,” he said. “And we in San Francisco are going to be part and parcel of that.”

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency indicated it will continue to negotiate and work with the taxi industry regardless of the union move.

“San Francisco taxi drivers will always have a seat at the table with us, whether individually or collectively,” agency spokeswoman Kristen Holland said. “We will listen to their concerns regardless of their affiliation.”