The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

‘Independentâ€TM Cabbies Fight for Union Rights

by Shreema Mehta

Feb. 27, 2007 – Taxi-cab drivers in Oakland, California are demanding that their employer recognize them as direct employees and guarantee them the right to negotiate workplace conditions through their union.

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Although the National Labor Relations Board ruled in 2004 that drivers working for the Friendly Cab Company should be recognized as direct employees, the company is appealing the decision and continues to treat them as "independent contractors." The fight over cab-driver classification in Oakland reflects challenges faced by cab drivers throughout the United States.

The cab drivers dispute the classification because their employer controls several aspects of their work but refuses to provide the typical benefits that an employee would get. The cabbies also say Friendly Cab’s appeal of the Board ruling is preventing them from pushing for safer cars and better pay through their union. Because the company is still refusing to recognize them as employees, cab drivers are unable to collectively bargain over their working conditions.

"The employers have set up a system that uses independent contractors so they can, quite frankly, get out of the responsibility of [paying for] health insurance or workers’ compensation," Teamsters organizer Chuck Mack told The NewStandard.

According to the IRS, to be considered independent contractors, workers must control the "means and methods" for accomplishing their work. In its 2004 decision, the NLRB determined Friendly Cab drivers to be employees because although the drivers lease the cabs, they are not allowed to sublease or use them for personal reasons. The Board also found a road manager monitors drivers’ conduct and dress and investigates customer complaints.

The workers have voted for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters to represent them, but Friendly Cab refuses to negotiate with the union.

Friendly Cab’s attorney, Alex Berline, said drivers knew they were being hired as independent contractors before they signed up.

After paying about $500 to lease a cab for a week, Berline said, cab drivers are free to drive anywhere to pick up as many or as few fares as they want. "It’s really up to the driver," he said, "That said... we also do dispatch. All the cabs have computers, and dispatch calls out, and if they happen to be nearby, they’re welcome to press the button and say ‘accept’ and go get it."

Anwar Zaradan, a cab driver for eighteen years, told TNS that he does not enjoy the freedom that an independent contractor should receive.

"We do everything as employees," he said. "They give you a call, you pick up the call, and that’s an order from the company." According to the NLRB ruling, "Although drivers may decline a particular dispatch, they do not do so because the dispatcher will ignore them or by-pass them in the future."

Cab drivers pay about $500 to $700 a week to the company to lease the cabs, while receiving no health insurance or workers’ compensation coverage. Zaradan said that drivers work long hours to meet their high expenses. He said he often works from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 the next morning.

Though their cabs are insured in accidents that are not their fault, drivers themselves are not insured for possible injuries they sustain while on the job. And they must pay for accidents that are their fault. Berline said providing insurance would limit Friendly Cab’s ability to compete with other companies.

Friendly Cab is "more than happy to compete on a level playing field," Berline said of his client. "What they can’t do is operate in a manner that’s exponentially more expensive than [their] competitors. We’ve always been open to sitting down with the city and the various stakeholders if there’s changes that need to be made to the overall taxi ordinance that will affect all companies evenly."

With no benefits and expenses ranging from gas to the lease rate to credit-card processing fees, Mack said that playing field is unfair to cab drivers for all companies in Oakland and in many other cities.

Despite spending so much of his time driving, Zadaran said, he feels compelled to protest his employer over working conditions and practices he feels are abusive, including arbitrary raises of lease fees. "I do not have time even for my kids, but I have to bring some pressure on myself to fight for my own rights and the other drivers."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Shreema Mehta is a staff journalist.

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