One Taxi Driver’s Story of Trying to Survive in the Age of Uber

Stephen Franklin July 28, 2017

Nnamdi Uwazie sits in his taxi cab. (Stephen Franklin)

It’s 4 p.m. and Nnam­di Uwazie has tak­en in only $122, which means he has anoth­er five hours to dri­ve to just cov­er his dai­ly costs. Anoth­er 15-hour day in the cab and maybe noth­ing for him.

But this is how life has been late­ly for the 53-year-old taxi driver.

Since Uber and oth­er ride-share busi­ness­es have crowd­ed Chicago’s streets, his cus­tomers have become ghosts, and a liveli­hood that once sus­tained his fam­i­ly of five has vir­tu­al­ly disappeared.

Two months behind on his rent, with unpaid light, gas and med­ical bills pil­ing up, he strug­gles to stay positive.

Maybe he’ll get a cus­tomer going to O’Hare Inter­na­tion­al Air­port in the next few hours so he can earn some mon­ey today. Maybe Chica­go offi­cials, real­iz­ing the despair that has descend­ed onto taxi dri­vers, will offer some help. Maybe the ride-share busi­ness will mirac­u­lous­ly dry up.

Or maybe sal­va­tion will come from the work of the near­ly two-year-old Cab Dri­vers United/​AFSCME Local 2500, one of a hand­ful of efforts to orga­nize cab dri­vers in the Unit­ed States. More than 2,500 cab dri­vers have signed with the union, and sev­er­al hun­dred pay about one dol­lar a day in dues. Union offi­cials say there are rough­ly 10,000 cab dri­vers in the city.

As the union explains it, Chicago’s cab dri­vers are on a down­ward spi­ral. More than 40 per­cent of the city’s cabs are off the road as com­pared to three years ago, accord­ing to the union.

Right from the onset, I was involved when AFSCME came,” Uwazi says, list­ing the dif­fer­ences that the union has made for him and others.

The union helped him fill out the paper­work for gov­ern­ment-sup­port­ed health­care, he says. It has helped bring down dri­vers’ lease and cred­it card fees. It has called for a solu­tion and relief for a crip­pling prob­lem fac­ing some drivers.

The val­ue of the medal­lions that they bought from the city years ago, large­ly on bank loans, have vir­tu­al­ly been wiped out with arrival of ride-share com­peti­tors. Medal­lions are licens­es that taxi dri­vers are legal­ly required to have. Imag­ine stock­ing a store on cred­it, and then dis­cov­er­ing that you will nev­er earn enough to pay off the loan.

Six years ago, taxi medal­lions sold by the city were run­ning as high as $254,000, accord­ing to pub­lic Chica­go fig­ures. The lat­est fig­ures from the city show that peak has dis­ap­peared. Many are sell­ing between $50,000 and $70,000, recent data shows. The union esti­mates that about 900 medal­lions are in fore­clo­sure pro­ceed­ings. Near­ly four out of ten of the city’s 2,700 medal­lions are held by indi­vid­u­als, who own four or few­er taxis, accord­ing to the union.

In the morn­ing, Uwazie and oth­er dri­vers from the union met with offi­cials at O’Hare air­port, where the wait­ing time for dri­vers seek­ing a pick­up marked­ly jumped up once ride-share dri­vers were allowed to receive cus­tomers at the air­port. Since the taxi dri­vers com­plained recent­ly, the air­port has allowed food trucks to serve them while they wait, and agreed to offer more rest rooms in the wait­ing area.

Because the taxi indus­try is most­ly immi­grant, the city treats us bad­ly,” Uwazie says. Life in the Unit­ed States was not what he expect­ed when he arrived from Nige­ria in 1997. There, he worked in a hos­pi­tal lab­o­ra­to­ry and had two col­lege degrees to bol­ster his career potential.

Uwazie began study­ing soon after his arrival, but his stud­ies soon came to an end with the pre­ma­ture birth of a child and ensu­ing med­ical prob­lems. It was a big prob­lem tak­ing care of him and going to school,” he says. So, he searched for work. From valet park­ing, he quick­ly shift­ed to dri­ving a cab, which even­tu­al­ly meant tak­ing home $150 a day. Late­ly, he has been earn­ing $50 on most days, but on bad days falling into a hole, unable to cov­er his lease and gas costs. His wife works as a home health care assis­tant for the elderly.

He tells him­self that he needs a new start, and he’s con­sid­er­ing com­mu­ni­ty col­lege train­ing to be a physician’s assis­tant. He sees what frus­tra­tion has done to fel­low cab dri­vers — high blood pres­sure, heart prob­lems — and wants to avoid it.

That’s why every morn­ing at 6:00 a.m. when he gets in the cab and starts dri­ving, he med­i­tates on some­thing pos­i­tive: some­thing just for the day, not for the future and not about his problems.

But the only pos­i­tive thing I say nowa­days is my luck is going to change,” says Uwazie. He is a hefty man, who smiles even when he mulls his wor­ries. His Eng­lish comes fla­vored with the the lilt of the lan­guages he learned in Nigeria’s Biafran community.

And so, at the begin­ning of the down­town rush hour on a hot, sun­ny sum­mer day, crowds rush­ing out of office build­ings amid throngs of slow-mov­ing tourists mean­der­ing by, he is hopeful.

Maybe he will get a long ride from a cus­tomer going home. Or maybe a ride out to O’Hare and after a long wait there, maybe a good pay­ing ride back to the Loop. And maybe things will change. Maybe.

Stephen Franklin is a for­mer labor and work­place reporter for the Chica­go Tri­bune, was until recent­ly the eth­nic media project direc­tor with Pub­lic Nar­ra­tive in Chica­go. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heart­land Loss­es and What They Mean for Work­ing Amer­i­cans (2002), and has report­ed through­out the Unit­ed States and the Mid­dle East.

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