The 7-Year Itch: Desperate for Fare Increase, Chicago Cabbies Continue Weekly Strike

Jeremy Gantz

Chicago cab drivers haven't seen a fare increase in seven years, despite the rising costs of gas and other expenses. The United Taxi Community Council has voted to hold weekly temporary strikes until its representatives are granted a meeting with the mayor's office. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Angry over new ordi­nance rais­ing vehi­cle lease lim­its, dri­vers push for fare hike and meet­ing with City Hall

CHICA­GO — In many ways, taxi dri­vers typ­i­fy America’s steadi­ly expand­ing free­lance econ­o­my. On the sur­face they’re in con­trol, set­ting their own hours and routes with no boss look­ing over their shoul­ders. Look a lit­tle deep­er, though, and cab­bies are essen­tial­ly mod­ern-day share­crop­pers — vir­tu­al­ly all are inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors in a tight­ly reg­u­lat­ed indus­try dom­i­nat­ed by big com­pa­nies leas­ing cabs. They begin each day in the red and, as gas and vehi­cle lease rates rise with­out a fare increase, must work longer hours just to break even.

In Chica­go, where taxi dri­vers haven’t had a fare raise in sev­en years, many in the indus­try have been pushed to the break­ing point. Last week the Unit­ed Taxi Com­mu­ni­ty Coun­cil (UTCC), the clos­est thing to a union cab­bies have here, held a five-hour strike to bring atten­tion to its call for a 22-per­cent fare increase. Chica­go City Coun­cil approved an 11.7 per­cent increase in 2005, when the price of a gal­lon gas here aver­aged about $2.50.

UTCC Sec­re­tary Peter Enger said 80 per­cent of the city’s approx­i­mate­ly 10,000 cabs were off the road dur­ing the morn­ing of Mon­day, July 2, and dubbed the action a vic­to­ry.” (City offi­cials dis­put­ed that the action sig­nif­i­cant­ly dis­rupt­ed taxi avail­abil­i­ty, and there was no way to ver­i­fy Enger’s esti­mate.) The next day, UTCC’s strike com­mit­tee vot­ed to hold anoth­er work stop­page this morn­ing (July 9) and con­tin­ue the tem­po­rary strikes on a week­ly basis until UTCC rep­re­sen­ta­tives are grant­ed a meet­ing with the mayor’s office to talk about a fare increase, says UTTC strike com­mit­tee head Finn Ebelechukwu.

All we are ask­ing for is the city to come to the table with us,” Ebelechuk­wu said. On Fri­day, it was announced that the City Coun­cil’s trans­porta­tion com­mit­tee will hold a hear­ing on a pos­si­ble increase on July 31. Ebelechuk­wu called that a pos­i­tive devel­op­ment,” but not­ed what UTCC wants is a meet­ing with the Depart­ment of Busi­ness Affairs and Con­sumer Pro­tec­tion, the arm of City Hall — aka, May­or Rahm Emanuel — that reg­u­lates Chicago’s taxi industry.

The group made the same fare demand in 2009, but then-May­or Richard M. Daley said no. Last week a spokesper­son for the Depart­ment of Busi­ness Affairs said May­or Rahm Emanuel believes it’s pre­ma­ture to talk about a fare increase until the indus­try has safer dri­vers and bet­ter vehi­cles,” the Chica­go Sun-Times report­ed.

This [may­oral] admin­is­tra­tion and the pre­vi­ous admin­is­tra­tion have nev­er sat down with UTCC,” Enger says. They do not want to rec­og­nize UTCC as a viable orga­ni­za­tion. … If the union does­n’t show its strength, why [would the mayor’s office] both­er talk­ing to them?”

It bog­gles my mind’

The quick strikes are timed to the imple­men­ta­tion of a new ordi­nance that the city says will make Chica­go streets safer and the industry’s Chica­go Taxi­cab Oper­a­tors Asso­ci­a­tion has praised for enrich­ing cab com­pa­nies. The ordi­nance, which passed in Jan­u­ary 2012 and took effect on July 1, calls for close mon­i­tor­ing of dri­vers who receive traf­fic tick­ets, and lim­its shifts to 12 hours, in line with fed­er­al safe­ty laws.

High­er safe­ty is the goal, and that has­n’t been the case to date,” May­or Emanuel said in Decem­ber, after propos­ing the ordi­nance. In Jan­u­ary, Rose­mary Krim­bel, com­mis­sion­er of the Depart­ment of Busi­ness Affairs and Con­sumer Pro­tec­tion, said. [The ordi­nance] does not in any way harm the driver.”

UTCC vehe­ment­ly dis­agrees, say­ing the new rule will make sur­viv­ing as a cab dri­ver even hard­er because most dri­vers have to work more than 12 hours straight to bring home mon­ey. Cab com­pa­nies are hap­py because they make more mon­ey leas­ing a vehi­cle in 12-hour shifts, rather than a 24-hour shift.

2009 study by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois’ School of Labor and Employ­ment Rela­tions found Chica­go dri­vers who lease a car by the week, as most dri­vers do, earn $4.81 an hour. Those leas­ing by the shift earned on aver­age just $4.07 per hour after pay­ing for leas­es (for both the vehi­cle and dri­ving medal­lion), air­port tax­es, gas, cab main­te­nance and oth­er basic expens­es. The aver­age driver’s annu­al take-home pay is about $15,000, Enger says, adding that stud­ies of the indus­try put the nation­al aver­age at between $20,000 and $25,000.

Among oth­er things, the new ordi­nance makes a $1 fuel sur­charge per­ma­nent and impos­es a $50 fee on pas­sen­gers who vom­it in a cab. A small vic­to­ry,” Enger says, argu­ing that dri­vers can’t eas­i­ly enforce the new rule on drunk­en pas­sen­gers, who he said should ide­al­ly clean up their own vomit.

It also requires cab com­pa­nies to keep records of all cab trans­ac­tions going back three years (to cut down on taxi dri­ver tax eva­sion) and allows the com­pa­nies to lease new hybrid vehi­cles at high­er rates. But UTCC says most dri­vers won’t ben­e­fit from bet­ter gas mileage because fuel sav­ings will just go to cab companies.

Com­pa­nies have been vio­lat­ing the lease caps for years. Now the city gives them a legal rate that legal­izes their vio­la­tions,” Enger says. They need a lease cap increase and I don’t need a fare increase? It bog­gles my mind that peo­ple don’t think of this.”

But UTCC does sup­port parts of the new ordi­nance, includ­ing lan­guage that will:

  • stan­dard­ize cab lease forms. (Enger says this will close loop­holes com­pa­nies employed to over­charge drivers.)
  • strength­en pun­ish­ment of com­pa­nies that vio­late lease agreements.
  • elim­i­nate a 5‑percent cred­it-car pro­cess­ing fee that reduced dri­vers’ income.

Beyond a fare increase, UTCC is call­ing for a bian­nu­al review by an inde­pen­dent audit­ing firm, paid for by the city, of the cost of dri­ving a cab in Chica­go. Fares should be tied to the fixed costs of oper­at­ing a cab, Enger says. If costs rise 10 per­cent, fares should as well, so dri­vers aren’t impoverished.

For cab­bies to earn a liv­ing wage, he added, they’d need an increase far larg­er than 22-per­cent. But UTCC isn’t ask­ing for a high­er hike because rid­er­ship could dimin­ish and some dri­vers would be out of work. If it cost so much that poor­er peo­ple could­n’t take cabs any­more, we’d lose a lot of rid­ers,” Enger says. For a liv­able wage, we need more business.”

Build­ing sol­i­dar­i­ty in an atom­ized industry 

Ebelechuk­wu says there is still a lot of sup­port” for the week­ly strikes. But the UTCC has no strike fund — indeed, many of its mem­bers do not pay dues to the orga­ni­za­tion, which has no col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights under fed­er­al law. About 2,000, or one in five, Chica­go cab dri­vers are in some way affil­i­at­ed with UTCC, which formed in 2008 and has nev­er called a strike before this month.

Build­ing sol­i­dar­i­ty among dri­vers is a huge, huge chal­lenge,” Enger says, in an indus­try in which peo­ple are iso­lat­ed and often feel clos­er ties to dri­vers from their own eth­nic groups than strug­gling cab­bies in gen­er­al. But there’s a pos­i­tive flip­side to this dynam­ic, says Enger, a cab dri­ver with a degree in anthropology.

If the Soma­lis say they’re going to strike, every one of them is going to strike,” he says. Fare increase, schmare increase. I want to see [dri­vers] from 40 or 50 coun­tries get­ting active.”

Cab­drivers from mul­ti­ples coun­tries, and coun­ties, appear to be doing just that. UTCC lead­ers have made trips to New York City to con­fer with mem­bers of the New York Taxi Work­ers Alliance (NYT­WA), a sim­i­lar­ly non­tra­di­tion­al labor orga­ni­za­tion that joined the AFL-CIO in Octo­ber 2011. UTCC is an affil­i­ate of NYT­WA, as are 21 oth­er taxi dri­ver groups around the country.

NYTWA’s more than 15,000 mem­bers are cur­rent­ly push­ing for a 17-per­cent fare increase, their first since 2004, along with the elim­i­na­tion of the 5 per­cent cred­it-card pro­cess­ing fee and the cre­ation of a 6‑cent sur­charge for a health­care and dis­abil­i­ty fund for dri­vers. (Taxi dri­ving is one of the most dan­ger­ous jobs in Amer­i­ca.) May­or Michael Bloomberg backs their cam­paign. Like UTCC, NYT­WA is also call­ing for a bian­nu­al review of the cost of dri­ving a cab.

NYT­WA is in the process of form­ing a nation­al alliance, Enger says. This is very sig­nif­i­cant. I’d like to see a nation­al union. I’d like to see a nation­al cab­drivers strike. Par­a­lyze not just this city, but every freak­ing city.

A com­pa­ny nev­er wants to rec­og­nize a union,” Enger says. It’s the same with the city.” But now, he says, Chicago’s new poli­cies are ener­giz­ing dri­vers. The city is doing a bet­ter job than I am of orga­niz­ing these dri­vers. … We had peo­ple com­ing into polit­i­cal life, com­ing into UTCC, and help­ing us orga­nize the next strike. Dri­vers are orga­niz­ing their own movement.”

Jere­my Gantz is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at the mag­a­zine. He is the edi­tor of The Age of Inequal­i­ty: Cor­po­rate America’s War on Work­ing Peo­ple (2017, Ver­so), and was the Web/​Associate Edi­tor of In These Times from 2008 to 2012.

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