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 Not in Service: The Tale of Insurgent Taxi Drivers

One of the lesser known acts of civil disobedience during the days of the Seattle WTO meetings was a strike by the local taxi drivers; a small but effective component in making the city inhospitable to unwelcome guests. The call was made for all taxi drivers to suspend service within Seattle City limits from 6am to 6pm on Tuesday November 30th.

In some parts of the world, taxi driving is a respectable profession which earns a decent income, by local standards, and which has no negative stigma. The cab drivers I’ve talked to in Europe, Asia, and North Africa claim to do pretty well and identify with the “middle class”. This is not the case in the United States, where taxi driving is on one of the lowest rungs on the social hierarchy. Taxi drivers in urban areas are overwhelmingly poor immigrants, rural drivers are frequently among the poorest and most marginalised of whites. Seattle’s two biggest taxi fleets are primarily owned and operated by East African men from Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea. Another large company is almost entirely Punjabi Sikhs and other North Indians, and another is the last holdout of the working-class Anglo drivers.

Drivers lease cabs for 12 hours shifts from owners. Most lease the car on a weekly basis, working seven 12 hours shifts per week. We are therefore self-employed, lacking unions, unemployment insurance, workers compensations, medical insurance, and any official channel for dealing with exploitation by the companies, which deal with the allocation of cars, collection of lease, dispatch, and general administration. Cab owners pay dues to the company to support this infrastructure; since there is no oversight, the companies are dens of nepotism and incompetence.

Additional troubles began in the industry when the City government decided to apply the New York “zero tolerance” model to the local taxi industry with an ordinance passed in 1997. In one of the many spurious attempts to make Seattle “world class” city, perhaps in anticipation of the already scheduled WTO meetings, the taxi industry was targeted for reform. Laws were enacted regulating everything imaginable, beginning an era of English language tests, uniforms, enforced cleanliness, consolidation of cab companies, illegalization of independent owner-operators, inspections, and a punitive system for offenders. Curiously absent from these laws was ensurance of quality of life, job security, safety, or reliability of income for the taxi drivers - indicating the local government’s dominant concern for the superficial experience of tourists and conventioneers over the working conditions of its constituents.

Drivers reacted by forming an organisation, called the Cab Drivers’ Alliance. This organisation has had limited success in challenging the power structure, mostly stymied by the individualist nature of taxi drivers and the implacable nature of politicians. At very least we h ave made a career of harassing City Hall, once encircling the building with honking cabs in a four hour wildcat strike, then cruising through downtown as a rolling roadblock.

If this doesn’t sound familiar, it should. People from the global South working too hard for too little. Working-class whites pitted against immigrants. Sweatshop hours. A system which caters to the comforts of the wealthy. A popular resistance that gains little ground against a “business - friendly” government. It is like a script in miniature of capitalism’s latest fad, neoliberalism.

“What you don’t understand is that when we negotiate economic agreements with these poorer countries, we are negotiating with people from the same class. That is, people whose interests are - like ours - on the side of capital”
- Former State Department official at a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations.

For obvious reasons, it wasn’t difficult to call for a strike. The difficulty was largely one of information dispersal. Flyers posted at the cab lot were torn down immediately, flyers posted fifty yards from the lot were removed within 24 hours. Management did its best to discredit the strike, claiming it to be a fiction to the media. Other management declined comment or made ambiguous statements. At the Anglo company, the management made it clear to me that I was not physically safe to organise or post flyers at their lot. I spent a few nights creeping around all the lots at three in the morning posting flyers under windshield wipers. It is strange that so little has changed in the U.S. - that labour organising can still get you shot or blacklisted.

Perhaps the most difficult task was to convince the drivers that N30 was the right time for a strike. Most were counting on making heaps of money from the delegates and were hesitant to give up one of the most lucrative days of the year. A large article was published in our newsletter, detailing the reasons we should act on this day for our own individual interests and for global reasons. Many of the African and Indian drivers were familiar with the WTO, World Bank, and IMF because of the activities of those institutions in their home countries. Eventually most drivers warmed to the idea because of the rare chance to get even with the city government - by denying taxi service when it would hurt the most.

Just four days in advance, the strike was announced to the media. It was kept secret until the last minute to prevent the companies from coming up with counter-propaganda, or the municipality avoiding the crisis by arranging other transportation. Response from the media was immediate and somewhat overwhelming for our small strike committee. News outlets were desperate for more WTO stories, and I suspect they were also interested because of the dynamic and unpredictable nature of our “union”, lacking careerists and the usual crusty old order of lefties to water down our anger.

The events on N30 are now pretty historic, and there were certainly a lot more exciting things happening then a dearth of cabs. Busy with other actions that day, I felt happy to know that the delegates couldn’t use cabs to get through crowds, and were more easy to spot and harass in their limousines, and that no taxis were being shaken or blockaded, which could have shifted some taxi drivers’ sympathies.

Our strike significantly aided in shutting down the city since bus service was also suspended, and people definitely wouldn’t drive into the city after it became clear that the demonstrations had claimed the streets. There was simply no way for people to get to their jobs in the city center. This, combined with the masses of people who voluntarily chose not to work N30, suspended any atmosphere of normalcy. The transportation shutdown enabled a situation of de facto general strike.

- Greyg Filastine