Origins and Lessons Learned
Guest post by Lisa Bolton, Vice President, Communications Workers of America (CWA)
In the very beginnings of this multi-year, transformative project (2005-2008), CWA Local 7777 in Denver where I served as President (elected in 2008), leased a small office to Pro Taxi, a Denver Taxi Association group formed to address taxi drivers’ workplace issues. Over 90% of the drivers in the Association were immigrants from East Africa. As we learned more about what terrible conditions and treatment the drivers were experiencing, our union local wanted to assist these POC drivers with issues such as discrimination by taxi companies and airport structure limiting access and taking advantage of language and cultural barriers at every turn.
The drivers were working exhaustingly long hours and paid exorbitant amounts of money in leasing fees and fines, leaving them with little to live on. Most of the taxi companies were charging the drivers anywhere from $150 to over $200 per day to “lease” their vehicles and drive for the company. Imagine starting out every day in the hole a couple hundred dollars; the driver would have to work for several hours each day before actually seeing any wages.
Over the course of 24 months, we did our best to expose the wrongdoings by taxi companies and tried to gain improvements for drivers. We were met with strong opposition and responses like, “these people are independent contractors and you are NOT their representatives and have no authority or legal right to represent the drivers”. This tactic proved counterproductive, infuriating both the drivers and our Union!
The drivers’ goals were simple: to have the right to work towards a better life in America. They were more than willing to dedicate the extra effort needed to achieve a living wage and decent working conditions. CWA Local 7777 joined forces with the drivers to assist them in their sweat equity struggle to earn their fair share piece of the “American Dream”, owning their own business and experiencing a decent middleclass life for themselves and their families. Like any democracy practitioner, the drivers wanted to have a voice and a vote in their own working conditions!
CWA Local 7777 began to explore options and pathways to becoming the driver’s representative in a Unionized Taxi Co-Op. Unfortunately, local and statewide legal and regulatory rules would not allow any new taxi companies into the Denver market based on taxi business laws and regulations known as a Regulated Monopoly. After extensive research both drivers and the union concluded this law would have to change or our drivers could never break into the taxi market.
This is familiar terrain for unions and an area CWA 7777 knows well, joining the legislative battle for social justice and worker rights. We set out to change the law to allow more taxi companies into the Denver market, not an easy feat because existing taxi companies were not going to relinquish any of their existing market share without major struggle! Denver’s existing three taxi companies controlled the entire greater metropolitan regional market. The Union knew that we would have to overcome huge opposition to change current legislation.
The first item of business was to speak with legislators at the State Capitol and have drivers explain the terrible working conditions they were exposed to daily. We knew we would have to gain support from both Democrats and Republicans in order to move bipartisan legislation forward, a goal helped in no small part by the heart wrenching and compelling drivers’ testimony and anecdotes.
More progressive legislators related to the struggles and terrible treatment the drivers were exposed to. More conservative legislators related to the idea of less regulation and competition in a free market. We had to cover every angle in order to be successful in building consensus and forming a legislative majority that would pass our Bill. We drafted legislation and were successful in getting bi-partisan cosponsors. As soon as the existing taxi companies got wind of what we were trying to accomplish they launched a full-fledged attack against the idea of loosening requirements and allowing competition in the market. Taxi industry lobbyists visibly worked long hours to oppose us and billed lots of overtime!
CWA 7777, the Colorado AFL-CIO, other allies and most importantly the drivers themselves worked tirelessly, showing up every day, making appointments with legislators, testifying at hearings, and developing talking points and strategies. Finally, House Bill HB08-1277 was passed (in 2008) changing the requirements to apply for authority to operate as a Taxi company. The excitement of getting the Bill passed only lasted a short time….until we found out just how difficult the Regulatory process would be. There were hearings after hearings, meetings after meetings; the process was tiring and deflated our hopes more than once. Finally, in the summer of 2009, Union Taxi Co-op was granted authority to have 262 drivers on the roads in Denver.
Union Taxi leased a large portion of the lower level of CWA Local 7777’s building for their new business, dispatch operations from our common location. The Union maintained a good relationship with most of the drivers and the new business Board of Directors. The Union conducted the Board’s election, assisted in writing the Co-Op’s Bylaws and general representation clauses (together with the Board and Operations manager) at the airport, State Capitol and Colorado Public Utilities Commission. Eventually, Union Taxi purchased their own building and moved their operations closer to Denver International Airport.
As time passed, many of the original Union Taxi Co-Op owner/drivers were selling their “share” (spot) to new drivers and exiting the Co-Op. As they say, hindsight is 20-20 and as a union we failed to conduct ongoing education for the new Co-Op owner/drivers on the importance of being a Unionized Co-Op, not just a Co-Op, our collaboration origins, and the struggle to win collectively. Eventually the Union Taxi Board of directors and drivers voted to leave CWA Local 7777 and operate as non-union. This was so disappointing and forced us to take a look at what went wrong and what we could have done better.
What goes around comes around. After years of witnessing the life changing differences the Co-Op made in the daily lives of its worker-owners, more and more local taxi drivers wanted to replicate this business model and create another Denver-based Unionized Taxi Co-Op.
CWA Local 7777 started holding meetings with these non-represented drivers to sign them up first as union members this time around and then to discuss the strategy of how best to build the foundation for yet another Co-Op in this market segment. Interested drivers showed up in droves and in a matter of a couple months CWA Local 7777 had signed up more than 800 new members, many of them in a single weekend, who were interested in moving forward with their hopes and dreams of starting another Taxi Unionized Worker Co-Op in Denver.
Having gone through the full spectrum exercise of creating Bylaws, and navigating the legislative and regulatory process, the Union knew how, when, and where to connect the dots to get this done. Once we learned there had been a subsequent Bill passed some years earlier in Colorado basically closing the opportunity door for additional competition, off we went to the State Capitol again to address and correct this roadblock. We were once again successful in changing legislation and ultimately the passage of a new Bill. One of the keys to our legislative success was aligning language and vision from self-reliance and individual bootstrapping to the rising tide of inclusive civic solidarity and community uplift.
Denver’s second Unionized Taxi Co-Op, Green Taxi opened its doors in the Denver Metro area in 2016. A Collective Bargaining Agreement was negotiated between CWA Local 7777 and Green Taxi. Green Taxi utilized the same space Union Taxi had initially occupied at the CWA Local 7777 to build-out their operations.
With the entry of Uber, Lyft and other gig economy rideshare companies misclassifying drivers as independent (1099) contractors to avoid paying decent wages and benefits (Uber admitted as much in its 2019 IPO filing), the Taxi business nationwide has been hit hard. CWA fought hard to restrict the completely non-regulated entrance into the Denver area. We were successful in obtaining some restrictions, but ultimately the State allowed these companies denying the protections and benefits of formal employment to drivers to operate in Colorado.
As time went by, rideshare companies have taken more and more of the business taxi drivers once served. Experiencing such decline in business and revenue, Green Taxi moved their operations out of CWA Local 7777’s building and currently has less than 100 drivers. Then to make a bad situation worse, COVID-19 hit the country, social distancing to save lives from pandemic contagion reduced most forms of commercial transportation. CWA Local 7777 was not able to negotiate a successor agreement and to date Green Taxi worker owners are no longer members of our union.
This saga, like the country’s economy in most sectors, has many more innings to play where we can prevail in the campaign to offer workers decent family and community sustaining wages with benefits in an economy more equally benefitting all. CWA Local 7777 underpinned by its experiences building a voice, a vote, a collective bargaining agreement and an equity share for its worker owners has much to offer.
As more and more people started driving for UBER, LYFT, and other grifter-gig companies, unsurprisingly drivers once again started having work related issues. Presently, CWA Local 7777 has formed a newly created coalition known as Colorado Independent Drivers United building on lessons learned to date and a worker equity and workplace democracy vision. More to come as this group emerges!
Lisa M. Bolton currently serves as Vice President, Telecommunications & Technologies, for the Communications Workers of America.