Professional and college reporters training collaboratively for the future of Bay Area journalism. Bay News Rising is a project of the Pacific Media Workers Guild made possible by the labor and contributions of its members.
By Erasmo Martinez, Bay News Rising staff reporter —
As mayors from across the country quietly filed into Uber’s Market Street headquarters, protestors outside roared their dissatisfaction with the tech giant’s hotly debated business practices.
Uber ferried its distinguished visitors, in town for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, to its offices for the June 22 meet-and-greet. On the street, cab drivers taxied by, honking horns and blocking traffic.
An Uber spokesperson declined to comment, but taxi drivers said plenty about the company, which they say is driving them out of business with multiple unfair advantages.
“We pay a lot of fees and they pay zero,” said 19-year taxi driver Tommy Abib. “We have to pay for the taxi and the license. You cannot compete with that.”
Police blocked off 11th Street between Market and Mission to escort the mayors into the offices. About 40 police officers on bikes and on foot watched close to 30 demonstrators as they circled, chanting, “If cabbies get no justice, we don’t get no peace!”
Many protestors belonged to the San Francisco Taxi Workers Alliance, a union made up entirely of contract drivers recognized by the nationwide AFL-CIO union, spokesperson Kim Waldron said.
The San Francisco taxi industry has struggled as Uber’s presence grows and customers use its app more. Taxi companies operate under rules established by the city and the California Public Utilities Commission.
Uber drivers work as independent contractors, and until recently ride sharing companies were only lightly regulated, advantages that allowed it and direct competitors like Lift to save money and keep fares relatively low.
A report released by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency in September 2014 detailed the taxi industry’s decline in ridership. Cab rides were topping 1,400 per month at the March 2012 benchmark. By July of 2014, the number had plummeted to roughly 500.
Waldron said taxi drivers’ pay has plunged along with ridership – a drop of 40 percent. As the pay decreases, the drivers work more hours to make up the difference.
Christian Lewis is a 10-year cab driver and union member living in the Tenderloin. Instead of a regular 9-hour shift, he needs to work 12 to stay even.
“You kind of got to hustle a lot harder out there,” he said. “You have the cab for a limited set of time. Now you got to stay out every second you have the cab to try and make it happen to pay your bills.”
Rauch Graffis, a retired taxi driver and trainer, said she wants “justice” for both taxi and Uber workers.
“The way you get justice is if you got a bunch of people doing the same job you want them having the same regulations,” said Graffis.
Tara Spalty used to drive for Lyft, a similar service. She quit after realizing she was not fully insured when driving. The risk to her car and personal safety spurred her interest in becoming a taxi driver. She is now commercially insured.
“I hope that if these guys are going to stick around that they can regulate it,” she said. “I had a federal live scan finger print and background check when I was hired as a taxi driver. They didn’t do anything like that when I was hired for Lyft.”
Nazeer Sadiq, a 21-year taxi driver and union member, bellowed into a megaphone.
“How come taxis are under these rules?” he said about the extensive training courses and background checks he was required to pass. “Why not Uber? Bring the same level playing field for everybody and we’ll see how they will survive.”
The company’s business practices continue to be a topic of scrutiny. When a driver killed a 6-year-old girl on New Year’s Eve 2013, Uber denied any responsibility since the driver was not using the app and was an independent contractor. Similar incidents, from rapes to assaults by drivers, have continued unabated worldwide.
Aaron Peskin, a former supervisor now running for office again, said he’s concerned about independent contractors and the companies hiring them. Uber is part of a trend – an ominous one, he said.
“It’s about the wholesale exploitation of tens of thousands of individuals who should have jobs with benefits,” he said. “Instead this new economy is based on exploiting people who don’t end up with health care and retirement plans.”