Portland cabbies stage wildcat strike at Broadway Cab

By DON McINTOSH, Staff Reporter

Sept. 6, 2001: Taxi drivers demonstrate outside Broadway Cab headquarters in Portland.

In a series of job actions that began Sept. 4, over 100 taxi drivers at Broadway Cab are opposing a money grab by the company that they say they won’t stand for.

At a Sept. 4 meeting built by word-of-mouth alone, about 70 drivers met in Alberta Park and drew up a list of demands, signed an organizational list, and assessed themselves $20 each for dues. They then drove en masse to the company office, 1734 NW 15th Ave., Portland, where they presented their demands to regional manager Raye Miles.

Two days later, they returned 100-strong for a response, only to find that Miles was out. Frustrated, the Broadway drivers and several from other companies formed a column of taxis dozens of blocks long and drove downtown, lined up outside City Hall, and blocked traffic on Southwest Fourth Avenue for over an hour while a delegation pleaded unsuccessfully for Commissioner Jim Francesconi and other city officials to intercede.

The job action amounted to a de facto strike, with 100 drivers out for three hours, and only a handful picking up fares.

While they have numerous grievances, the provocation that pushed them over the edge was a proposal by Broadway Cab management to increase the “kitty,” the amount drivers must pay the company each week for dispatch service, insurance, and office staff to process credit cards. The kitty at Broadway is currently from $340 to $470 a week, depending on whether they own or lease their cars, and whether they have a company-installed computer.

To make up for increased fuel and other costs, on Aug. 22 the City of Portland raised the maximum rate taxis may charge customers from $1.50 to $1.80 per mile, and from $20 to $30 an hour for “waiting time.”

Seeing the influx of cash in drivers hands, Broadway then proposed to increase the kitty by $70 to $100 a week. Drivers pay for gas and maintenance on the vehicles, so they feel they’ve already borne the increased costs that justified the city’s rate hike. They regard the company’s proposal as a blatant money grab.

To oppose it, they’re forming an organization, tentatively named the Portland Metro Drivers Association, open to drivers at all local cab companies. Drivers say they want a union, but details of U.S. labor law may end up preventing their organization from being anything more than an association. That’s because unlike a group of Teamster-represented drivers at Radio Cab, the Broadway drivers are classed as “independent contractors” by the company.

Brad Harrison, a Teamsters Local 305 business representative who represents non-owning drivers at Radio Cab, scoffs at the idea that Broadway drivers are independent contractors. “If they’re really independent contractors, then if you’ve got 100 drivers, you would expect to see 100 sets of negotiations and 100 different contracts.”

Instead Broadway, owned by Denver-based Yellow Transportation, sets the terms. Drivers can be suspended or terminated at any time for any reason. They have no health insurance, not even workers’ compensation. The company doesn’t tell them which or how many hours to work, but with the obligation to pay the company $400 a week no matter what, it can take half a week of work before they make any money at all.

Cynthia Attar, a taxi driver for eight years, says she averages less than $10 an hour, working 12 hours a day, six days a week.

For reasons of public safety, the City of Portland forbids drivers to work longer than 14 hours at a stretch, but Broadway drivers say they sometimes work 16 to 18 hours in a day.

Harrison said he’s been approached by Broadway drivers seeking to unionize, but based on legal advice from the union’s lawyer, he believes that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) would rule that the drivers are ineligible to form a union, based on a 20-year old court case that led to a dramatic decline in the number of unionized taxi drivers. Harrison is aware of no other cab company besides Radio that has unionized drivers, though support staff frequently belong to the Teamsters. Local 305 represents dispatchers, clerical and gas attendants at Radio, as well as the dispatchers at Broadway.

NLRB agent Jeff Jacobs said the agency uses Department of Labor criteria to judge whether a group of workers are employees. A cursory look at the criteria suggests the Broadway drivers would be judged independent contractors.

That would leave them without the legal protections that normally accrue to employees, including the requirement that the employer bargain if they select a union, said attorney Greg Hartman of Bennett, Hartman, Morris & Kaplan. “But nothing prevents them from forming an association and trying to press their interests. Then it becomes a test of who has greater economic power.”

The company has refused to meet with the drivers’ attorney, but agreed to meet with driver representatives, even though it hasn’t agreed to negotiate.

The taxi drivers may not have the legal right to form a union, but they act like one, with meetings, members, dues, protests, media releases, and a strike. And, above all, solidarity.

“If we can stop Broadway, the other companies will think twice about raising rates,” Attar said.

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