mike koozmin/s.f. examiner file photoSan Francisco cabbies passed the threshold of 550 dues-paying members to officially become a member of the National Taxi Workers Alliance. It comes at a time when city taxi drivers face competition from Uber

SF cabdrivers officially join union, take aim at Uber, Lyft, Sidecar

The San Francisco Taxi Workers Alliance has become in only several months time an official affiliate of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations — faster than organizing drivers in any other city.

A group of San Francisco cabdrivers in mid-August voted to unionize for the first time in decades. Three weeks ago, the alliance passed the 550 paid members requirement and the affiliation ceremony by the National Taxi Workers Alliance took place Monday, enabling members to access union resources when the taxi industry most needs them.

“The unique thing about the San Francisco alliance is it's the organization that has become the affiliate the quickest,” said Biju Mathew, a secretary of the national alliance, which formed in 2012 and within two years gained affiliates in New York, Philadelphia, Montgomery County in Maryland and Austin, Texas.

The official affiliation in San Francisco comes as taxi drivers face increased competition from transportation network companies, the name given by regulator the California Public Utilities Commission to app-based ride services like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar.

“We were in a time of crisis before and now we're at a breaking point,” said Beth Powder, an organizer and board member of the San Francisco alliance as well as a DeSoto Cab Co. driver and dispatcher.

The breaking point, according to Powder, occurred last month when Sidecar, Lyft and Uber in that order were given permission to pick up and drop off at San Francisco International Airport, which was previously illegal. That is at the top of the alliance's list of issues to tackle, she said, and official union affiliation could help with solidarity from airport employees.

“For union members at the airport to sit idly by and allow Lyft and Uber to operate is a betrayal against their union brothers and sisters,” Powder said. “We've been working with them for decades, so for them to allow this to happen just goes against everything that being a union member stands for.”

The roughly 250 alliance members who attended the affiliation ceremony generally agreed that drivers have no choice but to respond to the airport's decision to allow ride services to operate and are working on a course of action to take.

At the urging of the union, the AFL-CIO has begun working on a study zeroing in on how much cab drivers' wages have dropped due to competition from the ride services. Drivers have regularly reported a 30 to 50 percent income reduction for the past year, said Ross Hyman, a researcher for AFL-CIO.

“The basic story is that regulators have a moral authority to ensure that the taxi drivers are able to make a livable wage,” he said.

After the airport issue, the union is prioritizing a campaign to persuade the CPUC to change the wording in laws so ride services are regulated the same way cabs are.

“They do the same thing cabs do — hotels, the airport now and street hails,” said Ashwani Aeri, 50, a union founding member and Yellow Cab driver.

Lower on the list is arranging benefits packages for drivers. The union aims to have 1,500 dues-paying members by the end of the year.

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