mike koozmin/the s.f. examinerSan Francisco cabbies have voted to unionize.

Union affiliation could help SF taxi industry – but possibly only in Sacramento

In labor-friendly San Francisco, taking an Uber ride home is now an anti-worker affront.

The City’s taxi industry still faces an uphill climb against mobile app-hailed ride services like Uber and Lyft, which are taking business and drivers away from the traditional taxi industry.

But by taking the first steps to affiliate themselves with organized labor, San Francisco taxi drivers should be able to enjoy increased political clout in City Hall and in Sacramento, where taxi-friendly legislation could emerge next year, according to labor analysts.

And if it ever came down to standing arm-in-arm at the picket line, taxi drivers should be able to count on a few thousand friends from other labor organizations, union officials told The San Francisco Examiner on Friday.

Traditional labor unions are groups of employees who band together in order to bargain collectively for a better contract or improved working conditions.

That will not work with cabdrivers – for one, they’re not employees but rather independent contractors who affiliate themselves with a particular cab company. What this means is that state and federal labor laws over sick days and work hours will not apply, said John Logan, a professor of labor relations at San Francisco State University. And the traditional woes of a cabdriver – long hours, no health benefits or sick days, and no pension – may not be alleviated anytime soon.

But rather than immediately improved working conditions, cabdrivers are banding together for working conditions period.

And unionized cabdrivers will not quite take action the same way that BART workers did last year, when they went on strike twice before coming to terms with the agency on a new contract.

The City is unlikely to see an all-out taxi strike, Logan said, which would possibly have the deleterious effect of giving ride services like Uber an even bigger share of the market.

The best way cabdrivers can hope for survival now that they are in the fold of organized labor is by leaning on labor-friendly politicians, who could introduced legislation to level the playing field between cabs and ride services, such as the push from Assemblywoman Susan A. Bonilla, D-Concord, to tighten insurance regulations for ride services.

“Unions have that kind of influence that drivers would not have by themselves,” Logan said. “There’s good reason to think they’ll benefit from that in Sacramento and in [San Francisco] City Hall.”

Taxi companies are regulated locally, yet their existential threat is from ride services that are regulated by a state agency, the California Public Utilities Commission. That means help for taxis is most likely to come from the state Legislature in Sacramento.

But even there, taxi drivers will encounter familiar opposition: Uber, Lyft, and their army of well-paid lobbyists, who mounted a furious campaign against Bonilla’s proposal this week.

Of late, labor has been more welcoming to “non-traditional” employees like domestic care workers and day laborers.

Cabdrivers have also been welcomed into the union fold in New York City; Portland, Ore.; and Orange County, said Tim Paulson, executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council.

It’s not certain what benefits taxi drivers could hope for in the short term. The next legislative session in Sacramento begins in January.

Meanwhile, for anyone identifying with the plight of the worker, there’s only one way to get home that’s not Muni or BART.

“I take taxis only,” Paulson said.

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