Open letter to Uber’s CEO from SF taxis

Editor's note: The following is an open letter from DeSoto Cab driver Beth Powder to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. Powder is one of the San Francisco Taxi Workers Alliance organizers who pushed for the unanimous vote this week for taxi drivers to unionize.

Dear Uber CEO Travis Kalanick,

There has been a lot of talk about San Francisco taxi cartels and strong unions that want to stifle your company Uber's innovation.

I have a few things to say about that.

First of all, there is no taxi cartel to speak of. In business, there are going to be coalitions. You probably belong to several of them. When people in an industry get together to talk about strategizing to build a better business, it isn't a cartel. I'm sure that someone somewhere at some time would have loved to form a taxi cartel in the city of San Francisco. That never happened.

Managers meet as they should to discuss the current state of the industry. Cab drivers meet to discuss the same. And we all meet with advisers and government officials to discuss the future of our business when we decide how to move forward in what are now trying times for us.

As far as attempting to stifle your innovation is concerned, we have no interest in such a thing. You initially named your business Uber Taxi and you were asked to change it because you were not a taxi company. You dispatched black cars using a smartphone app.

You made attempts to get your app into cabs across the country and were essentially turned down because you wanted too high a cut from the fares, such that it was not financially in the interests of the drivers to use Uber as a means to reach more passengers. We are a highly regulated industry and have very strict policies across the country which prevent us from gouging our customers.

We also have been developing several apps of our own that do the same thing Uber does. We use Taxi Magic (now called Curb) and Flywheel.

We as an industry want to innovate to meet the demands of a changing market. Maybe we were a little shy at first, but we have been around for quite a while and we service a very diverse population with needs that are equally as diverse. We need to be sure that we operate legally, ethically, and that we remain affordable to our longstanding customer base. We want to do this the right way.

San Francisco cab drivers do not have a union. At least not until Wednesday night when a unanimous vote was taken to organize. We're about to join the AFL-CIO in what is the first true union to absorb independent contractors given the new changing structure of the American workforce. It took us a long time to get here after leaving the Teamsters decades ago to become individual business entities.

I would invite Uber and Lyft drivers to consider organizing much in the same way, especially considering that they do not receive the workers' compensation, and full insurance and legal protections that cab companies offer to those of us who operate licensed San Francisco cabs. This union will offer us protections we did not already have and a voice that will hopefully be noted in the coming dialogue about taxis and on-demand transportation.

I would like to remind you that you do not own a ridesharing company and that the California Public Utilities Commission asked you and Lyft to halt referencing yourselves as such.

I would also like to remind you that you are not sharing, despite being a leader in what is spuriously referred to as a sharing economy. You do not share.

You are attempting to profit and have yet to show even your shareholders that your business model can make enough money to justify staying in business, let alone receiving such large injections of capital to stay afloat.

I am also curious as to how you can call your drivers independent contractors when you not only train them directly (if you do that at all), but you also direct many of them as to which hours to work and what neighborhoods to pick up passengers in if they want to receive a pay guarantee.

For example, you pay many people $5,000 to drive for you for their first month. However, you require that they drive a full-time weekly shift (that often has to meet or exceed 40 hours) and you direct drivers to work during peak times.

My understanding is that this connotes an employer-to-employee relationship and that paying any of these people as independent contractors is considered tax fraud in California.

It should be noted that I am not a lawyer and I may be missing some facts. So please, if you can find the time, illuminate us as to how you are not misclassifying employees as contractors because many of us out here in the public sphere are curious to know what the secrets of your business are.

I am eager to see how this plays out in the long run. Maybe I'll see you in Sacramento.

Beth Powder is a driver and dispatcher at DeSoto Cab who runs a political action committee for San Francisco taxis.

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