Hannah Johnston is a PhD student in the Department of Geography at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, working under the supervision of Dr. Beverley Mullings and Dr. John Holmes. Hannah is researching collective organizing strategies used by workers who are exempt from National Labor Relations Act coverage in the United States and are therefore unable to form traditional unions.
Hi Hannah! Thank you for chatting with me today. I understand that you recently participated in the 23rd General Conference of the International Federation of Workers’ Education Associations. Can you tell me about your presentation there?
My dissertation examines the collective organizing strategies of taxi drivers. I have had one foot in the labour movement for a long time and one foot in academia and I had initially selected this topic before Uber had really transformed the industry so it was an interesting time to get into that research because I’ve seen different policy frameworks unfold and different legal challenges in a number of different regions. My particular case study was on the taxi industry in New York City, because that is the largest market in North America and it is also one of the five most lucrative markets for Uber globally, so it was an interesting case study for those reasons, but also because workers are classified as independent contractors.
Now that I am approaching the end of my dissertation, I am starting to develop research programs that will go beyond my PhD – both looking at the Canadian context and looking at city governments that have either chosen to subsidize some of the independent contractor models to provide things like last mile home, or extensions of their transportation networks. I went to both present my dissertation work and with a sneak preview of where I hope to be going in the future.
How are taxi drivers organized?
Another reason I chose to study New York City was because of a particular group there called the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA). They were formed in 1998 and were born out a community association that was organizing against anti-Asian violence. Most taxi drivers in New York City are of South Asian origin and drivers have been organizing in this sector for a very long time. NYTWA represents 19,000 workers in the city – including app-based and traditional yellow taxi cab drivers. Their demonstration of associational power, or bringing workers together, has been central to their ability to improve working conditions for drivers. Because people are still independent contractors, legally they can’t engage in collective bargaining or negotiate a contract, and need different mechanisms to enforce their rights compared, say, to a grievance mechanism that you might find in a trade union agreement.
I was really interested in what strategies non-traditional workers have in a case where you can’t form a union. For example, in the case of taxi drivers, what can you do? For the past couple decades NYTWA has relied really heavily on administrative rule-making processes and participating in that. There’s an administrative body that oversees the taxi industry in New York and they’ve been very active in instituting rules like maximum lease prices.
They’ve also made a very deliberate choice to create broad-based solidarity. If you look at other regions like Nairobi or Paris, drivers in traditional passenger transport sectors were very aggressive to Uber drivers because they saw them as a threat; in some of these regions traditional drivers sought to protect their jobs and the standards that they had. In New York City, because there was no cap on Uber, the Taxi Workers Alliance realized that their working conditions were only going to be as good as the lowest common denominator. If conditions were bad for Uber drivers, it would be a race to the bottom and it would erode conditions for drivers throughout the city. For this reason the Taxi Workers Alliance tried to improve conditions for all drivers.
Just last year they were successful in implementing a vehicle cap so there are no new app-based vehicles that can be registered in the city. This will help limit the oversupply of drivers. They were also able to create a sector-wide wage, which is really uncommon in piece-rate work and in the United States generally, which has a long history of moving from sectoral bargaining to a more fragmented labour landscape. Having this sector-wide range was a really remarkable improvement and actually increased average wages from $11.50/hour to around $17/hour.
There are a couple of other organizations that try to advocate for driver rights in the city but the New York Taxi Workers Alliance is the oldest, the biggest, and the one that I’m most excited about.
Taxi drivers are inherently mobile with their work. How does this mobility affect unionizing if workers don’t have specific locations where they can gather and meet?
Workplace isolation is a result of the fact that they are a very mobile workforce and that they are individually mobile. It’s not one workforce that is moving together but an atomized workforce moving throughout the city. There are a lot of different strategies that have been used to overcome this isolation. One is that people tend to cluster around certain areas, for example, airports are really common. A lot of the interviews that I did took place in airport parking lots because it’s a place where drivers go and often have to wait for passengers. For them waiting time is already time when they aren’t making money, and organizing drivers (and doing research!) without negatively impacting their earning potential is an important consideration.
Apps like Uber create new challenges because drivers frequently work in unmarked cars. With regulated cabs in cities like New York or Toronto, it’s obvious who is a driver and who isn’t. They’re all painted the same way, or they have a company logo; however, it can be more difficult to identify Uber drivers. While the app can show you where drivers are, this information can also be deceiving. Alex Rosenblat, for example, wrote a book called “Uberland,” and one of the things she discovered was the use of “phantom cabs” which make it look like there are more Uber drivers in close proximity to the consumer to encourage passengers to call a car because you think it will arrive right away. The app and the algorithm can also be modified to do the opposite for drivers to create an illusion of undersupply which may make drivers more hopeful about their earnings prospects. In sum, there’s not a lot of data transparency. It’s really a black box in terms of what type of information is shared, but despite that there are still places where people congregate, particularly in a city which is characterized by really high traffic patterns and really limited parking opportunities. Places like fast food parking lots or gas stations are the sort of places where people will come together.
There’s also a lot of organizing that happens now via social media and that has some regional variation – so in China drivers and couriers use We Chat, in Europe and Africa it’s really common to use What’s App, and I’m a member of lots of driver groups that use Facebook. Because people work by themselves, they will also do things like participate in conference calls and they’ll be on the phone with one another all night, just talking about where the customers are, or whether there is traffic or an accident somewhere. People are constantly communicating.
When it comes to collective organizing, it’s a matter of tapping into those networks. I’ve also met a lot of drivers who had parents who were involved in anti-colonial movements and so some of them come from families with a history of activism. When we think about migration, sometimes those cultures can also come with people, and I can think of a couple of people who were really involved in the Taxi Worker Alliance for example who were really involved in anti-colonial struggles or whose family members were, which is an interesting feature also.
To learn more about the New York Worker Taxi Alliance, administrative rulemaking, and forms of ‘gig’ worker organizing, check out Hannah’s recent publications:
Johnston, H. 2019. Labour geographies of the platform economy: Understanding collective organizing strategies in the context of digitally mediated work. International Labour Review.
Johnston, H. 2017. Workplace Gains beyond the Wagner Act: The New York Taxi Workers Alliance and Participation in Administrative Rulemaking. Labour Studies, 43(2): 141-165.