Hannah Johnston joined the On the Move Partnership in June 2014 as an affiliated doctoral fellow. Working under the supervision of Dr. Beverley Mullings and Dr. John Holmes, she is pursuing a PhD in Geography at Queen’s University. Her doctoral research examines the collective organizing strategies used by workers who are exempt from National Labor Relations Act coverage in the United States, and who are therefore unable to form traditional unions. Focusing on the organizing efforts of taxi drivers in New York City, Hannah’s research concerns the spatial and legal challenges that affect the New York Taxi Workers Alliance’s ability to build a collective voice for workers.
Q: Your research aims to explore the collective organization efforts of taxi drivers within New York City. So far, what have you found to be some of the main challenges to these efforts?
H: I selected the topic for my dissertation around five years ago. Since then, transportation networking companies like Uber and Lyft have completely altered the landscape of the industry; the regulations and legal frameworks governing these companies change almost daily. This has meant that workers are tasked with developing new organizing strategies on an ongoing basis – and as a researcher, it has been a challenge for me to keep up too.
Q: How well do you think these findings would translate to the Canadian taxi industry? In what ways would the challenges be similar, and in what ways might they differ?
H: Taxi drivers in many Canadian cities are classified as independent contractors, and they face high lease prices and have little control of the terms and conditions of their work. These are the same issues that drivers are facing throughout the United States. As such, much of my research – both challenges and opportunities relating to collective action – can be easily translated to the Canadian context.
Q: Before undertaking your current research, your previous work actually focused on the Pennsylvania mushroom industry – you made a big shift! What inspired you to turn your attention to urban taxi drivers? Do you notice any themes that are common to your findings across both industries?
H: Fundamentally, I am interested in how workers can organize to improve their working conditions. Having spent many years researching and working as a labor organizer in the agricultural sector, I developed a particular interest in how organization happens when workers are legally prohibited from participating in traditional unions. In the United States, agricultural workers and independent contractors are both exempted from important legislation that affords people the right to unionize. Though the legal classification of mushroom workers in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania isn’t wholly representative of agricultural workers elsewhere, it was this legal loophole that caused me to develop an interest in the taxi industry.
Q: Have you conducted any fieldwork with taxi drivers in New York City? If so, what would you say has been your most memorable experience in the field? If not, what other methods have you used to carry out your research?
H: I have spent nearly a year conducting fieldwork with taxi drivers in New York City. Much of my fieldwork has followed the work of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, an amazing organization representing over 19,000 drivers with a staff of hard-working, creative, and passionate organizers. Between dozens of visits to the LaGuardia Airport taxi line, attending meetings at the Taxi and Limousine Commission, intimate interviews with over 75 people, and protests in front of garages, the Governor Cuomo’s office, and on the steps of City Hall, I have had many memorable experiences.
Q: I know that there are a number of changes currently taking place within the taxi industry, particularly in relation to the advent of services such as Uber and Lyft. What kinds of questions do you think should be pursued in future research?
H: Much of the research currently available has actually been produced by these companies like Uber, so there is a real need for independent evaluation of the effects of these companies on public infrastructure, transportation markets, and the lives of people working in the industry.
Q: Has your overall perspective on employment-related geographical mobility (E-RGM) changed or grown over the course of your involvement in this research? If so, in what ways?
H: On the Move has been a valuable network with which to be affiliated, as it has introduced me to a plethora of new scholars writing about mobilities. This literature has been particularly helpful as I think through the best way to discuss changes and regulation in the taxi industry.