Phoenix cab drivers: “We’re 21st century slaves”

An article by a member of the Phoenix IWW about the conditions of taxi drivers in that city.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on March 16, 2014

Imagine yourself as an American slave in the year 1806. After a 17-hour work day, you feel exhausted and hopelessly depressed. Unfortunately, you’ll only get about five hours of sleep before enduring another grueling day of punishment and undignified servitude. This sounds like an accurate description of slavery, right? Now, here’s the shocking part: This scenario is very much alive in America today. Today, these workers are called not slaves, but cab drivers.

For the past few months, the members of our humble branch in Phoenix, Ariz. have been speaking with local cab drivers regarding their working conditions. Each one of them has shared a similarly gutwrenching story. We have spoken with several drivers throughout the valley, but the most disturbing grievances have come from those who work at Sky Harbor Airport. Recently, I sat down with one of them to conduct an interview. I was originally going to keep his identity anonymous to protect his job but he personally gave me permission to use his real name. Hence, I will now introduce you to the world of Kris.

It was a chilly Wednesday night when I met up with him at the airport. I waited patiently in a room specifically designated for on-call cab drivers. The place resembled some kind of torture chamber straight out of a prison camp. The entire room is made of concrete. There are no pictures or decorations anywhere, and two tiny TVs hang in front of the south wall. Many of the drivers play ping-pong to pass the time. I sat down on one of the benches and looked around. It seemed rather peculiar that everyone around me had migrated from an impoverished or war-torn country.

As I sat there waiting, I sparked up a conversation with a gentleman from India. I told him that I was from a workers’ union and that I was there to help. Immediately, his eyes lit up with delight. He gave me his phone number and said he would love to participate. Suddenly, my interviewee showed up. It was crowded, so we decided to go outside. As we walked away, the Indian man thanked me and said, “God bless you.”

We sat down on a bench right outside while the cold wind blew in our faces. The black beanie on Kris’s head almost completely concealed his brown hair. He is a middle-aged man with a wife and three kids. I decided to begin the interview with some personal questions about his life. He spoke with a thick accent and many of his sentences were in broken English. Originally from communist Bulgaria, he came here 15 years ago to live out the American dream. For the past four years, he has been working as a cab driver for the Yellow Cab company. At first, the job sounded promising: You make good money, and you get to create your own schedule. However, Kris’s optimism soon turned into a nightmare.

You rent the car from the company, so you are considered an independent contractor. Ideally, you are your own boss and you make the rules; at least, it appears so. The problem is that the lease rates are way too high. Kris claims to pay $854, which must be paid, in advance, for the entire week. If you don’t pay it by each Tuesday at noon, you are charged a $25 late fee.

There are several hundred drivers working at the airport, and new drivers continue to be hired, which makes business very competitive. On an average day, a driver only picks up about 10 customers. So, for the majority of the day, you are working to pay for your lease. In order to make any money for yourself, you have to work a minimum of 14 to 15 hours a day, and sometimes up to 17 hours. Taking a vacation or a day off is out of the question since you have to pay the lease in advance. Kris said, “You prepay for the whole week. So, if you decide to take a day off, then that comes from your pocket.” Like many other drivers, he only takes one day off a week, although some drivers work seven days per week.

According to Kris and several other drivers we spoke with, the airport contract dictates that about $42 of each driver’s daily earnings goes directly to the airport. Their agreement also includes a point system for the drivers. Consequently, if drivers do something the airport and the cab companies don’t like, they will get points added to their record. If enough points are accumulated, they get summoned to a hearing where they will receive a punishment. Generally, the points are given for petty things. For example, Kris received 10 points for supposedly being “loud and boisterous” in response to an occasion during which he told a customer about his poor working conditions. After 20 points, Kris was suspended for five days.

Strangely enough, almost every driver we’ve talked to has been to one of these hearings. If this isn’t bizarre enough, the contract manager of the city, a man by the name of Louis Matamoros, is the judge during the hearings. He and other city workers are constantly watching the drivers with cameras and harassing them with threats of suspension. The person in charge of this operation is a man named Hossein Joe Dibazar, the owner of Yellow Cab. Whatever he says, goes. As a result of all this monitoring, the drivers are left feeling subdued and too frightened to speak their minds about any negative experiences on the job. Kris says, “You ask many drivers, and pretty much everybody is telling you the same. We’re slaves! [We’re] 21st century slaves!”

As a result of long hours, lack of sleep, constant harassment and unethical supervision, Kris has become a nervous wreck. He is severely depressed and is now on antidepressants. He rarely has time to see his wife and three children. In his words, he “basically feels like an uncle to his kids” instead of a father. This condition is shared by many of the drivers we’ve spoken with.

This is essentially the same capitalist technique that gigantic corporations use all the time. Companies like General Motors (GM) send jobs overseas so they can pay foreigners a measly salary in order to boost their own profits. However, you can’t send the transportation business overseas. Instead, the owners hire refugees and raise the lease rates. Meanwhile, they pay off the airport to help keep the workers quiet and, ultimately, everyone makes some extra cash. You may ask yourself, “Why don’t these drivers just quit?” Some actually do, but many have no choice because the economy is bad and they don’t have the time to look for a new job. Some drivers are used to this type of mistreatment; many of them come from countries where these conditions are completely normal. This is all part of the exploitation: Find a group of people who are already vulnerable, and use them to your advantage.

About nine out of 10 of the drivers we have spoken to say they are interested in forming a union. Unfortunately, many of them are frightened of losing their jobs and seem reluctant at times. We held an “Introduction to the IWW” class a couple months ago and met our goal of getting a few to attend. So, our task now is to motivate these drivers to take the lead in this campaign. Since the drivers are considered independent contractors, they are not covered under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Therefore, our only option is to use the IWW’s practice of solidarity unionism.

While I was finishing this article, Kris informed me that he had been suspended for three months. At first, I was concerned that union activity might have had something to do with it. However, this was not the case; once again Kris was accused of being “loud and boisterous.” I immediately made plans to meet up with him that weekend to get the full story.

It was a warm Saturday afternoon when another branch member and I met Kris and his family at a park. That was the day I realized that Kris is the kind of guy that believes in standing up for himself and refuses to put up with injustice. Consequently, this is what led to his suspension. Apparently, speaking ill of a corrupt industry one too many times labels you a “troublemaker.” Matamoros summoned him for another review, but this time, he was accompanied by “Joe” Dibazar and four other officials. As a result of this hearing, Kris was suspended for three months. A few days later, I met up with Kris again for a photo shoot. He brought a letter from Louis Matamoros, which stated that Kris is permanently suspended and is no longer allowed to work at the airport.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (June 2012)