The National Taxi Workers Alliance made history when its leader, Bhairavi Desai, accepted the organization’s charter as a member of the AFL-CIO during an event today on “The Future of Work.” Highlighting the changing shape of the union movement, the event opened with remarks by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. Desai then took part in a panel discussion which included representatives of other labor organizations that represent workers who are either traditionally excluded from coverage by labor law, or for whom the changing shape of the economy means the protections they have on paper mean little.
Joining Desai were Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance; Justin Molito, director of organizing for the Writers Guild of America, East; and Bill Cruice, founding executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals, NNU. The panel was rounded out by economist David Weil, a professor at Boston University, who discussed how changing business models affected the exercise of employee rights. Before the program began, dozens of exuberant taxi workers, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with ”Justice, Rights, Respect, Dignity” crowded around Solis, Trumka and Desai. Trumka said the taxi workers are:
an inspiring example of how working people are organizing even in the face of employment relations that have eroded all of our rights.
We spoke to one of those drivers, Lucky Abeysekra, a member of the Alliance’s organizing committee, who traveled with his union brothers and sisters from New York to mark the occasion of the charter. Abeysekra said that, as a taxi driver, he worked 72 hours a week—”more time than I get to spend with my family,” he said.
The Taxi Workers Alliance has its roots in New York City, where, according to Trumka, the taxi drivers’ bargaining rights were wiped out “literally overnight” under a rule change by the Reagan administration. Desai explained that under the new system, drivers no longer received a standard commission based on a split with the taxi owners of the day’s fares, and drivers were made to pay the cost of fuel. The struggle of the taxi workers is but one example of how the reshaping of the economy by those who hold power of workers’ lives is impacting the working conditions of people across all sectors. Trumka explained:
Increasingly we’re seeing companies adopt business models that free them from employment obligations to their employees, and especially…union representation and collective bargaining.
During the panel discussion, leaders of the various labor groups represented talked of their methods for holding their groups together and engaging the community. Poo shared how the alliance’s organizers initially went to parks and playgrounds to collect the stories of child care workers and caregivers to the elderly. She also told of a monthly gathering that takes place “in a church basement in Brooklyn” where workers participate in a “story circle,” where they tell the story of the worklives. This keeps them connected to one another, she said, in an industry where workers are isolated by the very nature of their work. NNU’s Cruice discussed how workers at a hospital in Warren, Penn., stopped the outsourcing of lab work by showing up at the local Friday night football games and getting community members to sign a petition.
Molito, whose union represents, among others, television writers, spoke of how the explosion of non-fiction television — popularly known as reality TV shows — has been used as a vehicle for the exploitation of writers and other creative talent. Because they’re not writing teleplays, they’re not covered by the agreements that other TV writers enjoy. “They’re working 12-, 14-, 16-hour days,” Molito said, “with no benefits.” The non-fiction television workers of the Writers Guild, East, Molito said, look to the taxi workers alliance for inspiration.
Gazing at the audience filled with taxi workers, Solis told them they were “a beautiful sight.” She applauded the strides made by the Taxi Workers Alliance and predicted that in her home state of California, Los Angeles taxi workers would soon follow suit with their own organizing efforts, based on the example set by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance that formed the root of the national organization. She said:
You have a right to organize and, by golly, you should be allowed to do that.
Solis saw the taxi workers as setting an example for workers in other sectors. “I want to give a shout out to the domestic workers,” she said, noting the great vulnerability they endure as they go into the homes of their employers, often to care for children and the elderly, “giving comfort to our loved ones.”
The rights of domestic workers are often difficult to defend because they are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act.
Solis laid out some of the efforts the Labor Department is undertaking at her direction to protect the rights of unrepresented workers, noting a stepped-up program of investigations of employees who are misclassified in employer records. In 12 cities, the secretary said, Labor Department investigators have joined forces with the Internal Revenue Service to ensure that workers are properly classified when their work amounts to full-time employment, and that employers pay the appropriate taxes for those employees.
Desai said companies have had the upper hand for so long that they’re surprised when workers fight back. But she noted:
When they’ve robbed you of your dignity, what have you got to lose?