By Sarah Saez
For the past three years San Diego’s community of taxi drivers have become my family.
We’ve been through a lot together through ups and downs of winning and losing policy battles, having to say goodbye to drivers we’ve lost to tragedies on the job mixed with moments of pure joy when drivers are able to come together to raise their collective voices for change.
As independent contractors taxi drivers are as marginalized as they come with no protections from labor law but virtually no control over the way they’re allowed to run their “business” of driving a cab.
Another thing people don’t realize about San Diego taxi drivers is what a vibrant part of our community they are. Their high level of civic engagement has made them increasingly aware of the systems and the people that oppress them.
They’ve been connecting with other drivers and community members at taxi stands, restaurants, churches and mosques to talk to each other about how things might be different if they only had a voice in the decisions that affect their lives.
On August 28th at a press conference held by Councilmember Marti Emerald and City Attorney Jan Goldsmith that talk started becoming a reality for the almost two thousand taxi lease drivers in the City of San Diego.
To get to this point United Taxi Workers of San Diego (UTWSD), has been leading the charge in consistently advocating for taxi reform since 2009. Founded by taxi drivers who went on strike fighting for economic justice, UTWSD leaders learned how to navigate the system by starting at the bottom level first.
After they tried negotiating directly with taxi permit holders and the Metropolitan Transit System staff and board with little to no success, they went to the City of San Diego who owns the permits for help. They also reached out to the public and the labor movement for support.
Their persistence is what has gotten them to the point of radically shifting the dynamics in the taxi industry that have worked to benefit only a minority of people while the 90% of taxi lease drivers who run the industry suffer under restrictive regulations and a lack of upward mobility.
While we’ve had setbacks, UTWSD has never given up! At the July Public Safety Committee UTWSD mobilized hundreds of drivers to talk about reform including vehicle age limits, uniform leases and lifting the cap on the number of city issued taxicab permits to create a worker led taxi industry where drivers can realize economic freedom for themselves and their families.
The committee chaired by former taxi driver Councilmember Marti Emerald requested legal support from the City Attorney who determined that the City has the legal right to lift the artificially imposed cap on permits keeping drivers in poverty.
A majority of taxi drivers in San Diego are immigrants (94%), many of them coming here as African refugees (71%) who settled in the low-income neighborhood of City Heights, but drivers come from all over the world including Russian, Mexico, Palestine, Pakistan, Iraq, Turkey and many other places including right here in the United States. These reforms have the potential to uplift an entire community of workers just trying to realize “The American Dream”.
Although hundreds of drivers turn out for City and MTS meetings, they need to know they are not alone and the community supports all their years of hard work and sacrifice.
Please help us spread the word about the September 18th Public Safety Meeting taking place at 1pm at 202 C Street.
It’s the first of three rounds of meetings to help drivers dreams become a reality. Next up will be the City Council and, finally, MTS.
This is not going to be an easy fight. Thankfully, we have cities like Milwaukee, where the cap on taxi permits was recently lifted. And there are other cites pointing the way forward to put an end to the underground economy.
These drivers are my family and they’re a part of our beautiful and diverse community. Come stand with us as we fight for this historic worker led anti-poverty initiative in the City of San Diego!
Sarah Saez is an organizer with the United Taxi Workers of San Diego