By Jim Miller
Sarah Saez is best known locally for her work on the heroic United Taxi Workers of San Diego (UTWSD) campaign. As labor leader Richard Barrera noted after their big win in 2014:
The victory by UTWSD comes five years after drivers, improperly classified as independent contractors and without NLRB recognition, came together and organized a strike to protest their wages, benefits, and working conditions. Despite constant harassment, retaliation, and intimidation by permit holders and dispatch companies over the last five years, and despite obstruction by public agencies, these workers stuck together, fought back against injustice, and prevailed. It reminds and teaches all of us that a union is not formed by formal government recognition, it is formed by workers standing together to fight for justice and a brighter future for their families.
And the Taxi Workers’ victory was about more than just their own struggle in that, as I observed at the time, it “provided a good example of precisely how [a] new kind of workers’ movement can succeed.”
Saez, the Program Director for UTWSD, put it this way:
It’s about reaching out with the intention of listening and learning from workers and our community and giving them the support they need to inspire and lead movements . . . Trusting their vision, creating genuine partnerships with the community and nontraditional workers and fighting for issues that are going to fundamentally change people’s lives is how we build power, deepen solidarity, and win.
After the Taxi Workers’ big victory, the struggle has persisted with their ongoing efforts to form a taxi drivers’ collective, build power, and give a voice to their community.
Saez continues her work with the UTWSD and is deeply involved in the community in a host of other ways. Most recently, she has decided to run for City Council in District 9 where she lives and works in City Heights.
What follows is the second installment of my interview with Saez. If you missed the first part of the interview, you can read it here. The last installment runs next week.
You are the Program Director for the United Taxi Workers of San Diego. What have you done in that position and how has that work shaped the way you see San Diego, your District in particular, and politics in our city?
My work has fundamentally shaped the way I see San Diego and my district in many different ways.
As Policy and Program Director for United Taxi Workers of San Diego (UTWSD) I oversee our overall operations and organizational strategic planning in regard to policy and organizing. Over the past almost six years I have helped community leaders organize and create effective campaigns by researching and tracking issues, trends, and policies that they have identified as affecting low-income workers and their families and analyzing their policy implications. I then help write various documents including policy issue briefs, fact sheets, regulatory comments and letters and educate and update our members, staff and elected officials about their relevance so we can collectively make change. I also help coordinate with key stakeholders and strategic partners at the local, state and national level in order to help build our political power. My goal is to ensure that our community leaders are involved in all aspects of this work both internally and externally so that eventually the organization can be fully worker led.
My work has fundamentally shaped the way I see San Diego and my district in many different ways. First, if you want to know who holds power you don’t need to look much further than the taxi industry which has been referred to as “a key indicator of the true nature of local politics” in San Diego. Since working with UTWSD I have seen firsthand how money and influence plays out when it comes to public policy. Major cab companies, for example, have been putting money down on politics for decades. After San Diego’s District Attorney Ed Miller made a point to crack down in the 1980’s, various politicians including the mayor at the time and councilmembers ended up being indicted for conspiracy and bribery for taking money from Yellowcab to increase the meter rate. Even after this, major cab companies continue to remain a political influence and, as a result, for the past three decades, the San Diego taxi industry has changed very little. That is until hundreds of mostly African immigrant taxi drivers from City Heights decided to fight back.
On December 18th 2009 over 200 taxi drivers went on strike to protest abusive practices and high lease rates stemming from the underground sale of taxi permits. The strike led to the formation of UTWSD. The neighborhood a majority of San Diego taxi drivers live in is City Heights, which is very different from the downtown clients they serve. City Heights is home to one of the densest populations in San Diego County with over 15,000 residents per square mile compared to San Diego with only just over 4,000 residents per square mile. Even with 3 times the population density, City Heights residents have become disenfranchised with their lack of political influence.
Even with 3 times the population density (of San Diego), City Heights residents have become disenfranchised with their lack of political influence.
To many, City Heights isn’t a tourist attraction and historically hasn’t been treated as an equal part of our city. But neighborhoods like City Heights are in fact the lifeblood of San Diego and its tourism industry. Our residents get you home safe when you’ve had too much too drink on New Years Eve, they drive the grandmother whose kids don’t come to visit to the grocery store, they clean your hotels and work hard throughout the night to keep our city clean and ready for the day’s influx of business people, tourists and commuters. And all this only to make on average $23,172 less a year compared to the rest of San Diego. It’s my goal to make sure that the key stakeholders living in our community are being heard. Workers deserve to be the ones making the decisions about their workplace, neighborhood and city but there are many barriers to that within city government.
You won the endorsement of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council. Why is that endorsement important to you? What is the role of workers’ rights and economic justice in your campaign?
The San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council endorsement is very important to me. The Labor Council includes thousands of working families that have come together to democratically achieve common goals. Although many workers are still shut out of rights under the National Labor Relations Act, like farmworkers, domestic workers, taxi workers and more, the labor movement has also helped to create associations and worker centers so that they can still come together to strategize and fight to have a voice on the job.
Another major reason the Labor Council endorsement is important is because of the direct correlation that unions have on lowering poverty rates, which I’ve dedicated my career, education and life to. A recent study by Harvard University shows that children who are born into low-income households have a better chance of getting out of poverty if they live in an area with higher union density. And internationally when we compare other wealthy countries who have significantly lower poverty rates than the United States, one major indicator is the percentage of workers who are covered by a union contract. This isn’t the only indicator but it’s a significant one. Other indicators include paid parental leave, childcare provisions and universal healthcare, all of which unions have helped to advance.
Unions have always been a force for change. This is why I’m so proud to be a part of the labor movement through the United Taxi Workers and as a Labor Council Delegate. I’ve been on the front lines in solidarity with various unions from janitors to teachers, nurses and our Building Trades who fight for local jobs and help train workers for middle-class careers.
…a central part of our platform focuses on economic justice which is the foundation for so many of our society’s problems that stem from poverty…
In District 9, jobs and affordability have been some of the biggest concerns for residents but little is being done to address it. City Heights, for example, has been called the richest poor neighborhood because while hundreds of millions of dollars have been injected into the neighborhood, by both nonprofits and the city, people are still living in poverty. This is because the number of low-wage jobs in District 9 are endless from retail to fast food, while a great number of issues that low-income residents face could be solved by having a union and a living wage. Unfortunately, many service agencies don’t talk to their constituents about it. In fact, affordable housing residents are often organized to lobby on behalf of more affordable housing but not increased wages. In addition, as I walk the district, I’ve seen a pattern of affordable housing complexes not making a concerted effort to register their residents to vote. People living in poverty continue to not be empowered to make real change. We are trying to address this through our campaign, and if elected, I will continue to advocate for this.
I have personally seen time and time again the power of workers coming together to collectively fight for better wages and the impact that it has on local communities. This is why a central part of our platform focuses on economic justice which is the foundation for so many of our society’s problems that stem from poverty including the fact that the United States has the world’s largest prison population and the continued impact of environmental racism.
Your campaign website features the slogan “Making San Diego Affordable, Safe, and Green for Everyone.” What does that mean for you?
When we created our platform it was based on the most immediate needs that we’ve been hearing time and time again from the community. Affordable, Safe and Green is primarily a social justice platform centered around economic, racial and environmental justice but it is also an overall community empowerment platform by calling for popular democracy at City Hall.
We’re calling for Community Benefit Agreements for all city projects that provide fair pay and benefits and a requirement to hire local workers.
Affordable means a living wage that enables hard-working San Diegans to make ends meet. It also means supporting the right of all workers to organize a union in order to collectively bargain for fair wages, benefits, and working conditions. We’re calling for Community Benefit Agreements for all city projects that provide fair pay and benefits and a requirement to hire local workers. With regard to housing, the city should explore rent stabilization like they have done in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York to stop outrageous rent increases. Finally, we need to strictly enforce basic housing standards to ensure that housing is safe and complies with city codes. We have many community members that I have spoken to who are living in deplorable conditions that need to be addressed.
Safe means timely infrastructure repairs including street lights, safe street crossings, accessible sidewalks, roads, and bike lanes. As I mentioned in my previous interview, there is a stark difference between infrastructure throughout the district. I met a woman in City Heights, for example, who fell and broke her wrist on a cracked sidewalk on a street with no light. Every neighborhood matters and residents should receive what they deserve to increase their quality of life. I want to stress again that all these projects should be done by local workers. Our communities desperately need work and we should not be outsourcing it.
Safe also means making San Diego safe for everyone including being safe from racial discrimination.
Safe also means making San Diego safe for everyone including being safe from racial discrimination. This is a serious concern and I continue to hear about it in our communities. Dealing with it will also help to build trust with law enforcement. We will address this by unapologetically saying that Black Lives Matter and putting forward policy recommendations including the need to diversify our police force, reduce and eventually eliminate the disproportionate amount of African-Americans who are pulled over, arrested, incarcerated and killed while unarmed.
This is a difficult conversation but we have to continue to point to the data and make change. I have great respect for the challenging job our police officers perform, made all the harder by city leaders discontinuing community-oriented policing, which enabled officers to get to know neighborhood problems and address them proactively. I believe we can build trust through transparency by establishing a community review board on police practices and restoring funding for community policing and community centers to strengthen the bonds in our neighborhoods.
Green means fully implementing the Climate Action Plan, a strong blueprint to prevent the worst effects of climate change. This includes creating good green jobs, ensuring San Diego is a leader in green development and construction, increasing access to mass transit, for example, by subsidizing transit passes for youth and working-class residents, improving water conservation by funding improvements so communities can save and store more water and encouraging community farming, making it easier for residents to grow their own food.
Lastly, building popular democracy means setting up a district office in the community, hosting regular town hall meetings, implementing participatory budgeting, empowering Town Councils and pushing to get money out of politics. The greatest source of knowledge and solutions are from the community themselves. As an organizer, I will be bringing all these voices to City Hall with me.
If elected it is my goal to remove the barriers that our communities have that make it difficult for many residents of D 9 to meaningfully engage civically about the many decisions that impact their lives.