More Independent Contractors Are Organizing. Meet Teamster Taxi Cabs

Taxis lined up by Union Station in Washington, DC. Photograph by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Washington D.C.’s taxi drivers are getting a union, kind of. Capitol city cabbies who belong to Washington D.C. Taxi Operators Association this week affiliated the group with Teamsters Local 922. Under the arrangement, the drivers’ new association will transfer $23 per driver in monthly dues to the Teamsters, which will help it negotiate with city regulators. More than 1,000 of the city’s 8,000 licensed hacks reportedly have joined the association, which uses the tagline “Teamster Taxi Cabs” at the top of its website.

The drivers, who own their cars, or lease them as independent contractors, are aligning themselves with the 1.4 million-member Teamsters at a time when independent contractors across industries are in the middle of regulatory maelstroms. As Jim Efstathiou Jr. reported earlier this month, states from California to New York are cracking down on companies that mislabel employees as contractors in a bid to save on payroll taxes and worker benefits. Employers often see it differently, arguing that contractor arrangements appeal to workers who prefer to set their own hours. While federal and state officials spar with businesses, it makes sense that independent workers would seek greater influence.

Teamsters spokesman Galen Munroe says the union doesn’t see the situation with the D.C. drivers as a case of worker misclassification. Then there’s the rise of startups like Uber, which has raised more than $300 million in venture capital, though Munroe doesn’t credit the newcomers for prompting drivers to affiliate with his group.

While Munroe prefers to focus on relatively small regulatory headaches such as credit card transaction costs, the affiliation would also help with bigger ticket issues. “There’s more power in numbers,” he says. “Any time you have folks who are independent contractors, it’s hard to speak with one voice.”

Taxi drivers aren’t new to labor unions. Before the industry structure shifted to the independent contractor model, drivers who worked as employees for cab companies were organized in many U.S. cities, says Catherine Ruckelshau, general counsel for the National Employment Law Project. Nor are hacks the only independent workers to organize to improve their bargaining positions. Some freelance writers and physicians are also moving in the direction of unionization.

Last year, Seattle cab drivers also affiliated with a Teamsters. Tracey Thompson, an executive at Teamsters Local 117, which represents more than 500 cabbies through an industry association, posits a grander regulatory battle than Munroe does. “Taxi operators are classified as independent contractors, but they are often treated like second-class employees,” Thompson wrote in a June op-ed that cited Uber and Lyft as threats to her members. That stance makes sense. In the last year, tech companies have waged high-pitched battles over how the taxi business gets regulated. As industry incumbents and richly-funded startups flex their muscles, it makes sense for contractors to seek out more powerful friends.