by Joel Harden
CUPE Local 4600 Chief Steward and delegate to the Ottawa & District Labour Council
Last Friday my cell phone rang as I fed our kids breakfast. An Ottawa airport taxi activist was on the other line, among the many I’ve met during their labour dispute with Coventry Connections which has now lasted over three months.
“Joel”, he said, “forget about the solidarity demo we announced for 10am today. That was a diversion.”
“I’m calling you from the dispatch offices of Coventry Connections. We’re rallying outside the entrances — get here as soon as possible.”
Well, that was the end of breakfast. I grabbed our rental van, our union crew at Carleton University, and sped to the scene.
What I saw was inspiring. Over 200 activists were there, including UNIFOR members from all over Ontario and Quebec. Cab drivers were elated, chanting slogans and beating drums.
This was part of a planned “day of action” for airport cabbies and their families. The day before, the cabbies got a head start by defying a City of Ottawa injunction, blocking a major intersection outside my workplace on Bronson Street. Traffic was snarled city-wide as a result.
Early the next morning, out-of-town UNIFOR activists entered the offices of Coventry Connections, and asked dispatch workers to leave (who are organized, as it happens, by CUPE 4266).
Most left, but a few attempted to stop the UNIFOR occupation (some blocked the doors, while others sat down in protest). In doing so, one dispatcher and a supervisor had minor injuries.
Equipment was temporarily disabled and dispatch service was down for three hours. After a brief standoff, UNIFOR activists opted to leave the building, joining the rally outside.
The rally had intended to shift to City Hall, where UNIFOR intended to call out Ottawa’s Mayor Jim Watson. That plan was scrapped after revelations about what happened during the occupation.
Now a debate rages about whether UNIFOR’s occupation was justified, and what it means for the outcome of Ottawa’s taxi lockout. Coventry, the Mayor of Ottawa, and media pundits are demanding that UNIFOR be held accountable for its actions. And after the buses of UNIFOR activists left town, airport cabbies now feel more vulnerable than ever.
There is even anger in union circles about last Friday’s events. The following night, as I attended a popular “Rock For Public Services” concert, a CUPE activist insisted I denounce UNIFOR for its actions. “There is no fucking excuse”, he yelled, “for attacking fellow union members.” “The shit you are writing on Facebook and Twitter is pure garbage.”
But this, as I told the brother, misses the big picture. What happened last Friday was entirely predictable given the raw stakes of Ottawa’s airport taxi lockout. The indifference of Ottawa’s political elite, and ineffectiveness of our city’s labour movement, have set the stage for what happened.
At its core, Ottawa’s taxi lockout is corporate greed. It’s about executives in San Francisco and Ottawa bleeding cabbies while politicians discuss “mediation”. But most importantly, it’s about cabbies standing strong, and not receiving enough by way of support.
That’s why Ottawa’s taxi lockout offers a cautionary tale for unions. To avoid getting “Ubered”, in the taxi industry and elsewhere, we must think seriously about how to fight back. And as that debate continues, Ottawa’s airport cabbies have much to teach the rest of us.
The Uber Challenge
As many know, Uber — the online “ride sharing service” now worth $55 billion — has made a dramatic impact on the taxi industry. According to cabbies I know, Uber has absorbed a third of Ottawa’s taxi market. It has done so without paying tax, or conforming to any regulations.
As this has happened, a mad scramble has ensued to recover what’s been lost. At the bargaining table, this led to Coventry proposing a $4.50 per taxi ride increase, amounting to $400,000 in extra revenue for the company per year. It also adds over a $1 million per year to the Ottawa Airport Authority.
But for taxi drivers, it’s a $1000 fee hike per month, representing a huge bite into already modest incomes. There was no conceivable reason why airport cabbies would accept this proposal, a fact Hanif Patni (Coventry’s CEO) has acknowledged publicly.
At the same time, Patni has hired other cabbies (in companies Coventry owns or controls) to maintain taxi business at the airport. To make matters worse, these drivers, like the airport cabbies, are members of same union (UNIFOR 1688) — creating an internal turf war that offers Coventry no incentive to settle.
This turf war represents the Uber challenge for unions. Downtown taxi drivers, thanks to Uber, are suffering huge cuts to their own incomes. To feed their families, they take the work of fellow union members at the Ottawa Airport.
As this happens, Coventry claims “airport cabbies had a sweet deal”, and that “exclusive access to the airport is over”. Meanwhile, downtown cabbies already have exclusive access to the Ottawa’s train station, bus station, and many major downtown hotels. This imbalance frustrates airport drivers trying to scrape by on strike pay and DIY taxi fares.
This is the classic employer strategy of divide and rule, now intensified by Uber’s role in the taxi industry. The only way unions can face this challenge is by standing together.
To their immense credit, airport cabbies have done this. Despite intense pressures, only 8 of their 200 members have left the union’s ranks.
For the last three months, to supplement their strike pay, they have created a text messaging dispatch for taxi fares. Under Ontario labour law, this is legal during a strike given the cabbies’ status as independent contractors.
Airport drivers have also built a detailed website (www.yowtaxi.ca) to share their heartfelt stories, and document the consequences of this lockout. This web presence has been mirrored through active interventions in Facebook and Twitter, and regular demos in downtown Ottawa.
What’s been missing, as I wrote two months ago on Rankandfile.ca, are opportunities for Ottawa’s labour movement to support this struggle. Last Friday’s blockade of Coventry Connections was a largely UNIFOR affair, with a smattering of other unions closely attuned to this struggle.
To get a fair resolution to this dispute, much broader action is needed.
Another absent player is the City of Ottawa who must play a more active role in this dispute. So far, the City (who regulates the taxi industry) has demanded drivers shoulder Coventry’s massive fee hike. Meanwhile, many airport customers have expense budgets for taxi rides, and should be asked to share the load.
But so far, Mayor Jim Watson has only said cabbies are “hurting themselves” with disruptive protests. He has asked for provincial mediators to help, and asked “both sides to get back to the table”.
But as union members fight each other, Coventry’s executives have no interest in mediation. They are content to wait this out, insist on massive fee hikes, and hope cabbies give in.
That is unlikely to happen. As cabbies tell me, many of them come from societies where political repression is a fact of life. They don’t expect that treatment in Canada, but they are prepared to fight back. It’s time for Ottawa’s labour movement to support them in doing so.