Hundreds rallied at the Thompson Center Wednesday afternoon to show their support for cab drivers in Chicago who are demanding better wages and working conditions. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) has been working with cab drivers in Chicago to help them unionize, which they say would give the drivers a better chance at raising their wages, handling city regulations and competing with newer ride sharing companies like Uber and Lyft.
According to a study from AFSCME released last month, wages for at least half of Chicago’s taxicab drivers fall far short of the state’s minimum wage of $8.25 an hour, with some earning just over $5.00 an hour. Some 10 percent of drivers actually lose money.
“We make Chicago run, but that is not enough for City Hall,” Maxwell Akinton, a Chicago cab driver, told the massive crowd on the plaza. “They treat us like an ATM machine and pull money out of us every day. We have no way to fight back.”
According to AFSME’s study, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2012 taxicab reforms, which raised lease rates for drivers, cost the average cabbie more than $7,500. Meanwhile, cab fares have been frozen since 2005. The protest's organizers say cab drivers have little input or say into the rules and regulations the city makes for them.
Roberta Lynch, deputy director of AFSCME Council 31 said, “As essential as taxi drivers are to keeping our city on the move and making Chicago the city that works, they have been completely marginalized from the political process.”
Yaw Mintah, who’s driven a cab in Chicago for 9 years, said that AFSCME’s support will help drivers have a voice.
“We’ve always been itching to join a union, but we didn’t know how,” said Mintah. “In previous years, the city wouldn’t allow us to form a union, but now with the support from AFSCME, I think we have a voice that can stand for taxi drivers and push us forward so the city can hear our voice.”
Cab drivers in Chicago mainly operate as independent contractors, yet the city regulates the industry. The inability for drivers to raise fares coupled with massive overhead costs and increases in fuel prices, along with competition from ride sharing services, which have less regulations tied to them, has caused financial woes.
“When I bought my Medallion it was $370,000,” said cab driver Michael Sefah, who has driven a taxi for 15 years. “I have to pay the city $18,500. We pay so much money to the city. We don’t know why the city doesn’t want to protect us.”
“Gas has gone up over the last 10 years by 48 percent, but cab drivers have not been allowed to raise their prices during that entire time,” said Lynch. “How would you feel if you had not had a raise for 10 years? Independent contractors, no. Wage slaves, maybe.”
In May, the Chicago City Council approved an ordinance that levies some regulations on ride sharing drivers. The ordinance will require those drivers to pass a drug test and background check. It also requires drivers who work more than 20 hours a week to get a chauffeur’s license. Cab drivers already have these and other regulations in place, and say that the current regulations for ride sharing compaies aren’t enough.
“You can go to Uber and tell them ‘Hey, I want to work.’ They put a device in your car and you start working,” said Mintah. “You can make a U-turn if you wanted to and a cop would think it’s a private car. I don’t have the same. A cab could be four blocks away, I could do something wrong and all they have to do is write my cab number and mail the ticket to me.”
Akinton, who called the amount of tickets cab drivers get “outrageous,” said there’s little they can do about fines levied against them.
“Where we go to 400 West Superior where we have our hearings, we are told ‘if you fight it, you’ll end up paying more.’ We literally cannot defend ourselves,” he said.
Drivers and organizers from AFSCME are hoping that with better, more organized representation, the city will hear their concerns.
“If the city says we’re the ambassadors of the city and we have to treat everyone fairly, then the city has to respect us too,” said Sefah.