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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Taxi drivers strike against techno-tracking!

Congratulations to the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) today for going out on strike against the installation of GPS in their vehicles, despite opposition from the city and even rival taxi organizations, some of whom have been actively intervening against the NYTWA with leafletting and other tactics, including deploying "dozens of volunteers to taxi stands at the city's airports and the main rail terminal asking drivers not to join the stoppage.". Workers cite several reasons for their strike today, which is taking place in the middle of fashion week and the US Open:
The Taxi Workers Alliance opposes the installation of high-tech touch-screen video systems that will allow passengers to watch television, make credit-card payments and — using a global-positioning device that tracks the cab — follow their ride on an electronic map.

Some drivers have said that the global-positioning devices and the automated trip recording system are an invasion of privacy, and that the use of credit cards would diminish drivers’ incomes, given the card transaction fees.

They also say they will take in less money because the system requires drivers to log on before each fare, and they object to the television noise and the heat from the monitors.
"If they're going to tell us that our voices should be silent, well then, we're going to make our engines silent," said NYTWA President, Bhairavi Desai, a history and women's studies graduate from Rutgers University who has worked hard to unite Pakistani and Indian drivers, culminating until now most notably in the one day strike of 1998.

Her declaration reminds me of a similar action by Somali taxi drivers here in Phoenix a few years ago, where drivers blocked the street in front of city hall and abandoned their cabs, keys locked safely inside. I'll never forget how great it felt to be there. What a wonderful sight to behold. Desai has declared the work stoppage "a resounding success". In an insightful comparison, she has called the GPS system "electronic anklets," a clear reference to the tracking systems increasingly used on felons and other criminals.

But, in the age of the unending War on Terror, there was a racial and religious element to the city's plan to track drivers, who are predominantly foreign and very often Muslim. Citing one flier being distributed, the Times reported:
“This is where deep racial, ethnic and religious prejudices and biases come into play,” it read. “DNA samples are obtained, scrutinised and archived. Personal and family histories are scoured for evidence of ethnic and religious fervor. Clearly, surveillance technology can be a death sentence once you are in its crosshairs.” Syed Hossain, a Bangladeshi driver, said the main problem was that cabbies feared losing money. “Number one problem is, many drivers do not report their earnings to the Internal Revenue Service,” he said. “Number two is that [the authorities] are going to be behind you all the time.”
And, of course, the drivers will have to pay for the privilege. The NYTWA estimates that the new technology will cost its members, predominantly contract drivers and thus the most precarious of the taxi fleet, an additional $1000 dollars a year and could cause them to lose fares.


He said that drivers were worried that satellite tracking technology would lead to automatic tickets if they were speeding and fines if they exceeded the 12-hour maximum shift.

The city and officials from the New York State Federation of Taxi Drivers (NYSFTD), both of which oppose the strike, cite convenience and even higher tips as reasons that drivers ought to accept this technological assault on their autonomy and power. Speaking for the NYSFTD, it's president, Fernando Mateo, denounced what he called the "radicals" of the NYTWA and took the side of the city and garage owners (the latter hopes to charge higher fees to contractor drivers and reign in its workforce).
But Mr. Mateo said that credit card capability would enable yellow-cab drivers “to keep cash customers but add on the corporate business that they lost” to livery cars that handle corporate accounts. He added that the larger credit-card fares and bigger tips “will more than compensate for the cost of the card transaction fee.”
To which, one striking driver who already has the system installed replied, "If the credit card system does not work, then we don't get paid. I have lost whole fares." At the same time, Mateo revealed his own difficult position by hoping that the city didn't call on these higher end drivers to compete with his scabs.

The city has placed police at taxi stops so as to protect workers advocating against the strike (i.e., to support the strike breakers), as well as beefing up public transportation. It will be a tough fight, as the subway strike showed a couple years ago. One article summed it up this way:
Professor Hodges said he believed that a large number of drivers would join the walkout. “I think what you’re going to see tomorrow is that the owner-drivers will turn out to work: the Lomto people and the people who own their own medallions,” he said, referring to the League of Mutual Taxi Owners, an association of individual owner-drivers. He spoke admiringly of Bhairavi Desai, the longtime activist who runs the Taxi Workers Alliance, saying: “I think she’s going to be able to put a substantial dent in turnout. She has real credibility.”

Professor Hodges, saying that he believed many drivers had a legitimate grievance, added: “This is a conditions issue: Under what conditions do I want to work? Do I want to have the thing behind me which is tracking me and which can cause me a lot of grief if it breaks down?”

But Professor Hodges also said that public attitudes toward cabdrivers may have hardened since the years of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s administration, when City Hall took a particularly tough stance toward drivers. Most of the drivers are immigrants from Asia, Africa and the Middle East; South Asians make up the most sizable area of origin.

“One thing I’m worried about is how sympathetic New Yorkers will be,” Professor Hodges said. “There is a more conservative population within Manhattan now. Class boundaries have widened. And New York is not quite the union town it was in the past.”
Certainly, the workers are facing an uphill battle, not least of which with their fellow workers, who are fractured along ethnic and other lines. As the professor points out, the industry in New York has changed a lot over the last 20 years. Precarity has been imposed on drivers, with the explosion of contract driving and the concomitant reduction in wages and benefits. The contract drivers increasingly suffer the bosses' externalization of the costs of driving like gas, insurance, leases and various garage fees.

From a technology perspective, this battle has several facets to it. Strategically, defending the workers' freedom from being tracked is vital both now and for the future. Right now, refusing the new technology maintains the worker's autonomy on the job. But, when the next strike comes, it also makes it harder for the boss to defend against a strike. You can be certain that, just like the automated checkout lanes that grocery bosses have embraced so enthusiastically following the strikes in California a few years back, the new GPS systems will certainly be used against striking workers to more efficiently utilize scab labor to undermine any future labor actions. That alone makes this fight vitally important. On a side note, refusing the GPS technology (and the credit card) also protects to some extent the privacy of riders, which is vital to a free society.

Beyond that, the credit card technology is without doubt an attack on the worker's control of her wage. While the billionaire mayor of New York may assure workers that their tips will go up with the new tech, what we can surely expect is that their fares will be more regulated. And that will limit the power of workers to determine their own pay when it comes time to reckon with the garage bosses. There's nothing wrong with a little dishonesty when it comes time to pay the boss his pound of flesh. As with the computerized cashout systems that more and more servers have to contend with in restaurants these days, this new system will limit a driver's ability to pocket cash and hand out freebies. And as the flier above pointed out, it will also increase the power of the government to regulate and tax drivers' incomes. You can see why the boss and the government want it so much.

Also, as several workers have pointed out in articles, the technology is unreliable. Unfortunately, this is a bad argument to make, because it only propels the capitalists' engineers to make the technology more efficient. And, as mentioned above, the credit card tech undermines the freedom of riders as well.

In support of the taxi drivers strike, I have linked below three previous articles I wrote on GPS and workers struggles, the last of which references another workers struggle in New York that recently resisted the imposition of the boss' will as imposed through technology. I sympathize greatly with the taxi drivers' struggle, being in essentially the same industry myself. The fight against technology is the class war!

(1) GPS and the attack on worker autonomy and unregulated space


(2) The anatomy of a typical article on GPS

(3) One union wakes up to the threat of technology at work

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