Why America will never see the kind of Uber protests cab drivers are staging all over Europe today

Traffic came to a standstill in London on Wednesday as black cabbies staged a widespread strike against the Uber taxi-hailing app. (Casey Capachi/The Washington Post)

 

Across Europe today, cab drivers have been snarling traffic and blocking airports in protest of Uber, the tech startup whose popular transportation app -- used as an alternative to taxis -- has spread in four short years from San Francisco, to dozens of U.S. cities, to now 37 countries around the world. The protest includes a reported 30,000 cab and limo drivers, from London to Paris to Madrid, who are miffed by the same gripes as their American counterparts -- namely, that Uber is swiping their business without abiding by any of their rules.

The Post's WorldViews blog has a roundup of what some of the scenes in London look like. The city's famous black cabs have clogged Trafalgar Square. In Paris, cabbies have tried to choke off both airports. In Berlin and Milan, they've swarmed some of the cities' central plazas.


London black cab drivers take part in a protest against Uber on the Mall leading to Buckingham Palace in central London on June 11, 2014. (CARL COURTCARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images)

The protest is an impressively coordinated day of outrage organized not just across individual cities, but an entire continent. And it is precisely the kind of opposition we likely won't see in the U.S.

That's not to say that American cab drivers aren't angry, too (although some of them have been abandoning their leased cabs for UberX). Rather, they're just not this organized. For decades, American cab drivers have proven exceptionally difficult to unionize. In New York, the Teamsters, the United Mine Workers and the AFL-CIO have all tried. Today, cab drivers are trying again with a fledgling national union, pushed by a cab workers' alliance in New York.

The structure of the industry, though, has invariably gotten in the way, as Graham Hodges describes in his social history of the New York cab driver, "Taxi!". Unlike bus and train drivers, cab drivers are typically independent contractors who lease their cabs (or own their own business of one). That means they're more likely to be in competition with each other than in solidarity. Put a bunch of American cab drivers in a room, and they'll probably agree on common grievances -- a lack of health care, high lease rates, low pay. But once they get out on the street, they're essentially competing for the same fares.

The industry also tends to be full of people who think they're getting into the business temporarily, making long-term conditions or retirement benefits seemingly less urgent. And then there's the demographic challenge in America -- increasingly, the cab driver work force in U.S. cities is made up not of native-born Americans, but immigrants who speak many different languages.

In the absence of the kind of strong labor culture that exists throughout Europe, all of these obstacles have historically made cab drivers in the U.S. particularly resistant to organization, despite the fact that their working conditions would make them prime candidates for the kind of protections unions provide. All of this also means that American cab drivers aren't well positioned today to rally in any unified way against Uber (although more powerful interests in the industry are).

If you want to know what a more modest American cabbie protest against Uber looks like, this is it.

Emily Badger is a reporter for Wonkblog covering urban policy. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities.
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