Anwar Zadran is used to not seeing his wife and four children. When he leaves for work, they are still asleep. Often when he gets home, they are already in bed. That’s because Zadran has to spend 10-16 hours a day driving a Berkeley cab in order to make enough money to support his family.
But things may soon get easier for Zadran. At the end of last month, the national office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Washington D.C. unanimously upheld a decision by the local NLRB office to allow cab drivers from five different East Bay companies to form a union. In a landmark case, almost 200 drivers will soon start negotiating a contract that will raise their wages, give them health benefits, and help them work a more regular schedule.
The five cab companies affected include Friendly Cab, Yellow Cab of the East Bay, California Cab, Greyline Cab and Metro Cab, all of which are administered by Friendly Cab. Stationed in Oakland, the cabs serve the greater Bay Area including Berkeley.
“It’s a struggle just to make it,” said Zadran, who suffers from an irregular heartbeat and confesses that cab driving expenses have kept him from taking a vacation in the past seven years. “But I didn’t have no choice. If I didn’t work my kids will be on the streets. The moment I heard [the drivers got a union] I was so happy.”
Soon after the decision by the NLRB, the East Bay drivers were able to verify that more that 80 percent of the group voted in favor of the union during an election held in 2002. The new union, which will soon institute collective bargaining with the five companies, is independent and not affiliated with any larger union.
The drivers also have a civil suit in an Alameda Superior Court asking for back pay for all the years they have worked under the current system.
“This will be a case cited for years to come,” said Don Jelinek, a former Berkeley City Council member and the attorney who the drivers originally came to for advice.
“There was a mountain of precedent that we had to overcome,” said Bob Bezemeck, the attorney who ended up representing the drivers before the NLRB. “Employers have so much power over employees under American labor law that for a group of poorly compensated employees to hold together and do this is a tremendous victory. They deserve all the credit.”
Representatives from Friendly Cab did not return calls concerning the union organizing drive.
Besides low pay, drivers said they had no job security, no health benefits, no vacation time, and no workman’s compensation. Instead, they said that the cab companies treated them like private contractors, responsible for their own well-being while still under the guise of the cab company.
Each week, local drivers were required to rent out a car for a fee as high as $900 dollars, according to Jelinek. Drivers said the owner of the cab company set different rental fees for different drivers. The drivers kept all the cab fare received from riders, but were responsible for their own expenses such as gas, airport permits, and bridge tolls. The company usually took care of repairs, but if the cab was in the shop during the middle of their lease, drivers still had to pay the rental fee.
According to Zadran, when a rock once hit his windshield, the company owner demanded that he pay the both the rental fee and the cost of the damages.
If the drivers got into an accident, the passengers were covered by the company insurance but not the driver.
At the same time, employees said they were required to follow a number of rules established by Friendly Cabs, including a ban on independent business. Drivers were not allowed to hand out business cards and develop independent relationships with riders, but were required to respond only to calls from a company dispatcher. In addition, drivers said they were sometimes forced to carry advertising on their cabs, but did not receive a share of the advertising revenue.
If drivers broke any of these rules the employer could terminate the lease.
On a good day, the drivers said they made $60-80 after 10 hours of work. On a bad day, they broke even.
Independent contractors are not normally allowed certain NLRB protections in organizing a union, but the drivers’ attorneys successfully argued that the tight regulations under which they worked made them employees in fact, if not in name. The local NLRB agreed, allowing the drivers to hold a union election last year. But the cab company appealed, keeping the workers from counting the votes until the appeal was heard by the National NLRB. That process took 15 months.
Almost all of the drivers are immigrants, primarily from Afghanistan, Sudan, Nigeria and India. Several are doctors, engineers, and professors who came to the United States but couldn’t find work anywhere else. Anwar, who left Afghanistan when Russia invaded, worked as a technician for two different computer companies until the dot-com bust. In Afghanistan he worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and in the government offices responsible for passports and scholarships.
“Its hard,” he said about driving a cab. “But it’s something you have to do, you don’t have much choice. Some people say you’re crazy that you’re still driving, but what can you do?”
“I used to think in America there was justice,” said Mohammed Zarif, another one of the drivers. “But I’ve learned that if you have money, you can change anything.”