Driven to Despair: The Plight of San Diego’s Taxi Drivers and How We Can Help Them in Their Fight for Economic Justice

by on August 5, 2013 · 1 comment

in Civil Rights, Culture, Economy, Labor, San Diego

Credit: CPI

By Jim Miller

Last week President Obama sought to turn the nation’s attention toward the fact that the income gap is fraying the U.S. social fabric.

In an interview with the New York Times he noted that “the idea is to promote those things in service of the lives of ordinary Americans getting better” and told reporters that he keeps a framed program from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in his office to remind him that there was a “massive economic component to that” as well as a civil rights focus.

Sadly, however, while Obama discussed the need to move away from the austerity policies of the Republicans and how fiscal policy might be used to help American workers he didn’t even mention the notion that we could empower workers themselves in their fight for a better life.

Indeed, he hasn’t really done much in this regard for his entire presidency, but perhaps we might see a pivot in this direction in the coming weeks. Surely there’s plenty of work to be done on this front.

In that same edition of the Times Steven Greenhouse writes about the wave of one-day strikes by low wage workers who have had enough of watching top salaries climb as pay at the bottom flattens as employers put “an invisible ceiling on their wages.” Indeed if this “new normal” continues, we can be sure to see more remarkable activism from fast food workers, Walmart employees, and others who are tired of getting the short end of the stick.

While San Diego remains fixated on the Filner scandal, many important issues are receiving little or no attention. Last week’s big step forward on the prevailing wage issue was a ray of light in the July gloom that has set in over San Diego, a real victory for those ordinary Americans that President Obama is concerned about.

By passing the prevailing wage ordinance, the City Council moved toward raising rather than continuing to lower the floor for San Diego’s workers. They should be praised rather than questioned for doing this. So good for the Democrats on the Council for standing by workers. The pressure was on to reject all policies associated with Filner, but you resisted it and did the right thing. But there is so much more to be done.

Another way our local leaders could help narrow the income gap and improve the lives of hard working people is to address the plight of San Diego’s taxi drivers. This week, I interviewed Sarah Saez with the United Taxi Workers Campaign. Like many immigrant and low-wage workers around the country, San Diego’s taxi drivers have organized and are seeking to better their working conditions and standard of living. Their struggle is one of the most compelling social justice campaigns in San Diego.

If a majority of the City Council members stand with them, they CAN support these hard-working San Diegans and do justice regardless of the maelstrom of controversy surrounding the mayor. The question is whether they will have the moral courage and political will to do so or not.

What is the taxi driver’s campaign all about?

Safecab-Logo-Website-TallThe heart of the problem in the taxi industry has to do with a system of regulations that specifically denies the standardization of fundamental business practices like written receipts for lease payments, basic protections from retaliation, and a minimum wage for taxi drivers. Not only are the working conditions of taxi drivers unconscionable but the current system puts public safety at risk. Therefore United Taxi Workers calls on the City of San Diego to explore viable alternatives—many of which have been implemented in other major U.S. cities.

What are the central issues and what is the aim of this struggle? Specifically, what do you need the city to do?

The central issues of the campaign are the poor working conditions of taxi lease drivers and the risks to public safety brought on by the hands-off governance of the Metropolitan Transit System (MTS).

Although the City of San Diego owns the taxi permits they contract the regulation of the industry to the MTS, which has rejected any significant changes to the industry brought forward by over three years of the United Taxi Workers’ relentless advocacy. Based on their often-undocumented lease arrangements with taxi permit holders, drivers are considered independent contractors and are therefore are not afforded minimum wage protections, unemployment benefits, workers’ compensation or the right to collectively bargain.

When trying to renew their contract with the City of San Diego for another five years MTS proposed to decrease their regulatory control by stating in contractual language that they do not wish to regulate working hours, earnings of drivers, or allegations of retaliation among other essential policy decisions that address the very real issues of drivers and the public (MTS contract language).

MTSLogoMTS went a step further by also proposing that all the City of San Diego Council members on the MTS board be barred from voting if the City or any of its officers request a change to these restrictions.

However, written into MTS’s proposed contract renewal was also the ability for the City to institute their own measures to better regulate the San Diego taxi industry.

Many cities have successful city-run regulatory agencies while also improving the quality of taxi services, working conditions for drivers, and creating revenue-generating opportunities for the City. In fact, the five largest taxi industries located within the United States (Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Houston) are regulated by city-run agencies unlike San Diego’s current relationship with MTS.

Therefore the United Taxi Workers call on the City of San Diego to take over administration to ensure an equitable and transparent city-run taxi commission.

How has the ongoing Filner scandal affected this?

palm-trees-TAXIUnfortunately, a week after meeting with drivers to discuss solutions for an equitable taxi industry, the scandal broke and left drivers wondering if taxi reform would be lost amongst all the uncertainty.

The plight of the lease drivers became a passion for Mayor Filner after a September visit to the UTWSD office on his campaign trail. The drivers’ stories of safety and labor issues, of harassment and disrespect resonated with him, and protecting the drivers and our vital immigrant and refugee communities became a top priority of his pre-and post-election platform.

Mayor Filner explained his hopes for a more equitable taxi industry directly to drivers at a UTWSD forum in City Heights:

“When we put together a new ordinance you will be there at the table helping put it together. You’re going to help create the world you want to live in. So you’ve got to do it responsibly, you got to do it fairly, you got to do it compassionately, you have to have concern for our consumers and the tourists who come here and make sure that they have a good experience. That they have safety, but also that you have the ability to earn a decent living. You work hard, you deserve livable wages. You deserve to support your families. You deserve to have a future. Because we need you. We need your service in San Diego. We can’t be a city without you and so we want to respect you also. We have to tell the public that you’re needed. You’re serving the public. And you want to do it in the best way possible. But all those issues, you know the best. So I need you at the table.”

Since then the Mayor proposed and the City Council passed $100,000 for a taxi consultant to further study viable options for a city-run taxi industry. The Mayor also set up a taxi task force of various stakeholders including, in all fairness, the people who would rather maintain the status quo and continue to ignore the safety concerns posed by taxi driver’s long hours and low wages. It’s unfortunate that the recent controversy at City Hall has the potential to derail all the hard work that has been put in to create substantial change in the lives of taxi drivers and their families as well as create a taxi industry that rises to the adage “America’s Finest City”.

The next step in the campaign is for the mayor’s office to select the taxi consultant who will conduct the study and then present it to the Public Safety Committee for review. If passed the campaign would eventually be heard in front of City Council for approval.

Is there anything people can do to help?


  1. Volunteer your skills: We’re going to need as much community support as possible to make sure this important initiative goes forward regardless. If you have any skills you think you can lend to this effort, organizers, attorneys, artists, activists etc. please contact
  2. Become informed: The taxi industry is complicated. I could “talk taxi” for hours and still not cover all the nuances that is the San Diego taxi industry, never mind what’s going on in other taxi industries across the country. Knowledge is power. If you need more information I suggest reading the SDSU and CPI study “Driven to Despair”. You can also visit our website at which has a wealth of taxi information and resources. The more people we have with taxi knowledge, then the more people there will be who can speak truth to power on behalf of drivers who are unable to risk losing their jobs for speaking out. You can also stay informed by following us on Twitter (@UtwsdSanDiego) or liking us on Facebook where we’ll be announcing actions and updates
  3. Join the Safe Cab San Diego Coalition: We have recently joined a coalition called Safe Cab San Diego. Safe Cab is a broad coalition of partners from various industries and the community who support taxi industry reform. Safe Cab San Diego hopes to bring people together to urge that our elected officials create a taxi industry we can all be proud of. If your organization or business would like to lend its name to the Safe Cab coalition you can sign up on the website under “Join”.
  4. Talk to a taxi driver: Lastly, the next time you’re in a taxi talk to your driver about his or her job. Not all drivers are being exploited but for the many who are its very important for them to hear that people in the community support them.

For more context see:

UTWSD Newsletter article: “Under New Mayor, A Better Taxi Industry is Possible”.

KPBS: “City Considers Taxi Industry Overhaul Amid Reports Of Low Wages And Unsafe Cabs” By Megan Burks, Claire Trageser.

“Are San Diego’s Taxis Like a Bangladesh Clothing Factory on Wheels?” by Doug Porter.

‘Safe Cab San Diego White Paper”.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Sean m August 5, 2013 at 11:03 am

San Diego already has some of the highest cab fares in the US. The MTS and the taxi owner cartel force taxi drivers to pay $150k for a permit or face onerous lease terms. We don’t need even higher fares, end the taxi mafia.


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