Saturday, July 18, 2009

In the Trenches with the Independent Contract - 1

I was just showing up for my first day of cab driving in 1983. A middle-aged Eskimo woman stood outside the Yellow Cab lot at 8th and Townsend hitting up the drivers that were just finishing their shifts for a dollar. She was an ex-driver herself so many of them gave her money.

Suddenly Yellow Cab manager Jim Steele came running onto the street waving his hands over his head and screaming at the woman to "get the hell out of here." "I used to work for you," the woman told him calmly, "you're supposed to take care of me."

I remember wondering what business it was of his anyway, since the woman wasn't technically standing on his property. But, then, Jim Steele made a career out controlling things that, technically, were not supposed to be any of his business.

I also remember being struck by the incongruity between his appearance his accomplishments. Here was a little man in his '60s, standing 5'6" and weighing 120 pounds soaking wet, who had the twin legacies of resurrecting Yellow Cab from bankruptcy and destroying the driver's union. The tool he had used to eradicate the worker's rights was the Independent Contract.

The Independent Contract, in turn, was the stepchild of Federal Justice and Supreme Court reject Robert Bork who was recently called a "tremendous mind" by Pat Buchanan during his July 16th debate with Rachel Maddow over Judge Sonia Sotomayor and affirmative action. In the 1970s, Bork had used his "legislative brilliance" to declare that lease workers could not legally form unions. Before his decision, they could. Why couldn't they form unions? Because they weren't employees. Why was this important? We don't know. I haven't been able to track down the case yet. I doubt that Jim Steele cared why Bork made the decision anyway, only that it gave Steele almost absolute control over his drivers.

I was given a graphic demonstration of this power by current president Nathen Dwiri during my initiation at Yellow. He handed out the Yellow's leasing contract to a group of new drivers including myself and explained the meanings of some of the provisions. Then, he told us to read the contract carefully before signing it. Then, he left the room. He returned an hour or so later, collected the signed contacts and left. He did not give us a copy of what we had signed. I can't remember if Nate told us whether he would give us one later or not but, as long as I worked there, I was never given one.

I think it was Nate's way of telling us exactly where we stood in relation to the company.

Just in case we didn't get the point, we were reminded every day when we ended our shifts. We turned in our waybills and paid our gates in a dispatching shed that was wallpapered with writing in huge bold type that listed innumerable acts (like turning the cab in late) that would result in the automatic cancellation of our leases. This in itself was a violation of a lease that purported to be an agreement between equals. What the letters really spelled out was our powerlessness. What the "Independent Contract" had made us independent of was the protection of labor laws.

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