Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Independent Contract - 5

I think of "tremendous minds" as belonging to people like Verdi or Goethe or Einstein who create beauty or expand our knowledge of life, not to some geek who figured out a new way to shaft people. But there is no denying that Robert Bork's interpretation of the Independent Contract was brilliant. His decision made it possible to wipe out 150 years of labor history merely by calling a thing by a different name.

Desoto Cab still had a few union people driving for them when I worked there so I became very aware of the difference between their status and mine. The union drivers were guaranteed a minimum wage, had paid vacations and sick leave, couldn't be fired without cause and didn't tip. I, on the other hand, could lose money (although I never did.), could be charged for unfilled shifts if I took a vacation or missed a day because of illness (which I also never did. Rather than pay Desoto for nothing, I passed my diseases on to my customers.), and could have "my lease cancelled" for no reason at all.

Little by little, the charming, silver-tongued Marvin had talked most of the union drivers into signing lease agreements. My favorite story was that he told one union man that he could keep his paid vacations and the rest of it even if he became a lease driver. "Why pay money to those damn unions?" Marvin asked him. The driver couldn't think of a reason so he signed the Independent Contract. Shortly after that, he took his yearly vacation. When he returned, the sucker discovered that Marvin had cancelled his lease.

Two of the teamsters still working at Desoto were Bob Franklin and Tom, whose last name I'm ashamed to say that I've forgotten. He suffered from a degenerative disease similar to MS and was a tireless worker despite his affliction. Bob introduced me to some of the top people from both the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO but they were unable or unwilling to help us because they were fighting just keep what they had during the Reagan era and they'd already lost in court over the Independent Contract.

We decided that the only way to attack the contract was to gain "workers rights." In order to do this we drew up a petition to that effect and brought it over to Rua Graffis of a group called the Alliance to polish the final wording. The idea was that the Alliance would help us get signatures. Once we had signed up more than half the drivers, we intended to bring the petition to the Board of Supervisors and, hopefully, get them to put a measure on the ballot stating that cab companies had to give drivers "workers rights." If our plan worked, it would have been possible to organize a union.

I thought that it would be very difficult to get the petition signed. There have always been a lot of drivers, like my good friend Murai, who liked the supposed freedom of the lease and didn't want to become employees. I also thought that many drivers would be afraid to sign and that it would difficult to explain our idea to foreign drivers who didn't understand our laws.

For the safety of the drivers, we decided to try and get the signatures at the airport. The first night we showed up, most of the drivers were Indians, Pakistanis and Sikhs. I didn't know how many of them spoke English or if they'd even talk to us. I would have been happy to get 10 drivers signed up.

I nervously walked up to a Sikh and handed him the petition. He silently looked at me and then slowly read the petition. He asked me for a pen and signed it. He gave it to another Sikh driver, who read it and signed it. The two of them then explained the petition to a couple of other drivers in their own language. Both the other drivers signed it. When we left the airport a couple of hours later, we had signed up most of the people in the lot. Three weeks later, with Bob and Tom doing most of the heavy lifting, we had signed up more than half the working drivers in San Francisco.

I thought that when we added the signatures that the Alliance had no doubt gotten we would have at least 75% of the drivers on the petition. But I couldn't get ahold of Rua. For some reason she wasn't returning my calls.

However, the magic number was 50% so I got together with Cliff O'Neil, who was the first president of the UTW and knew Supervisor Roberta Achtenberg. The year was 1990. We'd hoped that she would sponsor the legislation. In fact, she was very gracious to us and enthusiastic about our idea. "Let's get the ball rolling," she told us when we left. Cliff also lined up Supervisor and future District Attorney Terence Hallinan to write the bill.

In short, it looked a like a done thing. But I was new to insider politics at the time. Weeks went by without any action. I kept calling Cliff who didn't know what was going on either. After a couple of months, I stopped by to visit him and he told me that the legislation was dead. Achtenberg was still interested but no one else was. Terence Hallinan suddenly found the idea, "too complicated." The supervisors had been told that the cab drivers of San Francisco did not want employee rights. They wanted to be independent contractors. The supes did not want to meet with us. They refused to look at our petition.

I had a thought. I called up Rua Graffis and asked her what had happened to her signatures. "We will decide what the cab drivers of San Francisco want," she declared royally and slammed the phone down on me.

I later found out that Rua had helped sabotage "employee rights" on one other occasion. When the Democrats held their convention in San Francisco in 1984, then Mayor Dianne Feinstein had offered to give the cab drivers "employee rights" if the Alliance did not protest at the Moscone Convention Center. However, Feinstein made the mistake of letting an assistant make the call. The Alliance turned Dianne down because she didn't talk to them in person. Instead Rua marched around the convention hall protesting Feinstein with about 10 other people - thus giving a sound bite to the greatest union buster in American history, Ronald Reagan.

Since I didn't want to waste my time on a politics of absurdity and impotence, I decided to follow the old tried and true adage, "if you can't lick 'em join 'em." I went down and put my name on the list to become a medallion holder.

The last few years, I've been thinking of Rua with fondness. If it hadn't been for her, I might still be a lease driver bashing my head against walls.

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