Cab Drivers to Form Union in Newark

The line of cabs at Newark’s Penn Station moves like a conveyor belt at a factory. Drivers pick up, drop off and drive away. It’s a challenging job in an industry where there are few regulations. Tomorrow drivers in the city will announce that they’re forming the United Transportation Alliance of New Jersey, which will affiliate itself with the Communication Workers of America Local 1039. Local 1039 President Lionel Leach said today, it’s long overdue.

“They have no voice, they have no rights, they have no health care and they really have no one to stand up and speak for them on their behalf dealing with issues not only on fares but also on issues of health and safety in the workplace,” Leach said.

Julia Vintimilla, a single mother of four, explains the economics of her workday, wherein she can often work for about $5 an hour.

“Ten, 11 calls a day, and the money $60 a day, a couple of days better. If we have a better day, maybe $100 a day,” Vintimilla said. “The expenses. We have to pay the company, weekly, work or no work, we have to pay. That’s $115. Plus the tablet — $15 weekly. We have to put aside for the gas, the insurance, you know, all the expenses of the car.”

Newark’s taxi commission has a staff of two, which spends a lot of its time renewing the 2,000 licenses and trying to handle complaints. The commission doesn’t set fares or oversee working conditions, which for many drivers can be challenging. That’s left to the cab companies.

“We have drivers that are working seven days a week, not having a day off. After a while the body needs a rest, and when you have drivers driving around this city and other parts of the state working these long hours, putting wear and tear on their bodies,” said Leach.

Socorro Alvarez is one of those drivers who works a seven-day week. She says she works a 12- to 15-hour day and can make $100 to $150 a day, minus her expenses. She’d been a homemaker until her husband was killed on the job on New Year’s Day in 1998. He was a Newark cabbie. The mother of four has been on the job ever since.

She says right now, there’s no one to turn to when she has a dispute with the cab company, or police or customers.

Among those scheduled to be at tomorrow’s announcement is state Sen. Ron Rice.

“My hope for the enterprise is that we can keep fares reasonable but we can also make sure that drivers are able to pay for the cost of what it takes to run that kind of business and to work and at least have some wages that are reasonable enough to raise a family to a reasonable degree,” Rice said.

Organizers have talked to about 300 of the city’s 2,000 drivers, so they’ve still got a ways to go, but they’re hoping that tomorrow’s announcement will raise awareness about the challenges faced by men and women whose vehicles are ubiquitous but whose operators remain virtually invisible.