I’ve only belonged to one labor union in my life, and as seems to be the case with such things, I had no choice in the matter.
While attending college for a journalism degree so that 30 years later I could write blog entries about briefly being in a labor union, I worked as a driver at Yellow Cab in Philadelphia, the angriest city in America whose denizens share the world’s worst accent with people from Baltimore.
I answered an ad in the newspaper—remember those?—and went down one night to Center City (they don’t call it “downtown” in Philly) to some dingy classroom with fluorescent lighting and paint peeling off the walls.
We were given a pep talk about the glories of becoming a taxi driver and had to fill out some paperwork. As part of our job, we would have to join a union—I’m pretty sure it was the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which, to my dismay, is a highly patriarchal name for a labor union. It was explained that the union would protect our rights and negotiate better deals for us.
After the class was over, one applicant walked up to the instructor. While I was waiting to hand in my paperwork, I overheard the sort of conversation you don’t forget 30 years later:
Would-Be Driver: You said something about how you can’t have a criminal record.
Would-Be Driver: Well, I kind of have a record.
Instructor: OK, so long as it’s not a felony, we’ll be all right.
Would-Be Driver: Yeah, it was a felony.
Instructor: As long as it wasn’t murder or manslaughter or something like that, it won’t be a problem.
Would-Be Driver: It kinda was.
Instructor: That’s all right. We can work around it.
Clearly, this employer did not discriminate.
I would never directly deal with the union, but apparently the arrangement was that the union dues were factored into the fee we had to pay for the honor of driving around the ravaged, cratered streets of Filthadelphia.
My Saturday and Sunday shifts were 12 hours each—6AM to 6PM. The deal was that you received your cab with a tank full of gas and had to return it full, or else they’d charge you exorbitant gasoline rates the same way that car-rental agencies do. You also had to pay them $37 when you returned your cab. Your “wages” were whatever you made on top of the gas money and the $37. (Thanks to the Federal Reserve and the miracles of inflation it causes through interest rates, $37 then would be $85 now.)
I remember taking the Market-Frankford El line up to the cab yard in Philly’s blighted Kensington section before dawn on blisteringly cold winter days reading The Communist Manifesto, and as a working-class kid who had to pay back student loans and then drive a cab all weekend just to feed myself, Herr Marx and his big ugly beard made sense to me—at least emotionally. I didn’t realize at the time that Marx was only another rich kid—at least compared to where I grew up—playing a make-believe chess game with other people’s lives.
I’d tune the cab radio to the college station from Drexel University, which on Saturday mornings had a hip-hop show from a black student who called himself Jam Master Jay, although he was not the same JMJ who was Run-DMC’s DJ and would later be shot to death. I was tooling around those dirty nasty streets the first time I heard genius-level tracks such as “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” and “The Message.”
From 6AM to 7AM I fell into the habit of trying to score $10 in cab fares, whereupon I’d drive to 5th and Jefferson to cop a $5 bag of weed and a $5 bag of cocaine from the Puerto Ricans who seemed to hang on that corner all around the clock. The $5 bag of weed—folded and glued shut in a small manila envelope—was enough to roll about five seed-and-twig-laden joints. The tiny clear plastic bag of coke was good for at least a couple two-inch lines. Yes, drugs were that cheap back then.
Otherwise, the rest of my day was a mad rush to make my gas money and my $37 fee. There were days where I’d take home only $5. There were days I’d actually lose money.
And they’d send me out in these doddering old box-shaped Checker Cabs that sometimes had over 800,000 miles on them.
Once while driving with a pair of passengers on the Ben Franklin Parkway near the Philadelphia Art Museum—whose steps Rocky Balboa famously ran up in a staggering FIVE of the Rocky movies—the cab’s entire steering column fell into my lap, forcing me to muscle the wheel to steer the hulking vehicle off to the shoulder to spare our lives.
Another time while I was stopped at a red light in Northeast Philly, the cab’s entire transmission fell onto the asphalt. The cab company sent out a tow truck and I took the subway home without any money.
This went on for about three years. During the school year I’d work 24 hours on weekends. In the summer months I’d work four or five days every week. I got robbed and stiffed and one time got punched so hard, I had to go get stitches on my chin.
Through it all—the near-death driving experiences, the penniless 12-hour days, and the impromptu hospital visit—my valiant protectors in the union were nowhere to be found. I only remember seeing a union boss once—at the Grays Ferry cab yard when he came into the office to collect his wad of cash from the company. Chomping a cigar and wearing a tailored suit and enough bling to make Fort Knox jealous, he was the perfect picture of cheap, oily opulence. His mien reminded me of Burgess Meredith as The Penguin.
As the scruffy, underpaid cabdrivers sat around looking skeptically at his showy entrance and exit, we all seemed acutely aware that he was not one of us, even though he was milking our labor for his own benefit. He seemed to be doing far better than those whose interests he claimed to represent.
In that sense, he didn’t seem much different than a politician.