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A Taxing Profession: Cabbies Face Low Pay, Long Hours, High Risk

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On July 24 the federal minimum wage was raised to $7.25 an hour. But that won’t help Chicago cab drivers, who make an average of $4 an hour working 24 to 25 days a month for 12 to 13 hours a day, according to a study released this spring by the University of Illinois’ School of Labor and Employment Relations and commissioned by the American Friends Service Committee-United Taxidrivers Community Council (AFSCUTCC).

The study surveyed 920 drivers, or about 8 percent of Chicago’s 10,500-cab force, and found that weekly lease drivers make an average $4.81 an hour, shift lease drivers just $4.07 an hour, after paying their leases, fuel costs, airport taxes, cab upkeep and other expenses. That adds up to about $13,000 a year. Drivers who own their own medallions and have paid off the steep loans to get one do only a bit better, at $6.41 an hour.

Meanwhile a new study by the University of Illinois commissioned by the AFSCUTCC addressed the serious risk of violence that cab drivers face on a daily basis.

Many people know cab driving is a dangerous job, but most probably assume the main risk is violent robbery. The study and drivers affiliated with the UTCC assert that violent attacks related to racism, inebriation or random aggression, not involving robbery, are a serious and under-addressed risk.

Take Stanley Shen, a Chinese American driver beaten severely after he was rear-ended last year. Or Walid Ziada, a Palestinian driver allegedly beaten by two men and a woman (ironically leaving an Obama victory party) so badly that he suffered a facial hematoma and was at risk of losing his eye.

Or the 2005 murder of driver Haroon Paryani by Michael Jackson, a high-ranking city health official high on drugs who ran Paryani, 61, over with his own cab. Despite the brutal nature of the murder, Jackson’s supporters launched a campaign to defame Paryani and register complaints from past riders. The incident sparked the AFSC, with support from the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago to launch the Taxi Worker Organizing Project, which became the UTCC.

Contrary to stereotypes of cabbies being attacked in “bad” neighborhoods, the study shows the majority of attacks happen on Chicago’s northeast side, the wealthier, whiter portion of the city. (Cabs are also more prevalent in this area).

As in many major cities, Chicago cab drivers face substantial barriers to getting justice and financial compensation when they are victims of crime or customer misconduct. In Chicago, they live in fear of complaints, whether valid or not, filed with the city’s consumer services division, that can easily lead to them losing their ability to work as drivers.

The AFSCUTCC has long been pressing the city to mandate cabs bear a sticker notifying riders of a 2008 law making it a class 3 felony to assault a working cab driver. So far the consumer services division has resisted, saying such stickers would “clutter” cabs, according to the UTCC.

Drivers and organizing staff say people think they can attack or mistreat drivers and get away with it. Racism and xenophobia, or just the idea that immigrants and people of color have less political capital, play into this dynamic. About 60 percent of Chicago cab drivers are Muslim, and especially after the Sept. 11 attacks cab drivers anecdotally reported being verbally abused or discriminated against based on their race and religion. The top five countries of origin among surveyed drivers were Nigeria, Pakistan, U.S., Somalia and Ghana.

Cab drivers say multiple issues are tied together that make their jobs dangerous, grueling and low-paying. Along with a fare increase and other specific remedies they are requesting from city officials and cab companies, they say an increase in respect, good behavior and empathy from customers would go a long way.

Kari Lydersen: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.

This article originally appeared at Working In These Times on August 15, 2009 and is reprinted here with permission from the source.

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'Green Jobs' Aren't Growing Quickly at Republic Factory in Chicago

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Photo by Kari Lydersen.

Workers from the former Republic Windows and Doors factory hope weatherization incentives will help them get their jobs back.

The phrase “green jobs” has been thrown out right and left recently, with everything from urban farming to building wind turbines and solar panels to producing plain old insulation described as a “green job.”

When the California company Serious Materials bought the former Republic Windows and Doors factory on Chicago’s Goose Island this spring, inspired by the Republic workers’ six-day factory occupation in December, company officials and national politicians—including President Obama and Vice President Biden—held up the operation as a poster child of “green jobs” and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), or stimulus, at work.

The idea was that stimulus funds for weatherization would exponentially increase demand for Serious Materials’ energy-efficient windows and ecological drywall.

The concept certainly makes sense. But the relatively slow ramp-up of production at the Serious Materials Goose Island plant shows how “green jobs” and, more generally, jobs created by the stimulus, don’t materialize as quickly and easily as people might have hoped.

Before buying the plant, Serious Materials signed a union contract with the UE union local 1110 and promised to hire back any of the 250 workers who still wanted their jobs. Union and company officials had originally said they planned for a full plant opening in May or June.

But even now, only about 15 former employees are back at work. This is perhaps not surprising, given the lead time needed for stimulus incentives to translate into actual orders, assuming that does in fact happen on a significant scale.

The stimulus does not give funds directly to a company like Serious Materials. The idea is that tax breaks for weatherization of government buildings and grants to low-income home owners would increase demand for energy-efficient building components.

Serious Materials officials said the company is working directly with different government agencies to plan green building renovations. But unbeknownst to many people, the stimulus actually did not cover new windows for homeowners until recently.

Now new results from the National Energy Audit Tool (NEAT) mean that low-income homeowners making up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level can get up to $6,500 for new windows as part of the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), the funding of which was increased by the stimulus. (The federal poverty level requirements mean a family of four making $44,000 a year would basically qualify for WAP funds.)

Serious Materials celebrated by launching its own line of WAP products. The company says their windows can cut energy costs by 40 percent a household, which would cut an average energy bill by almost $700 a year.

The grant means that, theoretically, workers awaiting rehire by Serious Materials could replace their own windows and save on energy expenditures—especially come winter. This spring, President Obama announced a goal of providing weatherization assistance to 1 million homeowners.

It appears that workers at Serious Materials on Goose Island are mixing hope with healthy skepticism, waiting eagerly for these incentives to kick in, but also remembering they have typically had to fight for every gain they’ve gotten. They know they can’t just sit back and wait for the stimulus or the factory’s new owner to make everything all right.

Kari Lydersen: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.

This article was originally posted on Working in These Times on July 25, 2009 and is reprinted here with permission from the source.

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