July 13, 2015
The debate over whether Uber is going to be allowed to introduce its UberX product into St. Louis and St. Louis county has boiled over. As the last major metropolitan area to not have UberX, politicians are staking out their positions and closed door meetings are taking place daily.
I played a part in the conversation moving front and center when I issued an Open Letter to Mayor Slay and County Executive Steve Stenger. My purpose in both writing the letter and taking to Twitter to push the case in dramatic fashion was because over the last two years I was unsuccessful in getting the Metropolitan Taxi Commission to reply to me. I even wrote them letters- nothing came back. They were not interested in speaking to me.
The intensity of the debate has played out in media and even hit the front page of /r/StLouis. Unfortunately for me, not only was I getting attention on this issue, I managed to get some reddit attention too. (I knew better than to wade into a debate on reddit about myself and watched the conversation played out there- reddit is the most brutally honest best/worst place ever)
Aside from feeling uncomfortable watch strangers either praise or make fun of me, another thread there titled, “This is what happens when you complain to Laclede Cab,” caught my eye and is a brutal assessment of some redditors cab experience.
I saw complaints in there that were rightly justified and show just how lousy cabs are in St. Louis. My Open Letter clearly showed that the Metro Taxi Commission failed its mission to protect the public but then I wondered about the cab drivers too. I couldn’t imagine driving a cab in St. Louis as being especially pleasant. I’ve ridden in those things and it’s usually reminiscent of a bathroom you don’t want to use even when you really have to go because the bathroom is THAT BAD.
I put out a call on Twitter and Facebook looking to connect with St. Louis cab drivers and in conjunction with my previous post I got flooded. I managed to talk on the phone to three different cab drivers and met with two in person. There were more, but I ran out of time over the weekend.
A problem came up in every single case when I asked if I could make a video interviewing them- they all said no and then as we chatted both on phone or in person, every time I got the question, “You aren’t recording this, are you?” and I always assured them I was not. It turns out that the MTC is universally despised by the cab drivers of St. Louis and St. Louis County with good reason- they are kept in a near poverty status while the company owners get rich off their labor.
The following anecdotes come directly from my conversations with drivers- I will not comment on any of the drivers age, sex or race for fear of identifying them as they all feared reprisals for speaking with me.
“We make $400-$600 a week. That’s working six days a week with one day off. About fifty to sixty hours there. The foreign guys will work way longer, like fifteen hour shifts, but those are the ones crashing all the time from being over tired, but they do it.”
“It sucks. You start in the hole every day,” one driver said. “With every company it’s different, but the median is, I’d say, $75 a day. It’s different for every company. When you come in to work, you don’t make anything until the cab earns that $75”
When I ask if the driver ever went home with no money because they didn’t make the $75, the driver said, “You’re goddamn right I have. We all have. Plenty of times. If you do make the $75, you keep what you make after that.”
I was intensely curious about this. I wanted to know why taxi drivers always threw a fit and never wanted me to use a credit card, and if the drivers’ stories are to be believed, it’s straight up MTC corruption- they all had almost identical stories.
Since the cab driver is an independent contractor, they have to pay the credit card processing fees on every fare they take, usually 7% of the total bill. While the driver keeps the cash earnings each day, the drivers are only allowed to get the wages they earned on credit cards once a week, thus giving the cab company owners more leverage over the drivers.
When drivers started switching en masse to Square, invented by St. Louisans Jim McKelvey and Jack Dorsey, they loved it:
“Square is great! They take a tiny bit over 2% of the fare and then our pay from the fare gets deposited right away into our bank account. It was awesome.” said one driver. Then I heard more:
“The company owners treat us terrible. When we started using Square, they forced us to go back to their processing friends’ companies because they get kickbacks. Everyone knows it. They force us to give up 7% so they get something on the backend.”
“Some of us kept using Square anyway after they (owners) told us no. That didn’t work long because then they saw we didn’t have as much credit card transactions as they were used to, so then they gave us minimums we had to make in credit cards each day or we could get fired. It is total bullsh*t. They always find ways to screw us and keep us poor.”
One driver told me he has had as much as $1,000 in credit card wages held by the company and that someone wasn’t always in the office when they were supposed to be, so he would have to come back the next day or day after. “They can wait, but my landlord can’t,” the driver said.
“I don’t want Uber in St. Louis because we will lose business,” a driver reported. He continued, “Would I drive for Uber? Yes. Sadly I do not make enough money to be able to afford a car good enough to qualify for Uber driving. We (drivers) are poor.”
“The MTC has these guys, they are like the KGB. They drive around in these cars that sorta look like cop cars and they dress in these cop uniforms and most of them are total wanna be cops and they love to push us around, say sh*t and act crazy.”
“Oh yeah. One time I was driving home,” said a different driver, “and one of those bastards passes me going the other way and then spins around and turns on his fake cop lights and pulls me over. I was pulling up to my brothers almost when he saw me so I just pulled up there (indicated house). This dude gets out and starts yelling at me for being out of uniform, and I was like, ‘Look. I’m going to a Cards game tonight with my brother.” The driver goes, “You’re out of uniform” and the driver retorted, “Because I’m going to a Cardinal’s game with my brother.” The enforcement guy then said, “You better watch it,” walked back to his car and left.
“They give us tickets for anything. They follow us around and look for any little thing. One time I got a ticket for $100 for wearing the wrong colored shoes, Those guys all wish they could be cops but they only get to pick on us.”
“All those tickets they give us goes back to the MTC. What does the MTC do anyway except screw us?”
I felt for the drivers. They went on and on about abusive workplaces. Being swore at or threatened and treated pretty terribly. I asked about Harris cab and how they said they were insolvent in court. One driver found that funny. “Oh yeah,” he said, “they are real broke. They have a body shop that does plenty for them. They ain’t insolvent.”
Without revealing personally identifying information, I had to publish the most generic of comments as I didn’t want to get anyone fired- which is also interesting because, as one driver put it: “They have all these rules we have to follow, and they don’t care about us at all. They call us independent contractors and treat us like crap. If we are independent contractors, why do we have to follow their stupid rules, get fined by their secret police? We aren’t independent contractors, we’re indentured servants.”