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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Long Live Union Cab!

Union Cab of Madison 40 Years On

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October 31, 2019
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cross-posted from The Workers' Paradise

I joined Union Cab when I was 24 and left when I was 50. Including two leaves of absence, I spent 25 years, 11 months, and 13 days as a voting member of Union Cab. I still own non-voting stock worth $25 and have over $9,000 in retained equity. I spent the majority of my adult life as a worker-owner of Union Cab of Madison. It really was the best of times and the worst of times.

I started my career at Union Cab of Madison Cooperative on November 7, 1988. I had graduated from the UW-Madison in the spring and was ready to move on. I was planning to become a professor of English literature. I wanted a year to plan it all out and was looking for something to do. I was bartending at the 602 Club and had just finished my time at the Crystal Corner Bar. I knew many cab drivers and my roommates had started at Union Cab earlier that year, so it seemed like a natural fit.

There are a lot of funny stories about this time. My first attempt at getting hired was in August, but I failed the map test. I didn’t know the names of the streets, so I wrote in the names of the taverns that were on each street. The Operations Manager, Sal DiGosia, later said it was the funniest map test that he ever saw and while he realized that I knew where the bars were, he couldn’t pass me. I retook the test in October with a perfect score and was hired. On my first training night, my trainer, Kate Werner, (who was driving) got lost trying to find the airport! It turned out she was definitely not an “aircab”. . .

But those war stories are for a different outlet. The story that I want to convey about Union Cab on its 40th anniversary is two-fold: the origin myth and the Union Cab experience.

In some ways, I think that this short video produced by Heartland Credit Union ended up capturing a lot of the spirit of Union Cab (I am dressed so casually because I was taking a break from writing my Comp Exam).

The Origin of Union Cab

You can still read the almost complete history of Union Cab’s first 10 years (and beyond) on their website. I changed it to the first 20 years, since the struggle that created Union Cab began in 1969 as part of the general upheaval happening in the country over imperialism, racism, and sexism (sadly, little has changed). The “TL/DR” version:

After ten years of struggling to create safer working conditions with decent pay and benefits through the traditional labor movement, Madison cab drivers, dispatchers and mechanics came together to use the cooperative model to meet their needs of jobs at a living wage in a safe, humane, and democratic environment. The first year was challenging as they were unable to get a yellow page ad into the January 1980 publication (a big deal back then). It was an immense struggle! Even though it was winter, drivers (who worked on commission) made pennies an hour (the minimum wage was $3.10/hour). The non-driving staff took a solidarity pay cut to below minimum wage.

The ghost was almost up on the experiment when something happened. It was a Horatio Alger moment. It was an expression of the American Dream. By pluck and by luck, the workers of Union Cab succeeded. In March of 1980, the other metered cab company closed shop (the remaining company was a “shared ride” service which means that the driver picks up and drops other people on the way to you destination). At the same time, the drivers of the bus company (which had just been taken over by the city) went on strike to get their contract. Madison Metro was on strike for 6 months! The co-op hired striking drivers to meet demand–this helped the drivers stay out on strike until their demands were met and helped Union Cab become profitable at a time of the year when the business dies. By the first anniversary, Union Cab was established. From then on, it was green lights; however, as one of our consultants, and a dear friend of mine, Bobby Morris, commented, “you guys have an amazing ability to run head-on into a brick wall, dust yourselves off, and keep moving forward, but eventually you will hit the Grand Canyon.”

Brick Walls, Grand Canyons, and the Value of the Co-op Identity

There were indeed a lot of brick walls to run into over the years. At the outset, Union Cab was ahead of the times and woefully behind them. Women worked as mechanics and cab drivers and dispatchers, but a Good Ol’ Boys club also existed and more than a few lessons were learned the hard way through legal action. One of the worst legal battles involved UCC’s management trying to control the make-up and jewelry worn by a self-identified male. Shortly before I was hired, I read a newspaper article that quoted the GM as saying “It isn’t so much that he wears make-up, but he looks like a whore.” Ugh. I came into the co-op recognizing that this wasn’t the workers’ paradise.

In my time as a director, I supported that driver and still consider him a friend. It didn’t just cost UCC financially (although we “won” the court case), his attorneys ended up becoming judges, county supervisors, and even the mayor of Madison (who ended up not supporting us during a dispute with the bus company-Madison Metro-in 2000). It really hurt our reputation as a different and better way of treating workers.

The biggest obstacle to Union’s success, in my opinion, was the adoption of an adversarial relationship between drivers and non-drivers. This aspect, of course, was somewhat expected coming out of several unionization drives by drivers; however, it didn’t really serve the purposes of cooperation very well. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but this aspect dominated the co-op (and I imagine that even today it remains an issue). I tell start-up co-op folks today that how they address conflict and make decisions is creating an organizational culture that will outlive their participation and be difficult to change. I ask them to be conscious about this to avoid recreating oppressive structures and mindsets that don’t promote the co-op identity.

Again, without getting into war stories, Union Cab used a trial-and-error approach to both management and conflict resolution during much of its first two and a half decades. This resulted in a boom and bust cycle that brought UCC to the brink of disaster on more than a few occasions. As I said, a lot of lessons were learned through legal actions, which I can tell you is much more expensive than using a Co-op Development Center. . . just sayin’. . .

But the point of worker-ownership and worker-control means having the ability to make mistakes. The workers of Union Cab have always controlled their destiny. There wasn’t a board of social do-gooders who could veto the workers’ decisions. The workers of Union Cab (including me, of course) made some really big mistakes, had some great successes, and always had agency. We always had the choice, it wasn’t ever made for us. We tried to decide based on our values. I have always been amazed and proud that we created our core values in 1995 that mirror the ICA’s Statement on Co-op Identity which was also adopted in 1995. We knew, in our souls, what cooperation should be. This set of values allowed people to base their arguments about the board and management’s short-comings on something tangible (for the record, I was President from 94-97).

Union Cab’s Core Values

  1. The safety and health of our members and the public are of paramount importance.
  2. We are dedicated to the principles of worker rights and membership responsibilities.
  3. Open and honest communication and direct involvement are our rights and responsibility as members.
  4. Managing growth carefully is fundamental to creating quality in our work life and fostering a strong sense of community.
  5. A living wage at a 40-hour work week is a priority.
  6. Customer satisfaction is everyone’s job and is critical for our success.
  7. We are dedicated to operating our business in an environmentally responsible way.

Union Cab provided healthcare for its drivers as long as I can remember. The co-op started paying for a percentage of the healthcare premiums in the mid-90s–and it is great insurance. Most cab drivers in the United States were not even able to get healthcare until the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2009. For the industry, pretty much everyone except managers were making as much as 30-50% over industry average pay. Union Cab has struggled, but has largely met its mission of providing living wage jobs in a safe, humane, and democratic environment.

Union Cab created the “democra-beep” during the 2011 protests.

Union also inspired a new generation of taxi co-ops: Union Cab PDX, Alexandria Union Taxi Cab and others (although these co-ops are organized much differently). The co-op played a major role in the Madison community as well–helping to start MadWorC, joining the protests against Act 10 in 2011, helping to organize a one-day conference on co-ops in 2012, and providing leadership to the national and international movement on the board of the US Federation of Worker Co-ops and CICOPA North America.

The most amazing embrace of co-op values of worker ownership occurred in 2010 when the co-op removed discipline from management and created a peer-review and support system to not only hold people accountable, but provide a means of mediating conflict and supporting cooperative behavior. It took almost two years of work to learn, educated, and debate how to move to a system that honored due process and break down the adversarial process of holding people to the rules of conduct agreed to by the membership. Following that we embraced a form of team management (it looks a lot like sociocracy), that ended up dealing meaningfully with customer complaints. Complaints dropped by 55% in the first year!

Of course, co-ops are about people and creating new institutions, changing culture, and building new frameworks is horribly difficult (which is why I tell new co-ops to focus on culture). This next video is about our switch to a Prius fleet. I helped push this through over a lot of hand wringing, but it saved 30,000 gallons of gasoline a month. The transition paid for itself.

For forty years, Union Cab has stood as a beacon of a better way to treat drivers and workers in the taxicab industry. At times, the process is messy, atavistic, and at others incredibly elegant and forward-thinking. When Uber and Lyft showed up, they claimed to be a different model, but they weren’t. TNCs offer the same extractive and exploitative environment that preys upon both the drivers and the passengers as every other for-profit non-cooperative taxicab company.

Union Cab is hardly perfect and, to be honest, I was happy to leave. I was incredibly burned out and used up. There were times that its culture (adversarial in nature) became toxic and abusive. The culture fostered personality cults and narcissists found it easy to create a flock of followers. The passive-aggressive dynamic of “Wisconsin Nice” made it even more difficult to hold people (and leaders with soft power and hard power) accountable. I still have stress dreams about Union Cab five years after leaving. However, as I mentioned, those are war stories and for a different place. The co-op still provides a place where drivers don’t have to grovel to an owner and for that it is a success. As Allen Ruff once commented, the only people who can truly destroy Union Cab are its members.

It is fitting to end this post with the words that Richard Chamberlin ended his history of Union Cab’s first 10 years of operation:

"But Union Cab is more than just a business; it is an idea and an ideal. It is one of a very small number of worker owned and operated businesses in America. Some consider us the wave of the future, others think we will be relegated to the scrap heap of utopian idealism. Our Membership will determine which it will be."

Long Live Union Cab! Vanguard of the People’s Revolution!


John McNamara is a Cooperative Development Specialist with the Northwest Cooperative Development Center. He was a member-owner of Union Cab of Madison for close to 26 years and is a founding member of the late, great Democracy at Work Network.

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