Because I drive a cab, people say, “You must have a million stories to tell.” I don’t. But this morning I realized that I have one story that needs to be told. It is the history of the taxi industry in San Francisco.
Once upon a time there was a chauffeur's union (and before that a union of "hackmen" which ended with a strike in 1904 during which one driver was killed), but now we are "independent contractors" and technically not employed by anyone. So cabbies have no set wages, no medical or dental insurance, and no retirement benefits. Instead we guarantee the business owners a fixed income -- fixed, that is, until they decide to raise it. And on the other side of things, web-based apps such as Uber and Lyft have cut our ridership by more than half. (We're not likely to get much help from the city in fighting those completely unregulated and unlicensed businesses: too many local politicians have family members who have been given jobs or places on the board of Uber and Lyft.)
A book about the history of the taxi industry in San Francisco could enlighten many about the realities spawned by the triumphs of Reaganomics and the internet. Few people realize that Steve Jobs could have been a founding member of the Tea Party, with his ruthless pursuit of wealth couple with a Libertarian attitude toward social issues. Silicon Valley companies have dazzled everyone with their whizz-bang technologies, and they have charmed Liberals and Progressives with their libertarian attitudes toward homosexuals, with their willingness to allow flexible work schedules, to provide daycare on site, to treat women equally (or appear to), and to foster casual dress and informal corporate etiquette in their operations. They have allowed employees to form “affinity groups” that create good will toward management among various groups of employees who share personal, religious, or social concerns. The companies also provide free restaurants and all manner of games and amusements to allow (force?) their employees to work endless hours.
But such window-dressing aside, they have been ruthless in refusing to allow their employees any real power by forbidding the formation of unions, by fighting any government regulation of their businesses or their products, and by promoting the “celebrity CEO” culture. As class-oppressors they have triumphed. I remember a long conversation I had one evening a couple years ago when I was homeless.
A friend had invited me to stay with him for the night, the weather being cold and wet. While my friend did his laundry after dinner, I sat with one of his roommates who told me about the horrible injustice that was being done to him at work. He had been a very early hire at Twitter, had worked hard and received great evaluations, while the company was developing and scaling up its systems. Then, when the big venture capital money came in, he and his peers began to get bad evaluations and to be forced out. Fired. He still had his job but could see that the process was grinding on for him, too. The problem with these earl hires was that by law they would have to receive the same stock and stock option benefits that the upper management received, and management did not want to share the spoils of the upcoming IPO.
This man’s experience has been repeated over and over throughout corporate America. I remember when companies like General Electric were suddenly giving bad evaluations to previously model employees because they had learned through their insurance carriers that these men had HIV or AIDS. No individual worker can fight such tactics. Indeed individual workers are always powerless because as long as employment is governed by a “free market” for labor, there is always someone else to take the job of any employee who com[plains of injustice.
During the Great Depression, workers driven to desperation by poverty stood together for fair pay and safe working conditions. They struggled through protests and strikes, some of them dying at the hands of police and such thugs as the Pinkerton men. Their heroic efforts established labor unions in this country and led to the passage of laws limiting the work week to 40 hours and setting requirements for workplace safety, overtime pay, etc. But by the late 1970s Corporations and Capitalists had gained enough influence in politics to begin turning the tide against unions.
When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 he signaled that the government would no longer support the rights of working people by busting the Air Traffic Controllers union within days of taking office. Since then a steady campaign of misinformation about unions, of political and legal oppression, and of the reclassification of workers as “independent contractors” has castrated the union movement. We are back to the injustices of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Steinbeck told stories of the injustices done to farm workers in the agricultural industry in the 1930s that expose the same tactics and the same ruthless greed of the owners that we see in every industry today, tech included.
Nothing has changed. Senior managements pay themselves outrageous amounts through sleazy stock and stock option deals while at the same time constantly trying to cut labor costs. Without unions, workers have no recourse when they as individuals are forced out by such tactics. The false ideology of Individualism – the myths of meritocracy and of free market entrepreneurialism -- is used to establish Fascism.
Mussolini defined fascism as “the perfect marriage of the corporation and the state”: that defines the high tech industry in a nutshell. Just ask the NSA. (See the Frontline Report “United States of Secrets.”)
Maybe someone in Hell is planning a gay wedding for Jobs and Reagan just to make the point. I’m sure they are both there.