If you’ve had an early morning flight from DIA, you might have gotten a ride to the airport with SuperShuttle. Everything seemed normal. The driver came to your door and was helpful and friendly. What you didn’t know is that, for five years, the drivers have been in a fierce fight against a humiliating system of indentured servitude.
In 2009, 94 drivers began organizing for a union after Denver SuperShuttle brought on many new employees, a move that reduced the take-home pay across the unit. Drivers had to work 60-hour weeks and six to seven days each week to compensate. They joined Communication Workers of America (CWA). Al Kogler, the CWA organizing coordinator, notes that it took two years before the workers could vote. In the meantime, he says the company fired union leaders without cause, instituted harsh disciplinary actions, manipulated the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) procedures, made unilateral changes to the conditions of employment and tripled driver fees.
Before the drivers could vote on union representation, they had to go before the NLRB to argue that they were employees and not “independent contractors.”
Washington Post reporter Emma Schwartz explains:
“Once, drivers of this ubiquitous blue-van airport shuttle service were full-fledged employees, earning a moderate (and dependable) hourly wage. But over the past 13 years SuperShuttle has transformed its cadre of drivers into so-called franchisees — what the company calls independent business owners. In doing so, SuperShuttle has shifted, in its own words, ‘hard to manage variable costs from the company’ to the drivers, making ‘gross profits more stable and predictable.’”
Judy Robertson, head of franchising at the company, says, “We offer an opportunity to independent business people who want to be in business for themselves a solid foundation, a good company, association and the means with which to be successful.”
That is nonsense. The job is a trap, not an opportunity.
A SuperShuttle driver has a lot of expenses — he has to buy or lease his van and pay insurance on it. There is a hefty payment to become a franchisee. He can’t afford paying that up front so he pays a regular fee at a high interest rate. There is a weekly system fee (whether he works or not) for using the SuperShuttle reservations and equipment as well as fees that SuperShuttle charges him for customer discounts or additional booking fees from third-party Web sites.
Kogler says the company makes more money from their drivers than from the passengers.
In addition, since they are “independent contractors,” SuperShuttle doesn’t have to pay payroll taxes, reimburse for business expenses incurred while performing the job, or make payments under workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, disability insurance, and Social Security. The company doesn’t have to comply with minimum wage and overtime laws or provide meal periods and rest breaks.
Independent contractors can’t form a union either. Fortunately, the Denver regional office of the NLRB ruled that Denver SuperShuttle drivers were employees. (The ruling didn’t apply to SuperShuttle drivers elsewhere in the country.)
In October 2011, 95 percent of the drivers voted for representation with CWA. They began negotiating with the company in 2012. During this time, Kogler says SuperShuttle retaliated against workers who spoke out for the union with such things as changed work assignments and shift bids. Crucially, a leading negotiator for the union was fired.
Nevertheless, he says that twothirds of an agreement was worked out but they got stuck on economic issues. In October of last year, management presented their “last, best and final offer.”
It was put up to a vote and rejected by 93 percent of the drivers.
On March 17 of this year, the company unilaterally ended the bargaining and imposed a first contract.
The CWA went before the NLRB and argued that this action violated federal labor law.
On April 28, the NLRB responded favorably.
Kogler says this contract amounts to a 30 percent cut in pay and will push many drivers below the poverty line.
“They work very hard and don’t complain about that,” Kogler says. “Most of them are immigrants. Eighty percent are Ethiopians and 10 percent are North Africans and Egyptians.”
The drivers want respect, don’t want to live in poverty and want some control over their lives. Is that too much to ask?
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.