Driving Toward Labor and Disability Justice
By Julietta Hua | October 19, 2022
Over 15 years ago, a Los Angeles taxi driver, “Boulos,” described the adverse health effects, including liver and heart disease, he experienced and observed because of driving. He said, “this is a prescription to die. You see how many cab drivers are dying behind the wheel because of heart attack, stress from the business, long hours.” In the two decades that have elapsed since Boulous spoke to Gary Blasi and Jacqueline Leavitt, very little has changed in terms of the labor conditions of professional passenger driving. Drivers are now dispatched through apps and work not only for taxi leasing companies but also for rideshare companies like Uber. The “prescription to die,” or to end up disabled by their work, remains a prevalent aspect of the industry.
The experiences of professional drivers highlight the ways gender, labor, and disability intersect as policy matters. This intersection is most evident when we consider professional driving as a form of household, reproductive labor.
Passenger Driving is Household Labor
When we think of domestic work, we don’t often picture the male-dominated quasi-professionalized industry of passenger driving. What is often hidden behind the masculinized bodies of professional driving are the ways driving is best understood as part of an array of household service work. In Spent Behind the Wheel my co-author, Kasturi Ray, and I examine professional passenger driving through the lens of reproductive labor. Feminist scholars use the term “reproductive labor” or sometimes care work, to encompass the range of life-sustaining tasks that enable all other forms of work.
Driving is one aspect of maintaining the household, congruent with cooking, cleaning, and child care. Today, state programs like In-Home Supportive Services in California help subsidize household work which can include passenger driving. Professional driving shares many similarities to household work. For drivers as well as other household workers, their workspace can often serve as their living space; the space is simultaneously theirs and never theirs. The so-called private nature of the home and cab make the workplace both intimate yet highly surveilled. The nature of the work is centered on the comfort of the consumer, often with the expectation that the worker (household worker, driver) sacrifices some aspect of their well-being. For instance, drivers often cannot access restrooms when they need them, and household workers are often prohibited from preparing their own food in the kitchen where they work.
Like household workers, drivers typically lack robust labor protections.
Household workers have historically been excluded from major pieces of labor legislation, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act. Similarly, drivers are generally classified as independent contractors and excluded from protections like overtime pay, minimum wages, and workers’ compensation. Drivers have little entitlement to protection from on-the-job injury. For drivers like Boulos, who are injured or debilitated because of their work, there is no recourse.
Disability and Labor Justice in the Rideshare Industry
Professional driving entails care for the daily needs of their passengers, especially disabled passengers. The popular perception of the consumer of passenger ride-for-hires might be a young, urban professional.
However, we spoke to a former San Francisco taxi driver who explained that many of her passengers were people who needed rides to hospitals or people who could not drive because they were disabled or elderly. This taxi driver also spoke about how loading luggage and groceries was often part of the service she provided.
Disability justice advocates have long pressed taxi and rideshare industries to ensure accessibility. Since the 2010s, disability advocates have won major gains in cities like New York when it comes to increasing the number of accessible taxis. However, those gains were wiped away when ride-hail app companies entered the market, as these companies made no promise to ensure accessible rides. Disability activists have challenged ride-hail app companies Uber and Lyft for denying rides to passengers with service animals and for lack of wheelchair accessible rides. These early lawsuits resulted in Uber and Lyft eventually offering Wheelchair Accessible Vehicles (WAV) service.
What’s notable about some recent disability rights campaigns is the co-participation of driver-organizers. For instance, in Philadelphia, disability advocates protested with taxi drivers to challenge the failure of city agencies to hold rideshare companies like Uber responsible for ensuring wheelchair accessible rides.
In New York, the taxi driver union has protested with disability rights activists to hold ride-share app companies accountable to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Their demands included government grants to fund the cost of wheelchair accessible vehicles and WAV exemptions for drivers who are themselves aging.
Drivers are motivated to participate in these campaigns due, in part, to the physical and health injuries posed by their work. Drivers experience high rates of (racist, xenophobic) abuse, violence, and long-term injury (blindness, muscular debility, kidney disease) on the job. Other drivers like Evelyn Engel (at a San Francisco LaborFest event) have pointed to the debilitating effects of declining air quality linked to the incursion of Uber and Lyft into communities. In our research, we found that many New York City drivers end up with cancer. A Columbia University public health study of 188 New York City taxi drivers in the New York Taxi Worker Alliance archives found that 145 of the surveyed drivers had been diagnosed with some form of cancer.
Workplace injury, from this perspective, in not simply an individual matter. That drivers are supposed to individually assume the costs of workplace injuries or debility reflects a racist and sexist history of excluding household workers from labor protections.
It would be easy to blame individual drivers for not accommodating disabled passengers. Disability activists and driver-organizers argue instead that the responsibility for accessibility lies with the corporate actors, whether taxi or Uber/Lyft. Working against conventional perspectives that would pit passengers against drivers, driver-organizers have suggested that corporate actors and industry are accountable to a public that includes drivers and passengers alike.
The history of labor policy and legislation has tended to define disability as the inability to work. Too often in US political history, those who are unable to work because they are disabled are framed in opposition to the working poor. This antagonism obscures the ways that household workers and disabled communities overlap and share concerns about disability and economic justice. Looking at the work conditions and labor activism of professional drivers suggests how corporate interests evade accountability to both workers and consumers. Drivers’ campaigns for better work conditions also articulate disability justice perspectives. Gender, labor, and disability are related matters for collective concern; this is what disability justice advocates and driver-organizers teach us.
Julietta Hua is Professor and Chair of the Department of Women and Gender Studies at San Francisco State University.
Photo credit: iStock.com/MOZCOMteuszSzymankski