On Uber in London

London cabbies to offer EVEN WORSE service in protest against Uber • The Register.

The protests in London and elsewhere, along with the legal posturing and actions, raise the question: what does a union do? From the union of taxicab drivers, Uber’s squad (who are not, I think, unionized?) represent scabs, opportunistic interlopers who destroy the unity of labour’s front by satisfying demand. Scabs are bad for all workers because workers only have power when en masse; singly, they are, if not victims, very close to it. But in a union, the worker can assert a degree of power that will give him and her a measure of the profit derived from his or her labour.

Or so in theory and often enough, in practice. But taxicab unions are strange; as I understand it, they seem to resemble more closely regulated guilds. That doesn’t mean that one cannot have (or that there are not) legitimate taxicab unions of drivers. Nor would Uber’s (or Lyft’s) business model be opposed to that. But a protected guild exists largely to suppress competition in a way that unions do not (unions don’t really care, I’d guess, about competition, though longstanding and tightly-coupled unions, as perhaps can be seen with auto unions, probably stretch that guess).

What it comes down to then, as I see it, is more a contestation about the nature of the personal transport market. Is it to be open to all? What guarantees of safety, insurance, liability must be met? And where does the role of innovation sit?

In the established taxicab markets, there seems to be virtually no innovation. Sure, there have been enhancements in payment systems, as we see in New York City. And, yes, in the more conscious cities there are more “green” cars, like hybrids.

But that’s it? What about shared commuter vehicles? About family or grocery rentals? Or electric vehicles? Or, even more grandly, the development of an infrastructure that would even provide for and encourage fleets of rented electric vehicles? I suppose one could answer that this is not within the remit of a taxicab, which is usually seen as the resort of the drunk or hurried or desperate. But isn’t that rather a failure of conceiving what urban transportation is? Mass transit is one aspect of it; there are others, too. And if we are in fact to be serious about managing global warming, I should think we have to consider the place of personal vehicle, rented or not.

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