Laurent Belanger comments on the current protests about the taxi industry in Madrid.
Last Monday the sun rose over Madrid approximately ten minutes after seven. By mid-morning, the promise of an ordinary summer day began to vanish as the city’s 15,000 taxi drivers slowly started parking their cars along its main artery, Paseo de la Castellana. By the afternoon, the capital city was virtually paralysed: traffic having crawled to a standstill along its major roads, and its airport was partially blockaded.
The reasons for the strike are comprehensible: while taxi drivers were promised a 30:1 ratio over VTCs (Tourism Vehicles with Chauffeur, i.e. ride-hailing and -sharing cars), the nation-wide ratio is closer to 7:1 — 5:1 in Madrid. In the wake of this lack of enforcement, taxi drivers are faced with what they see as “unfair competition.” Their only hope, in effect, is a stricter commitment from federal and local governments to enforce the 30:1 ratio. This is a prima facie case of monopolistic mentality, and we may be quick to dismiss these claims as such, but there is at least one good reason for the taxi drivers’ discontent: the cost of their licenses. These far eclipse the cost of VTC licenses (around €35), often nearing €150,000.
Nevertheless, the strike is problematic for two reasons. First, it exposes the danger in over-powered labour unions. This is a controversial point, and I want to avoid misconstruation. It is important to recognize the crucial nature of labour unions in the modern industrial world — not only do they protect workers from predatory exploitation by their employers, they also provide them with an effective means of expression in circumstances in which their perspective would otherwise likely be overlooked. We must, however, guard against unions powerful enough to escape accountability.
I have thus far made an important omission in my description of the strike: the violence. In Madrid alone, there were over sixty counts of violence and aggression against VTC drivers (most of these Uber drivers), including reports of windows being smashed, tires being slashed, and drivers being physically assaulted; there were similar reports in Barcelona where, in one instance, protesters accosted a vehicle carrying a family and proceeded to entice the driver out of the car and push him around. Neither city has attempted to enforce even a limited standard of accountability, and these actions have been carried out without subsequent investigation or penalty.
The fundamental principle behind unionising labour is the idea that the fair treatment of individuals should be ensured. In allowing unions power without conditions of accountability, we are contradicting this principle.
Perhaps more importantly, the strike is problematic for the mentality that it exposes: a fixed mindset that is dead-set against change. Having noticed the proliferation of ride-hailing and ride-sharing services, taxi drivers did not reflect on their current operational model and look for instances in which this model could be reformed — they chose to oppose VTC licenses from the first; instead of looking for ways to harness change, they looked for ways to prevent it.
The advent of change always elicits two differing responses: reactionary and proactive. What is often notable is the swiftness with which reactionaries are forced to adapt, or are left behind. When the printing press first emerged in the fifteenth century, there was a wave of panicked backlash against the instrument. Some claimed it would put monks out of work and make them lazy; others thought it would diminish the value of the Bible. Similarly, when telephones made their first appearance in homes there was widespread concern that these new contraptions would render people lazy, break up familial structures, and hamper the possibility of real friendships.
It is rather amusing to think of how these critics would fare in our world — but it remains clear that they have been left behind, that their reactions, their criticisms, hold far less weight today than even the least credible tabloids. Thus, if anything is evident from our history, it is that change — especially technological — is difficult to prevent; innovation will ultimately prevail over resistance.
This is why, instead of expending our energies touting the dangers of innovation and fighting change, we should reflect on how we can make this change work for us. It is of course natural to try to quash perceived threats to our livelihood, and the reaction of taxi drivers should be understood in this light. Yet, the fact remains: it is a bad tactic. While the dominance of Uber is not inevitable (indeed, there are many problems with its own operational model), that of a gig-economy is.
Instead of paralysing the nation’s capital and resorting to animalistic violence against (essentially) fellow drivers and their cars, taxi drivers should be reforming their operational model, considering how they can increase their competitiveness in the ride-hailing market, and more importantly, how they can work to improve their service for clients. Protesting and violently resisting the trend toward this new approach to services will not halt Uber’s growing popularity. Instead, it will be the death-knell of traditional taxi companies. In the wake of their strike, drivers, unions, and their companies should consider what matters more to them: a few more years of a rapidly declining monopoly, or their own existence.