Volume 20, Number 4

The Worker’s Cooperative That Should’ve Been In Michael Moore’s Movie

Fred Schepartz

A disclaimer: Last April, Michael Moore’s film crew spent a couple of days in Madison, Wisconsin, shooting footage and conducting interviews at two local cooperatives, Isthmus Engineering and Union Cab, where I work. I was the night driver who got to drive the crew around town and show them local landmarks that they could shoot. In addition, I was miked the whole time and was interviewed on camera. The final cut of Capitalism: A Love Story included footage from Isthmus Engineering, but no footage from Union Cab. What follows is, to a certain extent, sour grapes.

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When I found out that Union Cab would not be included in Michael Moore’s new film (okay, let’s be truthful; also when I found out that I would not be in Michael Moore’s new film), my nose was bent a bit out of joint. And it certainly didn’t help matters that in two different interviews following the release of Capitalism: A Love Story, Moore commented that what impressed him about Isthmus Engineering was that they all looked like a bunch of Republicans. He said he was more interested in a worker’s cooperative like that than some “hippy, dippy food co-op.”

In response to Moore’s comment, John Kessler, one of the company's founders, told Wisconsin State Journal business reporter Jane Burns, "If we are going to be a model, that's who we're going to have to appeal to. We can't just appeal to a bunch of long-haired wackoes."


Okay, I greatly appreciate that Moore portrayed worker cooperatives as an antidote to Capitalism. However, I think his message about worker cooperatives would have been stronger, and I think the movie would have been better if he had included Union Cab.

Union Cab’s mission statement should tell you all you need to know:

The Mission of Union Cab Cooperative shall be to create jobs at a living wage or better in a safe, humane and democratic environment by providing quality transportation services in the greater Madison area.

The mission statement was recently amended to include environmental concerns as well.

So what does this all mean? In terms of the everyday life of our workers, how do these words translate? And what is the impact of these words on our community and the nation as a whole?

Well, I could talk about the hippy-dippy, longhaired weirdo stuff, but I would rather start with the nuts and bolts of it all, the dollars and cents. As my favorite line from The Right Stuff goes, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

We pay our drivers by commission. They start at thirty-six percent. Drivers get a one-percent commission bump for every 2500 hours they drive. There currently is no cap on commission. I have twenty-one years of seniority. My commission is fifty-one percent.

The rawest rookie driver should have no trouble earning an hourly way of $10–12, if not more, which is well within what’s considered a living wage in the Madison area. Myself, I’m usually making somewhere in the neighborhood of $18-20 an hour or more if things are really rocking.

That’s good money, and it’s especially significant because my wife left her job in July of last year and is in grad school. She just started a six-month consulting gig, but for the last year and a half, I’ve been the sole breadwinner. It’s been hard and stressful, and we’ve had to really tighten our belts, but we’ve managed to keep food on the table, take care of the pets and make our mortgage payments. I’ve worked extra hours, but nothing too terribly unreasonable.

My ability to support my household is a tribute to Union Cab.

In addition, Union Cab pays stock dividends to all members following a profit-making year. And when I say all members, what I mean is all current employees who have passed probation.

This is perhaps the most significant aspect of Union Cab, and therein lies why we are an important example for the overall cooperative movement.

And that is why Union Cab is such an excellent antidote to Capitalism.

To become a member of Union Cab Cooperative, one needs to get hired. Once an employee passes probation and buys a share of voting stock for a mere $25, they are a full-fledged member of the cooperative with all the rights and responsibilities of membership.

All employees who pass probation are members of Union Cab Cooperative. Period.

Let me repeat, all employees who pass probation are members of the cooperative.

This is significant beyond significance.

There is no caste system. Structurally, there are no members that are more equal than others. Yes, we have managers, but they have to answer to the board of directors, which is elected from the membership, by the membership. Essentially, management works for the employees though they are given the authority to do their jobs.

And once again, everybody who works at Union Cab who has passed probation is a full-fledged member. Drivers, dispatchers, phone answerers, mechanics, IT staff, accounting staff. Everybody.

Thus everybody receives a dividend when we make a profit. Everybody can set policy by serving on the board of directors. Everybody can participate in what is a truly democratic workplace by serving on committees that hammer out policy for the board to consider. Everybody can appeal discipline to the Worker’s Council.

Everybody has all rights and all responsibilities of membership.

Why am I hammering this point home so vociferously?

A key aspect of Capitalism is the oppression of others. Capitalism is about consolidation. It’s about acquiring more and more wealth, and subsequently, it’s about me taking from you for my own monetary gain.

We’re oppressed on the basis of class, on the basis of gender, on the basis of race, on the basis of being differently abled.

Sad to say, even worker cooperatives are not immune from putting up these kinds of barriers. Some worker cooperatives are more elitist than others. Some worker cooperatives are simply too expensive for most people to join.

For instance, a cooperative cab company could be a federation of owner-operators. These are people who own their own vehicles and pool their resources to hire and manage support staff. Or, a worker cooperative might be more like a professional guild, where the members are more like partners in a law firm.

At Union Cab, there are no artificial barriers to becoming a member. Union Cab is open to anybody and everybody. There is the old joke about PhDs driving for Union and the fact that we are the most over-educated cab company in the country, but a college degree is not a requirement for membership. Our membership consists of people from all different sorts of backgrounds, and that’s because we are completely inclusive. Capitalism is about the few shutting out the many. It’s about exclusion, not inclusion. Union Cab is about inclusion, not exclusion.

Union Cab is about sustainability rather than maximizing profit because our goal is to provide a living wage for everybody, not make the owner rich. Let us remember, there are two ways to maximize profits. You increase revenue or cut costs. In a city with long and well-established taxi service, there are not many untapped sources of revenue. To cut costs, you would need to reduce labor costs. You cannot reduce capital costs because that would mean reducing the size of the fleet, which then impacts revenue.

At Union Cab this makes little sense, especially because any increase in profit goes back to the drivers. Granted, there have been times over the years where drivers have endured temporary pay cuts or surcharges but those measures were instituted to deal with economic hardship. The board of directors made those decisions in a democratic and transparent process.

Consider the example of the other two cab companies in town. Badger Cab is a share-ride, zone-rate service where drivers lease their vehicles instead of getting paid commission. When Badger’s rates go up, generally lease fees go up. Thus Badger drivers seldom see an increase in their rate of pay. In addition, because the owner of the company makes his money simply by putting warm bodies behind the wheel of as many cabs as possible, he has little incentive to beef up infrastructure or do anything else that would increase overhead. In fact, he really does not have much incentive to increase revenue. For instance, when someone calls Union Cab for a ride, we ask for their phone number, and we are more than happy to call them to let them know their taxi is waiting outside. Badger Cab does not provide that service because that would require hiring additional dispatch office staff.

Madison’s third cab company, Madison Taxi, is a metered cab company that pays drivers the same starting commission as Union Cab, thirty-six percent. Commission increases are done in an arbitrary and capricious manner. Commission is capped at forty percent. In addition, Madison Taxi drivers are forced to endure the so-called “Joe Tax,” named after owner Joe Brekke. For every fare a Madison Taxi driver runs, Brekke takes $1.50 off the top.

Union Cab’s model of sustainability translates into a greater ability to serve our community.

A few years ago, there was a movement in the city of Madison to mandate that all three cab companies provide round-the-clock, on-demand accessible taxi service. This service was sorely needed. Previously, people in wheelchairs who were not ambulatory enough to get in and out of their wheelchair and get in and out of a taxi and who did not have access to vans with wheelchair lifts were forced to rely on Madison Metro Plus for rides. Metro Plus rides must be booked in advance, and their hours are limited.

Despite the need for this service, Madison’s cab companies were alarmed because of the expense. Minivans with wheelchair ramps cost around $30,000 apiece. And then there’s the issue of training and additional insurance.

Union Cab stepped into the breach and offered a compromise. In exchange for not mandating that all three cab companies provide round-the-clock, on-demand accessible taxi service, Union Cab offered to voluntarily provide the service. Granted, this was a sound business decision, but it was a gamble as well. Still, Union Cab’s model of sustainability went a long way toward making this work.

It should be noted that Union Cab drivers who service these calls are paid commission for these rides, and some of these rides are quite lucrative. This is important to note because several years ago, Union Cab had created a separate accessible-transit division (along with a bus division). Those drivers were not paid commission, but rather were paid a relatively low hourly wage. This created the kind of caste system among our drivers that runs contrary to everything we stand for.

When grant money dried up, Union Cab liquidated those two divisions, but the lessons learned ensure that drivers who make this new service work are treated fairly and equitably.

Another example of how Union Cab serves the community involves Medical Assistance rides. Starting about ten years ago, Union Cab saw a major increase in the number of rides paid for by medical clinics and organizations. Those clinics and organizations use MA money to pay for rides that transport low-income people to and from medical appointments.

This service is invaluable. As I wrote in my September editorial, access to health care is a major component to keeping our population as healthy as possible. Providing free health care to low-income people is not enough. We need to make sure everyone is able to get to their medical appointments. If that means sending a taxi for someone who doesn’t have a car, who is unable to use public transportation or who lives out of town, that is a small investment with a big payoff.

Since 2000, infant mortality among African Americans in Dane County has decreased dramatically. I firmly believe Union Cab has a lot to do with that.

Union Cab services the vast majority of those MA rides because we provide the most reliable taxi service. Because Badger Cab is a share-ride service, they often have difficulty being on time for time calls. Madison Taxi’s business model is to flood the airport. Their attitude about street calls is, we’ll get to it when we get to it.

Union Cab has specific service goals that are tracked closely on a continual basis. All calls are dispatched in a fair and equitable manner. Quite simply, Union Cab is able to provide the kind of reliable service MA riders need and deserve.

Union Cab further serves the community by providing the safest taxi service in Madison and perhaps anywhere. As I like to say, pun intended, our risk management procedures and protocols take a backseat to no one. Our drivers are well-trained. New hires are required to take an in-house defensive-driving class. Safe drivers are paid bonuses. Any driver who gets into an accident has to face an internal review of the collision. At-fault accidents result in discipline. Unsafe drivers are fired.

On the side of every Union Cab appears the words, “safe, reliable, professional.” These are more than just words. These are concepts we take very seriously.

And then there’s the issue of the humane work environment. Okay, I’ll be honest. Maybe to a certain extent we are the hippy-dippy co-op with the longhaired weirdoes, but, let me be clear, Union Cab is a professional workplace. The inmates do not run the asylum. That said, it is not about riding people’s asses. It is not about micro-managing people to death. It is a fun, sometimes kooky place where creativity and diversity are celebrated.

It is no accident that Union Cab is chock full of writers, artist and musicians. The reasons are simple. First, the emphasis on paying a living wage means drivers do not have to work a zillion hours to make a living. When they leave work, they have the time and energy to pursue their own interests.

Also, because there is the emphasis on maintaining a humane workplace, Union Cab does not suck the soul out of its employees like so many more traditional workplaces. That is another reason why people have enough left in the tank when they’re not working to go out and write that novel or play in a band or paint or do photography or whatever else they want to do.

But what is most important about Union Cab is how it demonstrates that ordinary workers can control their own means of production and be successful. Union Cab does not hire a team of technocrats to run things. We run things. All our managers are people who climbed through the ranks. All members of the board of directors are employees. Union Cab spends a great deal of money every year to train our leaders. This is a wise investment. In addition, Union Cab has been quite innovative in terms of the types of training it has utilized.

I have often written about something I call Neo-Syndicalism, which is the creation of liberated zones within the Capitalist system. Through Neo-Syndicalism, we can transform Capitalism into something more fair and equitable and more humane.

Again, I applaud Michael Moore for recognizing that worker cooperatives provide an antidote to Capitalism. And again, his movie would have been better if he included the example of Union Cab. Hopefully, Union Cab will be included in the bonus footage when the DVD comes out.

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This fall marked the 20th anniversary of Mobius. I guess I’ve been too busy to appropriately mark the occasion, but sitting back and considering that we are still out there, I have to say I am pretty proud of this little magazine and the fact that we have remained true to our mission of being supportive of writers, offering social commentary and bridging the gap between art and politics.

So let’s all raise a glass and toast the last twenty years. Thank you, all of you, for making this happen.