In Michael Moore’s latest film, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” his basic point is that Capitalism is inherently evil. He cites various examples of antidotes to Capitalism, including worker cooperatives. Union Cab, where I’ve worked for 22 years, was one of three worker cooperatives Moore’s film crew spent time with last spring. We didn’t make it into the theatrical cut, but we are included in the bonus features on the DVD that came out last week.
It was gratifying to see my workplace portrayed as a force was positive change in our society. Basically, Moore is saying that Union Cab is everything that is good and wholesome, a workplace that puts people before profits, that is democratic, that sees the community as something to serve, not something to exploit and mine for profit.
More importantly, Moore accurately portrays Union Cab as one of many entities seeking to change society through economic means. There is a zeitgeist regarding worker cooperatives right now, and Moore is out there on the forefront. Amazingly, a great deal has happened in the worker cooperative movement since he started filming last year. In Cleveland, the first of the Evergreen Cooperative‘s opened for business. They are just beginning, but this burgeoning network of cooperatives has been highly touted as “The Cleveland Model.” (http://www.thenation.com/doc/20100301/alperowitz_et_al)
And then last fall, it was announced that United Steelworkers had formed a collaboration with Spanish super cooperative Mondragon to create manufacturing worker cooperatives here in the United States based on the Mondragon model in Spain. (http://www.usw.org/media_center/releases_advisories?id=0234)
One thing I particularly liked is that the bonus features includes an interview with Tom Webb. Webb is on faculty at St. Mary’s University in Canada. St. Mary’s offers a masters program in cooperative studies. In fact, my best friend and fellow Union Cabbie, John McNamara, is graduating from the program this spring. (John set up the interview and the whole visit with Union Cab, but when the time came for the visit, John was out of town visiting family.) The interview is quite useful in terms of putting these various syndicalist elements into perspective and realizing it is all part of a movement, albeit a movement that may or may not realize that it actually exists as a movement.
As far as how Union Cab is portrayed, for the most part I was pleased. There was a great deal of trepidation and anxiety in anticipation of the release of the DVD. I had heard that a couple of our members who were interviewed felt like they were being treated in a bit of a confrontational manner. Our General Manager, Karl Schulte, was a bit upset. He was asked about how much he was paid compared to the lowest paid employee—the ratio is about three or four to one compared to 300 to one for the average corporate CEO. In response to Karl’s answer, the interviewer barked, “What are you, a commie, a hippie?” Rebecca Kemble, the other Union Cab member who drove them around, also said she felt they got a bit confrontational with her as well, hence her being a bit defensive when she says on camera, “I don’t think we have any Communists working here,” when she talks about the diversity of our membership, with some Democrats, some Republicans, as well as socialists and anarchists.
While I felt like I was treated with the utmost respect by Basel Hamden and his crew, my nose was certainly bent out of joint by a comment Moore made during a couple interviews when the theatrical cut was released. He said he liked Isthmus Engineering because they all “look like a bunch of Republicans.” He said that kind of cooperative interested him more than some “hippie-dippy food coop.”
But now that many of us have seen our segment on the DVD, I can say that our fears were unfounded. For the most part, it’s just us, speaking for ourselves, and I have to say we do a good job. The segment comes off in a very positive manner.
After a nearly perfect imitation of the opening shots of “Taxi Driver” with me channeling Travis Bickle (actually, it’s not Bickle but former Union Cab driver Steve Fleischman who used the line to shut up some drunk Young Republicans the night Tommy Thompson was elected governor in 1986. John McNamara told me this story.), I talk about seniority pay increases. Rebecca talks about earning roughly $18-27 an hour on a good Saturday night. She also has a nice line about how Union Cab counts among its ranks many of the “walking wounded from corporate America.” Karl, when asked about how much he’s paid, comments that he doesn’t understand how somebody would want more. He’s able to put food on the table. Isn’t that enough?
Now if I were to quibble, I would have to say that I wish there was more in the way of nuts and bolts details to the specifics about what makes Union Cab a special place to work. I get into that some with my description of our institutionalized system of seniority pay increases, a percentage point for every 2500 hours one works. That’s nice, but I wish Moore would have included the other things I said about our structure, that we have a board of directors elected from the membership by the membership, that we do have a management structure, but it is counter-balanced to protect our members from abuse. We give managers the authority to do their jobs, but they are supervised by the board, so they work for us. We have the Worker’s Council where any member can appeal discipline. We have committees that anyone can join that write policy, which may be eventually approved by the board.
I believe all of this is very important. Touchy-feel words don’t make us what we are. It is the structure of our organization and the various entities without our organization along with the energy of our members that makes us special. That is exactly how we are able to provide jobs at a living wage in a democratic and humane work environment.
In our segment, I’m shown for 30 seconds talking about Union Cab. I wish I had been given more time because there’s so much more I said that I wanted people to hear. Also, and forgive me for sounding self-centered and self-serving, I was rather disappointed that Moore didn’t allow me to plug my novel, “Vampire Cabbie.” Frankly, I was surprised that Moore didn’t include any mention of my book. The idea of a cab driver who drives at night who has published a book about a vampire cab driver, that struck me as the sort of thing that would attract Moore like a moth to a flame. If anything, I was worried that Moore might make me look some kind of kook. But, nooooo! No plug! No love!
All kidding aside, what particularly disappointed me about that omission was that while talking about my book, I also talked about how Union Cab attracts and nurtures various artistic types. Within a year of the publication of “Vampire Cabbie,” two of my fellow drivers published books. Last year we had a successful Union Cab art show. There’s always several musicians driving at Union at any given time. In fact, earlier this year, a second Union Cab music CD was released.
As I said to the camera (and to local reporters Doug Moe and Rob Thomas in interviews this week, neither of whom felt the need to quote me on this point), Union Cab does a great job of nurturing artistic types because, first of all, we pay a living wage, which means you don’t have to work a ton of hours to get by, so you have time to devote to your art. Second, Union Cab is not the kind of workplace that sucks out your soul, so that when you’re not working, you still have enough gas in the tank to pursue your artistic endeavors.
Still, all that said, it was an honor to be in a Michael Moore film, even if it was just the bonus features on the DVD. While I felt a bit disappointed by some aspects of the segment, it was a strong, positive portrayal of a worker cooperative that is, in it’s own way, an important part of a bigger movement.
There is one last point I do need to make. I have to take exception with Rebecca’s comment that “we don’t have any Communists working here.” Actually, we do. I know for a fact that we have at least one, and he’d be a bit pissed to hear that comment. Rebecca seems a bit defensive when she makes that remark. I want to be clear that we’ve always had Communists working at Union Cab, and they have, at various times, played an important role and taken leadership positions, but not for power, not because the Central Committee told them to, but because they chose to sacrifice their time for the common good.
Look for us on page two of the bonus features. Our segment is titled, “You Talkin’ To Me? Commie Taxi Drivers in Wisconsin.”