Veena  Dubal

The Last Cowboy: Freedom, Flexibility, and Myths of Legal Identity in the San Francisco Taxi Industry

While substantial research across disciplines has investigated the devastating impact of neoliberal economic reforms on the lives of low-income workers in the United States, much less is known about how workers make sense of their “precarity” and how these meanings impact potential collectivities. This study of San Francisco cab drivers examines worker narratives on freedom, identity, and organizing to understand the mass – but not collective – activity of resistance in the industry.

San Francisco taxi drivers, like a growing number of workers, are legally classified as “independent contractors” and work outside the context of labor protections. Corporate regulation and restructurings, financial medallion schemes, and a reserve army of workers ready to take over their jobs exacerbate driver insecurity and make taxi driving a financially unstable and vulnerable job. As scholars have well documented, in addition to the economic consequences, such precarious work also dislocates people psychologically, impacting the health and stress level of workers. And yet, despite the insecurity and difficulties the status brings to their lives, my findings reveal that many San Francisco drivers prefer the identity of “independent contractor” to that of employee.

Based on four years of ethnographic research, including in-depth interviews of San Francisco taxi drivers and activists, my research reveals how workers make sense of liberalization and forage for a sense of authentic freedom and masculine power, feelings that are otherwise enigmatic in their chaotic and precarious work lives. These findings point to a potential new path towards comprehensive worker rights, protections, and benefits – a path that deviates from traditional independent contractor misclassification litigation and that requires a fundamental re-orientation to workers and their lives.