Union Cab made a worker’s paradise and filled a parking lot with big yellow taxis

Hybrid Union Cab
Hybrid Union Cab (Photo credit: afagen)

About five months ago I started a new job at Union Cab of Madison.  As a graduate student, I sought a job with flexible hours that I could enjoy and take some pride in. So when I found out that Union Cab was hiring, I jumped at the chance to drive one of their big yellow taxis.

Union Cab was started in 1979 after Yellow Cab and Checker Cab shut down in Madison rather than sign new union contracts. Five former Checker drivers started the co-op and after nearly 35 years, it continues to grow and thrive.

Prior to interviewing at the cooperative, Union was already my preferred taxi service. After trying other taxicab services that were cheaper, I chose Union Cab because of its reliability. As someone who has run his own non-profit before, I have been a strong believer in paying for quality, and fares that are a tad higher than that of competitors are fully worth it to me if the company can get me to an appointment on time.

All of the sedans on the taxi fleet are Toyota Prius hybrid cars.  Cab No. 11 pictured above is one that I happen to drive the most frequently.  After eight or nine hours on the road–typically over 100 miles, the most gas that I’ve ever pumped into the tank to top it off is about four gallons, with two or two and a half being more of the average.

A lot of businesses will talk about being worker owned, but Union Cab seems to walk the talk.  From what I’ve seen so far, Union Cab seems to have the flattest and least hierarchical organizational structure I’ve ever seen for an organization of that size.  That doesn’t seem to inhibit the organization from holding its employees to high standards. Extensive training even includes “democracy class” that teaches members how democracy can work within the context of a workplace. Each employee is a co-op member who owns a share of the company and is able to vote for the co-op’s board members and/or serve on committees  I also sat in recently on an all-members’ meeting and was quite impressed with the overall quality of discussion.

When I first moved to Madison, I heard that the city had a reputation for having cab drivers with PhD’s. While no driver at Union Cab has ever insisted on having me address them as “Doctor of Philosophy,” I find the cooperative’s workplace culture to be quite unique.  Imagine the cast of “Taxi,” but then make the characters sensitive to issues about the environment, gay rights, gender issues, with one or two even having a smattering of knowledge about Marx, and you sort of get what the culture of the organization is like.  It’s an “only in Madison” institution and one of the things that, in my view, makes Madison unique.

Okay, maybe there’s no such thing as a “worker’s paradise” but I am thoroughly enjoying the job, I’d seriously consider continuing to drive shifts for the cooperative even after I graduate. Right now, cooperatives provide my housing, much of my food, most of my income and all of my banking.  At a time when more and more employers and financial institutions seem to show little regard for the well-being of their employees and customers, cooperatives are one grass-roots solution that has the potential to reverse that trend.

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