The Workers' Paradise

April 5, 2010

Comments About Union Cab’s Bonus Segment in Michael Moore’s Movie

Filed under: Society — Tags: , , , , — Fred Schepartz @ 6:23 pm

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.”

December 19, 2009

The Night I Was A Movie Star—Almost

Filed under: Society — Tags: , , — Fred Schepartz @ 6:30 pm

Okay, I admit it. By the beginning of last summer, I was starting to suffer from delusions of grandeur regarding my role in Michael Moore’s new film. The image of me, sitting behind the wheel of my taxicab, would be on the film’s marquee. Something I said on camera would be the movie’s tagline. And suddenly, not only would I be a movie star, but my novel, Vampire Cabbie, would shoot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.

More about all of this later.

But yes, it is absolutely true. I almost co-starred in Michael Moore’s latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story. Moore wanted to feature worker cooperatives as an antidote to Capitalism. Apparently, Moore had read about Union Cab in Jim Hightower’s recent book, Swim Against The Current, which included a chapter about the worker-owned-and-operated cooperative cab company where I have worked for the past twenty-one years.

There was a lot of talk back and forth between my people and Moore’s people, but finally it was decided that an independent film production crew would come to Madison in early April and would shoot footage and conduct interviews at Union Cab and Isthmus Engineering.

About two weeks before the shoot, I was running a fare when my cell phone rang. I fished the phone out of my hip pocket. My cell phone seldom rings, so when it does, I answer it promptly, assuming that either someone died or that a tsunami has just engulfed most of California.

The call was from John McNamara. John’s my best friend. He’s also our Marketing Manager. Part of his job is handling customer complaints. When I heard his voice on the other end, I immediately thought, “What did I do?”

But no, that was not why John called. Instead, he called to ask me if I would be interesting in driving the film crew around town.

“Would I actually be on camera?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” John replied.

I almost drove the cab off the road. (Well, not really, but that sounds good.)

I was shocked and so, so excited. I immediately shared the news with my passenger, a hip, thirty-something woman who was getting her black-and-white former police car worked on. She thought it was way cool. So did I.

But poor John. He had been the one who had been contacted by Basel Hamdan, the film crew’s producer. He and Basel had been discussing the possibility of Union Cab being included in the movie for a few months. Finally, he got the green light from Basel, but the two days when they would be in town, John would be out of town, visiting his mother in Toledo. John was none too pleased.

But I was excited beyond belief. I told everybody I knew. I’d stop strangers on the street and tell them as well. I was going to be in a Michael Moore movie! I’d be one of the good guys in a Michael Moore movie!

And I could talk about my novel, Vampire Cabbie, on camera. If the final cut included footage of me, talking about my novel, Vampire Cabbie, I would sell lots and lots of books.

The only problem was the anticipation. That may have been the longest week and a half of my life, but I was excited. Frankly, I was not particularly nervous about being filmed, let alone being filmed by Moore’s film crew. The fact that Moore is well known for his in-your-face style of interviewing did not worry me in the least. After all, I was one of the good guys.

Mainly, I wanted to be in the movie, so I wanted to do a good job. It occurred to me that teaching myself to speak in sound bites would maximize my chances of making the final cut. No, I did not sit down and write scripts for myself, but I did put a great deal of thought into what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it.

Of course, I wanted to talk about my novel, Vampire Cabbie, but I wanted to discuss it in the greater context of how Union Cab, being the special workplace that it is, helped make it possible for me to write the book and is a haven for artists of all kinds. I wanted to talk about the importance of Union Cab providing jobs at a living wage in a humane work environment. And I wanted to talk about how Union Cab is a shining example of what I like to call Neo-Syndicalism.

I thought a great deal about what I actually wanted to say, and I actually practiced my “lines,” struggling to be as concise as possible.

I was ready, but then they threw me a curveball. The day before the shoot, Basel sent me an e-mail:

Hi Fred,

Thanks for the info – very helpful. We’re looking forward to tomorrow night’s shoot.

There are a few things we are looking to accomplish—first, we’d like buildings, restaurants or sights that are unique to Madison. Any landmarks or anything …

Also, and there are some things that we’d like to accomplish cinematically—certain visuals and looks that we’d like to capture that we have been thinking about. We can get into more detail about this tomorrow as this is for our Director of Photography to coordinate, but if you know of any places that have smoke—sewers or building that have smoke coming out of them, it would be helpful to what we are trying to do.

We’ll be in touch tomorrow …

All the best,
Basel

As Basel later explained, they were looking for a Taxi Driver visual motif. Okay, I was willing to do what I could, but understand: Travis Bickle is a bit of a sore subject with any self-respecting taxi driver. Surely, Michael Moore wasn’t going to all this trouble just to make fun of us?

Still, I wanted to be helpful. I got up early that morning and perused the Internet, looking for smoke or steam. I know that the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus has a vast network of steam tunnels, but where might the steam be released? I could not find any answers, but I did find a website largely dedicated to Tunnel Bob, a local character well known for traveling the campus steam tunnels.

Anybody who has lived in Madison for a long time knows who Tunnel Bob is. His appearance is quite distinctive. He is extremely tall and lanky, with long arms, legs and a rather long neck. He is also chronically mentally ill.

Maybe Tunnel Bob could tell me where to find smoke or steam. But how could I find Tunnel Bob?

I did make a few phone calls to places like the UW Physical Plant, but no luck. Well, I tried.

Still, I was excited. I went into work early and selected the newest cab I could find then took it to the carwash. I couldn’t pick up the film crew in a dirty cab.

Ah, but the waiting, the waiting. Basel had told me they’d need me to pick them up around seven PM, but when the appointed time arrived, I did not hear from them. Minutes hung like hours, but still no word, which presented a problem in terms of doing my job and making money. The phone call could come any second! I had to be nearby and not engaged in a long call when they were ready for me.

Finally, Basel called. They were still at Isthmus Engineering. They were running a bit late.

Finally, at around ten Basel called to tell me they were just about ready for me and that I should meet them at their hotel, the venerable Inn on the Park, in about a half hour.

Perfect. I was dropping off on the near Westside, just ten minutes from the Capitol Square. That gave me plenty of time to finish my call and more importantly, go to the bathroom. I was not sure when I would get another chance to relieve myself.

The Open Pantry near the west end of the campus was a mere half-mile from where I dropped off my last passenger. When I emerged from the bathroom, I had a big surprise. Not just a surprise, but Kismet!

Sitting on a stool in the small dining area in the Open Pantry was none other than Tunnel Bob! I could not believe my good fortune.

But there was just one problem. Asking someone who is chronically mentally ill a straight question and getting a straight answer is not as easy as one would think. The question: where might I find smoke or steam? I had to ask him three times before I he told me there just wasn’t any smoke or steam to be had. As I feared, it being April and fairly warm, it just was not likely. January or February, that’s a different story.

Oh, well. I tried. I made every effort.

I arrived at the Inn on the Park shortly after the film crew. Right away, they struck me as very nice. Despite the fact that it already had been a long day for them, they were excited and ready to go, including the intrepid cinematographer who had flown in on a red-eye the night before from Europe. He pretty much was running on little more than adrenalin, having not really slept the night before.

The crew quickly went to work setting up the shoot, while Basel and I chatted. I sadly told him there was no smoke or steam to be had, though I did tell him our head mechanic could make smoke if he wanted. Basel shook his head. “That’s okay,” he said.

He asked me about prominent landmarks and views. I told him about Bascom Hill, State Street, the Capitol Square and a curious optical illusion on the southside of town where, when you pull onto this one street (O’Sheridan off Lakeside), the Capitol looms large at the end on the horizon, but as you move closer, it shrinks.

“Cool,” Basel said.

We talked about the Taxi Driver motif. I remembered a story John McNamara had told me several years ago. We used to have a driver named Steve Fleischman. He was very intelligent, but a bit unbalanced. His nickname was Fleshdog.

As John told me, it was election night 1986, the horrible night when Tommy Thompson, a conservative, small-town Republican, whose nickname from his years in the state assembly was Dr. No, defeated amiable Democrat incumbent Tony Earl.

Apparently, Steve had this cab-load of College Republicans. It was their big night, so they were all drunk and excited about Thompson’s unexpected win.

“Aren’t you excited about our new governor?” one of them asked Steve.

In classic Fleshdog fashion, Steve replied, “You know, I don’t know much about politics. All I know is we need a good hard rain to wash the scum off the streets.”

The passengers started freaking out. Steve quickly reassured them, “It’s just a movie. I was just quoting from a movie.”

Basel liked the story.

“It’s election night, you know,” I said. I repeated Fleshdog’s line.

Basel patted me on the shoulder. “Save it for the filming,” he said.

The crew quickly got to work prepping for the shoot. The sound person slipped a wireless microphone under my black leather biker jacket though the exact placement was a bit delicate. It took a little while to figure out how to set up the mike so it would not pick up took much rustling.

They mounted a camera on the outside of the cab. They put gels on some of the windows to cut down on glare. They did test shots with the hand-held camera inside the cab.

I was quite impressed with the attention to detail. Frankly, I never thought of Michael Moore movies as visually strong. His films don’t look bad, but I’ve never thought they look exceptional. I quickly learned that there’s a great deal of hard work that goes into making the movies look as good and sound as good as they do. It’s not like one can just go out and buy a digital camcorder and shoot a movie like it’s nothing at all. The crew worked hard to make it look easy.

And like I said, the cinematographer was particularly intrepid. At one point, we were driving down State Street, he opened the window and shot footage with his entire torso out the window, Basel hanging on to his belt for dear life, a terrified expression on his face. I thought this only happened in the movies.

Later when we were just about done, I realized I had not shown them the optical illusion of the shrinking Capitol. I told the cinematographer. He was ready to jump back in the cab and grab the shot, but Basel pulled in the reins, claiming the guy needed to finally get some sleep. I’m not sure, but I think Basel had simply had enough.

We were ready. The crew packed into my cab, four of them. The rest followed in a minivan. Normally, four people in my cab is a bit crowded, but with Basel, the sound person, the cinematographer and one other person, it was utterly cramped. Of course, the cinematographer bounced back and forth between my cab and their minivan.

They wanted landmarks. They wanted stunning visuals. Right away, with the minivan following close behind, I nosed the cab up the side of Bascom Hill, the glacial blister that is the epicenter of the UW campus. Atop Bascom Hill sits Bascom Hall, named after John Bascom, the founder of the University. I parked the cab almost right next to the statue of Abraham Lincoln, feeling particularly entitled. As a cab driver, I can drive and park in places where civilians cannot, but with Michael Moore’s film crew in tow, hell, the sky was the limit!

The crew was quite impressed with the view from atop Bascom Hill. There’s a great view of the Capitol, along with a festively lit State Street.

We drove down State Street to the Capitol Square. We drove around the Square and back down State Street. We pretty much drove the circuit for hours, up and around and around and down, turn around and do it all over again.

The cinematographer attempted to recreate one of the more famous shots from Taxi Driver. “Glance toward the rear view mirror,” he said. “Shift your eyes back and forth.”

I tried, but it was hard. Finally, I think we got it.

As we drove, Basel and I talked. I knew I could direct what I said to a large extent. I was wired, so anything I said, they would have and could use, if they chose to do so. Basel interviewed me as well.

“Is the co-op cab company in your novel like Union Cab?” he asked.

Well, there’s a softball I could launch over the fence. I answered yes and discussed Union Cab’s structure.

He asked if Union Cab offers health insurance. John had warned us that they were likely to ask about that, given Moore’s interest in health-care reform. No problem, Union Cab does have a health plan. It’s a good health plan, but it’s too expensive—but that’s not Union Cab’s fault; that’s the fault of our broken health care system.

That was really the only thing approaching a gotcha question. Overall, I felt like they all treated me with a great deal of respect. They didn’t act like it was weird that a cab driver wrote a book about a blood-sucking cab driver.

Interestingly, I found out later that the interviews done the next day were not quite so respectful. Karl Schulte, our general manager, felt downright harassed. When discussing the fact that Karl’s wage is only about four times as high as the lowest-paid employee, Basel asked, “What are you, some kind of hippie?”

Rebecca Kemble, who drove them around the next day, also said she felt a bit badgered, but again, I did not feel disrespected in the least.

At other times, Basel said nothing other than helping to direct the shooting. At one point, we stopped at the campus end of State Street. The crew vacated the cab and climbed into the minivan. They wanted to shoot the side of the cab. Basel remained in the cab and told me to drive very slowly but at a steady speed. The minivan drove alongside of me.

We painstakingly drove the length of State Street and turned onto the Capitol Square. Just then, a squad car approached. I promptly pulled over. The minivan pulled over behind me. The square car pulled over in front of me.

Oddly, the officer did not turn on the lights. Basel and I waited for what seemed like forever. The officer did not approach our vehicle.

Feeling like the crew was my responsibility, I broke one of the chief rules when dealing with police during a traffic stop, but I figured that because I was driving a taxi, it would be okay.

Making sure my hands were visible, I got out of my cab and carefully approached the squad car. “I’m with Michael Moore’s film crew,” I said. “We’re shooting a movie.”

“Return to your vehicle!” the officer snapped.

Asshole.

I sheepishly got back in the cab and described the exchange to Basel.

“You didn’t say we were Michael Moore’s film crew, did you?” Basel asked me, a bit annoyed.

“Hey, you didn’t tell me not to.” Then I made some snide remark about the cop not having any African Americans to pull over, referencing the shameful fact that Dane County has the worst per capita discrepancy of incarceration of African Americans of any county in the country. The bitter joke around here is that DWB is way worse than DWI.

A moment later, four more squads showed up. An officer approached the cab.

“I’ll do the talking this time,” Basel said.

“What’s going on here?” the officer asked politely, if not pleasantly.

“We’re an independent film crew, working on a movie,” Basel replied.

“Oh, cool,” the officer, said with a smile. “We were just wondering what was going on and why that minivan was driving the wrong way down the street.”

And then just like that, the squad cars left us to return to business.

“Wow, that guy was really nice,” Basel said. “They’re usually not that nice in New York.”

I growled softly.

We quickly got back to work. We were on one of the streets that spokes off the Capitol when I decided it was time. The Capitol glowed brightly directly in front of us.

“It’s election night,” I said. “The good guys won. The Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice will keep her job. I guess the corporatists won’t be able to buy themselves another seat on the state supreme court, at least not this time.

“But you know, I don’t know much about politics. All I know is what we need is a good hard rain to wash the scum off the streets.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Basel smiling. Cut and print, as they say.

Basel finally called it a night around three in the morning. Damn! It was well past bartime.

As we unpacked, everyone complimented me on my efforts. One member of the crew even asked me if I had acting experience.

Yet all I could think of was the things I didn’t do, what I didn’t say. For some stupid reason, I had forgotten to bring a copy of my novel, Vampire Cabbie, so there was no shot of me in the cab, holding the book for the camera.

I forgot to talk about Neo-Syndicalism. I never got around to talking about all the artists who work at Union Cab and what it is about the workplace that makes that possible. And when Basel asked me about what makes Union Cab a humane workplace, I badly fumbled. This is a question I should have knocked out of the ballpark. It’s an aspect of Union Cab I truly believe in and truly love. And I actually practiced how I would answer that specific question.

Instead, I babbled incoherently about how a bunch of us are Star Trek and Star Wars fans.

“If a driver sees another driver whose headlights are off, even during the day, we tell the dispatcher. This isn’t to get anybody in trouble, but just so the dispatcher can give a friendly reminder for safety reasons.

“This one dispatcher is a huge Star Trek, Star Wars, Dr. Who, and Battlestar Galactica fan. One time, I spotted a driver driving without the headlights on. Instead of telling the dispatcher the driver’s headlights were off, I said, cab so-and-so has switched off his targeting computer.

“The dispatcher then says, ‘cab so-and-so, you’ve switched off your targeting computer. Is everything all right?’”

God, I’m such a dork.

Still, I did feel pretty good about the whole thing, but that changed a couple months later when Basel e-mailed the following message:

Hey Fred,

I hope you are doing well.

We are in the middle of editing the film and there is one section where we would like to re-record some audio of you. It relates to the evening that we drove around in the cab with you, and there is a part that we need to make sure that we have crisply and cleanly—it is the Taxi Driver line.

Pearl Lieberman from our crew will happen to be in Madison this weekend, so we thought that it would be a good opportunity to record this bit of audio—it will not take much of your time at all—it is just reciting that line a few times in order for us to make sure we have it.

Let me know what your schedule looks like for Saturday and you and Pearl can arrange a time and place to meet.

Also, I’m having trouble getting through to you by cell phone, so please send me the correct number. Also, I’d like to discuss the line with you, as well.

All the best,
Basel

As Basel would later explain, they loved the “wash the scum off the streets” line, but wanted me to add, the words “Wall Street.”

That weekend, I met Pearl and her boyfriend. It turns out that her boyfriend was none other than Bob Wasserman, a guy I’ve known since the early 1980s. In fact, we worked together in the Rathskeller at Memorial Union, and I represented him in the infamous bagel grievance.

As we sat in my sweltering car with the windows closed, to try to keep out the road sounds, Pearl struggled with the small camera Basel had thrust at her literally as she was getting in her cab on the way to the airport. Fortunately, Bob is one of the best sound people in Madison. The camera’s batteries were dead, and there was a problem with the cord, but Bob was able to jury-rig something.

We recorded several takes as I tried to get the flow right, along with the right inflection of the added words. I knew my motivation. I tried to say the words “Wall Streets” as if they tasted like the nastiest things ever.

And then it was done.

And then my delusions of grandeur began. I would be on the film’s marquee! My words would be the film’s tagline! Michael Moore would show up the Madison opening. There’d be a big party at the Orpheum Theater. We’d all be on stage. I’d be right up there with Michael Moore. I’d step up to the microphone and say a few words about the film’s importance and Union Cab’s importance.

“Say it, say it,” the crowd would yell.

“I don’t know much about politics,” I would say with a wry smile. “All I know is all we need is a good hard rain to wash the scum off the streets—Wall Street.”

And the crowd would go wild.

Alas, it was not to be, but maybe we might be in the bonus footage on the DVD.

And now it’s time for me to go to work at Union Cab, sticking it to the man for thirty years.

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

Filed under: Society — Tags: , , , — Fred Schepartz @ 6:29 pm

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.

* * *

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.”

Ouch!

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.

October 23, 2009

Capitalism: An Update

Filed under: Society — Tags: , — John McNamara @ 9:20 am

In Michael Moore’s latest blog entry, he lists 15 things that we need to start doing now to change the world and take our economy back.

I read with baited breath. Would he actually mention co-ops?

After a litany of things to do involving our elected officials in Washington, D.C. (all good ideas, by the way), he makes the following comments:

1. Take your money out of your bank if it took bailout money and place it in a locally-owned bank or, preferably, a credit union.

AND

4. Unionize your workplace so that you and your coworkers have a say in how your business is run. Here’s how to do it (more info here). Nothing is more American than democracy, and democracy shouldn’t be checked at the door when you enter your workplace. Another way to Americanize your workplace is to turn your business into a worker-owned cooperative. You are not a wage slave. You are a free person, and you giving up eight hours of your life every day to someone else is to be properly compensated and respected.

The italics are mine.

It is always great to start the day with such a upbeat message!

Thanks, Michael

October 7, 2009

Capitalism: A Review

Filed under: Society — Tags: , , , , , , — John McNamara @ 8:12 pm

****DISCLAIMER****

In the spirit of openness, please consider the following as you read this post. My name appears in Capitalism: A Love Story’s credits under the heading “Special Thanks”. I provided significant information to DogEatDog Productions regarding worker co-operatives, Mondragon, and the St. Mary’s University program, Masters of Management: Co-operative and Credit Union. I also assisted the production company in coordinating interviews and filming of my co-operative, Union Cab of Madison, which ultimately did not make the theatrical release (although I hope that it will be included in the dvd release).I attended a special screening provided at no cost to the membership of Isthmus Engineering and Union Cab on October 1, 2009.

The following comments are my own and should be read in light of the above disclaimer.

*******

For a true “review” of capitalism, one should consult what remains the definitive work on the subject (regardless of your political views). That is the work Das Kapital by Karl Marx. In his expansive three volume treatise, one can find such poignant pearls as this comment from volume 1:

“Owners of capital will stimulate working class to buy more and more of expensive goods, houses and technology, pushing them to take more and more expensive credits, until their debt becomes unbearable. The unpaid debt will lead to bankruptcy of banks which will have to be nationalized and State will have to take the road which will eventually lead to communism.”**

Capitalism: A Love Story provides the highest public profile for worker cooperatives in the United States that they have ever received. While it falls far short of the economic analysis of Marx, Moore correctly taps into the basic lack of fairness within the economic system and puts human faces on the statistical failure experienced during the last year.

The film is a great example of Michael Moore’s sense of humor and fair play. As with Sicko, Moore takes on the complexity of Capitalism and brings it down to earth with personal accounts of its effects, the disclosure that even the people who created derivatives can’t define them, and offers a real-life alternative to running a market economy based on the value democracy instead of greed.

One could probably write volumes on what Moore left out. As mentioned, Marx already has. However, in about 120 minutes, C:aLS tries to remove the social support that Capitalism receives from those that don’t benefit from it without making us feel too foolish for being suckers. Moore also correctly avoids the conspiracy theories of who runs the government by focusing on what Wall Street and our elected officials did in the light of day in front of the C-SPAN cameras.

For a large part, the movie preaches to the converted and for those of you who already identify as being “on the left” the movie is a fun, affirming event rather than the call for action with which it seems to end. For others, I am not sure that the film will resonate that much and may also be affirming to those who don’t really trust Moore or like his style. It was this latter group that seemed to be Moore’s primary focus and I think that may have hurt the overall ability of the film to get a coherent message out.

As with many reviewers, including The Economist, I was a bit shocked that Moore’s choice for economic advice was Wallace Shawn especially when I know that he spoke with people that had much more veritas in the area of economics, but the ones that I know about aren’t from the United States. Still, Moore has never shied away from foreign ideas and, one could argue, that Capitalism was an import for which our founding fathers saw as a threat to the republic. I think that the choice of Shawn suggests that the focus of the movie wasn’t to create a viable alternative as much details just how much capitalism sucks.

My biggest critique of C:aLS was the inclusion of the lengthy discussion about theology and WWJD. One that Moore continued on his blog the Sunday of the first weekend after the movie opened. This segment, to me, exposed a trait among the American Left that is almost as obnoxious as their unwillingness to understand market economics. The Republican Party may have risen to power on the basis of Gods, Gays, and Guns as Wisconsin lawmaker Mark Pocan has proclaimed; however, those social issues have absolutely nothing to do with capitalism. Too often, however, the Left assumes that religious people are reactionary because they elect republicans. However, the republicans have never run on deregulating the economy, closing plants and shipping jobs overseas–they win by getting social conservatives to the polls to vote against gay marriage, abortion, and immigration.

Attacking capitalism and what happened on Wall Street by pointing out the teachings of Jesus seems a meaningless gesture and assumes a lot about people who go to Church. In my travels, I find that the christian movement types tend to see Wall Street as much a den of iniquity as Las Vegas–with the same rules. They already see the sin of greed at work. In the more extreme cases, the conspiratorialists even see the combination of non-christian forces at work controlling the economy and the government. They already agree that Jesus would disapprove of the type of capitalism (cheating capitalism) at play with the Banks. Using this imagery might have the unintended consequences of reinforcing beliefs about the role that non-Christians play in the economy.

I think that this time would have been better spent explaining why co-operatives are a better market economy. He could have made it a nice transition by asking the question, WWJD and then focusing on to incredible works to come out of the energy of Jesuit Priests: Moses Coady with Co-op Atlantic and Don José María Arrizmendiarietta with Mondragon. Instead of the discussion with the priest and bishop, he could have talked to Andrew McCleod a co-op developer and author of the book, Holy Co-operation which details how the teachings of the bible (Old and New testaments) promote the idea of a co-operative economy (had I known this was part of the focus, I would have let the production company know).

I argue this not just to see my co-op in the film, but to make the case that we can have a market economy based on democracy. Moore gives us the false choice between and economic model and a philosophical value (capitalism or democracy). This is the other short-coming of the film–it doesn’t seem to know what it wants or to understand the subject. We are taught that capitalism replaced feudalism. To me, capitalism did not replace feudalism it simply replaced the human at the top with currency. Instead of owing service to the lord for a piece of land and the ability to work, people now serve the dollar. As the barter/trade/service system became replaced by a market economy, we kept the basic anti-democratic structure of feudalist practice known as “The Golden Rule” (those who have the gold, make the rules). Capitalism, keep in mind, came of age when slavery was a constitutional right in the United States of America and the right of kings was only beginning to be successfully challenged. As our communities became more democratic, we started to resist the excesses of capitalism to make it fit to our collective world view. This led to government regulation and the constant push and pull between the masses and the wealthy elite.

So, Moore is correct. Capitalism is not something that we can fix. It isn’t evil, though, it is just an economic system using the market place for a society that no longer easily exists with the majority view of the governed populace. The idea of democratic capitalism is an oxymoron. Co-operation on the other hand, is a democratic method of market economy that has stood the test of time. I wish that Mondragon has allowed Moore to film (the rumor is that they were worried about the response by General Motors, one of the major customers). I would love to see Moore follow this movie with one about Co-operation. He could tour the co-operative societies and movements of the United Kingdom, Canada (Maritimes, BC), Spain, Italy, Argentina, Japan, and countless other countries. This is a market economy that began in earnest in 1844 with 24 pioneers in Rochdale, England and now numbers over 800 million people world-wide. Even in the United States, the co-operative movement provide wages of around 75 billion dollars a year, 2,143,256 jobs and revenue of 652 billion dollars (source: UW Center for Co-operatives)

In summary, go see the film. It is fun and will be worth your time and money (especially if you like hiss-the-villain movies). The version of The Internationale at the end is worth the price of admission. Moore does make us realize how basically unfair capitalism has become especially when the top 1% make the rules for the rest of the 99% to play by (and how willingly they will destroy each other proving that the is no honor among thieves).  In interviews, Moore uses the analogy of a pie served to ten children. If one child takes 9 of the pieces for himself, the other kids will immediately know that act is unfair, yet we accept it everyday in our economy. You will cheer for Marcy Kaptur*** and wish that we had more elected representatives like her. You will leave, I hope, feeling inspired to change the world.

If you also leave the theater completely unsure of how to change the world, I would suggest going down to join your local consumer co-operative, moving all of your banking to the credit union that serves your area, switching your insurance to a mutual insurance company such as Nationwide and, if you feel really into changing the world, discussing with co-workers the idea of collectively going into business as a worker co-op and putting your boss out of work.

As Ghandi and others have said: Be the change you want to see.

**I want to thank Rob Rowlands (University of Birmingham, UK) who presented this quote as part of his paper on a Mutual Neighborhood. Please watch Breathing Lessons for a future post on that intriguing subject.

***Having grown up in Toledo, OH, the movie made me feel proud of that my history (not only because of Kaptur, but the Cleveland: We Not Detroit video as well).