Alberto ‘Tito’ Álvarez is a short, pot-bellied taxi driver from Barcelona. He’s also the man who might one day be remembered for bringing Uber to heel.
As a founding member and chief spokesman of the Élite Taxi cooperative, the 40-year-old Spaniard has waged running battles against the California ridesharing company he accuses of unfairly undercutting taxi drivers. As part of his three-year crusade, Álvarez has spent countless hours lobbying his country’s politicians for support, blocking the centers of European capitals together with hundreds of cab drivers and facing down riot police in sometimes violent confrontations.
Most importantly, he and his cooperative have brought Uber to court, in a case that could deal a massive blow to the company’s attempts to consolidate its business in Europe. The case — first lodged in Barcelona but now in front of the European Court of Justice — will decide whether Uber can be defined as a transport company and therefore be subjected to the industry regulations of particular countries and cities.
In May, the ECJ’s advocate general, Maciej Szpunar, issued an advisory statement that suggests Álvarez and his friends will win. In a 94-page opinion, Szpunar rejected Uber’s claim that it was merely a digital platform mediating between drivers and passengers. “Don’t let appearances deceive you,” Szpunar said. “Uber really organizes and operates urban transport services in the towns where it is present.”
The court’s final ruling is expected later this year. If its judges follow the advice of the advocate general — as they do in the majority of cases they adjudicate — it would be an extraordinary achievement for Álvarez. It could also devastate Uber’s business model, potentially subjecting it to the regulations — including licensing requirements — governing transport companies across the Continent.
“Tito has gone all out and he’s mobilized people to ensure we fight for our jobs, so we can feed our children,” said Luis Baquedano, a taxi driver from Élite’s branch in the city of Zaragoza. “He’s a fighter — he’s a fighter with balls who has stood up to all the cockroaches, all those who have been messing with taxi drivers.”
At a recent demonstration in Madrid, thousands of taxi drivers from across the country gathered to demand that Spain’s Popular Party (PP) government restrict the activities of the likes of Uber and Cabify (a ridesharing company that operates in Spain, Portugal and Latin America). Amid exploding firecrackers, beating drums and chanting protestors, Álvarez could be seen high-fiving and hugging fellow drivers and occasionally lifting a megaphone to his mouth to lead a chant: “El taxi unido jamás será vencido!” (“Taxis united will never be defeated!”). “This makes me proud,” Álvarez told POLITICO during the demonstration, which was accompanied by a one-day taxi drivers’ strike in cities across Spain. “And we’re just the spark that has caused people to raise their voice.”
This Barcelona native may not look like a folk hero, but Álvarez has been instrumental in galvanizing taxi drivers across Spain and indeed the whole of Europe. In less than three years, the Élite Taxi cooperative has grown from a local, Barcelona-based organization with a couple dozen members to a 4,500-strong nationwide force with affiliates across the EU.
- Alberto Alvarez’ crusade inspired many demonstrations.