Although the wave of international taxi demonstrations, go-slows, marches and all-out strikes had started in London, many of the 12.000 London black cab taxi drivers (almost half the entire London taxi fleet) which blocked Whitehall and the streets around the political nerve-centre of the British capital, were probably unaware that their demonstration had promoted so many similar actions on the Continent and elsewhere.
As I heard at the Paris demo, many foreign colleagues were inspired by London’s mass protest and simply linked in under the European ‘Fight Uber’-banner. Munich must have had the lowest numbers (30), Napoli a mere 150 (Rome and Milan provided large numbers), but in every other city the turnout was sizeable: Berlin had a stunning 1.000 and Paris 2.000-2.500. Like many taxidrivers in Paris, who had come to the Ecole Militaire in the centre by metro, the colleagues in Madrid – on a 24-hour strike – had turned out without their cabs and demonstrated on foot in a long procession through the centre of the Spanish capital. In Barcelona, where the local regulator wants to ban Uber, demonstrating drivers turned out in numbers and with their taxis.
And although there was an Uber-theme to the demo in London, Steve McNamara, general secretary of organisers Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association (LTDA) – together with the London Cab Drivers Club and trade union RMT – stressed that the local regulator Transport for London (TfL) was the main target. By allowing Uber to use its fare-calculating app in private hire vehicles, it lets those vehicles effectively ply for hire on London’s streets – just like the licensed taxis. “The problem here is that Uber is operating outside the law. There is no question about that. But someone on high has made a decision to leave Uber alone. Why? It is sinister,” McNamara said. The London taxi trade also wondered about the way in which Uber invoices – via the ‘Dutch route’, through its headquarters in the Netherlands to minimise its corporation tax payments in France, the UK and Germany. Earlier this year Apple and Starbucks found themselves heavily criticized in the UK for this practice of tax evasion. Uber countered by saying that it “complies with all applicable tax laws, and pays taxes in all jurisdictions, such as corporate income tax, payroll tax, sales and use tax, and VAT.” Uber’s UK representative said that “the LTDA, which is stuck in the dark ages, is intent on holding London to ransom and causing significant economic impact to Londoners.”At the moment, the London trade has no choice but to wait for the judicial review announced by TfL. Uber meanwhile announced a local 850% increase in the download of its app and announced it would also offer black cabs via its app.
‘Grève Européenne des Taxis’ (‘European taxi strike’) some Paris taxis proudly proclaimed. They all had yellow armbands saying ‘Grève des Taxis’ (‘Taxi strike’). Whilst the London colleagues were tooting their horns and chanting “Boris out” for their mayor to step back, about 2.000 Paris drivers blocked the main Paris airports via a go-slow on the motorways around the French capital. Their beef? The rise in the numbers of VTC (véhicules de tourisme avec chauffeur’) and the competition from apps like Uber. In the centre, near the Ecole Militaire, a 150 to 200 colleagues waited for hours for their 2.000 colleagues to return from the airports and join them in a massive protest in the Paris city-centre. The police managed to break up and delay quite a few of the long lines of taxis returning to the centre. Around the corner a long stream of minibuses with French CRS riot police was waiting. The situation was defused, when the various taxi unions received an invitation to the Matignon, the residence of the prime minister, to discuss the proposals for curbing the rise of the VTC (relatively hastily drawn up by politician Thévenoud) and the onslaught of semi-legal apps. Here, taxi drivers turned on VTC and Uber at the same time. The atmosphere was grim at times, as Paris taxi drivers, who paid € 240.000 a year ago for their ‘plaque’ (licence), have, within a year, seen it go down to € 200.000.
“Do you think this demonstration will change anything?”, the (uniformed) driver of my Super Club taxi from Paris asked, speeding to Paris CDG airport, which just 24 hours earlier was blocked solidly by 2.000 of his colleagues rolling at ‘escargot’ (snails-)speed. I had to confess I didn’t know the answer to his question, as the international taxi strike seemed to have slightly different themes in every country – although the words Uber were present at each protest and pronounced with unadulterated discust. And in so many different languages. Despite the lack of formal organization (each country organized its own party, loosely arranged around the Uber-theme), for the first time the local taxi trade seemed united on an international scale never seen before. It was nice to sense this feeling of being part of a larger whole, which I got from many of the cabbies I interviewed. Many aimed their venom at ‘Bruxelles’ and seemed to expect measures from the EU to curb the various app’s activities. Yet in Brussels, where the police seized the 13th UberPop-vehicle (at € 10.000 fine for each vehicle offering this service), there was no demonstration. And neither in The Netherlands, where Uber only offers its semi-legal Uber Black and Uber Lux services.
• An impression of a day of European taxi protest.