How to avoid getting “Ubered:” inside the Ottawa taxi lockout


by Joel Harden
CUPE Local 4600 Chief Steward and delegate to the Ottawa & District Labour Council

Last Friday my cell phone rang as I fed our kids breakfast. An Ottawa airport taxi activist was on the other line, among the many I’ve met during their labour dispute with Coventry Connections which has now lasted over three months.

“Joel”, he said, “forget about the solidarity demo we announced for 10am today. That was a diversion.”

“I’m calling you from the dispatch offices of Coventry Connections. We’re rallying outside the entrances — get here as soon as possible.”

Well, that was the end of breakfast. I grabbed our rental van, our union crew at Carleton University, and sped to the scene.

What I saw was inspiring. Over 200 activists were there, including Unifor members from all over Ontario and Quebec. Cab drivers were elated, chanting slogans and beating drums.

Photo by Hassan Husseini
Photo by Hassan Husseini


This was part of a planned Day of Action for airport cabbies and their families. The day before, the cabbies got a head start by defying a City of Ottawa injunction, blocking a major intersection outside my workplace on Bronson Street. Traffic was snarled city-wide as a result.

Early the next morning, out-of-town Unifor activists entered the offices of Coventry Connections, and asked dispatch workers to leave (who are organized, as it happens, by CUPE 4266).

Most left, but a few attempted to stop the Unifor occupation (some blocked the doors, while others sat down in protest). In doing so, one dispatcher and a supervisor had minor injuries.

Equipment was temporarily disabled and dispatch service was down for three hours. After a brief standoff, Unifor activists opted to leave the building, joining the rally outside.

The rally had intended to shift to City Hall, where Unifor intended to call out Ottawa’s Mayor Jim Watson. That plan was scrapped after revelations about what happened during the occupation.

Now a debate rages about whether Unifor’s occupation was justified, and what it means for the outcome of Ottawa’s taxi lockout. Coventry, the Mayor of Ottawa, and media pundits are demanding that Unifor be held accountable for its actions. And after the buses of Unifor activists left town, airport cabbies now feel more vulnerable than ever.

There is even anger in union circles about last Friday’s events. The following night, as I attended a popular “Rock For Public Services” concert, a CUPE activist insisted I denounce Unifor for its actions. “There is no fucking excuse,” he yelled, “for attacking fellow union members.” “The shit you are writing on Facebook and Twitter is pure garbage.”

From @yowtaxi on Twitter
From @yowtaxi on Twitter


But this, as I told the brother, misses the big picture. What happened last Friday was entirely predictable given the raw stakes of Ottawa’s airport taxi lockout. The indifference of Ottawa’s political elite, and ineffectiveness of our city’s labour movement, have set the stage for what happened.

At its core, Ottawa’s taxi lockout is corporate greed. It’s about executives in San Francisco and Ottawa bleeding cabbies while politicians discuss “mediation.” But most importantly, it’s about cabbies standing strong, and not receiving enough by way of support.

That’s why Ottawa’s taxi lockout offers a cautionary tale for unions. To avoid getting “Ubered,” in the taxi industry and elsewhere, we must think seriously about how to fight back. And as that debate continues, Ottawa’s airport cabbies have much to teach the rest of us.

The Uber Challenge

As many know, Uber — the online “ride sharing service” now worth $55 billion — has made a dramatic impact on the taxi industry. According to cabbies I know, Uber has absorbed a third of Ottawa’s taxi market. It has done so without paying tax, or conforming to any regulations.

As this has happened, a mad scramble has ensued to recover what’s been lost. At the bargaining table, this led to Coventry proposing a $4.50 per taxi ride increase, amounting to $400,000 in extra revenue for the company per year. It also adds over a $1 million per year to the Ottawa Airport Authority.

But for taxi drivers, it’s a $1000 fee hike per month, representing a huge bite into already modest incomes. There was no conceivable reason why airport cabbies would accept this proposal, a fact Hanif Patni (Coventry’s CEO) has acknowledged publicly.

At the same time, Patni has hired other cabbies (in companies Coventry owns or controls) to maintain taxi business at the airport. To make matters worse, these drivers, like the airport cabbies, are members of same union (Unifor local 1688) — creating an internal turf war that offers Coventry no incentive to settle.

This turf war represents the Uber challenge for unions. Downtown taxi drivers, thanks to Uber, are suffering huge cuts to their own incomes. To feed their families, they take the work of fellow union members at the Ottawa airport.

As this happens, Coventry claims “airport cabbies had a sweet deal,” and that “exclusive access to the airport is over.” Meanwhile, downtown cabbies already have exclusive access to the Ottawa’s train station, bus station, and many major downtown hotels. This imbalance frustrates airport drivers trying to scrape by on strike pay and DIY taxi fares.

This is the classic employer strategy of divide and rule, now intensified by Uber’s role in the taxi industry. The only way unions can face this challenge is by standing together.

Resisting Uber-ization

To their immense credit, airport cabbies have done this. Despite intense pressures, only 8 of their 200 members have left the union’s ranks.

For the last three months, to supplement their strike pay, they have created a text messaging dispatch for taxi fares. Under Ontario labour law, this is legal during a strike given the cabbies’ status as independent contractors.

Airport drivers have also built a detailed website ( to share their heartfelt stories, and document the consequences of this lockout. This web presence has been mirrored through active interventions in Facebook and Twitter, and regular demos in downtown Ottawa.

What’s been missing, as I wrote two months ago on, are opportunities for Ottawa’s labour movement to support this struggle. Last Friday’s blockade of Coventry Connections was a largely Unifor affair, with a smattering of other unions closely attuned to this struggle.

To get a fair resolution to this dispute, much broader action is needed.

Another absent player is the City of Ottawa who must play a more active role in this dispute. So far, the city (who regulates the taxi industry) has demanded drivers shoulder Coventry’s massive fee hike. Meanwhile, many airport customers have expense budgets for taxi rides, and should be asked to share the load.

But so far, Mayor Jim Watson has only said cabbies are “hurting themselves” with disruptive protests. He has asked for provincial mediators to help, and asked “both sides to get back to the table.”

But as union members fight each other, Coventry’s executives have no interest in mediation. They are content to wait this out, insist on massive fee hikes, and hope cabbies give in.

That is unlikely to happen. As cabbies tell me, many of them come from societies where political repression is a fact of life. They don’t expect that treatment in Canada, but they are prepared to fight back. It’s time for Ottawa’s labour movement to support them in doing so.

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9 thoughts on “How to avoid getting “Ubered:” inside the Ottawa taxi lockout

  1. Thank you for being the rare few who actually believe in the airport cab drivers’ struggle. And thank you for speaking on their behalf and taking the time to actually express the truth that the media, Airport Authority, and Coventry Connections continue to deny or give false statements!!

  2. That is the truth all of it. As the Airport Taxi Drivers are getting chewed up by everyone. The City of Ottawa, Airport, Local Union 1688, Coventry Connections and Drivers from the same Union stabbing using the back. Joel you know what this is when true colors show. I will stand with you any day because you take the time to know what’s going on. On top of that your caring your open heart. If anything I would like to thank you for being a true Canadian with great moral values.


  3. nelson ross laguna


    well said brother. I was there Friday and it was a much needed action. I haven’t done enough to help this struggle and we as a labour community in Ottawa need to do more if Unifor local 1688 want us to.

  4. Thanks for this well-written honest summary of the taxi situation.

    The airport drivers’ struggle is representative of the most compelling ‘labour vs. capital’ fight of our time; this uphill battle is reflective of an even larger contemporary labour rights dispute: Uber vs. Taxi.

    It is unfortunate to hear that the demonstrations did not continue to City Hall and Mr. Watson as supposedly planned. Watson has single-handedly betrayed a large percentage of the public who originally supported him. Watson offered the people of Ottawa refreshing political reform, after the city suffered years of civil disenfranchisement, eroding infrastructure and public investment from overly conservative a reactionary civic management. His disheartening ignorance of such a major labour dispute is not only a rude wake-up call to those who believed in him, it has caused him to further marginalize and oppress an already voiceless group facing a modern human rights catastrophe.

    The only weapon against capital is numbers; population and activists: this is precisely where Unions come into play. I was there Friday and so thrilled to see such large numbers organized, and only hoped we could see such a large group of fellow unionists and activists organized against Uber headquarters and more so City Hall. The City has allowed a foreign multinational with absolutely no respect of labour rights, local economy and local regulations and law, to not only extract income from our city, but to destroy the livliehoods of thousands of families.

    These numbers are our only weapon, but unfortunately they are crucially divided. As you mentioned scabbing amongst unionists while inexcusable, and something I personally refuse to do or endorse as do many like me, was facilitated by the desperation and suffering caused by Uber. Such scanning has naturally and understandably resulted in the airport drivers not being interested in any action with their fellow taxi drivers against Uber, against the city etc… Conversely, non-airport taxi drivers are disheartened when seeing all the action taken by the union in support of the airport drivers (some of whom are reputed by some taxi drivers to have resorted to working with Uber) while no such action was taken against Uber and against the City.

    In conclusion: the only way to get our numbers united and cohesively working together is for us to have national union action against Uber and against the City for facilitating the largest labour vs. corporation battle in our modern times.

  5. Pingback: Labour News Update: Nov. 23, 2015 |

  6. I know I’m late coming to the party here but…


    I was in the room that day, and let me tell you that NO-ONE asked us anything. The goon squad of middle aged thugs STORMED the call centre and ASSAULTED people. No. Let me rephrase that… The goon squad of middle aged, thugs STORMED the call centre and ASSAULTED TWO WOMEN AND A MAN OVER 65. Thank God there were no children or puppies present or the Neanderthal’s would have hurt them too.

    The best part? You retards didn’t even attack Coventry Connections!! Most of Coventry Connections were home in bed when your idiots struck ZIPTRACK employees. We’re a different company – and we’re unionized. Had ANYONE bothered to ask, there may have been support for your cause in the call centre that day. But NOT ANYMORE. Your barbarians destroyed the last remaining hope for support from anyone in this city.

    And now, one month later, when we think of that day, most of us laugh at the comedy of errors that took place. It’s hilarious that you covered up the security cameras…. but who knew there would be so many of them, eh? And after all your hard work in trying to shut down the call centre for the day, isn’t it frustrating to know that we were in the back area taking calls and dispatching cabs almost immediately? The entire call centre was up and running in less than 2 hours. That’s not even half the time it took the out-of-towners to drive to Ottawa!!

    I was ecstatic to hear that….
    Robert ORR – Woodstock
    John HARTE – Meaford
    Cary MACMILLAN – Brantford
    Roland KIEHNE – Whitby
    ….were charged with breaking and entering, mischief, and ASSAULT. Those “men” who beat women down to make a point are going to have to come back here to face the charges. I can’t wait to see them. I’ve got a lot to say… Not to them, of course – with their iqs, any word with more than two syllables would confuse them… but I’ve already had a chat with cops and I’m happy to do it over and over until we get convictions. One of those bullies nearly dislocated my shoulder and elbow when they tried to put me (a 47 year old woman) in a headlock. I LOVE SECURITY CAMERAS. There’s no defence – it’s on camera.

    So see you soon…
    Robert ORR – Woodstock
    John HARTE – Meaford
    Cary MACMILLAN – Brantford
    Roland KIEHNE – Whitby
    …only this time, we’re going to meet on Elgin St instead of Coventry Rd.

    Merry Christmas!!!

  7. Hi Tina, as the author of the article, I have a few things to say in response to what you’ve posted here.

    First, as you say, the matter is now before the courts, and a legal process will ensure all perspectives are heard, and consideration is given to the charges in question (I am a legal studies prof by trade, so please forgive the jargon).

    Second, I can also appreciate your frustration with not being contacted for solidarity work with airport taxi drivers before the attempted occupation. Drivers and dispatchers are both under threat by Uber, you are natural allies. I hope it will be possible to work together again at some point.

    Lastly, however, I am reminded that solidarity is a two-way street, and, on that note, your comment raises several questions for me. Have ziptrack dispatchers raised any concerns about the lockout of airport taxi drivers since it began on August 11, 2015? Have ziptrack dispatchers been arranging rides at the Ottawa airport during the lockout?

  8. To your questions: have dispatchers raised concern about the locked out airport drivers? I don’t know. You’ll have to ask them and their union – they are a separate bargaining unit. I suspect that they haven’t waded into the debate because the Airport taxi is its own entity and not one that they work with. Perhaps, in the spirit of “brotherhood” they have or should have – but it doesn’t make sense for them to get too invested in another company’s and another union’s matters. Getting involved would be akin to having Walmart’s employees and union getting mixed up in a labour dispute with Loblaws. In theory, Walmart and Loblaws employees are the same – retail workers – but they are different and distinct from each other. Airport taxi is different and distinct from the fleets dispatched through Ziptrack.

    And have Ziptrack dispatchers been arranging for rides at the airport during the lockout? No. Absolutely not. There is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the airport system works…. Airport taxi had the exclusive right to pick up at the airport – a right they paid for through monthly fees. That has changed from a monthly fee to a $4.50 per trip fee – which is not the same as an “increase of $4.50 per fare. Also, taxis at the airport don’t use Ziptrack as a dispatching service. No calls for pickups at the airport go through Ziptrack at all. The airport operates as a stand – which means the drivers get in line and get fares in order according to their place in the actual, physical queue – as they always have. No dispatching is needed – just get in line and you get a fare when your time comes.

    So the attack on us at Ziptrack was fuelled by misdirected anger and was basically an attack on people who had nothing to do with their situation. They tried to impact Coventry Connections by attacking Ziptrack – and that is so many shades of wrong. It’s kind of like invading Canada to hurt the US.

  9. As we found out that there were no Taxi Drivers involved in any actions that Tina is talking about. This was the Actions of Unifor. No Airport Taxi Driver was on video acted in anyway or was even there. So Blame Unifor the Union that represents all the drivers because there the ones who were on camera and were charged in the end. I think you owe the Airport drivers an apology by calling them thugs and blaming them for doing something they did not do at all and that’s evident from your Coventry Cameras. What about all the Drivers and Families Coventry put out on the street? 275 Families. Blueline and Capital having the worst rep in Ottawa. Or the Airport taking away there complaint section on there website because it was full of Airport customers complaining about the service Coventry is providing in all different levels. The Greedy always never understand that greed never makes you mentally rich instead that same greed can drive you only to disrupt everyone’s lives to go after more. I wish everyone good health and good mental stability. How about spending time to save the earth and make it a better place for everyone?

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