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Fuel for thought: 1913’s taxi strike

The tech industry loves to present itself as “disrupting” industries with innovations such as online ordering of deliveries, or driver services. In fact however they are often just reproducing age-old forms of exploitation.

Take this January 1913 article, ‘The Taxi-cab Strike’:

“If 1913 is to continue as it has commenced, there will be a few remarkable developments in the labour world this year.

“New Year’s Day opened with the taxi-cab strike, which has been threatening for some time. The cause of the dispute — the extra cost of petrol — brings to the front a point from which we can glean a very important moral, viz., that the monopolists always charge the workers with the extra cost of raw material.

“If it costs more to build, to carry, to produce anything, someone has to pay the profit-mongers. Who can pay but the workers, however the fact may be disguised? So it seemed quite natural to the Owners’ Association that the drivers should pay the extra 5d. on petrol. The strike will probably compromise this matter, and the men will win something temporarily, which is always a good reason for a strike.

“But wobbles of this kind will always keep repeating themselves, until at the end of a long series of struggles the exploiters will be finally overthrown. The important thing for us all to remember is that strikes, even when unsuccessful, are always steps towards this ultimate solution. It may be said, in fact, that strikes are the forcing-beds of revolutions; and the spirit that is behind them all is the spirit that will win in the long run.”

Strike supporters act out a theatrical rendition of the situation in 1913

The fuel crisis of the 1910s was in part thanks to the buildup towards war which was taking place at the time. While Britain produced the second-highest amount of coal globally, supplies of oil particularly for its navy were harder to come by, being mostly imported, and efforts were being made to secure higher supplies, driving up prices.

The Owners’ Association, including the British Motor Cab Company Ltd, had responded to this by imposing the cost of the fuel price crisis on drivers, who were forced to strike for three months to stop what was obvious attempt to maintain a system of precarious “self-employment” which raked in profit without having to pay back-end costs.

Around 4,500 cabs were idle in that first wave of strike action, which eventually helped build the taxi drivers’ union to a membership of 20,000 by the time the strikes wound down in March. Nicknamed the Red Union for the colour of its badges, the London Cab Drivers’ Trade Union (renamed later that years to the London and Provincial Union of Licensed Vehicle Workers was known for being particularly militant, but drivers had, over the prior decade, been embracing the swish new upgrade from their traditional horse and carriages to the new motor cars.

A scab cab is attacked during the strike

Looking at their modern descendants, it seems to be a case of here we go again. The current cost of living crisis and extraordinarily high energy and fuel costs are being loaded onto precarious drivers not just of taxis, but of courier vehicles of all kinds. Petrol pump prices have risen from 101p per litre in 2016 to 180p at the worst point of 2022, before falling back to 168p. We are now being told prices will not drop much in 2023.

Companies are not picking up these additional costs, drivers are, meaning many aren’t even making minimum wage for tough jobs keeping things going through the winter – a worsened by the recession’s impact on ordering.

Out great great grandparents had a solution to this sort of behaviour from profiteers who burble about the wonders of their new-age tech while imposing old-school exploitation on their workers. Hit the brakes, still the wheels, and refuse to roll over.

This is part of our monthly series looking back on working class struggle in the early 1910s in the run-up to World War One, through articles found in the Freedom archive.

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