Gig Economy Project – ‘We are the trade unionism of the future’: Interview with Alberto ‘Tito’ Álvarez

In this podcast, the Gig Economy Project speaks to the leader of Élite Taxi Barcelona, Alberto Tito Álvarez, about how the union has been so effective in keeping Uber out of the Catalan capital

Lea este artículo en español aquí

The Gig Economy Project, led by Ben Wray, was initiated by BRAVE NEW EUROPE enabling us to provide analysis, updates, ideas, and reports from all across Europe on the Gig Economy. If you have information or ideas to share, please contact Ben on GEP@Braveneweurope.com



This series of articles concerning the Gig Economy in the EU is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Andrew Wainwright Reform Trust



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We are the trade unionism of the future’: Interview with Alberto Tito Álvarez

In this podcast, the Gig Economy Project speaks to the leader of Élite Taxi Barcelona, Alberto Tito Álvarez, about how the union has been so effective in keeping Uber out of the Catalan capital

Alberto Tito Álvarez is no ordinary taxi leader. In his “f*** Uber” yellow vest, he embodies the spirit of a taxi union in Barcelona that is determined to keep the ride-hail platforms out of the Catalan capital permanently, and are willing to use and all every tactic available to them to do so.

Since 2014, Élite Taxi Barcelona has so far proved incredibly effective in achieving that aim. Whereas in London, there are thought to be 45,000 Uber cars on the streets and 3.5 million users, in Barcelona you cannot see an Uber car in the street, and one would not rely on the Uber app to be able to make a booking at all. Uber left Barcelona in 2019, citing regulatory pressures, and made a botched return in March of this year, with regulators under intense pressure from Élite Taxi to crackdown on the Californian company for breaching the city’s rules due to its refusal to offer a closed-price fare.

The Gig Economy Project was in Barcelona on 28 September for the latest Élite Taxi mobilisation through the city, this time aiming their fire not just at Uber and Cabify, but also at Free Now, the German-owned private hire app used by many Barcelona ‘taxistas’, and which Álvarez accuses of being in league with Uber to liberalise the taxi sector in Catalonia.

On Wednesday [13 October], Élite Taxi are set to take their message directly to Brussels, where they will meet members of the European Parliament and the EU Commission to present a report which Álvarez says proves the ride-hail platforms operate a pricing cartel

The day after the demonstration [29 September], GEP spoke to Álvarez about the past, present and future for Élite Taxi Barcelona. This podcast is only available in Spanish. In it, we discuss:

00:56: The organisation, strategy and tactics of Élite Taxi

14:08: The current fight against Uber, Cabify and Free Now

18:04: Why is the situation of the taxi so different between Madrid and Barcelona?

20:59: Could the information technology of the ride hail platforms be used for social good?

24:08: Uber’s vision to be at the heart of Europe’s zero-carbon transition in transport

28:57: Élite Taxi Barcelona’s plans in Brussels on 14 October

A TEXT VERSION OF THIS PODCAST IN ENGLISH IS AVAILABLE BELOW

The Gig Economy Project: What motivated you to launch the Élite Taxi Association? How did you come up with the idea?

Alberto Tito Álvarez: Well, Élite Taxi was not born with the idea of being an association, in fact it was born due to the circumstances that were occurring in the cab sector in Barcelona, we felt very abandoned by the unions and the administrations and a movement was created little by little that today, well, it has had a quite remarkable impact throughout Europe.

GEP: Élite Taxi has been very militant and has taken big risks at times. For example, in 2018, when the High Court of Justice of Catalonia annulled the regulations of the Metropolitan Area of Barcelona regarding private hire cars, the union decided to go on indefinite strike, blocked airport terminals, occupied the busiest street in Barcelona. Weren’t you worried, or did you have confidence in these militant tactics?

Álvarez: We had been on strike for 48 hours, waiting for the High Court of Justice of Catalonia, we already knew that it had to say something about whether it would take precautionary measures against the regulation of the metropolitan area, which we had also achieved through pressure in the streets, and our surprise was that it was annulled.

Here, there was no idea, we were not convinced to go on strike indefinitely, it was just what the circumstances and the warming of the sector led us to do. The only thing we did was go to the airport, hold an assembly of thousands of taxi drivers, and we said that if we, Élite Taxi, went on strike we, Élite Taxi, would become a simple interlocutor and at that moment we had to choose, the taxi drivers had to choose a strike committee, which would only be for this mobilisation and to act as an interlocutor with the administration, and they voted for us, it was all very spontaneous and without having thought about it before, things happened.

We are assembly members, so we always involve the sector in the most important decisions because we consider that a taxi driver who is self-employed and has a licence in which he has invested a lot of money, or has committed himself to the bank with loans, we do not have the legitimacy to decide on that, on what is theirs, what belongs to the taxi driver, so what we do is the only democracy that exists for us, which is to raise our hands in an assembly and that is what gives legitimacy and that is what happened in 2018.

There, it was voted that we would go on strike indefinitely and that we would go to the centre of Barcelona to the Gran Via and we would plant about 4000 taxis there and we would leave them there, and every day we held assemblies and every day we met with the politicians, every day they called us, well they called me, all the economic agents like AENA, like the traders’ associations, hoteliers and they told us that we should please lift the strike because we were doing a lot of damage to the image of the city and well. I told them that they didn’t have to call us, that if they don’t know how to fight for their rights, we do, that the person they should call is the person in charge who has to fix this and so, I don’t remember if we were there for 7 or 8 days, and then something happened that we didn’t expect, which is that we started in Barcelona, but two days later, Madrid, Seville, the Costa del Sol, Valencia, the Basque Country followed us. Then the government started to understand, they saw where we were going; if you stop airports, train stations, bus stations, you stop the whole economy of the country. It’s chaos, and we forced the government to negotiate.

GEP: My impression of yesterday’s demonstration [28 September] in Barcelona, the cab drivers of Élite Taxi had a lot of energy from the members and a lot of confidence with the demonstration. How have you managed to build that culture within Élite Taxi of a deep sense of commitment and unity?

Álvarez: Well, we have always tried to tell taxi drivers that, logically, taxis are a business, but more than a business, they are a way of life, in other words, taxis are our life. So when an attempt is being made on your life, you have to defend yourself and you have to go to the last consequences, so we have always tried to make the taxi driver feel that the taxi is one more member of his family, which we really think is the case, and that he has a very internalised sense of public service, committed to others when there is attacks, and this happens all over the world. So when Élite Taxi calls the sector to mobilise, everyone knows that we have no interest, because we do not have any applications, nor do we want to, nor do we have any agencies, in other words, we only live to defend taxi families. As there is no commercial interest behind it, that’s why I think we have so much credibility.

GEP: You have added new tactics to Élite Taxi, such as political lobbying, legal action, use of the media and Taxi Project 2.0, why did you decide it was necessary to expand the union’s repertoire?

Álvarez: Well, historically, when organisations are born, and they are as explosive as ours, which is quite a strong project, with a lot of power, which is spreading in many territories, what usually happens when there is a movement like this is that after a year, two years, there start to be internal fights and things start to happen that cause the movement to fall or deflate and lose strength.

For us, the street is fundamental, but we realise that we need professionals who work and who see our struggle from another point of view, the way to combat all these economic powers that we are fighting against, who have unlimited money to spend and ruin, so we created another association called Taxi Project 2.0, where we bring together taxi drivers, a profile of taxi driver that is perhaps not as warlike as the one you saw yesterday but who is more dedicated to work, they are “more moderate” people and prefer to pay a fee and continue working. So what we do is open up, widen our sights and say: ‘Well, we have to be on the streets but we also have to arm ourselves economically and use that money so that professionals can give us another point of view and we can go to the offices with solid arguments to dismantle their theories or these theories invented by companies like Uber, Free Now, Bolt, Cabify, Glovo, Deliveroo and all of them.’This technological story that they want to put in our heads and which is a big lie.’

So, in this phase, where we incorporate this new association, there are internal problems, and I have always said it, starting a movement is easy, because it’s you against everyone, and what you do is channel people’s indignation because they don’t like the system and everyone against everyone. This is very simple. But, when you get to the top, to maintain yourself, to maintain the strength of the street and to know how to talk to public administrations and politicians who, although the majority of people don’t like it, are the ones who legislate and are the ones in charge, so how to articulate this and continue to have followers is very complicated.

That is why we at Taxi Project have the slogan that we say we are the trade unionism of the future; traditional trade unionism, in our opinion, has to change its mind and articulate other ways of fighting, I would even dare to say that Taxi Project acts as a lobby, a pressure lobby and we have something in the combination of Élite Taxi Barcelona and Taxi Project, which is absolute perfection because you have professionals working in the offices, we are talking about hackers, economists, we are talking about lawyers, experts in competition law, in other words, all the areas you can imagine, we have all our professionals working there, above all professionals with our mentality. Even with money, you can’t hire a lawyer who is defending something he doesn’t believe in, you have to look for the right people who believe in what they are doing, because that way it will always be much better.

And a little bit we become obsessed and we understand that the only important thing is to win, and to win many times you have to swallow saliva and eat things that in the beginning you were saying you would never do that and you have to end up doing it if you want to win. So our mentality is winning, we are going to win, because you don’t eat principles, you starve on principles and we want to eat and live with dignity, and we will eat the principles that are necessary because when thousands of families depend on your decisions or your strategies, you have to be aware of the responsibility that comes with it and put that above your ideals at times.

GEP: Yesterday’s action [28 September] by Élite Taxi was in resistance to what you have described as “unprecedented attacks” by Uber, Cabify and Free Now, can you explain what these attacks consist of and what the union’s demands are with this strike, this action?

Álvarez: Well, we have never ever demonstrated against a company like Free Now, which in Spain has always worked with taxis, and in the metropolitan area of Barcelona alone, it is owned by 3500-4000 taxi drivers. It is a very high percentage, so fighting or demonstrating against a company that is providing “food or services” to so many taxi drivers is very complicated because many people don’t understand this and turn against you.

It is the typical story of capitalism; I create a problem and then I bring you the solution. So before starting this new battle of Élite Taxi against Free Now we had to think about it very well because we had to weigh the pros and cons, the pros of not going against Free Now, well, most of the Free Now taxi drivers are going to be on your side, the cons are that a good part of the taxi drivers are not going to understand and you are going to have them against you, so what is more important is to face the problems and tell them. That’s why I was talking before about responsibility, when you take on a responsibility or have such a big responsibility you have to tell people what they don’t want to hear, because we don’t exist so that people listen to what they like.

We tell the truth, and the truth is that Free Now, Bolt and Uber are pushing the European Union to deregulate the taxi, to create a single market in passenger transport where there is no need for any kind of authorisation to transport passengers and this is the death of the taxi. This is a profound change in the economy, where the quantitative limitations on the number of licences comes to an end, where we enter a market where they do away with the spirit of public service, which is regulated and controlled fares, and where they apply dynamic fares and where there are no geographical limits. What does this mean? This means that a taxi from Barcelona can go to Madrid to work or to a small town in Catalonia and vice versa, and really, the best thing, one of the best things about the taxi and its raison d’être is the capillarity it has, in the smallest town there is a taxi and in the biggest city there is a taxi and this is precisely because there are geographical limits, because the local council grants a taxi licence to meet the needs of the population of that territory. If you liberalise this, in the end the taxis from these small towns go to the big cities where there is work and everything is left unattended, so this is the opposite of what the taxi service is all about. We are fighting against this, in other words, we understand that we have to change things but not disfigure or distort what a taxi is.

GEP: The situation of Uber and the rest of the VTC companies in Catalonia and Barcelona is very different from the rest of Spain, for example in Madrid where Uber and Cabify have a large presence. What explains this difference, is it the work of your union, a different policy in Catalonia, both…?

Álvarez: Well I think that everything has to do with it. Logically politics is everything, in other words everything is politics, everything, and the politics in Madrid or Andalusia is a liberal policy that protects the big and the powerful and the small are treated as if they were slaves, where they privatise all the basic sectors that the population needs, and this is what has happened in Madrid. They have given a lot of freedom to the investment funds that control all the applications and in Catalonia the opposite has happened, they protect more, despite the fact that the politics there are more diverse, that here there are right-wing and left-wing independents and there are progressives and there are right-wing parties. In other words, we have a bit of everything, but it is true that if we talk from right to left, mixing left-wing independence with progressives, there is a large majority of left-wingers in Catalonia and there is a tendency to protect public services, but if there is no pressure, we would be exactly the same as in Madrid, because when we talk about progressivism and we talk about protecting public services, one thing is to say things and another thing is to do them.

Because we are also seeing, for example, the KELLYS that are very unprotected in an autonomous community like Catalonia that is constantly talking and claiming the social rights that they want for the Catalans and they have sectors that are totally unprotected like home care, the KELLYS; the chambermaids, health, health transport, so it’s a bit of a shock because you say well, you’re saying this, proclaiming this, but then in practice it’s the opposite, and that’s where the political fight is. We are lucky that we are a sector with a lot of strength and we are clear that either you listen to us or we stop everything. And as we have that capacity, they listen to us.

GEP: You seem to be very critical of platform capitalism, saying that it “destroys the productive fabric and public services, which are the basis of democracy”. But do you think that applications and algorithms could be used in other ways, for example by cooperatives or as a public service? Do you have a different vision of digital technology?

Álvarez: Yes, logically we are not against technology, we are against those who use technology to subjugate people, to make them more precarious, to avoid taxes and responsibilities. In other words, technology should never be used to gather or monopolise a quota of power, to subjugate or to use their dominant position for their own ends. Technology is very good but it has to be used in a democratic way, that is to say to optimise resources. We have made several proposals where we have said to the government: “How is it possible for a company’s application to come here and start operating without first passing some filters?” If it then wants to operate, it will have to demonstrate that it complies with workers’ rights, with the payment of taxes and these responsibilities that any self-employed person, or any employee or salaried worker fulfils.

So what are we talking about? It can’t be that technology can’t jump over all these barriers; forming cooperatives, using technology for the solidarity economy, to unite all the small traders, that’s what we have to use it for, that’s the way forward. What happens? That these great savages of the economy use the economy for the opposite, and neither do the public administrations help the small ones to stand up because I am very critical of many progressive parties in meetings and I say to them, listen, you are here defending something but in practice you don’t do it. We have a cooperative like Mensakas [a food delivery platform] and they are not helping them, they should have their own application to be able to expand and they are alone.

So what are we talking about? Less talk and more help, or more preaching by example because we all know how to talk, but then we have to demonstrate it.

GEP: Last week I heard Uber’s CEO [Dara Khosrowshahi] speak at a European event, and he said that his vision for Uber in Europe is to lead the transition to zero carbon on the continent, moving society away from privately owned cars towards universal, multi-modal access to public transport, and that Uber can help connect people to buses and trains, and that public policies should be designed with private transport to connect different modes of public transport. He named a lot of cities where Uber would be rolling out this vision in Europe, including Barcelona. What do you think of Uber’s vision and what is the alternative vision of taxis for the transition to zero carbon?

Álvarez: We all know who Uber is, what it wants, what its objective is, so when we talk about transition we are not talking about a few people having all the power over everything, in other words, it is totally incompatible for public services to be controlled by a private company like Uber.

In fact, we are convinced that part of Uber’s model is focused and designed to eat and live off public money, that is to say that public administrations pay Uber to organise mobility. This is a crazy world, this cannot be. This is unforgivable, we here are never going to allow this, we will go to total war, never, because mobility is an essential good like the blood that runs through your veins, if you cut your veins you die, then mobility is the same. Imagine giving Uber all the power of mobility, it would have the power of everything, either you give me this or I press the red button and stop everything. This can never be in the hands of private companies, this has to be in the hands of public administrations and all this data that is generated has to improve people’s lives, not to make people prisoners and slaves of these companies.

There are clear examples, and we always give the example of electricity, which is the most current. What has happened to electricity? It was liberalised and now they have been left with the ones that have stayed and now everyone, almost everyone, has to jump through the hoops and pay and look at how the government is, what it costs and everything it has to do to lower the electricity bill and now everyone is throwing their hands up in the air, blaming the government, but when you give a position of such dominance and so much power to a private company, what do you expect them to do? They are not NGOs, they want power and money, which is legitimate, it is their job, but public administrations have to stop this, they have to defend themselves against this. They are responsible for the citizens and I don’t vote for a politician so that Uber can come and tell me what I have to do or where I have to buy, have we gone mad? In other words, are we going to give them all this power? No, mobility, all essential services, must be in the hands of the public administrations, because otherwise, in the end, only those who have the most can move from one place to another and only those who have the most can go to the doctor, and so on.

So, in a state governed by the rule of law and in a genuine democracy, we all have to have the right to health, mobility and education, we cannot privatise this, otherwise we will be creating first-class citizens and second-class citizens, which is what is already happening. If you have money you can, if you don’t have money you can’t. So what do you do? This is what we have to avoid at all costs.

GEP: Finally Tito, what plans does Élite Taxi have for the rest of the year?

Álvarez: We don’t think in years, we think in days! Well, now we are working very closely with Taxi Project and we have projects to fight against the platforms. Now the issue of platform workers is being legislated in Europe. These transport directives are also being debated in the European Commission because all these agents and platforms have entered and they want to change everything and there is a lot of work ahead at all levels: mobilisation, political, technical.

On 13 October we are going to the European Commission, we have a meeting with the political parties in the European Parliament and then we are going to talk to the Commission’s technicians in competition law. We are going to give them a very powerful report that we have done where we have made an analysis of the algorithms, of some of these platforms where it is demonstrated with very objective data that they are agreeing on prices and that it is a cartel like “una casa de payes” (as big as a house), that through algorithms they are using strategies that are totally prohibited and notice that they always talk about free competition and really what they are doing is distorting free competition.

So what do the agencies – that are the ones that have to control this – do? They tell us taxi drivers that we have to deregulate, it’s like the world upside down. In other words, you create a body, an institution that are the competition agencies so that there is healthy competition but you don’t stop the growth of these companies that eat everything and then you have to sanction them because they create monopolies when they have already created a monopoly, why don’t you stop it before? Because the sanctions you are imposing on these companies have made so much money before that they don’t care. So, we have to work to avoid the problem before it arrives and it is sad, but we are very few against very powerful powers, but we are stubborn and we will continue to fight.

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