After an April 1, Not so Foolish

Struggling Weekly, April 7, 2011

 

            Friday was the first day of April, and as is often the case on April Fool’s Day, I found myself thinking about what happened on that day in 1975.

            At the time, I was employed at the Yellow Cab Co. in Madison, as a dispatcher and driver. On April 1 of that year, our union went on strike — and began the beginning of the end for the company, and a phase in my life.

            I started driving for Yellow in August 1970, my first full-time job in a year. That year saw me drop out of college and into the counter-culture; getting my cab permit, change-holder and a couple days of training marked a return to a sort of normalcy.

            Or maybe not so. Cab driving was as much a lifestyle as an occupation, and the cast of characters who got behind the wheel, or the microphone, reflected that. From the older “career” cabbies, to the guys with master’s degrees who couldn’t find “real” jobs, there were a lot of characters.

            The flip side of that diversity was that organizing a union at the company was problematic. Everybody complained about the way the owner treated us, but there was a lot of disagreement about how to deal with it — some wanted to form an independent local, but there were a couple drivers with Teamster connections who campaigned for affiliating with that union.

            The process got ugly at times — I remember some major confrontations at parties, between those two factions, and between the pro-union and pro-ownership people. Complicating matters was what was going on within the Teamsters Union; an exposé in the Capital Times the week before the representation election seemed more than coincidental.

            The division within the workers was reflected in the vote, 50 to 30 in favor, out of 96 eligible. A work slowdown a few months later didn’t seem to affect the company’s stance on negotiations, and an impasse seemed inevitable when the initial contract ran out.

            (Researching the history in online archives, I ran across some factors that I had forgotten. One was the OPEC oil embargo and the resulting increase in gas prices, which all the Madison cab companies claimed had a big impact on their bottom lines. The Madison city council turned down requests for rate increases — and the drivers initially opposed the rate hikes, because of their feared effect on ridership and tips.)

            That was April 1, 1975. We went on strike, and for a time it was rather dramatic. There were confrontations on the picket line, we chased the replacement drivers and took their fares in private cars, plus there were some of the expected heavy-handed tactics — air let out of cab tires, radio antennas bent, etc.

            After awhile, though, the company just stopped trying, and pulled the cabs off the street. Our labor action degenerated into a handful of union members sitting in a 1966 Chevrolet van in front of the Yellow Cab office, drinking beer and playing Dirty Clubs. It wasn’t a bad deal for us — $50 a week in strike benefits for having fun.

            What we didn’t know was that it was a deathwatch. We weren’t expecting that, when the company’s cab permits expired on June 30, the owner would simply not renew them — no permits, no cabs on the street, no company, no jobs.

            No strike benefits, either, as the Teamsters dropped us like a not-so-hot potato.

It all came to an end with a party in the parking lot next to the Yellow office a couple days later — the first time I had ever gotten drunk by early afternoon, and the last time I would see a lot of the people I had come to know over the previous five years.

            I had moved to the Sauk City area in April 1974, but the job at the cab company, and the strike, had kept me tied to the Mad City. The end of the strike severed that connection; I tried driving for Checker Cab later in 1975, but I was drifting out of Madison’s orbit. I had started stringing for the Sauk-Prairie paper in the fall of 1974, beginning the process that would lead me to Whitehall and the other side of this keyboard-newsprint interface.

            So I look back at that day, 36 years ago last week, and the end of an era. Those were kind of “salad days” — cruising Madison’s streets in a V8 Chevy sedan, or sitting at the mike and directing a fleet of cabs, hanging out and playing cards after working the night shift, the Saturday touch football games, etc. — but I wasn’t really going anywhere. I didn’t think so at the time, but after April 1, 1975, I stopped being quite so foolish.