The April Fools

Struggling Weekly, March 29, 1984

            Come Monday, many people will be thinking up April Fool gags — or trying to avoid becoming the butt of one. But the first of April is a significant day for me for entirely different reasons.

            April 1 marks the 10th anniversary of the first walkout by employees of the Yellow Cab Co. in Madison, where I worked from 1970-75. It is also the ninth anniversary of the second strike, the one that eventually led to the closing of the company — which put an end to a career for some, and the end to an arrested adolescence, of sorts, for others like myself.

            Not many people celebrate strike anniversaries, but cab driving is such a singular occupation, and the group of people that made up our work force such an unusual collection of personalities, that April 1 has been observed with reunions several times in the last decade. There was some talk of another one this year, but nothing ever came of it — although I expect that the 10th anniversary in 1985 will not be allowed to pass without some sort of affair to mark it.

            The day is not memorialized because it was a great moment in labor history. Our local was part of the Teamsters, and that union doesn’t generally represent workers closer to the minimum wage level, like our drivers and dispatchers.

            We were brought in by reform-minded activists within the union, but that leadership was thrown out under highly controversial circumstances, and the Madison union office was put under the direct control of the Milwaukee branch. Since our local included a lot of people involved in the Teamsters for Democracy — not to mention the fact that our dues were chicken-feed compared to other Teamster jobs — the new leadership wasn’t overly enthusiastic about our strike.

            No, the strike was memorable because of the fun we had, and because of the bond it formed between us. Fun, you may ask? Strikes aren’t supposed to be fun. But our crew approached the work stoppage with the same whacky, off-beat, go-for-it style that they drove and dispatched cabs. Our incomes had dropped from $150 a week and tips to $50 in strike benefits, but we weren’t about to let that stop us from having a good time.

            At first, while the company was still trying to operate, things were somewhat serious. They hired a few strikebreakers, and the union members had to deal with that. But while a few of our people got as venomous as strikers sometimes get, most of us made a game of it.

            Armed with radios that picked up the cab radio frequency, we hijacked virtually every fare they tried to haul; the strikebreakers might have eventually learned the city, but in those first few days, they were outmatched by years of experience and a fleet of private cars that always got there first. I’ll never forget helping an elderly couple into the back seat of a friend’s Vega, all the while explaining why we were doing what we were doing.

            The strikebreakers generally arrived to find their fares gone — and an impromptu picket line waiting. One of our members did get arrested for getting violent and kicking off a rearview mirror, but the rest of us were in a festive mood — while we unscrewed tire valves enough to slowly flatten the tires, turned on the meters in the cabs or bent antennas just enough to hamper radio reception.

            It was only a matter of days, though, before the company threw in the towel and pulled the cabs off the street. We settled down to a long haul of watching the office and picketing when need be; the rest of the time we spent playing frisbee in the vacant lot next door, or hanging out in the “strike van,” a derelict Chevy parked at the curb.

            The latter was a den of iniquity, with a running dirty clubs game, the ritual passing of controlled substances and mass quantities of Leinenkugel’s beer consumed. (Leinie’s became known as the “Official Beer of the Yellow Cab Strike,” and that period in my life explains why I drink Big Eddy’s brew on occasion — much to the amusement of folks around here.)

            That went on for months, without anybody showing a great deal of concern about whether some sort of agreement would be reached. Rumors of the possibility of some progress would float occasionally, and some of our members came up with plans for settling the strike — but nothing ever came of them.

            However, all good things, and some bad ones, come to an end — and ours ended when the company failed to renew its cab permits in July. It was, as Arlo Guthrie said in “Alice’s Restaurant,” “a third possibility that we had failed to consider.” The Teamsters said, basically, “No permits, no cabs; no cabs, no drivers and no company — no union local, and no strike benefits.”

            That brought everything to a screeching halt; most everybody who worked at the company had a degree or some other career plans, and it seemed like a good time to get that “real job” (or try to get it) that we had always talked about. Everyone prepared to scatter to the four winds.

            But not before we had one final fling. On the morning it became official that the strike was over, we gathered in the vacant lot and, over several cases of Leinies, drank our farewell toasts.

            It was the first time in my life that I had ever gotten drunk before noon, but it was significant for many more reasons that that. Something special was coming to an end, we all knew it, and there were some nearly tearful farewells said, despite the protestations that we would all get together again.

            That we have done, gathering four times, I believe, since that July morning — including one picnic in the vacant lot (which could have slipped through a time warp and landed in the midst of the ’75 strike without anyone noticing). The other reunions were held at someone’s house or apartment, but none has managed to put together the complete coalition of career cabbies, crazies and college dropouts and degree-holders that was the Yellow Cab workforce.

            So Monday I may buy some Leinies and drink one toast (just one, since that’s a working night) to The April Fools, wherever they may be.