The Activist East African Taxi Drivers of San Diego
This article contextualizes the predominance of East Africans as taxi drivers in San Diego, lays out some of the challenges they face, and delves into the organizing work of the United Taxi Workers of San Diego.
Recently, I had the pleasure of accompanying a delivery driver around my apartment complex during one of his drop-offs. Navigating the logistical nightmare of restricted-access floors, we traded details from our lives as we walked. He was an immigrant from Eritrea; on top of working every day as a delivery driver, he also worked a second job as a taxi driver to support his family. As tiring as his work was, he managed to find time for his hobbies as well. This encounter would remain on my mind long after we said our goodbyes as I thought about his positive personality and bright smile, even while admitting how overworked he was.
As it turns out, he is one of many East Africans working as taxi drivers in San Diego. A survey (1) of San Diegan taxi drivers conducted in 2013 found that of the 311 lease drivers (i.e. taxi drivers who do not own the taxi cab they drive), 94% of them were immigrants, many of them refugees. Approximately 65% of the lease drivers were from Eastern Africa, with 30% hailing from Somalia and 34% from either Ethiopia or Eritrea.
For context, San Diego is home to around 30,000 resettled East African refugees as of 2011 (2). Of this, 15,000 to 20,000 are Somali (3), making San Diego home to the second largest Somali population, after Minneapolis (4). Many have fled war. In the 1990s, Somalis began arriving after the outbreak of the Somali Civil War, the roots of which can be traced back to the Cold War militarization of Somalia by the US and Soviet Union (5). Eritreans fought a 30-year independence war against Ethiopia (6); escaping violence, famine, and drought (7), up to one-third of the population left the country (8), many ending up in refugee camps in Sudan (9). More Eritreans were displaced when war erupted again in 2000 and 2020 (10).
In the face of issues that make finding employment difficult for immigrants, such as language barriers, racism, and employers not recognizing prior skills and experiences that they might have had, East Africans in San Diego have turned to the taxi industry (11). There, an “immigrant social hiring network” brings in new drivers by word-of-mouth (12), and through these social connections, an ethnic economy predominated by East Africans has emerged (13).
Having said that, taxi drivers also suffer from a lack of worker protections. Misclassified as independent contractors, taxi drivers should in principle be self-employed and have ownership of their equipment. Yet in reality, lease drivers in San Diego are beholden to taxi companies chosen by their cab owners and are prohibited from owning cabs (prior to 2014). As independent contractors, they are exempt from many important protections that would have been conferred to them had they been properly classified as employees. The survey found that 91% of participants earned below minimum wage (with a median hourly wage of $4.43 including tip), 97% earned less than standard overtime pay, and 99% were without employer-based healthcare and workers’ compensation (14).
In spite of these roadblocks, East African taxi drivers have demonstrated remarkable tenacity and self-advocacy. In 2009, 150 taxi drivers, most of them Somalis, went on an 11-day strike. They were protesting one of the highest lease prices in the nation at $865 per week during a time when business was dwindling, along with the generally poor conditions in which they worked, including unreasonable police stops and harassment (15). Wanting to build on the momentum created by the strike, strike leaders formed the United Taxi Workers of San Diego (UTWSD) (16). The UTWSD sought to unite the diverse San Diegan taxi driver workforce, which, while consisting mostly of East Africans, also comprised drivers from the Middle East, Latin America, and other parts of Africa (17), with the goal of pushing for change in the taxi industry (18).
Since its creation, the UTWSD has had a number of victories, including representation on the Taxi Advisory Committee of the Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) by ensuring five seats for driver representatives (19). One key achievement of the UTWSD has been the lifting of taxicab permit caps in 2014, creating an open permit system in San Diego (20). In short, the City of San Diego set an artificial cap on the number of permits at 993 permits. MTS oversaw transfers of permits to buyers for the price of $3,000, but there was also an underground market for permits, where permits could cost up to $140,000. Owing to this prohibitively high price tag, 89% of drivers at the time did not own permits (21). This changed in 2014 after UTWSD campaigning and lobbying led to the MTS Board of Directors voting in favor of lifting the cap, allowing drivers to buy permits and cabs, becoming owners in their own right (22).
To be sure, while this decision ultimately altered the structure of the taxi industry in San Diego (23), it did not mark the end of all the troubles besetting taxi drivers. Prospective permit owners still needed to deal with the application process, financing and loans (24), and passing vehicle requirements (25), among other bureaucratic obstacles. Nevertheless, this success of this UTWSD campaign proves the influence that East African taxi drivers hold when they organize and push for change.
Following the lifting of taxicab permits, another significant victory won by the UTWSD was the lifting of airport caps. In order for taxi drivers to pick up people at the San Diego International Airport, which was more profitable than other pick-ups (potentially making up to $100 in one ride) (26), they needed to have taxi stickers. Similar to the situation with the permits, taxi stickers were being sold on the black market for up to $30,000 (27). Rideshare companies, such as Lyft and Uber, were upsettingly not subject to the same limit imposed for taxis due to separate agreements made with them (28) (and perhaps some lobbyism) (29). After an unsuccessful attempt at removing the limit in 2017 (30), the UTWSD finally succeeded in opening up the airport for an unlimited number of taxi drivers at the end of 2020 (31).
In the age of rideshare and the decline of taxis, many San Diegan taxi drivers have been adaptable, making the transition to become rideshare drivers. Uber first came to San Diego in 2012, and by mid-2014, around half of the UTWSD’s 700 members started working with Uber in some capacity. Among the biggest benefits of working as a rideshare driver was leaving behind the regular lease payments as a taxi driver. Whereas weekly lease payments amounted to a 40% cut from taxi driver incomes, Uber took a 20% cut instead (32). Exorbitantly high leases also made it necessary for taxi drivers to work for up to 84 hours a week just to earn enough (33).
“I pay lease, so I must drive very long and make a certain amount of money every day. I do not see my kids, sometimes I leave before they are awake and when I come home they are asleep,” according to one taxi driver from the 2013 survey (34).
With Uber, drivers have a more flexible schedule, opening the app whenever they want to work and swiping out when they’re done. This flexibility makes it possible for drivers to spend more time with their families (35).
Unfortunately, as with all good things, there are unexpected downsides for taxi drivers who have transitioned to rideshare. For one, rideshare drivers must maintain an exceptionally high driver rating. If their rating falls below 4.6 stars out of 5, drivers may have their profiles deactivated (36) pending the completion of a remedial “quality improvement course” (37). Ratings for drivers can be highly variable, as in the case of one driver being judged for wearing too much cologne (38), and at times influenced by passengers’ own racial biases (39). Subject to the caprices of the passenger, drivers could very well lose their source of income without warning.
Undoubtedly, East African taxi drivers face a multitude of systemic hurdles when it comes to achieving economic justice. But the resilience and drive of these taxi drivers has gotten them through a host of issues in the past when it came to the organizing and advocacy work of the UTWSD. Through the combined efforts of a community united, a better world is possible, as these remarkable taxi drivers prove.
1 Jill Esbenshade, Elizabeta Shifrin, and Karina Rider, “Leveraging liminality: how San Diego taxi drivers used their precarious status to win reform,” Labor History 4, Issue 2 (October 25, 2018): Figure 1, https://doi.org/10.1080/0023656X.2019.1533729.
2 Miriam Raftery, “LITTLE MOGADISHU: FROM EAST AFRICA TO EAST SAN DIEGO,” East County Magazine, April 9, 2011, https://www.eastcountymagazine.org/little mogadishu-east-africa-east-san-diego.
3 Raftery, “Little Mogadishu.”
4 Megan Burks, “San Diego’s Somali Population: Explained,” Voice of San Diego, February 22, 2013, https://voiceofsandiego.org/2013/02/22/san-diegos-somali-population explained/.
5 Jesse Mills, “Somali Social Justice Struggle in the U.S.: A Historical Context,” Race, Gender & Class 19, No. 3/4 (January 1, 2012): p. 60.
6 Selam Daniel, “The Refugee Crisis in Eritrea,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, accessed March 15, 2022,
7 Lolly Ockerstrom, “Eritrean americans,” Everyculture.com, accessed March 15, 2022, https://www.everyculture.com/multi/Du-Ha/Eritrean-Americans.html.
8 Ockerstrom, “Eritrean americans.”
9 Daniel, “Refugee Crisis.”
10 Cristiano d’Orsi, “Tigray conflict sets off new wave of refugees in a region still grappling with earlier crises,” The Conversation, November 21, 2020, https://theconversation.com/tigray-conflict-sets-off-new-wave-of-refugees-in-a-region-still grappling-with-earlier-crises-150392.
11 Esbenshade, Shifrin, and Rider, “Leveraging liminality”: Who are San Diego’s taxi drivers?
12 Leslie Berestein, “Somali immigrants: face of local taxi industry,” The San Diego Union-Tribune, December 25, 2009, https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-somali immigrants-face-local-taxi-industry-2009dec25-story.html.
13 Esbenshade, Shifrin, and Rider, “Leveraging liminality”: Who are San Diego’s taxi drivers?
14 Esbenshade, Shifrin, and Rider, “Leveraging liminality”: Taxi drivers’ lack of worker protections.
15 Mills, “Somali Social Justice”: p. 65.
16 Mikaiil Hussein, “About UTWSD,” United Taxi Workers of San Diego. Accessed March 15, 2022, https://utwsd.org/about-utwsd/.
17 Esbenshade, Shifrin, and Rider, “Leveraging liminality”: Supplemental material.
18 Hussein, “About UTWSD.”
19 “Historic Driver Elections,” United Taxi Workers of San Diego, accessed March 15, 2022, https://utwsd.org/elections/.
20 Esbenshade, Shifrin, and Rider, “Leveraging liminality”: Workers play on liminality to win ownership status.
21 Richard Allyn, “Cap lifted on number of taxi cab permits in city of San Diego,” CBS 8, March 31, 2015. https://www.cbs8.com/article/news/cap-lifted-on-number-of-taxi-cab-permits in-city-of-san-diego/509-59a65df7-faa4-4ab3-8366-523cd33d0cbe.
22 Esbenshade, Shifrin, and Rider, “Leveraging liminality”: Workers play on liminality to win ownership status.
23 Esbenshade, Shifrin, and Rider, “Leveraging liminality”: Workers play on liminality to win ownership status.
24 Esbenshade, Shifrin, and Rider, “Leveraging liminality”: Discussion.
25 David Garrick, “Taxi deregulation off to slow start,” The San Diego Union-Tribune, September 26, 2015, https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/sdut-taxi-cap-limit-lift permit-cab-emerald-2015sep26-story.html.
26 John Wilkens, “Taxi turf war at airport as cabbies struggle for survival in the age of Lyft and Uber,” The San Diego Union-Tribune, July 29, 2018,
27 Tarryn Mento, “San Diego Airport Authority Votes Down Taxi Drivers' Calls To Lift Permit Cap,” KPBS, February 3, 2017, https://www.kpbs.org/news/quality-of life/2017/02/03/taxi-drivers-call-lifting-airport-cap.
28 Mento, “San Diego Airport Authority.”
29 Mikaiil Hussein, Opening the Airport to all Taxi Drivers, infographic, United Taxi Workers of San Diego, May 12, 2018, https://utwsd.org/2018/05/12/opening-the-airport-to-all taxi-drivers/.
30 Mikaiil Hussein, “Opening the Airport – April 2018, ” United Taxi Workers of San Diego, published April 1, 2020, https://utwsd.org/2018/04/01/opening-the-airport-april-2018/.
31 Sarah Saez, “UTWSD has gained access to the SD Airport,” United Taxi Workers of San Diego, published December 22, 2020, https://utwsd.org/2020/12/22/utwsd-has-gained access-to-the-sd-airport/.
32 Megan Burks, “San Diego's Taxi-Turned-Uber Drivers Get A New Lease On Life,” KPBS, August 15, 2014, https://www.kpbs.org/news/quality-of-life/2014/08/15/san-diegos-taxi turned-uber-drivers-get-new-lease.
33 Jill Esbenschade and Elizabeta Shifrin, “The Leased Among Us: Precarious Work, Local Regulation, and the Taxi Industry,” Labor Studies Journal 44, Issue 3 (April 12, 2018): Courts Support Independent Contracting Designation,
34 Esbenshade, Shifrin, and Rider, “Leveraging liminality”: Taxi drivers’ lack of worker protections.
35 Burks, “San Diego’s Taxi-Turned-Uber Drivers.”
36 Burks, “San Diego’s Taxi-Turned-Uber Drivers.”
37 “Quality improvement courses,” Uber, accessed March 15, 2022,
38 Burks, “San Diego’s Taxi-Turned-Uber Drivers.”
39 Ethan Baron, “Judge says Uber’s driver-rating system may be racist,” The Mercury News, June 11, 2021, https://www.mercurynews.com/2021/06/11/judge-says-ubers-driver-rating system-may-be-racist/.
Allyn, Richard. “Cap lifted on number of taxi cab permits in city of San Diego.” CBS 8, March 31, 2015. https://www.cbs8.com/article/news/cap-lifted-on-number-of-taxi-cab-permits in-city-of-san-diego/509-59a65df7-faa4-4ab3-8366-523cd33d0cbe.
Baron, Ethan. “Judge says Uber’s driver-rating system may be racist.” The Mercury News, June 11, 2021. https://www.mercurynews.com/2021/06/11/judge-says-ubers-driver-rating system-may-be-racist/.
Berestein, Leslie. “Somali immigrants: face of local taxi industry.” The San Diego Union Tribune, December 25, 2009. https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-somali immigrants-face-local-taxi-industry-2009dec25-story.html.
Burks, Megan. “San Diego’s Somali Population: Explained.” Voice of San Diego, February 22, 2013, https://voiceofsandiego.org/2013/02/22/san-diegos-somali-population-explained/.
Burks, Megan. “San Diego's Taxi-Turned-Uber Drivers Get A New Lease On Life.” KPBS, August 15, 2014. https://www.kpbs.org/news/quality-of-life/2014/08/15/san-diegos-taxi turned-uber-drivers-get-new-lease.
d’Orsi, Cristiano. “Tigray conflict sets off new wave of refugees in a region still grappling with earlier crises.” The Conversation, November 21, 2020. https://theconversation.com/tigray -conflict-sets-off-new-wave-of-refugees-in-a-region-still-grappling-with-earlier-crises 150392.
Daniel, Selam. “The Refugee Crisis in Eritrea.” Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Accessed March 15, 2022. http://web.mit.edu/21w.749/www/Students/selamdaniel/finalproject/ essay.html.
Esbenschade, Jill, and Shifrin, Elizabeta. “The Leased Among Us: Precarious Work, Local Regulation, and the Taxi Industry.” Labor Studies Journal, Vol. 44, Issue 3 (April 12, 2018). https://doi.org/10.1177/0160449X18768047.
Esbenshade, Jill, Shifrin, Elizabeta, and Karina Rider. “Leveraging liminality: how San Diego taxi drivers used their precarious status to win reform.” Labor History, Vol. 4, Issue 2 (October 25, 2018). https://doi.org/10.1080/0023656X.2019.1533729.
Garrick, David. “Taxi deregulation off to slow start.” The San Diego Union-Tribune, September 26, 2015. https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/sdut-taxi-cap-limit-lift-permit cab-emerald-2015sep26-story.html.
Hussein, Mikaiil. “About UTWSD.” United Taxi Workers of San Diego. Accessed March 15, 2022. https://utwsd.org/about-utwsd/.
Hussein, Mikaiil. “Opening the Airport – April 2018. ” United Taxi Workers of San Diego. Published on April 1, 2020. https://utwsd.org/2018/04/01/opening-the-airport-april 2018/.
Hussein, Mikaiil. Opening the Airport to all Taxi Drivers. Infographic. United Taxi Workers of San Diego, May 12, 2018. https://utwsd.org/2018/05/12/opening-the-airport-to-all-taxi drivers/.
Mento, Tarryn. “San Diego Airport Authority Votes Down Taxi Drivers' Calls To Lift Permit Cap.” KPBS, February 3, 2017. https://www.kpbs.org/news/quality-of-life/2017/02/03/ taxi-drivers-call-lifting-airport-cap.
Mills, Jesse. “Somali Social Justice Struggle in the U.S.: A Historical Context.” Race, Gender & Class 19, No. 3/4 (January 1, 2012): pp. 60, 65.
Ockerstrom, Lolly. “Eritrean americans.” Everyculture.com. Accessed March 15, 2022. https://www.everyculture.com/multi/Du-Ha/Eritrean-Americans.html.
Raftery, Miriam. “LITTLE MOGADISHU: FROM EAST AFRICA TO EAST SAN DIEGO.” East County Magazine, April 9, 2011. https://www.eastcountymagazine.org/little mogadishu-east-africa-east-san-diego.
Saez, Sarah. “UTWSD has gained access to the SD Airport.” United Taxi Workers of San Diego. Published December 22, 2020. https://utwsd.org/2020/12/22/utwsd-has-gained-access-to the-sd-airport/.
Uber. “Quality improvement courses.” Accessed March 15, 2022. https://help.uber.com/driving and-delivering/article/quality-improvement-courses?nodeId=9deed9cc-6221-43f8-b699- aaf0d0653569.
United Taxi Workers of San Diego. “Historic Driver Elections.” Accessed March 15, 2022. https://utwsd.org/elections/.
Wilkens, John. “Taxi turf war at airport as cabbies struggle for survival in the age of Lyft and Uber.” The San Diego Union-Tribune, July 29, 2018. https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/business/economy/sd-me-taxis-future-20180712-story.html.