‘Anti-Uber’ taxi strikes kick off again in Spain

Taxi drivers in major cities in Spain are on strike again to apply pressure for more stringent regulations to control app rivals such as Uber and Cabify which they view as unfair competition.

In Barcelona the taxi sector called an indefinite strike on Friday, using their vehicles to block Gran Vía in the Catalan capital, with protest action carrying on through the weekend and continuing into today.

Taxi drivers in Madrid are also on strike from this morning.

In Barcelona, the strike was called after the Catalan government announced proposals for regulating the vehicle for hire (VTC) sector which include a 15 minute wait time between a passenger booking and being able to take a ride.

The taxi drivers want the wait time to be much longer than that; at least 24 hours.

There were reports of violence during Friday’s action. The Huffington Post said a Cabify driver suffered a panic attack after his car was attacked by a group of protestors. It reports the police used cardiopulmonary resuscitation manoeuvers on the driver to stabilize him.

A journalist for El Pais also posted a video of the attack and resulting damage to the vehicle on Twitter.

The AP reports that local police arrested seven people in connection with the violence.

On Sunday, Elite Taxi BCN, one of the main associations backing the strike action, issued a video of its spokesman, Alberto Álvarez, calling for protestors to keep things peaceful.

The latest strikes follow a summer of action by the sector which also kicked off in Barcelona, also with violent scenes and reports of attacks on VTC drivers.

In that case Uber and Cabify temporarily paused services in the city on safety grounds. The pair do not appear to have stopped their services this time.

Although some VTC drivers have been holding counter protests by parking their vehicles along a stretch of Avenue Diagonal, causing further disruption to the flow of traffic in the city.

The taxi strike in the summer only ended after the government agreed to transfer regulatory competency for the VTC sector to the regions. The Catalan government is the first regional authority to have put forward proposals for regulating VTCs.

But the move devolving regulatory competency has not ended the ‘taxi war’. Far from it; it’s cranking up a gear as taxi associations demand a firewall for their sector by overruling the on-demand convenience of app-based rivals which are counter protesting in the hopes of steering out of a looming regulatory bind.

The latter group argues that imposed wait limits would be unconstitutional because they would go against the general interest of citizens. They also point out that waiting time based regulations have not been successfully enforced anywhere in Europe (London’s TfL proposed a five minute waiting time after a booking back in 2015 but dropped the measure after a public consultation, for instance).

While the taxi sector argues that existing laws aren’t being enforced meaning that a regulated public service is being unfairly undercut and undermined by multinationals that also only bring precarious work, rather than sustainable employment…

In Barcelona the annual Mobile World Congress tradeshow, which takes place in just over a month’s time — bringing an influx of around 100,000 techie visitors — is a strategic ratchet for the taxi industry to pressure authorities. Threats to paralyze the city are at their most politically and economically potent. So there’s plenty of uncertainty about where the latest huelga indefinida will lead.

If wait limits are imposed the VTC sector claims it would result in scores of drivers being put out of work. Commenting on the Barcelona government’s proposals for regulating the sector, an Uber spokesman told us: “Recent developments could have major consequences for drivers as well as the thousands of riders who enjoy new mobility services in the city. We continue to call for dialogue with all local stakeholders, including taxis, to shape the future of urban mobility in Spain together.”

We’ve also reached out to Cabify for comment. Update: A spokesperson told us: “Cabify’s commitment remains the same: We want to offer a mobility service that improves both the life in Barcelona, Madrid as well as in the rest of the cities in which we operate. Cabify has more than 3 million registered users in Spain. We’ve always been opened to work with institutions and the sector to ensure that mobility options [across] Spain are not diminished”.

Unauto VTC, a VTC association, issued a press release on Saturday decrying the blockade of the city and what it dubbed “intolerable levels of violence” by taxi associations, as well as attacking the “absolutely disproportionate” proposed VTC regulations. It also denounced the local government minister in charge of the regulation, Damià Calvet, accusing him of caving in to taxi industry “blackmail”.

“The Catalan Government’s umpteenth caving in to taxi sector blackmail has ensured it will no longer be satisfied with anything other than the disappearance of the VTC sector. We hope the government rectifies this immediately and allows the general interest of the citizens of Catalonia to prevail,” said association president, Eduardo Martín, in a statement (which we’ve translated).

“I wonder what the next thing Barcelona’s taxi sector will be asking for under threat of blocking the Mobile World Congress. Maybe the Metro closes an hour earlier, or that the Aerobus disappears. In view of the attitude of the current Government of the Generalitat it is possible that they will achieve it.”

The city government pointed us to a statement today, from the councillor for mobility and president of metropolitan transport, Mercedes Vidal, calling for an “acceptable” proposal so taxis and VTC drivers do not do the same work.