Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Taxicab Takeover: DC Drivers Organize to Defend Jobs


Amid the sweltering humidity at dusk in Washington, D.C., taxicab drivers line up their cars at a Sunoco gas station on the corner of 15th and U Street. The mostly African immigrant drivers circulate flyers among each other, discussing the fate of their jobs and making arguments about the need to organize.

One driver pulls in and drops off a petition.

"I got more signatures," he says. He points to one of them. "This guy, he's been driving for 28 years. And this one – 30 years driving."

After talking for a few minutes, the young Ethiopian driver grabs some more flyers and pulls out of the station.

For the past month, this has been the scene at several gas stations and other taxicab hubs throughout the district where drivers have been coming together everyday to organize against a proposed restructuring of the city's cab industry.

The flyers they carry urge other cabbies and passengers to call their representatives on the city council and to speak out against plans to transform the D.C. taxicab market from an open and largely driver-run industry into what would essentially amount to a cartel system. Such changes would codify the domination of a few owners of the largest cab companies and leave over 4,000 drivers jobless.

The new system that has been proposed in the city council would involve the sale of "medallions" to cab drivers and companies who meet certain qualifications. Owning a medallion, which would increase in value over time, would be obligatory for anyone operating a cab in the city.

Further compounding the threat posed to drivers by this new system are attempts by the interim chair of the D.C. Taxicab Commission (DCTC), Dena Reed, to rewrite the existing framework that oversees the industry. Reed has proposed changes to that framework – known as Title 31 – that will confer more authority to hack inspectors, require drivers to buy a new vehicle every five years, and allow inspectors to suspend or revoke drivers' licenses for minor infractions such as having over- or under-inflated tires.

A coalition of cab drivers and companies has been formed under the leadership of the Small Business Association of D.C. Taxicab Drivers to resist these abuses and defend the drivers' jobs. The association includes 16 different driver-owned companies and associations representing over 4,000 drivers.

"We drivers need to organize ourselves and work together to stop the attacks on our industry," says Haimanot Bizuayehu, a driver and elected board member of the Small Business Association. "If we do not start fighting and let these attacks continue, it will be just a matter of time before we lose our small business."

But the attacks they face are formidable.

A medallion is a metal plate attached to a vehicle that allows it to operate as a taxi. Medallions have existed in many cities since the 1930s. Washington D.C. is one of the few cities in the nation that does not operate under this system.

A medallion system would force thousands of drivers to either work for a big company or join the unemployment line. While there are currently over 10,000 licensed cab drivers in D.C., the medallion bill will cut that amount in half, limiting the number of medallions to just 4,000 and unnecessarily imposing a scarcity that will drive up fares. According to an analysis produced last year by D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi, cities with medallions have fares that are 25 percent higher than cities without medallions.

Proponents say the new system would raise standards for drivers and vehicles, bringing in a more modern fleet of cars and a more reliable, professional service. The regulations would end the "laissez faire free for all" system that exists now.

But for drivers, the new changes constitute a serious threat to their livelihoods. It will, as the Washington Post argued in an editorial, result in "windfall profits for a small group of people; an overall decline in service with longer waits and higher fares; and a system open to corruption."

Indeed, the medallion bill has been fixed to benefit a few large companies who are also underwriting its passage into law. The regulations allow a few longtime and politically-connected kingpin players to solidify their control over much of the cab industry in D.C.

In city after city, the introduction of medallions has benefited a small group of drivers and owners at the expense of both drivers and riders.

In the 1930s, New York City sold medallions for $10. Today a medallion in the Big Apple costs up to $700,000. In Boston, medallions cost around $400,000. For established cab companies, the new system proposed for D.C. would have prices start at $250 while newer drivers would pay up to $10,000. Once the medallions are in place, prices would shoot up, leading to a significant rise in fares and making it financially prohibitive for aspirant independent drivers to enter the industry.

The flyers being picked up by drivers at the gas station on U Street warn D.C. residents and visitors that medallions could lead to a doubling of fares as greedy corporations would lobby the city to raise rates in order to expand profits.

And the medallion system would further gentrify the city's cab service. An op-ed article by Sam Staley in the Washington Post points out that with fewer cabs on the road, drivers will prioritize fares that bring in the highest returns, focusing particularly on runs to the airport and serving wealthier riders in Capitol Hill neighborhoods and along K Street.

"The biggest losers in this system…are likely to be outer neighborhoods such as lower-income sections of Southeast and Northwest," Staley argues. "With substantially fewer taxis available to meet demand, drivers will pick the most lucrative routes."

Given that the medallion system would compel drivers to fork over thousands of dollars annually to lease from large corporations with medallions, the pressure on drivers to zero-in on higher fares is inevitable. On average, cab drivers in D.C. earn a wage of roughly $32,000 per year. Clearly, a huge proportion of drivers would be priced out of the medallion system, forced to either work for the larger companies if they qualify or file for unemployment.

On top of all of these problems, the medallion bill would further empower hack inspectors who routinely harass drivers with abusive and arbitrary scrutiny, issuing tickets for the most insignificant "violations."

For further evidence of what the medallion system would do to the industry, one need only look as far as the forces that are pushing the changes into law.

According to one reporter writing for the Washington City Paper, "[most drivers say] there's one driving force behind the bill: Jerry Schaeffer, the city's taxi king, who owns more than a dozen cab companies, sells cabbies insurance, and owns a whole lot of District land."

It is widely believed that Schaeffer hired lobbyist and former councilmember John Ray to write the medallion bill in order to seize control over as much of the industry as possible. Ray claims he represents a coalition of cab owners and drivers, but many insist that his principle client is Schaeffer. And Harry Thomas, the councilman who introduced the medallion bill, also has close ties to Ray who has represented Thomas in a separate matter involving the misuse of public funds obtained by the councilman's non-profit.

While Schaeffer denies that he is leading the charge in the quest to impose medallions, cab company owner Mohammad Momen, who is part of Ray's coalition, openly told the same City Paper reporter that "everybody knows it's a Jerry Schaeffer bill."

One of the ways the medallions would be set up to benefit the large established cab companies in D.C. is with a seniority component written into the legislation. The city would give priority to longtime cab drivers who are district residents with clean driving records. In effect, it's a provision that rigs the bill in favor of large owners like Schaeffer.

The seniority scheme also may be an attempt to exploit racial tensions that sometimes exist between the older African American drivers and the large number of newer immigrant drivers from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Nigeria and elsewhere. One of the bills co-sponsors is councilmember and former mayor Marion Barry. When dozens of drivers assembled at a press conference in March to protest the medallion bill, Barry lambasted the drivers and revealed the xenophobic and racist motivations that are at least partly to blame for the attack on D.C. cab drivers.

"For those of you who are not from America, we welcome you, but we do things just a little differently here," Barry said to the drivers. "We're not going to make an ass of ourselves out here in public [by protesting]. Everybody get that?... Not in America [are] we doing that… We're not going to look like fools out here."

Beyond the obvious offensiveness of his remarks, Barry's deprecation of protest is a little ironic coming from a political figure who first cut his teeth as a leading activist in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

In any case, there are in fact many older African American drivers who are also opposed to the medallions because of the other restrictions that would push many of them out of the industry as well. One such driver is Nathan Price, who is a board member of the Small Business Association of D.C. Taxicab Drivers.

The more immediate threat that the drivers organized within the Small Business Association have to contend with is the attempt by the DC Taxicab Commission to change Chapters 6 and 8 of Title 31, the legal regime that governs the cab industry. Under the proposed changes, a driver could be fined up to $1,000 by abusive hack inspectors if their tires are over- or under-inflated. Plus, the changes would force drivers to buy a new vehicle every five years, which means many would have to purchase a new car before their old one is paid off.

Dena Reed, Interim Chair of the DCTC, is pushing these changes and is doing so in the most undemocratic way she can. In the only public hearing that Reed held on the Title 31 changes, signs posted on the wall read, "No television cameras. No video taping. No audio taping." She claimed the ban on recording what was supposed to be a public meeting was due to concerns that it would somehow be "disruptive."

In May, when drivers in the Small Business Association tried to submit 900 petition signatures to the DCTC in opposition to the Title 31 changes, the drivers were forced out and locked out of the commission's Anacostia office. Later, Reed referred to the group of drivers submitting their petition as "a mob."

During the mayoral election last fall, drivers placed their hopes on the challenger, then-Council Chair Vincent Gray, who appeared to be more receptive to drivers' concerns than the much-maligned incumbent, Adrian Fenty.

"We're not looking to drive people out of business in the District of Columbia," Mayor Gray said recently on the subject of medallions. But Gray has yet to fulfill his promise to drivers that he would appoint a more driver-friendly chair to head the DCTC.

Faced with the dual threat of the medallions and the rewriting of Title 31, drivers in the Small Business Association of D.C. Taxicab Drivers organized a rally on June 1st in front of city hall. Some 200 drivers assembled to demand an end to the attacks on cab drivers in the city.

Bizuayehu from the Small Business Association believes actions like this demonstrate that the association can be a powerful force of advocacy on behalf of drivers.

"The goal of the Small Business Association of D.C. Taxicab Drivers is to form one strong association which will have all taxicab drivers as its dues-paying members," says Bizuayehu. "The association will advocate for taxicab drivers and will vigorously work to protect their individual rights and the industry from monopolization."

Still, some drivers say they also need a union to protect them from hack inspectors and to represent their interests in negotiations with the DCTC.

Pete Tucker, a local activist and independent journalist who's been involved in the cab struggle and covering it extensively on his radio show at TheFightBack.org, says that while a union is certainly needed, the more pressing issue right now is resisting the changes to Title 31 – which could be decided on in the next few weeks – and the medallion bill which could be voted on before the city council's summer recess. Tucker also pointed to the Small Business Association as being a potential precursor to a drivers' union in the future.

In the meantime, Bizuayehu and the other drivers are focused on fighting for their very livelihoods. For them, the medallion bill is a clear case of government intervention on the side of big business.

And even as they organize against changes to the existing system, drivers have plenty of grievances with the status quo – such as the role played by hack inspectors and the fact that drivers have no representation on the DCTC in spite of a law which states that the commission should include three industry representatives.

At a time when the number of jobless and underemployed workers in the country continues to hover just below 30 million, D.C. is considering a deal that would throw thousands more onto the unemployment rolls – all in the name of shifting more local cab industry control into the hands of a few wealthy owners.

Both cabbies and the people they transport must organize and stand firmly opposed to this plutocratic plot against the jobs and dignity of thousands of drivers.

Brian Tierney is a labor journalist in Washington, DC. Read more of his work at Subterranean Dispatches, where this article first appeared.

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