Although I have not intended this blog to be particularly political - I am interested in stories about the human condition and hope - I do have some hard-won opinions in this area based on being in this business for 29 years and there are many people who read this blog, so I'm going to take this space to air out some thoughts. Or perhaps I should say, "to rant"!
I support the strike. Not so much because of the particular issues involved, but because any semblance of unity amongst the 44,000 cabbies of New York would be the best thing to ever happen to them in the long run.
What are the issues involved? There are some major technical changes which have been mandated by the Taxi and Limousine Commission that are about to go into effect.
1) Each of the 13,087 yellow cabs will be required to have a GPS tracking system installed through which all the travels of the vehicle can be identified even if the cab is off-duty or if it is being operated by a private owner for personal use.
2) All cabs will be required to take credit cards and the drivers will have to pay 5 per cent of those fares back to the credit card companies.
3) All cabs will have a TV monitor in the back seat for passenger information.
4) All cabs will have an electronic message system in the front by which drivers can receive pertinent traffic and business information.
These systems must be installed at the expense of the taxi owners and any breakdowns of the devices will cause the meter to stop working and thus render the taxi out of business until it is fixed.
Okay, let's take 'em one by one.
1) The GPS tracking system. The purpose here is not to help the driver find difficult destinations. It is supposedly to locate any cab so lost items can be recovered. I don't buy it. It is too much of an expense to install and operate for the relatively few times items need to be recovered, plus the absent-minded passenger would still have to know the medallion number of the cab he'd been in. And if he's forgetful enough to leave his umbrella on the back seat he's not likely to remember the cab's number, either. Plus, don't forget, we cab drivers need those umbrellas! It rains a lot in NYC.
And it's probably unconstitutional, anyway.
2) I have three problems with credit cards in taxis. First, the give-back to the finance companies. This amounts to a pay-cut for taxi drivers and in the economy we operate in, that is unthinkable. Second, I fear it will further congest the traffic in the city. What could be faster than a passenger giving the driver a ten-dollar bill for an $8.60 fare and saying, "Keep the change"? Proponents say the swipe is fast, but I'm not so sure. Third, what is the driver supposed to do if the card is expired, invalid, or for whatever reason just no good? This situation, which will surely happen, has not been addressed.
I admit, however, that a certain amount of additional business is likely to be generated from what is now the domain of the corporate "black cars". If an employee has a corporate charge card he may be more likely to use it in a yellow cab than wait for the black car to show up.
What I think would be workable would be to add the 5 per cent finance charge to the fare (if that's legal) and require that credit cards be accepted only on fares over a certain amount, like $20.
3) TV monitors. Oh, please! This has already been tried and has failed. Many people complained that the previous incarnation, a DVD that played over and over and over again, gave them motion sickness. I guarantee that this will become just another form of "noise" that will annoy both passengers and drivers alike. And come on, don't people watch enough TV as it is? Being in a NYC taxi is an opportunity to look out the window and see the parade of humanity passing by plus have a fascinating conversation with a strange person (your driver). Isn't that enough stimulation right there?
4) The electronic message system. I think it's a great idea and I have no problem with it whatsoever.
If taxi drivers were playing on a level field with other American workers (such as NYC bus drivers) I would not think these issues would warrant a strike. But we're not on a level field. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The working conditions of NYC taxi drivers are far below the standards of American labor. And that is the reason, and no other reason, that 91 per cent of the drivers are immigrants from third world countries.
The main reason for substandard working conditions in the taxi industry is that there has never been anything you could call a real union.
The taxi system we operate under was created in 1937, a time when there was great labor unrest in America. This system divided New York's 11,787 taxis into two groups of about equal numbers - the fleet cabs, and there were many fleets, and the individual operators. (Reference the book, The New York Cab Driver and his Fare, by Charles Vidich.)
It's a system that makes it perhaps impossible to have a real union. With thousands of individual drivers and dozens of fleets, how could a threatened strike be enforced? Where would you put up the picket lines?
And so the taxi industry, with no clout to oppose City Hall and no one looking out for the welfare of the drivers, evolved into an occupation with these working conditions:
- 12 hour shifts
- no medical or dental coverage
- no paid vacations
- no overtime
- no pension after working 25 years
- no profit sharing or anything resembling a bonus
All of this would be acceptable if taxi driving was a well-paying job (like in London) and the cost of these benefits could be paid out of one's salary. But taxi driving is not a well-paying job in New York. And this is the part that really gets to me.
I think it was in 1979 that a city ordinance turned all taxi drivers into "independent contractors". This meant that if you worked out of a fleet garage you were no longer an employee, you were "self-employed" (and the fleets were no longer responsible for any benefits). Instead of paying drivers by percentages of the money they booked plus tips, the drivers now had to pay the garage a leasing fee for the use of the taxi for 12 hours, plus pay for the gas. There was no cap set on what the garages could charge (until recently, which is a good thing), so the only limit the garage owners had on their fees was by attrition of drivers. Busy nights when there were more drivers available meant higher leasing fees. And a cab driver found himself working six hours before breaking even.
Now here is the part that I consider to be a fundamental injustice: although the city made all taxi drivers "independent contractors" it retained the right to tell us what we can charge for our services. This is a blatant hypocrisy. How can anyone be an independent contractor when he can't charge what the market will bear for his services? How "independent" is that?
So it's phony. Taxi drivers are not independent contractors at all. We are actually employees who get no benefits.
But wait. It gets worse.
One would think that if the city government is going to create a taxi system that is unorganizable and then is going to mandate what we can charge for our services, a sense of fair play would ensure that the drivers are able to make a decent living. And be very diligent in increasing the rate of fare at timely intervals to keep up with inflation.
But the history over the last 29 years shows that the opposite is the case. We went from 1980 to 1987 (7 years) without a rate increase. We went from 1990 to 1996 (six years) without a rate increase. We went from 1996 to 2004 (8 years) without a rate increase. And during those years I was told very frequently by passengers in my cab that taxis in New York are much cheaper than in any other city they travelled to, reports that were verified repeatedly through all these years by industry journals and the NY Times.
And also during those years I myself, who had been the individual owner of one medallion taxicab, found that after seven years I could not keep up with the expenses of my business and was forced to sell the medallion. And that was just fine with the credit union which had financed the medallion at a 17 percent interest rate and could now start a new loan with a new owner from day one.
It is one thing if hard-working people are victimized by unscrupulous individuals in private companies. But it is quite another thing if the people who are holding you down are your own elected officials and the people they appoint.
This is what taxi drivers in New York find so galling. This is what is in the back of their minds when they demand dignity and respect.
So you may be wondering how there can be a strike next week when there's no union. There is a group called the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (http://www.nytwa.org/, but their website appears to be down) which does look out for the welfare of the NYC taxi driver. It has no official authority but it does have moral authority. They have been in opposition to the GPS tracking system for some time and are now calling for this two-day work stoppage using flyers as the way of reaching drivers. I have been checking with other drivers to see if they are working next Wednesday and Thursday. Not one I spoke with is.
The same thing happened in 1998 when a one-day strike was called for by the Alliance and it did occur. Which, when you consider the diversity and disorganization of the drivers, was kind of a miracle.
And it will happen again this week.