Thursday, August 30, 2007

Taxi Strike

There will be a taxi strike in New York City for two days next week - Wednesday, Sept. 5th and Thursday, the 6th.

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.




11 comments:

Mike S said...

Damn!! I was gonna throw in my 2 cents worth, but you listed and agreed with me on every point(or I agreed with you) Being involved in businesses that accept credit cards, we have the same complaint about the fee. We'd love to add on a 'surcharge' as some of our bills run into the thousands of dollars and large fees. Good luck!!:):)

Me said...

Wow. You guys got a lot going on.

This might be a long comment, I'm a cabbie in Ptld, OR and we have GPS in our cars and no benefits, independent contractors, etc. I'll try and take this in order:

1) GPS. I love my gps. Yes, it does track us, which, honestly, isn't a problem (unless you're doing something you don't them to know about, but we also have cameras in our cars so you really can't do anything illegal anyway). Not only does it help ppl find their lost items (by p/u and drop off addresses), but it also helps us out. We have ppl call in and complain and our co. can look and see where we were (prove/deny it was us), how long we sat in one place (whether or not we could have spent hours harassing someone), how fast we were going (he drove by me going 80 in a 25!) that kind of crap. But it also will find any address in the current Thomas Guide for our area which is an incredible bonus finding obscure addresses and it tells us how far - exactly - is is (to give proper estimates) minus traffic cond, weather, etc. and it will guide us the whole way if we want it to. In case something happens at least they can find my car and put it to back into commission so they aren't out any money when they find my body. :o)

2) Credit Cards, we have the swipe system on our gps units. It usually takes less than a minute to get an approval/decline. It's a bonus for all those bad cards and I've never had a problem w/ppl tipping. If the card is declined or invalid then the customer has to come up w/some other form of pmt. I imagine in NYC this would be more of a problem but usually we call the pd if this happens, it's considered a "theft of svcs" and they can be arrested. Big hassle to get the pd involved, but usually just the thought will make ppl think twice about it. We pay a weekly lease to drive so a % of our lease covers our companies cost to run the cards for us. They also pay our insurance for the cars out of the lease. Among other things.

3) TV's: that's crap. Who needs a damned tv in their car? I've been against this in private vehicles. Why put one in a cab? Pssht. And just outta curiosity, is this an expense you guys have to cover if someone doesn't like your "channel"?

4) Electronic msg system: our gps covers that. We have msgs that can go out to the fleet re: weather, roads, police activity, etc (anything the disp types in) or we can get certain msgs to just the wheelie van drivers. I don't know which gps system your city is talking of using, but we have the top o' the line gps stuff in ours and it's really incredible. BUT, our company has to install, maintain etc. This way the company gets the units back when they cab is no longer a cab. Can't have those things running about loose in the streets can we? Who's to say someone won't figure out how to jack into the system? I imagine it's a very costly system.

I too am an "independent contractor", but I truly do not mind the "everyone charges the same" bit. I know for a fact that ppl shop around for the best price, quickest to get to the call, etc. So this price thing, it's a good thing. (At least here in Ptld). This way you don't have to worry about folks shopping around and having to low-ball to beat out others. Then you'll have a whole new issue to deal with as far as companies w/in companies.

Another thing about our gps, when a call comes in it will pick the closest available cab and offer the call to them first. If they choose not to take the call then it opens the call to the rest of the fleet, takes "bids" (not a price bid) and then of all the others that "bid" on the call it will take the closest of that group. Everyone has about an even chance to get calls. Yes, we have busier 'zones' than others that drivers sit in (downtown for instance) but then there's more in the outer areas if you're willing to chase them.

I don't know how much you guys charge distance wise out there, but we go on a mile/per basis. (imagine your distances are much shorter than ours) but we're at 2.20/mile now. I've heard that in Seattle when the gas prices went up instead of tacking on another dime per mile (as we did) they tacked on a flat $1/ride.

Don't take this to mean I am against anything you guys do out there, I am all for whatever it takes to make a cabbies life easier. It seems that the rest of the country follows whatever it is you guys in NYC are doing so I wish you luck out there.

Bob said...

yes it looks like you guys are getting a raw deal over there, good luck with the strike.

G.S. said...

Thanks Mike and Bob for your support.

Miss "Me" (I enjoy your cab blog btw)... thank you for the longest comment I've ever had!

In NYC about half the 13,087 cabs are independently owned by small business operators. The city is making THEM pay for the installation (about $5,000) and maintenance ($175 per month I am told) of the GPS system. Plus if it breaks down the meter will cease to function, so the system must be repaired immediately before the driver can be in business again.

NYC has a grid street system which makes navigating for addresses extremely easy. There are rarely difficult-to-find destinations and when there are 99 % of the time the passenger (who lives there) can direct the driver. Plus we all carry street maps. (Maps... remember them?)

I do not have a problem with the city telling us what we can charge for our services so long as they let us charge enough so we can make a decent living - enough of a decent living to cover the costs of the benefits we do not have. Unfortunately for reasons that have never been understood, the city officials ovr the years have chosen to keep the cab drivers on the low end of the income scale.

We currently charge 40 cents for a fifth of a mile which equals $2.00 per mile, and 40 cents for each minute of waiting time. The first drop of the meter is $2.50. Our last rate increase was in November '06.

Our business is all off the street, btw. We do not have two-way radios for business purposes.

That's about it. Thanks for your input, much appreciated.

4min said...

G.S. thanks for the post! i wish everyone could be educated on the whole situation. It seems so complicated though that no one will. and even we have to do some browsing to check the latest rules and how they all conflict with each other.

I'm in on the strike too... of course, since i haven't driven in over a month. I'm waiting on a friend of a friend of mine, who has a cab and leases the medalion. but he never calls me back! how can this be when hes gonna have to 5000 dollars for a fricken tv set. sorry, sorry...

to reply to portland, who changed the name i suppose, because it doesn't link anymore... the biggest comment i must say is that our GPS only notifies the tlc of where we are, not us, and even our passengers will have only a vague clue of where a they are, if they manage to hit all the right buttons on their back seat monitor. passengers will soon complain about these. somebody paid off the tlc in my opinion, in order to sell all this shit.

also G.S., did you catch Melissa Plaut's (new york Hack) OP-ED piece about the strike in the NYtimes?

4min said...

Oh and good luck G.S.

John said...

Yes things are stacked against the NYC taxi driver.Driving for 12 hours in the heat and hassle of NY will soon bring you to an early grave.
If you could get the fares up and the rental equal to 4 hours work and limit driving to 10 hours per shift.
If drivers could cover medical appointments and emergencies it would soften the anger of the public.

T don't envy you facing up to the mafia who control the medallions .

A little pain will givee you gain.

jodester said...

dude! sock it to 'em! loadsa ppl in the uk add the credit surcharge and have a minimun fee... good luck x

Anonymous said...

Let the little wo/man earn a decent wage to cover his needs with a small margin of excess so he won't have to grovel? Are you kidding!! Ferment always leads to foment, but somehow the ones pulling the strings are never affected significantly. After all, if the little people had a little security, think how dangerous this could be! They'd stop lashing out at one another and look upwards, fueled with ideas of bettering a society that cannot tolerate change. When drivers write as intelligently and intelligibly as you do, they'd really fear a revolution. The TLC knows that drivers can only strike for so long; they still have you on a very short leash (about to become shorter if their GPS and "monitors" - two-way? - are implanted). Sadly, sometimes one needs the devil to fight the devil.

Cabbie X said...

Thought I'd toss in the proverbial two cents:

#1 - We just installed GPS in our cabs, and we've been told it violates Oregon's definition of an independent contractor. And the contract we sign with the company specifically states that we do not have to report our whereabouts at any time, and the GPS system is a de facto reporting of our location at ALL times.

#2 - We have been taking cards for a few years, and it's been a major pain because until recently we didn't have the in-cab swipers, we had to use our celphones to call them in. The company held us responsible for all bad charges, which is also illegal in Oregon. We aren't legally required to take any form of payment not back in full by the company. Now, with the swipers, I ask for a photo ID at the same time I ask for the card. If the card doesn't go thru, and they don't have another way to pay, I have their ID to hand to the cops for that citation. And my tips have actually gone up with the swiper, as I have to manually enter it in. When they have to say the tip out loud, they tend to give a little more rather than look cheap :)

#3 - Jeez, and they say cels are distracting. I can't imagine having to listen to a TV in the back. I wonder if you can sue the city when you get distracted and have a wreck??

4 - We don't have this, but I sure wish we did.


Bottom line, our job is a benefitless and often thankless one, and I hope the strike went off well and sent a message. How about a followup?

G.S. said...

Thank you all for some really excellent input. I will have a follow-up post very soon.