Thursday, September 13, 2007

Politics and Taxicabs

The so-called "strike" has been over for more than a week now and I've got to say that any way I look at it I'm kind of disgusted at the way the whole thing went down. I will attempt to analyze it and give you some perspective that I'm pretty sure you haven't heard anywhere else.

But first I want to thank Melissa Plaut for including an excerpt from my post, "Taxi Strike", in her own New York Hack blog last week in a post she called "Strike!". Melissa, of course, is the Queen of the Taxi Bloggers and by doing this she introduced my blog to a much wider audience, for which I am grateful. If you haven't heard, she has just had a book published which is a must-read for anyone interested in taxi drivers, New York City, or human beings. You can order it online by going to her blog and clicking where you're supposed to click. It's easy.
I attended a reading and book signing Melissa did at a Barnes & Noble in the Village on Tuesday night which was standing-room only (I stood). The whole thing was a great affair but what I liked best was observing the pride that showed on the faces of her mother and father and family members. If you're a parent, it just doesn't get any better than this.
And now, about the strike...
What It Was
It was a two-day work stoppage, which in reality is a type of protest. It shouldn't have been called a strike at all. A real strike is open-ended - it doesn't end until there's a settlement between labor and management. This was never the intention the Taxi Workers Alliance, which called for the action, nor was it within their capabilities.

How Many Cabs Were Out?
It was interesting to hear various groups and individuals give their opinions on this. The TWA was saying 90% were out. The mayor was saying the effect of the strike was minimal. The media commentators I heard were saying that the lines for taxis at train stations and airports were longer than usual, but not too bad. The truth is there is no way of knowing for sure because taxicabs are spread out all over the city, all the time. They are never in any kind of central location, so how can you count them?
Nevertheless, I have my own estimate. The only reliable information I received came from the night dispatcher at my garage who told me on the second day that only 30% of his cabs were not working. I think it would be safe to say that the owner/drivers, who will have to pay the high costs of the GPS systems themselves, were observing the work stoppage in larger numbers. So my estimate is that 50% of the drivers, at best, did not work on those two days.
So I was wrong in my post when I predicted that it would be like 1998 when a one-day stoppage was indeed observed by 90% of the cabbies and a significant impact was made on the city. I think it's sad that so many cab drivers chose to work on those two days. No, it's worse than sad. It's disgusting.
I'm sorry. I don't buy the excuse I kept hearing from drivers who were interviewed on TV that "I have a family to feed," or "I can't afford to miss any work." Bullshit. The drivers who rent cabs by the week don't work all seven days. They all take at least one day off. So taking off two days on this one particular week was too much to ask? And for the drivers who rent cabs by the day all it meant was switching their work days around on this one particular week. That is so impossible?
No. The only reason cabbies who chose to work did so was because they knew they'd have great business on those two days due to reduced competition and a lucrative pricing system that was implemented by the city. Plus they don't think of taxi driving as really being their career so there's no reason for them to make a commitment to it.
I worked the night shift on the night before the work stoppage was scheduled to begin. As I brought my cab back to the garage, I encountered a veteran cabbie whom I have known for several years and for whom I used to have respect. He was waiting to be assigned to a cab for the upcoming day shift. In other words, he was about to become a scab.
I confronted him in a firm, but nonthreatening, way. I was truly shocked that he was working and I told him so. His reply was, "There's no union!"
Now this is a guy who about eight months ago started losing his teeth. He is now almost toothless. He epitomizes for me the individuated mindset of many New York cab drivers. It doesn't occur to him that the reason he hasn't been able to replace his teeth is that he is underpaid and has no dental plan because there is no union and that a demonstration of some unity would be at least something that could be done to improve his very obvious problem. It was pathetic.
What Was Accomplished?
From what I can see the only thing that might be considered a victory for the taxi drivers is that their complaints are far better known to the general public and to the city government than they were before. The work stoppage received a lot of publicity locally.
Unfortunately the whole thing clearly showed how weak the drivers are as a group. I mean, if you can't get drivers to agree to stay home from work for two lousy days, you certainly can't get them to do more than that. So if anyone in City Hall had any serious concerns that taxi drivers had to be dealt with - or else! - well, they don't have those concerns anymore.
I contend that when the system we operate under was created in 1937 it was intentionally designed to be unorganizable. If all the city's taxicabs could be located at two, or five, or even twenty different garages, it could be done. But when you have 11,787 medallion taxis - the number in 1937 - consisting of about 5,000 individual owner/operators and the rest divided up among something like 50 different garages, I'm afraid it cannot.

So there is no clout. Taxi drivers will have to continue to depend on whatever sense of fair play the mayor and his appointees have at any particular time. Which, even if the current administration is fair and competent, doesn't mean that the next one will be, too.
What the Mayor Did
Mayor Bloomberg and his team were well-prepared for this action. A contingency plan had already been thought up and was put into motion the moment the work stoppage began. It consisted of a zone pricing system that was more lucrative for the driver than our usual metered rates, a group riding arrangement at the airports that was also more lucrative, extra buses, and the threat of allowing the outer-borough livery cars to accept street hails and do the airport business if there weren't sufficient medallion cabs on the streets.
The mayor took to the airwaves to encourage drivers to come to work and declared to the media that the work stoppage was having no effect at all on getting around in the city. He even had his picture taken sitting behind the wheel of a taxi. He would not meet with the leaders of the TWA to discuss their grievances and offered no willingness to negotiate at all.
Only one commentator that I was aware of, Ron Kuby on WABC radio (although I'm sure there were others), mentioned that the mayor was acting as a union buster and was encouraging workers to scab, something that is not considered fair play in management/labor relations. But again, it shows the weakness of the drivers. Can you imagine what a clamour would have been created if the mayor had refused to negotiate with the Transit Workers Union a year and a half ago when there was a brief subway and bus strike? That is what is meant by "clout". If you haven't got it, this is what you get.
What the Mayor Said
Because I am knowledgeable about the history of these things, I actually found it amusing to hear how the issues of requiring taxis to install expensive GPS tracking systems and passenger information monitors were being sold to the media and the public by the mayor. He said that all he was trying to do was make the taxi-riding experience better for the public. Okay, fine. He further stated that these "technology enhancements" had already been agreed to when we accepted the fare increases of May '04 and November '06, the implication being that by going on strike we were somehow backing out of a deal we had already made.
This logic was swallowed by the NY Times in an editorial in which they said that yes, the drivers may have some valid objections, but they did agree to it when they got the last fare increase, so they should honor that agreement now.
What??
The impression that the mayor seemed to be trying to give was that there is some kind of union and that the drivers all got together and voted to accept the deal. As we have already seen, nothing could be further from the truth. Obviously, there is nothing that can be called a union.
No driver ever voted or was even asked for an opinion about these "technology improvements". The only faction of the taxi industry that was consulted were the owners of the fleets. And they are getting a piece of the action (advertising revenues from the passenger information devices). And they were not in agreement with the work stoppage. In fact, they did everything they could think of to prevent drivers from participating in it.
What the Mayor Did Not Say
In order to illustrate the kind of duplicity that taxi drivers are subjected to, I am going to have to back up a few years and explain a bit of the history of the politics of fare increases. The first thing to understand is that fare increases do not just occur when the mayor or the taxi commissioner say so. They have to go through a lengthy bureaucratic procedure including public hearings and economic studies.
However, in all the years I've been watching this process, since 1977, these hearings and studies have always been merely a formality. Once an announcement is made by the Taxi and Limousine Commission that a fare increase is being considered, it is just a matter of time - within two months or so - that the increase becomes a reality.
By December of 2001 the taxi industry had gone six years since the last fare increase. We were hurting badly. The rate of fare in NYC has always been lower than almost all other major U.S. cities to begin with (in those days the rate was $1.50 per mile and 20 cents for a minute of waiting time), plus we were in the middle of the economic calamity of 9/11. The rate of inflation was about 3 to 4 per cent per year, so the value of our earnings was in the area of 20 per cent less than it had been six years prior. I myself was working four twelve-hour shifts per week (the most my body can endure) and barely had enough to pay for my extremely modest living expenses. Out of desperation I was considering leaving my chosen ( perhaps foolishly chosen) profession.
Then finally - three to four years late in my own opinion - a proposed 26 per cent fare increase was announced by the taxi commissioner, Matthew Daus, in mid-December. My spirits immediately lifted. Thankfully there would soon be relief to what had become a bleak economic scenario.
And then, in the last week of the month and in the last week of his tenure as mayor, Rudy Guiliani, who had been to the taxi drivers what Mussolini had been to Italy, responded to a reporter's question about what he thought about the taxi drivers getting a fare increase. He said he thought they should only get maybe a 10 per cent increase and that should only go to the owners of the "new" cabs.
The "new" cabs in those days were the Crown Vics that were being manufactured by Ford to have extra leg room in the back. They were just becoming available and were beginning to hit the streets with great popularity with both drivers and passengers alike.
Now let me fill you in so you will comprehend the monumental absurdity and mean-spiritedness of Guiliani's comment. If you didn't know any better this might sound like a harsh but not totally unreasonable statement for the former mayor to have made. But here's what the general public would not know. The types of vehicles that appear on the streets are mandated by the Taxi and Limousine Commission. They make the rules. We follow them. So the cab owner who purchased one of the "old" Crown Vics did so only because the TLC said that was the vehicle you must have. And, by a new rule that was adopted during Guiliani's administration, they are only permitted to be on the streets for three years, after which time they are automatically retired.
So if the former mayor's comment was to be taken seriously, owners, who had been following the city's own rules when they had purchased a new cab, say, a year ago (and now had almost zero resale value) would have to suddenly take this vehicle off the road and take out a new loan on a new car in order to get a ten per cent rate increase. And then there would be a two-tiered pricing system in effect creating a situation in which the public would never know what rate they would be paying when they hailed a cab (the Crown Vics look identical from the outside).
But Guiliani's comment was not taken seriously. It was a mean-spirited and disingenuous remark made by a lame duck official as a parting shot to the members of an industry he genuinely disliked. Why that was so could be the subject of another post. But I include it here as an example of how politics can effect an industry that has no clout. And as a lead-in to what happened next.
As annoyed as I was when I heard this comment, I knew that in another week Guiliani, thank God, would no longer be mayor and Bloomberg, who as far as I knew had no personal animosity toward taxi drivers, would take over. So I wasn't too concerned. The 26 per cent rate increase had already been proposed by the TLC and it was just a matter of a short time before it would clear the usual bureaucratic hurdles.
Bloomberg became mayor on January 1st, 2002. A month went by and nothing was heard about the rate increase. Another month went by. Nothing. And then another. I became puzzled and worried. It was taking way more time than it ever had in previous years for this proposed rate increase to be approved.
And then one day while driving my own car toward my taxi garage to start a night shift, I heard on the radio the voice of the taxi commissioner, Mr. Daus. He said that new industry data indicates that there are enough drivers at this time so a rate increase is no longer being considered.
Whaaat??!!
You did not want to be anywhere around me at this particular moment. I wound up screaming so loudly at my radio that I had a sore throat for two days.
It made no sense. He might as well have gone on the air and said that from now on taxi drivers will be required to wear their underwear on the outside of their pants. (Old Woody Allen joke from the movie Bananas.) There are enough taxi drivers at this time? Since when did that become the criterion for a rate increase? The reason for the rates to go up is supposed to be that rising costs of living and doing business warrant it. If we are to assume that a sufficient or insufficient number of people currently driving cabs is the criterion, we must also assume that the thinking is that no rate increase will be given until everyone is so poor that they are absolutely forced to quit! And how mean-spirited would that be?
I didn't believe for a minute that this was the real reason for this announcement. Beside the fact that it made no sense, if it was true the commissioner would never have said it. I knew there was some other reason, but I couldn't imagine what it could be. I started considering various conspiracy theories that might explain it. But nothing quite made sense. And months and months and months went by without that desperately needed fare increase becoming a reality.
Then, finally, in February of 2004 - two years later - the TLC announced that the same 26 per cent fare increase was again being considered. The bureaucratic process was put into motion and in early May '04 we did get that increase. (And no mention was made of there now being enough or not enough drivers.)
About a week later I had a realization that was like the proverbial bolt of lightning streaking through the darkness. I suddenly understood why the fare increase had been delayed for two years after it had appeared to be a done deal in 2001. Here's what actually happened...
A few months after Mr. Bloomberg became mayor, the TLC announced that plans were being made to add 900 additional medallions over the course of three years to the streets of New York. (A medallion is a license to own one taxicab. One medallion equals one cab.) This is an occurrence that is a rarity in NYC. It would be only the second time since 1937 that medallions had been added to the fleet, bringing the number from 12,187 to 13,087.
But, like fare increases, this cannot be accomplished by mayoral decree. Thorough environmental impact studies must be done and the whole thing must be passed on by various agencies and committees. It's a long process that would take about a year and a half. But when it does happen, it's a goldmine for the city because these medallions are auctioned off to the highest bidders. And the going price of a medallion at that time was around $250,000.
Mayor Bloomberg is a self-made billionaire who knows how to make money. He realized two things when he heard about the proposed fare increase just after he became mayor. One, that if adding more taxis to the streets could be justified, it would mean a ton of revenue for the city. And two, if the fare increase could be postponed until the new medallions were about to be auctioned, it would mean that much more money for the city because the value of the medallion would go up.
And he was right. The medallions went on auction simultaneously with the rate increase in May '04 and the value of the medallion shot up to around $350,000. And the city made a ton of money. But it was at the expense of the taxi drivers who deserved and were about to get a rate increase in 2002 but did not get one until two years later. That cost the taxi driver of NYC thousands of dollars that he needed badly just to pay for the basic expenses of living.
And that was the real reason for the delay in the rate increase. And that is what the mayor did not say.
Now you may be wondering how I can be so sure about this. Well, I'll tell you. First of all, it's completely logical. But secondly, a couple of months ago I had a passenger in my cab who, through the course of conversation, told me he works as a member of the mayor's staff. He was quite a nice guy and we had a free-flowing discussion, touching on things like how the mayor's office was organized into various functions, the congestion tax (click here for my previous post), and my thoughts about Guiliani. Just to see what he'd say, I mentioned that even though Mayor Bloomberg had intervened to delay the rate increase we were supposed to get in 2002 in order to coincide with the sale of the new medallions in 2004 - and this was something that had cost me thousands of dollars - I still liked him a lot better than Guiliani. Because with Bloomberg it was a business move, and I respect that even if it was at my expense. With Guiliani, it was personal.
And then he confirmed that what I'd just said was true - Mayor Bloomberg had indeed intervened to delay the rate increase.
So ladies and gentlemen, we have a little investigative journalism here with one completely credible witness. That may or may not be good enough for the NY Times, I don't know, but it is good enough for my blog! And as far as I know, this has never been revealed in any other media. So you can say you heard it here first.

Solution
I will say one thing favorable about Mayor Bloomberg. During his term a rule has been created that puts a cap on the leasing fee that can be charged by the garages to the drivers. And most of the money from the '04 rate increase and all of the money from the small '06 rate increase (click here to learn about that) went to the drivers. I think he felt guilty about what he'd done in '02 and wanted to make it up to us. And this shows that he's not an unfair person.
Nevertheless, the fact is that the taxi industry has no clout with City Hall and is therefore subject to the whims, chicaneries, and personal prejudices of whoever happens to be the mayor or those to whom he has delegated authority. And that is an unfair playing field.
The issue that underlies the protest about the mandated installation of the GPS tracking system is money. The city tells us what we can charge for our services, it is not enough, and then we must beg them for rate increases which are usually not forthcoming. If taxi drivers were making a good living, and the cost of the installation of the new system was being passed on to the consumer, it would not be such a big deal. So for real change to occur, the arbitraries need to be removed from the process.
I have an idea.
I think real change that could improve the substandard working conditions of the NYC taxi driver could come not from the executive branch of the city government (the mayor) but from the legislative branch (the City Council). I think a law needs to be created.
In New York City there is a system in place that is used to protect the tenants of rent-stabilized apartments from price gouging. A group called the Rent Guidelines Board studies the economics that affect landlords each year and sets a maximum percentage that rents can be raised. This is the law.
I think a similar law needs to be created regarding taxi fares. The function of examining the costs of being in the taxi business should be an ongoing affair that results in a mandatory adjustment of the rates at a specific time. Like once every two years.
This would take the politics out of the procedure.
And it would be fair and would do a great deal to stabilize the taxi industry.
And I'll tell you something else. It would be acceptable to the riding public. Everyone knows we live in an inflating economy. We accept the idea that as time goes on the prices go up a bit. But what drives passengers crazy is the huge rate increase. A moderate, predictible increase every two years would be tolerable and understandable. And fair.
I think the Taxi Workers Alliance should move its efforts away from the mayor and the TLC and focus on what allies may be found in the City Council. And make this idea the law.
And In Conclusion...
All right, I've said all I want to say about politics and taxis. Hopefully I have shed some light on what actually goes on. And who knows, maybe this idea will take root and do some good.
But in any case this blog will now return to what I have intended it to be - stories about karma vs. coincidence, traffic jams, and drunks who puke in the back seat.
Along with an occasional dog.

3 comments:

John said...

Americans have hated unions forever.
Walt Disney called them Commies as did many employers up and down the states. Without unions children would be working in factories througout the land.
Now the children work in far off lands, Where unions are banned.
When you get a group of people who are working different centers and who have no union or brotherhood you cannot group them together for the common good.
At a guess I would think that a lot of NY taxi drivers would be afraid of being deported.
Go to chartbusters and take out "Dockers" with Ricky Tomlinson
It goes into the detail of the Liverpool dockers strike, brother against brother, famlys torn apart. I saw it on Amazon, but it is very expensive.
The other must see is "Wall mart the high price of selling cheap"
Corprate America or Corprate anywhere have no morals when it comes to profits.
You need a few good motivators to work the crowd. Some kind of Mohatma Ghandi to make the workers think for themselves.
The media is owned by the big companies so it is no surprise that they misrepresent the situation.
I am reading Melissas book and the section about the trip sheet where you have to account for you day trip by trip is just mad. Its like something that a mad dictator would think up.
Now they want to track you like criminals on ASBOS.

Man the printing presses, get the stickers up.This is a poor mans war against the beurac rats.

Mike S said...

Sadly, the whole nation has fallen victim to the 'moneyed class' battle to remove all opposition to their goals. The old 'divided we fall' is perfectly illustrated here. Perhaps you could become the catalyst needed to join the young lady in leading the efforts for change. Worth a try.

Anonymous said...

WELCOME TO THE ATLANTIC CITY TAXICAB : BUSINESS 101

Monopoly Power Revenue Enhancement program
1. Confiscates driver's earnings through high cab rentals protected by lack of free-market.
2. Suppresses service to the people. Why serve the citizenry when the only objective is to maximize certificate owners income on a limited number of cabs?
3. Collects all cash from drivers thus possibly evading taxes, plus no opportunity to collect sales tax since monopolies want no records.
4. Authorized agents for the license holders force drivers to buy cars charging upwards of $6000 for them and they don’t even pass inspection, for renewals by threatening to give there license to others in waiting .
This leads to recruiting only low caliber, often foreign drivers, who have little option or ability and no chance to learn. The turnover rate often exceeds 300% per year.
Rental rate is set too high for long survival and development. The monopolies have no mechanism or desire for driver development since the only objective is to confiscate their earnings.
The rental rate is set too high for long survival; accumulating wealth or paying taxes is out of the question.
Any limit or certificate except on knowledge is monopoly power and thus anti-free-market.
The driver is left with not enough income to pay his taxes or participate in this society. They pay all cash. New York City, the two largest fleet operators, have between 4 and 5 million dollars come across their desk each week. — evade taxes?
This is a municipally sponsored criminal conspiracy.
Atlantic city has a cap on only 250 taxicab licenses, they will not issue anymore on request.
So called market value at a so called supply in demand scale was around
$40,000.00 in 1996. Now in 2007 it has grown to around $185,000.00 . for one cab license!!
But visitor business is down and gas is higher then ever before and even casino revenues are claiming the worst loses ever.




Rental rates for:
Atalntic City Taxicab License renewal per year to city $150.00 a year
License Holder collects /varies on deal w/wo insurance etc. $15,000.00/ $33,000.00
ATLANTIC CITY cab rental / lic and insurance only . the car is separate and you must provide your own and maintenance it. $500.00 A WEEK/ $325.00 shift
Since the monopolies are self-funded, and insurance coverage is dismally low, the incentive is to keep the limit on licenses abysmally low. More cabs would mean higher risk of loss and accident rates. The victim is the public. This depresses service to the citizenry and visitors.
The monopolies are a cruel scam played on the city and especially the poor. The opposite of this is open entry infrastructure financing and high standards for the drivers or owner-operators and the vehicle. Today America is a country of monopolies formed into a cartel in Kensington , MD (ITLA). They are closed entry with no standards. The certificate (PCANS) become de facto property in violation of the constitution's ninth (9) and fourteenth (14) amendments. They operate in a black market world of monopoly power. They are municipally sponsored criminal conspiracies.
The objective of the certificate owner is to get the least qualified driver (operator) behind the wheel and thus confiscate his/her earnings. Monopolies do three things: confiscate the worker's earnings, reduce service to the people and evade taxes. The taxicab industry in atlantic city and throughout many other cities in America does all these. It is outside of the moral, social and economic life of the nation.
Certificates of Public Conveyance and Necessity: An artifact of a century ago based on the progressive's aversion to the raw capitalism of the 19th century. Now, like other such adventures gone sour, perverts original intention and creates monopolies where a free-market should reign. The certificates have become monopoly property and the business opportunities mere chattel to the certificate owners.
International Taxicab and Livermen's Association (ITLA): The cartel of nationwide monopoly interests by jurisdiction. Their members own the certificates of public conveyance and necessity by municipality. Their number is limited and does not respond to market forces. These, like all monopolies, depress service to the people, confiscate the driver's earnings through higher than free-market rentals to the driver and evade taxes. The American taxi system is outside the social, moral and economic life of the U.S.
Vicious Cycle: The socio-economic description of events that feed on each other in a downward cycle to collapse. The cab customer gets poor service, the cab driver makes less money, good cab drivers leave, and the customer gets poor service, less pay, less drivers, less customers, until collapse.
The taxi system in America & atlantic city’s geopolitical areas are a national disgrace. No decent and affordable service can be provided, no owner/operator opportunities provided, no taxes paid, no community involvement, and no responsibility. This is totally outside of the social, moral, economic, constitutional and environmental framework of our society. The taxicab industry is underdeveloped throughout the United States. Lack of standards has frozen it in the mold created more than a century ago. Bernard Fall in his writings on the war in Viet Nam noted that the French controlled only a few major urban areas in the country. They did not control municipal governments throughout much of the country, did not collect taxes and did not run the schools. Between municipalities in America and their taxicab industries there is a similar relationship.
How many unqualified taxicab drivers are out there? How many can read and write at a normal business level? How many licenses that are out there were issued without passing a test. How many drivers are actually insured? Can the police tell at a traffic stop if the cab and driver are insured?
Some of these drivers are now charging people the most outrageous prices ever heard. For example: A decent driver with good ethics and a decent dispatch provider will charge $15.00 to $20.00 dollars to a customer. But another driver with no training or guidance from a decent dispatch provider will charge $30.00 to $60.00 dollars. You can find the good drivers if you look. But there is few and most have had to move into limousine licensed vehicles such as towncars and vans to provide decent and affordable rates to there clients and visitors alike that they have built up over the years. These owner operators are real good guys that have families to support and have grown up here and to run there businesses with morals and fairness. Because the taxicab license business in atlantic city has been claimed by these monopoly Mongols the good guys have to now struggle to provide dependable service for the citizens and teach good ethics policies to any people they can recruit to help them.
There seems to be Timely events dictating the demise of the good drivers,some cab owners and now limo owner operators, such as election times. Election years seem to be the time that municipal crack downs are perpetrated against the higher caliber drivers. Psychological terror is inflicted upon good drivers and owner operators that have built businesses over the years. Guys that have been driven down time and time again by the tactics of so called code enforcement officials by means of stalking and harassing them with threats of violations. Some frivolous half baked rules that are questionable and twisted by words that don’t even exist in the ordinances. Good men with character, morals a decent business sense for the public and overall general concern for there businesses and families shouldn’t have to endure such atrocities that are indeed evidence of monopoly, dirty politics and corruption.
But do not worry ! We are here and we are legally licensed and insured to carry you everywhere you want to go! We will bring our towncars, our vans our limousines and what few decent taxicabs and drivers we have left to service you. Just call us ! You know who we are!
We will not give up our right to service you in a decent and most affordable way that we can!
We will not give in to the monopoly power enhancement program of license holders that are backed by yellow cab and city halls municipal conspiracy !
This is the taxicab and limousine world of atlantic city. These are the facts.