The Car and Truck Fleet and Leasing Management Magazine

A Strike Exposes an Industry's Divide

September 7, 2007

NEW YORK – While it may have been hard at times to hail a cab during a two-day taxi strike that was expected to end this morning, it was harder still for many New Yorkers to understand the bitter dynamic the work stoppage revealed in a deeply divided industry, according to the New York Times.

“Cab driving historically has been heavily fragmented,” said Graham Hodges, a history professor at Colgate University, and author of the book Taxi! A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).

The strike centered on a dispute over a high-tech credit card and vehicle tracking system being mandated for all cabs. It was led by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which says it represents 10,000 drivers. The group’s energetic executive director, Bhairavi Desai, has become an easily recognizable voice for New York taxi drivers since she began an organizing campaign in the 1990s.

But the alliance has been opposed, sometimes with strong language, by many others in the industry. One of the most vocal groups has been the New York State Federation of Taxi Drivers, which claims to have 7,000 yellow-cab drivers among a membership that also includes drivers of livery cabs and black cars. Fernando Mateo, the group’s founder, urged drivers not to strike, and asked the police to protect drivers who went out on the street. Others who had opposed the strike included groups representing taxi fleet owners and others in the industry.

Ms. Desai said that her group would try to add members and build on what she called “an unprecedented mobilization in this industry,” hinting at possible future actions. “We basically had two solid days that have given us the experience to perfect our skills,” she said.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has said he will not change course on the taxi technology, and City Hall officials said that they were not negotiating with Ms. Desai. Mr. Bloomberg said that about 82 percent of fleet cabs were rolling yesterday, up from 75 percent the day before. The city had instituted an emergency fare system for the duration of the strike, dividing the city into fare zones, and many drivers who worked said that it allowed them to make far more money than on a typical day.

“They’re working very hard out there and maybe they deserve it,” the mayor said yesterday at a news conference.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which tracks cabs at Kennedy International and La Guardia Airports, said that in an average day there are a total of about 17,000 yellow cab pickups at the two airports. On Wednesday, the authority said there were about half that number, and yesterday there was about two-thirds of the regular volume. A spokesman said that dispatchers were still placing more than one rider in many cabs to make up for the shortfall and that as a result, waits were minimal. Throughout Midtown, there were visibly more cabs on the streets as well.

A city official said the emergency fare measures were expected to be lifted this morning.

But Mr. Hodges said that given the nature of the taxi industry, it was significant that several thousand drivers appeared to have stayed home over two days. He said that many drivers were living day to day and that “these are people who just can’t afford to strike.”

“They don’t have any strike fund,” he said. “That’s why you have a two-day strike rather than one that’s extended. The fact that they got as many as they have is quite impressive.”

The Taxi and Limousine Commission says that there are 13,087 taxi medallions. More than 3,200 of the medallions are affixed to cabs run by fleet operators, the commission said. A large portion of the remainder are leased by people who own their cabs, although they may lease the vehicle out to other drivers. About 44,000 drivers hold a hack license, but not all drive full time, the commission says.

Edward G. Rogoff, a professor of management at Baruch College who has studied the taxi industry, said that it had increasingly become divided between a small group of wealthy medallion owners and a vast pool of drivers who occupied one of the lower positions in the city’s economy.

“They’re urban transportation sharecroppers,” Mr. Rogoff said. “They lease a medallion for a fixed price for a fixed period of time and they absorb all the risk as to whether it rains. And they’re unhappy because the system is fundamentally unfair to them and they know that.”

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