WASHINGTON — Some 150 taxi drivers gathered outside the District government Wilson Building here Nov. 4 to protest the city’s moves to foist the cost of modernizing the taxi fleet onto the drivers. More than 1,000 of the city’s 6,500 cab drivers voted a week earlier to join the D.C. Taxi Operators Association, which is affiliated with the Teamsters union, to press this fight.
“We have as corrupt and rude a government in this city as you can get,” said Lee Mason, a taxi driver since 1968. “They forced me to put about $1,000 into my car to comply with these rules. But the money’s not the only thing, it’s the way they treat people. They treat us cab drivers like dirt.”
Most of the drivers own or lease a cab. The new regulations require them to paint their cars red and grey, install new dome lights on the roof and install city-approved credit card machines. According to the union, drivers often work 12-hour days and average $25,000 to $30,000 a year.
The cab drivers marched to Mayor Vincent Gray’s office to present a letter from the new association demanding a moratorium on fines and impoundment of cabs for non-compliance with the regulations; reimbursement for some of the costs of compliance; and a driver representative on the taxi commission. A representative of the mayor’s office came out and said the mayor’s schedule was “very dense,” but he would get the message.
“Thirty years ago you could spend more time with your family and still make ends meet,” said Jesse Black, who has driven cabs for 40 years. “But the costs have soared out of control.”
Bililigne Senbet said that on his way to the rally his cab was towed for not having the new city-mandated dome light. He will have to shell out money for the $100 fine to get his car out of impoundment and to tow it to one of the 10 shops in the city contracted to install the dome lights.
“I already spent three days trying to get the new lights,” Senbet said. “But there were none available.”
“They don’t even pay us our money,” said Elizabeth Sebhat, the one female driver at the action. She said she has waited a month to get $1,600 in credit card payments owed to her. It is now parked while she tries to get a new dome light. According to some reports, the installation was initially going for $180, but now it costs a minimum of $475. Sebhat said some shops charge up to $600.
“The policemen and hackers [cab inspectors] abuse us,” she said. “I like to work and earn my money, but they want to send us for the food stamps.”
Neville Waters, the Public Information Officer for the District of Columbia Taxi Commission, told the Militant that 5,000 of the 6,500 cabs in the district have the new dome lights. “As we approach the deadline, those who … procrastinated are now facing the pressures of the market,” he said.
“The city has not been clear on the deadlines for these upgrades,” Teamsters Press Secretary Galen Munroe said to the Militant. “This is price-gouging and profiteering on the part of the city-appointed vendors.”
Waters said that the mayor’s office pushed the upgrades because “many thought we had a third-world cab system. The cabs were unclean, the drivers rude.”
“For him to say that is insulting to these drivers, most of whom are of East African origin,” Munroe said. “We have a real problem with the racial undertone of this.”
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