Teamsters to Help Cab Drivers Oppose New Regulations

Cabbies say they were shut out from negotiations over credit card systems, new paint jobs, and other changes to their industry.

By: Benjamin Freed

In their latest move to slow down regulations that will bring their business in line with the early 21st century, DC’s cab drivers are partnering up with the Teamsters. A new association of cabbies will convene next Tuesday as an affiliate of Washington’s Teamsters local, which says taxi drivers have been getting stiffed by the District government.

This is going to be something that is giving drivers a voice they feel they’ve lacked in talking to the DC Taxi Commission,” Teamsters spokesman Galen Munroe says. There are over 6,000 licensed cab drivers in the District, and the Teamsters say they are aiming to launch the new outfit—called the Washington, D.C. Taxi Operators Association—with as many as 1,000 drivers signed on.

Drivers continue to complain that the newest taxi regulations, which include the installation of new meters and credit card payment systems, flashier dome lights, and a uniform red-and-gray paint scheme, are expensive and were implemented without their input. (The dome lights are the subject of a lawsuit filed by five drivers earlier this month, though a federal judge has not moved on a request for a restraining order against the new dome lights, which are required to be installed by November 1.)

The Teamsters officials speaking on behalf of the cabbies say they received shifting prices for the dome lights. At first, they supposedly cost $250, but the price is now $450. That cost cuts into the already thin pay that drivers—most of whom are owner-operators—take home. The Teamsters say an average driver nets between $25,000 and $30,000 a year after expenses.

“We need more access to decisions that are being made about us and our livelihood,” says Jesse Black, one of the drivers who approached the Teamsters about forming a new association. “I don’t think we’ve had the proper input.” One member of the Taxicab Commission is a retired cab driver.

But drivers’ gripes go back plenty further than this year’s regulations. Black says many are still raw over the 2008 change in the fare regime from zones to a metered system that was pushed through by then-mayor Adrian Fenty, though Black says he personally supported the switch. Black says drivers lost 30 percent of their fares when the zone system ended and have not gained any of the money back, even with last year’s fare hike.

Black still says he and other drivers are not flat-out opposed to regulations that foster modernization, they just want the rollout to be much slower.

The new association is modeled after one formed last year by a Teamsters local in Seattle, where drivers have made multiple threats to strike. The Teamsters here say that isn’t on the horizon for DC cabs.

Taxicab Commission Chairman Ron Linton isn’t biting though. He says the commission received a letter last week threatening more litigation, which doesn’t exactly encourage him to give the new association a sitdown.

“I have no objection with the drivers organizing any which way they want to organize,” Linton tells Washingtonian. "We’re glad to deal with them, but not under the threat of an ultimatum.”