Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Why the taxi turmoil?

Brad Newsham explains what San Francisco taxi drivers are protesting today. Brad, besides driving a cab, is the creator of the Beach Impeach and much other creative protest against national and local wrongs.

DURING THE PAST THREE DECADES San Francisco was home to the most driver-friendly taxicab legislation on this planet. A groundbreaking 1978 law stipulated that the city's taxicab "medallions" (the permits that allow the holder to put one cab on the streets) would no longer be held by taxicab companies but by veteran cab drivers.

The cab company owners loathed the new arrangement, and between 1978 and 2007 they crafted eight separate ballot measures intended to restore their supremacy. And on each of those eight occasions, the city’s enlightened voters said, “No -- we like our cabdrivers. The law stays.”

BUT IN 2007, a group of City Hall and taxicab industry insiders pulled off a fast one. The principals have never admitted their roles, but here’s how the dirty deal went down: 2007 was an “off-year” election (no headliner contests on the ballot) and it was understood that voter turnout would be feather-light. Deep within the fine-print legalese of a mind-numbing, ten-page ballot proposal (“Transit Reform, Parking Regulation and Emissions Reductions”) the insiders hid a bomb -- three devastating sentences designed to abolish the San Francisco Taxicab Commission and place the cab industry under control of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA). Most cunningly, the bill specified that all previous taxicab legislation would be nullified, and henceforth any decree from the SFMTA would automatically be law in the taxicab industry. The measure squeaked through with the “yes” votes of a mere 15% of the electorate, who had no idea they’d just sabotaged the City’s 7,000 cab drivers.

THE SAN FRANCISCO MUNICIPAL TRANSPORTATION AGENCY is a sprawling octopus of more than 5,000 salaried employees. Its flagship enterprise is Muni, the perennially beleaguered bus and subway system whose brink-of-bankruptcy woes often scream from the headlines. The SFMTA’s director is paid $308,837 per year. The average Muni bus driver earns $82,000. In addition to paychecks, all SFMTA workers receive sick leave, paid vacations, and comprehensive health and retirement packages. (A typical cab driver earns approx, $30,000/year. A cab driver who holds a medallion can earn an additional $25,000 or so by renting out his/her cab and medallion. But when it comes to benefits, every cab driver is equal: no one gets a thing -- no sick/vacation pay, no health care, no 401K.

The SFMTA just about wet its pants when the cab industry was delivered, bound-and-gagged, onto its doorstep. One SFMTA director publicly proposed confiscating all 1,500 medallions (no matter that medallion holders, such as me, have invested their economic lives into the cab industry) for sale to the highest bidder. A veteran city attorney was assigned to conduct “taxicab industry town hall meetings” at which she was straight-up with those of us who attended: her job, she told us, was to figure out how to extract $20 million from the cab industry -- ASAP! -- with so very much more to come later. We cab drivers were invited to offer suggestions on how the extraction mechanisms might be most efficiently structured, but the eventual outcome was non-negotiable. Don’t like it? Well, tough! Elections have consequences.

By mid-May of 2010 all of the various tubes and spigots of the gleaming new money pipeline were operational. In June 2011 the SFMTA reported that, so far, $10.3 million had flowed from the low-paid, benefit-less, health care-less workers in the taxicab industry over into the compensation packages of the SFMTA. The cab driver body has watched all this unfold and has finally began to ask, Can this really be happening right here in God’s Favorite City? And: Are we not human, too?

THE CONFUSING NEWS REPORTS you may have heard (5 percent credit card fees, backseat advertising terminals, honking cabs surrounding City Hall make absolutely no sense if you are unaware of the brilliant 2007 coup engineered by the City Hall “in-crowd.” Already, as a result of that coup, an actual fortune has been transferred away from the city’s zero-benefits, low-pay cab drivers and has been used to fund the paychecks and the benefits of some of the city’s best-compensated employees. The news media have all but ignored this story, but we cab drivers can no longer afford to. Surely, in San Francisco, such a thing can not stand.

So, What DO Cab Drivers Want?

It’s very simple. We ask only that the revenue generated by our humble labor should be plowed back into improving the taxicab industry instead of being siphoned away by the SFMTA. Our regulators at the SFMTA currently regard the taxicab industry merely as a source of funding for the salaries, healthcare, and pensions of the SFMTA’s 5,000 employees. On the other hand, the SFMTA says that the city’s 7,000 cabdrivers are not eligible for such benefits, but are in fact not eligible for benefits of any kind.

This shocking remnant from the days of slavery runs counter to every single value held by the people of San Francisco. We cab drivers are confident that our fellow citizens will soon hear our pleas for mercy and justice, and will agree that the money generated by our labors shall not be hijacked.

The taxicab industry should and can and already does generate all the money required for its reasonable regulation, and we drivers feel that the additional money generated by our labor should not be taken away, but should be used to make the taxicab industry a more vibrant transportation option for the people of San Francisco and all visitors.

Every single issue involving the cab industry can indeed be worked out by reasonable people treating each other respectfully, but not even one of these issues can be resolved if a money-hungry group from outside the taxicab industry is allowed to run amok inside the taxicab industry. What’s generated by the cab industry should stay in the cab industry.

We want a law specifying that the SFMTA shall take from the taxicab industry only the money required for reasonable regulation, and that 100 percent of the rest will be plowed back into the taxicab industry. Or else we want a law cutting us loose from the SFMTA. We feel this is absolutely fair and reasonable.

For a more exhaustive treatment of taxi issues, see Brad's article here.

I wish Brad hadn't teed off on Muni drivers here, though I understand his frustration. After all, the drivers earn far more than cabbies can dream of. But they won their union contracts by tough bargaining and we shouldn't be blaming them for trying to get the best deal they can win. They have refused to make even token concessions during recent budget crises, so the drivers have become everyone's favorite punching bag. I'd rather concentrate my fire on the SFMTA executives, but this is Brad's piece.

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