October 23, 2007
Something Money Can’t Buy
By CLYDE HABERMAN
Like all labor disputes, the one-day strike by taxi drivers yesterday turned on tangible matters, in this case credit card machines, global positioning systems and the like. But it was also about an intangible, something that cabbies often feel they are denied. It is called respect. It is called dignity.
“It’s 100 percent about respect,” said Jahangir Alam, one of a couple of hundred drivers who rallied in protest yesterday outside the Lower Manhattan offices of the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission. “There’s no respect for cab drivers. As a driver, you have no control. It’s like I’m a slave.”
Mr. Alam’s feelings were shared by others at the afternoon rally. Again and again, the two words — dignity and respect — came up in conversations and in labor leaders’ speeches.
“They never go to the drivers to ask what we want,” John McDonagh said of city officials. Mr. McDonagh said that he has driven a cab on and off since 1977. He gives the job a rest now and again, he said, “to reclaim my humanity.”
It will be left to others to decide whether the strike was the unqualified success claimed by its organizers or the dismal bust preferred by City Hall. Either way, New York’s technophilic mayor seems unlikely to change his mind about the new gizmos that he wants in taxis.
It was hard to see how effective any work stoppage of preset length could be; most New Yorkers can survive without taxis for 24 hours and not break into cold sweats. The drivers were also not helped by the de facto strikebreaker role that City Hall played.
To help maximize taxi availability, it allowed drivers who worked yesterday to charge special rates that gave them more money than usual. Those rates amounted to “a bribe” for scabs, said Graham Hodges, a history professor at Colgate University who was once a cabby himself and recently wrote “Taxi! A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver” (Johns Hopkins University Press).
“The people who do this job are desperate,” Professor Hodges said. When an incentive like yesterday’s special fares comes along, “you don’t have to be a Marxist to understand that that will breed strikebreakers.”
Obscured by the to-ing and fro-ing over the new machines is a more basic point, namely that many drivers feel like serfs, and maligned serfs at that.
Recent immigrants for the most part, they perform a tough, lonely duty that few native Americans want to do anymore — even those Americans who are perpetually out of work. “These people work like sharecroppers,” said Edward G. Rogoff, a Baruch College professor who has studied the taxi industry. “They take the risk. They do all the worst work, and relatively speaking, they don’t get much reward for it.”
What they get instead is a steady diet of being portrayed in corners of the press as nothing but fare gougers. They are the butt of lame David Letterman jokes. They run into the borderline racism of a tabloid column that referred contemptuously last week to a generic “crazed, Tagalog-speaking cabbie.” They put up with slanderous labels like one slapped on them in 1998 by the Giuliani administration, which called them “taxi terrorists” for daring to assert their right to protest city policies.
They endure brain-numbing innovations that only City Hall suits can devise, like those maddening Elmo messages of a few years ago, the ones that screamed at passengers to buckle up and take their belongings.
Now we have a new requirement that drivers accept a credit card system that forces them to pay an unheard-of 5 percent fee on each transaction.
They must also install, at considerable expense, G.P.S. technology that is in no way designed to help them navigate city streets. What it can do, in the spirit of Elmo, is blare enough commercials all day long to make anyone batty. If these devices malfunction, as some inevitably will, drivers must get them fixed fast or find themselves effectively forced off the road.
Granted, some cabbies are their own worst enemies. They could win a lot of friends by paying more attention to passengers and ditching their cellphones, which far too many of them use while driving, in violation of city rules.
But a more fundamental concern yesterday was those two little words. They kept surfacing, as they did in a speech at the rally by Ed Ott, executive director of the New York City Central Labor Council. “This is never about money,” he said. For the drivers, he said, “we demand dignity and respect.”
I couldn't have said it better myself.