Fare Trade

Ziggy Zilber built a lean, mean, ground-transportation empire, making money and enemies, and working the politicians like a well-oiled machine

But in 1970 this whole arrangement was thrown for a loop when the International Brotherhood of Railroad and Steamship Clerks union came to Miami to organize the area's cabbies. The union first set its sights on Yellow Cab, which immediately dug in its heels to fight the effort. "At Yellow, none of us had control over one another A I had my cabs, Les Eisenberg had his, other people had theirs," Zilber explains now. "But because we shared a radio dispatch system, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that we had to let our people vote [on whether to join the union]."

It was, Zilber recalls, a tense time, with cabbies split equally on the issue. The pro-union cabbies called a strike, which angered the anti-union drivers. One night at a Yellow lot on Le Jeune Road, about 100 cabbies gathered and began kicking around the idea of going out and beating up picketers. As Zilber, Eisenberg, and other Yellow owners tried to dissuade the cabbies from violence, a car of strikers pulled into the lot and shot out the tires of a cab. Then a car of nonstriking cabbies rolled in and began shooting; moments later the police showed up and opened fire.

A real melee ensued: Anti-union drivers shooting at pickets; pickets shooting at drivers; and police firing indiscriminantly. "All hell was breaking loose," he says. "I managed to crawl around to the back of the building. By the time it was over, one guy was dead, another wounded. The union got the drivers' vote, but they only lasted a couple of years. Taxi drivers are independent people. They like to do whatever they want, without a boss looking over their shoulder. The union became a boss."

While Zilber ultimately won when the union checked out in 1972, he realized that the cab business was no longer a mere business. It was an industry. And just as unions take an interest in industries, so do governments. Zilber wanted neither in his realm. So in 1972 he helped found the South Florida Taxicab Association, a permit-owners' trade group that lobbied to keep the cabs free from county regulation. While Zilber had proved himself adept at business, lobbying was new to him, so he retained the services of his friend Steve Ross.

"I guess you could say he taught me how to lobby, which to me is getting to know people and selling your point of view," observes Zilber. "I've always had an ability to get along with people, and my size never hurt -- people don't forget me."

Ross and Zilber went about pressing the flesh with Tallahassee legislators, and in 1975 the Florida legislature passed a law that forbade counties from taking over individual cities' taxi regulation. However, the counties still wielded the authority to regulate the taxi business in unincorporated areas. As a result, Dade County begin to issue permits in such areas for about $250 A peanuts compared to the $19,000 a Miami permit cost then. About this time, Zilber acquired Morse Taxi, whose cabs covered the municipalities of Surfside, Bal Harbour, and Bay Harbor Islands; he also snatched up 50 Dade County permits after the Broward-based Yellow Cab of Hollywood decided to cease business in Dade County and operate exclusively in Broward.

"So now I have these 50 Dade County permits and no idea what to do with them," Zilber says. "For about two to three months, I just kept 'em." Then something occurred to Zilber: Every cab operating out of Miami International Airport had its permit issued by the City of Miami. The airport, however, sat on ground in unincorporated Dade just outside city limits. Zilber figured, why not put the 50 county permits -- which cost next to nothing -- at the airport, and redeploy the city permit cabs downtown? It was virtually money for nothing. By relocating the pricier Miami permit cabs to the city, he could outnumber the competition, while the cheap county cabs would rake in regular, lucrative fares from the airport.

"So I went to the Segal brothers [Stanley, Norton, and Bill], who had the airport contract and who leased [the contract] to Yellow, and said, 'I'm gonna change cabs, any problems?'" relates Zilber. "They said, 'No legal problems but the drivers will go crazy. Do what you want.'" He did. And the drivers went crazy, with owners and drivers crying foul because Zilber was creating more competition. Some threatened legal action, citing unfair competition. Others threatened bodily harm. "The first county cab we put at the airport had its windshield smashed and tires slashed," Zilber notes. But he went ahead with his scheme anyway, and within a month he had an additional 38 cabs cruising downtown Miami, plus 38 cabs at the airport. Other owners followed suit, and within weeks a $250 county permit was fetching $4000.

As the Seventies drew to a close, Zilber seemed to have it all: city licenses, county licenses, multiple cab companies, top-flight lobbyists, and the presidencies of Yellow Cab and the South Florida Taxi Association. His son was off in Gainesville at the University of Florida, while he was living a comfortable life with his wife Linda in a spacious Bay Harbor Islands home. He was, however, spending more time out of town: His no-holds-barred approach to business had drawn the attention of many others in the nation's cab industry, and in 1981 he was elected president of the International Taxicab and Livery Drivers Association (ITLDA), a job that forced him to spend time lobbying in Washington, D.C.

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