Calling All Cabbies

Battered by a corrupt industry, Miami's independent taxi drivers consider unionizing.

It's not clear in talking to dozens of drivers exactly what they want, or who they want it from. Earlier in the week the target was the county commission, as some cabbies asked for "emergency" permits that would allow them to drive without paying the medallion owners. Others asked for a temporary easing of lease payments until the tourist trade picks up again. The county's recent assertion that it could not interfere with a private market caused the drivers to walk out of a commission meeting and declare that they would strike, tying up rush-hour traffic in strategic spots. Cooler heads prevailed, and the men and women, led by the union, decided to protest in an orderly fashion, complete with police permits and escorts.

The drivers do agree among themselves that they can't survive long on three or four fares per day, taking home maybe $60, when it costs at least $100 per day (in lease payments, radio service, insurance, gas, et cetera) just to keep the cab on the road. "I want to make a living," says Elizabeth Goonan, a harried-looking white woman in her forties, dubbed Queen Elizabeth by some of her colleagues because of her forceful personality. Goonan also rages against what she calls a corrupt industry where some unsafe cars pass inspection because their owners pay off, and where companies insure cabs only minutes after an accident. "If you don't get on the radio and say, “Mayday, mayday' so they can put you on the policy, then you're not insured. They tell you not to call the police."

Louis DiMauro, a six foot six, 300-pound Uruguayan ("The smallest one we have," quips a driver) with a booming voice and a burning desire to be on TV, declares, "We need emergency permits to survive. We need a break!" He's interrupted by Sergio Ibarra, one of the leaders of the union-minded cabbies. "No, we're going to go to Tallahassee and change the law," he chides, as if reminding a child of a forgotten lesson. "But [Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex] Penelas said --" DiMauro protests.

With no tourists to chauffeur around, Miami's taxi drivers might as well be driving hearses
Steve Satterwhite
With no tourists to chauffeur around, Miami's taxi drivers might as well be driving hearses

"Penelas is not going to do anything," Ibarra cuts in. "He doesn't care. We're going to Tallahassee to talk to Bush."

Ibarra's group has a wish list they believe will make the current system bearable. They want lower lease payments and signed agreements between medallion owners and drivers, cutting out the cab company middlemen. They want health insurance for drivers. "The thought of getting health insurance under this regime is laughable," says J.B. Harris, an attorney who last year filed a lawsuit against the county's system. The lawsuit is stalled in federal court. Harris calls the current taxi permit system a byzantine structure designed to protect "an oligopoly of owners who basically have a license to steal. The courts don't give a shit. The politicians don't give a shit. These people are slaves."

The majority of the money coming from drivers is funneled through cab companies to the absentee medallion owners, many of whom live out of state. The owners lease the permits to the cab companies, which sublease them to the drivers. Chris Korge, a lawyer/lobbyist for one of the largest taxi companies in the county, Yellow, argues the easiest way to solve the problem would be for the county to stop medallion owners from spiking the market price of permits by shopping them around to the cab companies. "The owners will call up and say, “I'm getting $350 from Yellow Cab. Can you get me $375 [from other drivers]?' If they agree, the owner will take his permits to another company," Korge says. "The permit-holders need to understand that the supply of permits is greater than the demand right now, and come down on their price."

In Ibarra's cab a half-inch of congealed Cuban coffee dries in its tiny plastic cup on top of the radio. Above it is a Polaroid of his three-year-old son Jonathan cradling the head of a baby alligator in his hands. "That's who I drive for," the 30-year-old burly Cuban nods at the picture. Then he settles his cab-driver's body, shaped by fast food and eighteen-hour days, in the seat and cranks up his '96 Chevy's engine. It's time to start the revolution.

"It's a crooked industry, and we're going to break it!" Ibarra grins.

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