A Cabbie's Crusade

Javier Peña is a maverick cabbie on a mission to turn the notorious Miami taxi industry into a respectable profession. So far he's been threatened, shot at, fined, and fired. In other words, he's making progress.

But then, a problem. Peña and other drivers claim it's common practice for some cab-company owners to make drivers who get into accidents cough up a penalty fee if they want to continue driving for them, even though the cabs are insured. This is exactly what the owner of Yellow Cab did, Peña alleges. "Les Eisenberg asked me for $1000 -- for what I don't know," he snorts derisively. "A gift maybe."

After that he began meeting with other disillusioned drivers trying to get the county to address their many gripes about an industry they believe exploits them. When the September 11 terrorism attacks devastated local tourism, it boosted a dormant effort to unionize the approximately 3800 taxi drivers based in Miami-Dade County. Peña was out in front -- bringing the drivers' plight to the attention of local media, bellowing demands at county commission meetings, helping organize elaborate protests that included a long, slow motorcade by hundreds of drivers through the heart of Miami and rallies on Watson Island and at the Orange Bowl. "Now they label me as a troublemaker," he chuckles.

Peña parks in a city lot under I-95. He drops a quarter in the meter, then notices its red light keeps blinking. "These things never work, just like the rest of the county," he grouses, popping a fist onto the side to make his quarter spill back out. He pockets it and grins, nodding at a crumpled coat the shape of a homeless man sleeping under a meter two spaces away. "Then these guys get the quarters." He shakes his head at the trickle-down economic disorder that seems to rule Miami.

Randolph Wynns spends his days idling in airport taxi-lot purgatory
Steve Satterwhite
Randolph Wynns spends his days idling in airport taxi-lot purgatory
"Nobody looks out for the drivers," mourns Central Cab president Boris Shvartsman
Steve Satterwhite
"Nobody looks out for the drivers," mourns Central Cab president Boris Shvartsman

The economics of the taxi industry are similarly farcical. The entire system is driven by little pieces of paper, taxi permits issued by the county, that allow a cab on the road. Most of the permits are not owned by drivers, but are leased to them (usually by individuals or corporations controlled by taxi companies) by the year, week, or day. The drivers also pay other expenses, such as insurance, car maintenance, radio dispatch, and gas. Those who don't own their own cars must rent them from a taxi company. With all these expenses, it can easily cost a driver upward of $70 a day just to keep a cab on the road.

During the worst of the tourism slowdown following 9/11, drivers were bringing in just $20 to $30 a day at best. Yet the companies threatened that if drivers didn't keep paying their leases, they'd lose the taxis and be prevented from working in the industry again when the good times returned. As a result many drivers went into debt, knowing they might not find work elsewhere in job-poor Miami. Being forced to pay hundreds of dollars a week to the taxi companies even though there was no money to be made on the streets inspired an uncommon cohesiveness among the independent-minded drivers for a few months in late 2001 and early 2002.

Randolph Wynns, a fifteen-year driver, gave up his cab and found temporary work until the worst had passed. "I said to them: 'I can't make money for you. I'm not making it.' At Yellow guys were making $150 a week. [Yellow would] take it all and make them owe for the rest. They'd end up owing $5000. They're still paying money they didn't make a year and a half after 9/11. It's incredible the way they abuse these people."

Wynns, Peña, and several others say during that time some of the companies got tough on drivers who couldn't pay, repossessing cars, equipment, and permits. Yellow Cab was particularly severe, they allege. Peña says Les Eisenberg hired a gang of repo men led by an ex-cop named Lozano. "He's the cop who shot the black guy in 1989 and caused the riots in Overtown," he relates, referring to former Miami officer William Lozano, who shot a black motorcyclist speeding down an Overtown street in 1989, resulting in the deaths of the driver and his passenger and sparking a riot (hotshot attorney Roy Black got him off four years later). "He's the enforcer for Les Eisenberg," continues Peña. "He rips stuff out of cars when people fall behind in lease payments. He'll take the permits, the radio, the meter, even money laying around from the fares."

Adds Wynns: "They were even going to our houses with a truck and tow chain. They had about eight guys with guns and everything. And there's nothing we could do. I remember one incident they tried to take the meter out of a car at the airport and the driver hit [one of the men] in the head."

Les Eisenberg denies he asked Peña for money. He maintains that Yellow Cab broke ties with Peña because, after the accident, he allegedly refused to produce his taxi-driver's registration to police and was "nasty."

"We refused to do business with him ever again," Eisenberg says, adding that Peña is an "aggressive" driver with a "bad attitude." As to his employment of Lozano and crew, he acknowledges they repossessed radios, meters, and other equipment from a score of drivers after 9/11, but claims he had no choice -- he had to protect his investment. "It was one of the more depressing times for me," he offers.

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