Calling All Cabbies

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

The intermittent morning drizzle slicking the City of Miami's palm fronds against its glass and concrete buildings is burnt out of the air by a strengthening sun as a deep yellow cab rounds the curve of the MacArthur Causeway, heading toward Watson Island. A Flamingo taxi, still sporting an "Aristide for President" bumper sticker, joins 300 or so others where the usually bustling fish markets sit empty by the water.

A few white-and-blue city cop cars prowl the edges of this field of metal buttercups, but the vehicle that stands out is a mauve-colored truck bearing campaign signs for Maurice Ferré, a Miami mayoral hopeful who agreed to mutual support with the drivers as they began to organize a few months ago. The truck is strategically positioned for TV behind a taxi carrying a cardboard coffin, hibiscus branches, and the epitaph "Dead Driver," which sums up the collective feeling of cabbies being bled dry by the bad economy and their own industry. The gang's all here -- guys from Yellow Cab, Super Yellow, Century, Central, USA Taxi, Coral, Checker Cab, and the rest. The drivers are a veritable United Nations of Cubans, Haitians, Jamaicans, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Pakistanis, Ethiopians, Russians, and Puerto Ricans.

They are here for a protest drive though the heart of downtown Miami, into Little Havana on Flagler Street, to 27th Avenue, then up through Allapattah, west to the airport, south on LeJeune Road to Flagler, and back in a loop. The protest is designed to focus public attention on their plight and to send a message to those they believe could do something about it. Just who that might be isn't quite clear.

The taxi industry in Miami-Dade is a shadowy affair -- somewhat like the restaurant industry, peopled by characters who range from colorful to shady. The players include a couple of thousand drivers, two dozen cab companies, county regulators, and the real powers: the owners of the coveted medallions, or licenses, that permit a cab to operate. The business is regulated in that the county licenses drivers and inspects cabs a few times a year. It's virtually unregulated in that the prices drivers pay for the right to operate vary widely from company to company, driver to driver, and week to week.

According to the cabbies, much of the transaction occurs under the table, with no written agreements and sometimes no receipts. One driver might pay $275 per week to lease a medallion, while another might cough up $350, $400, or more. Cabbies accept this arrangement because sometimes there's no choice if they want to drive; some have bad records and the company looks the other way in "reviewing" their status. Most of the drivers own their own cabs and pay for insurance, radio service, and the occasional kickback to hotel bellhops and restaurant maitre d's who send them customers. For the lucky few who've managed to get a medallion through the county's annual lottery, the price of independence ranges from $10,000 to $15,000. On the market the permits are fetching $85,000 to $90,000, out of reach for most. (There are 1906 medallions in Miami-Dade.)

A pudgy New Jersey Cuban we'll call "Macho" because he won't give his real name, leans against his car, arguing into a cell phone with the owner of Central Cab. "Why don't you put it out on the radio?" he complains. "Let the guys come out here." The conversation ends. He snaps off his phone, explaining, "I told this guy nobody's working today. There's no work. So why not let them come out here? But he says no, he can't do it." Macho is one of the fortunate few, a man who owns his own medallion, which he can drive on or sublease to others. He's here keeping an eye on the rally because he doesn't want what some of the other drivers say they want: to give every driver his own permit and unionize. "Casas," he calls out to an Ethiopian who shared a medallion with another man before selling it a few weeks ago for $86,000. "How much did we used to make when we sat out at 1800 and Collins? Three or four hundred a day sometimes!" Union rules could screw that up.

Macho goes to great lengths to squeeze as much profit as he can out of his small business. Opening up the rear door of his cab, he proudly displays a small television set in the arm rest between the two front seats. It's showing the film Sixteen Candles. But Macho has something better: DVD porn. "You get a [drunk] man who wants to go to a titty bar; put that on, he doesn't know where he is," he cackles. "You can drive him around all night!"

As Macho fears, the protest is a slogan-chanting, trumpet-blaring union rally. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) from New York has sent some guys down here to organize the fiercely independent Miami drivers, an exercise in cat herding if ever there was one. But since early summer the union reps have been slowly building a coalition, a task made much easier by this year's steadily tanking economy and accelerated by the tourist drop in the aftermath of September 11. The organizers have an office on Biscayne Boulevard and refer to themselves in the press as Local 74, though right now they are merely an association under the banner of the SEIU.  

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.

"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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