Taxi Drivers to Protest Taxi Reform, Seeking an Alternative They Say Will Alleviate Cutbacks to Library and Fire Budgets

Raymond Francois is a semi-retired driver who doesn't miss his days piloting a yellow Crown Victoria for Miami Dade Taxi. The 47-year-old Haitian used to leave the house before his kids woke up and come back after they had already gone back to sleep each night. He claims that many cabbies pull 18-hour days to make up for the exorbitant leasing fees paid to use their cars.

It was costing Francois $475 a week to rent cab number 507 from Miami Dade Taxi, he says, and finally the numbers became unsustainable. Now he works part-time for a different company and is rallying other drivers to protest what he claims are slave-like conditions.

Things have only gotten worse in his 14 years as a driver, he says. He claims that in 2007, the average driver paid about $350 a week to rent a car, and now they pay about $700. Francois is staging a protest on Monday against Mayor Gimenez's proposal that all Miami cabs servicing the airport become credit card equipped. His gripe is that there's nothing in the proposal that states who will front the costs of the machines -- and he fears it will be underpaid and overworked drivers.

"If you go out at one or two in the morning, you'll see drivers sleeping in their cars," he says. "The driver sometimes has to stay out for two days before going home because conditions are so bad."

Of course, anyone who's ever been in a Miami cab probably has a similar complaint about "conditions." Vehicles aren't standardized, random fees are added without explanation, and meters go up as cashless patrons are driven to ATMs in the wee hours of the morning.

An ordinance that would make the cabs move into the 21st century would probably be met with open arms by the general public.

But for Francois and the 300 out of Miami's 2,121 drivers he anticipates showing up in front of the County Government Office on Monday, the conversation about the credit card machines presents an opportunity for other reforms. As is, Gimenez's proposal would "continue with the current slavery system that has plunged the drivers. . . into the 15th century," he says.

New York City taxi drivers were resistant to change in 2007, when credit card machines became the standard there. They were worried about transaction fees and the possibility of a declined card. But just six years later, it's impossible to imagine the system still being cash only.

Do the drivers of Miami uniformly oppose the credit card machines? Not entirely. They recognize they will make the system better for customers, he says, which just means more business. He just wants to make sure that the ordinance doesn't give taxi companies another way to screw over their workers.

Francois says the county makes about $1.9 million per year from taxi drivers in fees and that the more than 40 cab companies here are making way more than that -- $180 million. If the county would just charge drivers a $6,000 licensing fee per year, it would increase revenue by $30,000,000, which that he adds would make up for the defecits in the fire and libraries budgets that have led to controversial cutbacks.

"We'd just like the county to sit down with the drivers so we can provide our input," Francois says.

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Allie Conti was a fellow at Miami New Times and a staff writer for New Times Broward-Palm Beach, where her writing won awards from the Florida Press Club and the Society of Professional Journalists. She's now the senior staff writer at Vice and a contributor to the New York Times, New York Magazine, and the Atlantic.