Driving Change

by Dion M. Harris

When my daddy was laid off after 20 years of service to the shipyard as a welder, he got his groove back in the New Orleans taxicab industry, where he’d been a bit player since I was five. His part-time, side hustle was now a full-time enterprise. Daddy was a 41-year-old divorcé and single parent. In two years, he’d have to put a daughter through university.

By 1996, in less than 10 years, he was a self-made man, with certificates of public necessity and convenience (taxicab operating licenses, known as CPNCs), real estate and a newly-incorporated taxicab leasing business, its name an acronym of his and his daughters’ names, named for his deceased mother.

Today, such success in the local taxicab industry is less than assured. Even with the requisite hustle, sweat equity, street smarts and financial prudence required of successful entrepreneurs. In fact, it has become more and more difficult in recent years to earn an above-average living wage in the New Orleans taxicab industry – despite the record numbers of tourists and conventioneers who visit the city every year.

Strict new City Hall standards concerning seven-year-old maximum-age operating vehicles; extremely restricted inspection station hours; centralized credit card processing through a single vendor – with fees double what the independent workforce had previously negotiated on their own; pricey security and camera equipment mandates; accelerated competition from Airport Shuttle, gigantic tour buses and the nuisance  pedicabs; harassment; and now-video-documented brutality by Taxicab Bureau inspectors – as its newest director, currently on administrative leave, stood by and watched in one now-infamous case involving a female tour guide in November – have many longtime drivers frustrated, disgusted and generally disgruntled.

I know many taxicab drivers, men and women, who’ve worked the streets of New Orleans anywhere from 10 to 35 years. It’s always been a way for a working-class fella – or a degreed professional who can’t find suitable work in her field – to earn a decent living, generally speaking, on her own terms. These mounting and multi-directional attacks from every conceivable direction necessitated local taxicab drivers finally create a union last summer. The purpose of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 234 is to give voice to the formerly voiceless “baddest and bravest workers in New Orleans,” in the words of national President Lee Saunders last month at a union meeting in Metairie.

Cab Drivers For Justice, as the union is alternately known, is harnessing the power of its 1.6 million AFSCME members to put “heat” on the institutions that have forgotten how to play fair with law-abiding citizens who actually work for a living. Quoting recently-deceased South African President and freedom fighter Nelson Mandela, Saunders defined the philosophy of unions and labor/community organization: Fingers alone are unable to ward off attacks and blows. It is the fist – collective individuals, bound together – which has the power to defend and successfully fight back.

“When you join together and when you fight together, we can win,” Saunders said. He called for “activism, militancy, involvement and speaking out.” He instructed 300-odd union members on a clear autumn day to define their priorities, then turn them into demands on the powers that be.

Saunders surmised that Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s intent is to transform the New Orleans taxicab industry into the standard operating procedure which exists in New York and other U.S. cities: three-shift drivers beholden to taxicab conglomerates. New Orleans, conversely, is a federation of some 1,400 independent contractors.

“They want to hurt us because we stand in their way. If you work hard and you play by the rules, you can have a better life. Unions, and AFSCME, are all about pulling someone else up out of the hole,” Saunders said. “If they think you are voiceless, they will take advantage of you. But if they know you have power and community, they will listen.”

Delores Montgomery, newly-elected president of Local 234, reminded her predominantly-male membership that they were “born with two balls” – and challenged them to use them in the fight for their independence, respect and livelihoods.

©2013,Dion M. Harris/Be Right Books