By Erich Wagner (File photo)
Tenants and Workers United, which advocates on behalf of local cabbies, is lambasting the controversial findings of a city task force charged with overhauling taxi industry regulations.
The Arlandria-based organization, in cooperation with many area cabbies, has long sought the removal of restrictions that limit drivers from moving between taxi companies. The Alexandria City Council established the task force in the spring after the group pushed for annual transfers — rather than every two years.
Instead, the task force recommended that City Hall remove the transfer process altogether. Task force members said they would have been willing to negotiate had Tenants and Workers United not left the table midway through the summer-long talks.
John Liss, executive director of the organization, has argued that the city system allows taxi companies to drastically alter drivers’ contracts, leaving cabbies with no options if working conditions deteriorate.
But in written recommendations presented to city council last week, task force chairman William Schuyler reported that the organization proved “difficult to work with,” abandoning the process with two meetings remaining.
“At the third meeting, Mr. Liss from TWU became so disruptive that the meeting had to be prematurely adjourned,” Schuyler wrote. “[At] the fifth meeting, TWU had Channel 4 news present and then announced that they were no longer going to participate on the task force.”
Liss, though, accused task force leaders of acting unprofessionally, saying they denied cabbies the opportunity to comment during meetings.
“Drivers showed up en masse at a couple of meetings, but Mr. Schuyler refused to have a public comment section. One [public comment section] was listed on the meeting agenda, but it was crossed out,” Liss said. “We raised the question, ‘Can we have space for public comment?’ which is not unusual. But they said, ‘We already had a meeting with public comment, and TWU already presented their proposal.’
“… After 20 minutes or so, I just started speaking out and he adjourned the meeting.”
Leaders of Tenants and Workers United and city staff differ on a couple of basic points. Both have disagreeing interpretations of recent changes to state laws governing how localities regulate fleet numbers.
Because of new state regulations, Deputy City Attorney Chris Spera said Alexandria must allow companies to fill any vacancies opened by transfers — thus flooding the market with new cabbies. But Liss believes the rules merely permit backfill, especially since City Hall can cap the total number of taxi drivers operating in the municipality.
And even if taxi companies have open spots, it doesn’t mean they will fill them, according to Liss.
“The analysis that we use is to say that city code will say that a restaurant can hold up to 200 people, but it doesn’t require 200 customers to be in the restaurant at all times,” he said.
Another divisive issue is whether driver transfers simply feed companies that don’t comply with local regulations. Most notably, city code requires that cabbies take two fares within city limits each day.
Spera said the main enforcement piece of that 2005 legislation — which allowed for the dissolution of noncompliant cab companies — was gutted in 2010.
“We created a system in a way that there are consequences for actions,” he said. “I think the changes that were subsequently made took out some of those consequences, leaving us where we are today.”
But Liss said his organization proposed — unsuccessfully — a solution to that problem: make individual drivers responsible for the two daily city fares. And while Liss acknowledged that some cabbies might choose to leave compliant companies, he argued those businesses could adapt to retain employees.
“Taxi drivers are rational economic actors; they will work where they can make a living and be treated best,” he said. “I would argue that many would stay with [the biggest company] Alexandria Yellow Cab.
“It costs several thousand dollars to move from one company to another. … But if the company, which charges three or four times more than any other company for taxi stand use, if they charged more reasonable stand dues, they’d probably lose no drivers.”
At a November 12 meeting, city councilors instructed staff to draft legislation adopting the task force’s recommendations, rolling back taxi regulations to a time when cabby transfers were prohibited.
But Liss hasn’t lost hope.
“It’ll all come back down to city council doing the right thing for city drivers,” Liss said. “Sometimes the city makes a political decision, and then it has to find an attorney to justify that.”