Montgomery County taxi drivers join forces with AFL-CIO union


Montgomery County taxi drivers protested in front of a county office building in Rockville last year. (Lisa Bolton/The Washington Post)

Montgomery County taxi drivers — concerned about the changing industry and growing tensions with the county’s taxi companies— have decided to affiliate with the National Taxi Workers Alliance in hopes that it will give them a bigger voice in negotiations with taxi companies and the county.

Over the last year cab drivers have been demanding changes to the county’s taxi regulations and protesting the credit card transaction fees the drivers say they are forced to pay to the taxi companies in the county. Some drivers say they are turning to the union to gain strength, political power and become more strategic in how they respond to the way their industry is being transformed.

Across the United States taxi drivers have been organizing, partly in response to the challenges facing the taxi industry in many metropolitan areas as drivers confront rising customer expectations and new technologies such as Uber, the smartphone app that can summon a car service.

In the Washington region, traditional taxi drivers say they are being squeezed out of business by the new app-based ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft, while they face tensions with large cab companies or are pressured to make major changes as a result of new government rules aimed at modernizing the industry.

In the District, cabbies have been under pressure to abide by new rules requiring them to add credit card machines and repaint their taxis to match a citywide color scheme. Last year D.C. taxi drivers joined the Teamsters union in hopes of having a bigger voice in negotiations with the D.C. Taxicab Commission.

In Arlington and Alexandria, the Tenants and Workers United has been working with taxi drivers to negotiate with large cab companies, and fight the ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft.

Some union leaders say the rapid growth of Uber and other technology-based services is now a leading factor in drivers’ decision to organize.

“Drivers wouldn’t be organizing as fast as they have been without this kind of pressure,” AFL-CIO organizer Mateos Chekol said.  “They say, ‘Okay, do we try to take power over our situation and organize and have some say in the way the industry is being structured and restructured, or do we just become victims?”

The efforts in Montgomery, however, have focused on tensions with the cab companies. Taxi drivers say they have to pay a fee of up to 8.5 percent on every credit card fare, when other D.C. area taxi drivers pay from 3 percent to 5 percent per transaction.  They also say they pay the companies from $100 to $115 a day to lease their cabs.

In November, a caravan of taxi drivers gathered outside a Montgomery County office building in Rockville to deliver a petition to County Executive Ike Leggett asking him to intervene on their behalf.   Their efforts have led to a mediation process over lease rates, credit card fees and affiliation contracts.


Montgomery County cab drivers celebrate with National Taxi Workers Alliance president Bhairavi Desai after signing an agreement to affiliate on Thursday. (Luz Lazo/The Washington Post)

“The old way to do business needs to change,” said Becaye Traore,48, a taxi driver in the county for six years. But he said it starts with drivers getting better earnings without having to pay expensive cab leases and other fees.  “Our fight  is not Uber. It is to better ourselves to make sure that we have better living wages.”

Montgomery County drivers signed a memorandum of understanding Thursday with the National Taxi Workers Alliance, an AFL-CIO affiliate, at the federation’s headquarters in Northwest Washington.  They will have their first official union meeting in early August.  There are nearly 1,000 cabbies in the county.

Prince George’s County taxi drivers are also said to be in negotiations to join the New York City-based union, which represents about 18,000 taxi drivers in New York City and has affiliates in Austin, Tex., Chicago and Philadelphia.  AFL-CIO organizers have been working with taxi drivers in Prince George’s, where cabbies have complained about access to fares at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center at National Harbor since the hotel introduced a private car service for its guests last year.

Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
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