Hundreds of D.C. taxi drivers went on strike yesterday, setting up picket lines at the city's major hotels, Union Station and the U.S. Capitol and inconveniencing thousands of travelers and commuters.
But hundreds of other cabdrivers worked anyway during the first day of a two-day protest to publicize demands for higher fares.
Leaders of the strike, who had anticipated that more drivers would strike than did, said the protest would continue today with picketing at the same sites. It was unclear yesterday how many cabdrivers will participate today.
"I'm sympathetic to their cause, but I don't think this is the way," said Martha Gray, who waited for several minutes at 16th and L streets NW to hail a cab to take her to a hearing on Capitol Hill.
"Two cabdrivers turned me down, and three cabs without passengers just passed me by," she said angrily. "This is not going to do anybody any good . . . The public already knows what the issues are."
""I am not going to work because I believe that we need a raise in fares," said A1 Guerory, a part-time driver for 5 1/2 years who attended a small taxi drivers' rally yesterday at the Capitol. "I'm in favor of double, triple the fares as they are now."
The strikers' biggest complaints centered on two things: the city's taxi-cab fare structure, which is based on geographical zones rather than the metered system used in most large cities, and the city's Public Service Commission, which has granted the cabbies only part of the fare increase they have sought.
The commission recently granted an interim increase of 10 cents per person per trip when the drivers had sought a 10.5 percent increase across the board. The commission will determine a final rate increase some time this fall after public hearings.
David Jones, one independent striking cabdriver, picketed outside the Mayflower Hotel yesterday with a sign saying: "We want a constant profit margin like the PSC gives to all other utilities under their control."
Jones wrote down the numbers of numerous cabs as they drove by the hotel along Connecticut Avenue NW, but said he wasn't sure what he would do with the numbers.
Another striking driver, who declined to give his name, said the zone fare system works to the driver's disadvantage within the downtown area, where a passenger can travel within one zone, from 22nd Street NW to Capitol Hill, for $1.30. Several drivers said that with a metered system such a trip would usually cost $2. They uniformly blamed Congress for seeing that downtown Washington was kept in asingle fare zone.
Some cab company officials officially took the stance that their drivers were not on strike, but then conceded that in various ways the strike was having an effect.
George Calomeris, a dispatcher at Diamond Cab Co., said that the firm had only half to two-thirds the normal number of cabs working in the 7-to-8 a.m. rush hour and that the normal 6-to-10-minute waiting period for a radio-dispatched cab had doubled yesterday.
Joseph Thompson, a dispatcher at Eastern Imperial Cab Co., said his firm "most definitely" favored the strike and was refusing to pick up passengers in downtown Washington, known by cabbies as Zone 1.
He said that although Eastern had a normal radio car fleet of 170 to 200 cars, only 20 to 25 were working yesterday and that they were accepting only emergency rides or calls from the blind or elderly.
"We don't want to blockade the city," Thompson said. "But we've got to make a point."
Several companies reported that the number of telephone requests for cab service had dropped sharply. At Eastern, for example, Thompsom said he normally logs about 200 requests for service between noon at 4 p.m. and yesterday he had only about 50 calls in that period.
Some desperate would-be cab passengers found other transportation. The Watergate Limousine Service reported that it received four or five extra calls for service yesterday when people said they couldn't get a taxi and needed to get to an airport in a hurry.
But Metro reported that it had no unusual number of bus or subway riders yesterday.
Several strike leaders were disappointed that more cab drivers didn't strike. Jack Dembo, one of the strike organizers, said, "We were hoping that we would have about 80 percent participation, but obviously we had less than that. I'd say more like 50 percent.
"We made a mistake (yesterday) when we didn't have the pickets up at the hotels until late in the afternoon," Dembo said."We had wanted to have a rally first (and) then send out pickets. But when some drivers didn't see pickets, I guess they thought the strike was called off."
Joseph Inuang, a Yellow Cab driver who sought passengers at the Shoreham Americana, said, "I came here at 6:30 this morning to see whether we were striking. No one was here picketing or anything. I found some drivers working and some not. So I went back home and I got my cab. I'm going to work because there is some division. If we all were united, I would have struck."
LeRoy Murphy, a Radio Flash Cab driver, echoed the embivalence that many cabbies seemed to feel about yesterday's strike.He was on strike - sort of.
Murphy said he had to take a cousin to National Airport and so he picked up a passenger heading back into the city to the Madison Hotel. Then he said he was going home and honoring the strike.
Elmer Sanford, a cabdriver from Deale, Md., said he didn't find out about the strike until late yesterday morning.
"It was so strange, when I came into the city, the (cab) business was about half of what I thought it should be. I couldn't understand it," he said. "I saw three people who come to the Shoreham to catch cabs every morning standing and waiting at a bus stop. It looked like the public was striking us." CAPTION: Picture, Cabdrivers picketing outside the Mayflower Hotel explain their reasons for striking to people trying to get a taxi at the hotel's stand. By Fred Sweets - The Washington Post