A 12-hour strike by District cabdrivers yesterday caused significant disruption as taxis parked outside hotels or cruising around the city refused to pick up passengers, forcing most of them to walk or take public transportation to their destinations.
Many of the District's 6,600 licensed drivers simply stayed home as part of the job action that started at 11 a.m. to protest legislation proposed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) to revamp the way Washington's taxi industry is regulated. And more than 100 drivers packed the D.C. Council chambers for a public hearing last night, with dozens more in an overflow room, to oppose the proposed changes.
Several cab companies said that large numbers of their drivers, most of them independent contractors, participated in the work stoppage. Diamond Cab Co. said that only a half-dozen of its drivers were working yesterday afternoon, compared with 75 to 100 on a normal day. Presidential Cab Association said that not more than 10 of its 80 or so drivers were on the job. And Pan American Cab Association estimated that just 20 of the 80 drivers who usually work in the afternoon were out earning fares.
"My sense is the strike has been successful in terms of driver participation," said William J. Wright, chairman of the Taxicab Industry Group, which organized the protest. Wright said the mayor "will hear from us again big-time" through more strikes if he does not meet with drivers so they can share their concerns about his proposed changes.
The mayor's bill calls for abolishing the nine-member D.C. Taxicab Commission and creating a Taxicab and Limousine Services Administration, which would be headed by an administrator and become part of the city's Department of Transportation. The Williams administration also wants to explore whether the city should replace the zone fare system, which dates to the Depression era, with meter-based fares.
Williams argues that those changes would improve customer service and streamline the regulatory process. Wright's group, however, objects to giving one administrator such broad authority.
E.J. Chubbs, who said he has been driving a cab since 1964, agreed with Wright's position last night at the hearing.
"It would be a dictatorship,'' Chubbs said. "We do have some problems at the Taxicab Commission. We all know that." Other drivers spoke of infighting on the panel.
Taxi driver Ted King said Williams's proposal would not allow drivers to voice their opinions. "We as drivers appreciate that we always have a place to go," King said. "When we go to the Taxicab Commission, the majority of things, we don't get, but we still have a voice."
Many taxi drivers also said they oppose a switch to meter-based fares, although council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) pointed out that such a proposal is not included in the plan before the council. The drivers said meters would make cab rides more expensive for residents of outlying areas of the city.
Chris Bender, a spokesman for the Office of Planning and Economic Development, said he had been told that the strike affected taxi service in Dupont Circle, Capitol Hill and Union Station, among other areas. Yesterday evening, about 60 people were on line outside the station waiting for taxis, but only one cab was arriving every 15 minutes.
"If they [drivers] had a point to make, they made it," Bender said. "But I don't necessarily know what the point was. All we are trying to do here is improve the taxi experience all around, for drivers, companies and consumers."
Bender said the administration would be happy to meet with drivers to discuss their concerns. "We are not saying we have the cornerstone on good ideas," he said. "But a strike is not an idea for improving the system."
James Thomas, 60, who has been a driver for 18 years, was on strike yesterday afternoon and enjoying a hot dog in his cab, which he had parked on 14th and L streets NW after passing up several dozen passengers. He objected to the mayor's legislation, saying that having a single administrator overseeing the taxi industry is a bad idea.
Throughout much of the District yesterday, traffic was thinner than usual for a weekday as a result of the number of taxi drivers staying off the roads. But many other drivers opted to motor around the city or park their taxis near hotels so they could strengthen their message by denying service to potential passengers.
Angela Katsakis and Jim Dickson, who work for the American Association of People With Disabilities, got into a spat with a cabdriver parked in front of the Capitol Hilton after he curtly told them he was on strike and not available.
"Don't give me attitude. I'll write a letter to the Taxicab Commission," Katsakis told the driver. "Why are you sitting here if you are on strike?"
At the nearby Madison Hotel, guest Joseph Karpati, visiting Washington with family to see his daughter receive an award at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, mulled over the absence of taxis. "The women are in high heels, and there are also two little boys with us," Karpati said. "We'll either walk or take the Metro. We'll have to get an early start."
Godfrey Tabansi, 50, was one of the few drivers dropping off and picking up passengers at Union Station. He said he chose not to go on strike because "I have a family to take care of, mortgage to pay, bills to pay."
The strike appeared to be a boon for many private limousine and sedan companies. But the companies said they had to take care of their regular customers first -- and were not authorized to pick up unscheduled riders on District streets.
Staff writers Nicole Fuller and Karlyn Barker contributed to this report.