A strike planned by hundreds of District of Columbia taxicab drivers threatens to strand commuters, business people and tourists today and tomorrow at some of the city's major hotels, Union Station and elsewhere.
Two taxicab associations, the 400-member Independent Taxicab Association and the 3,000-member Alliance of Taxicab Businessmen, called for a general strike today to publicize demands for higher fares.
At the same time, two other local cab associations, representing several hundred drivers, urged the drivers not to strike because a protest would further drain them financially during what has already become one of the slowest seasons this year for the city's 7,000 taxi drivers.
"It comes to a point where we are hurting if we do strike [and] we're hurting if we don't strike to make our point known, and I don't know what I'm going to do tomorrow," said a driver at Union Station yesterday.
Strike leaders said the drivers would go out from 6 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. today and that pickets would set up at the Washington Hilton and Shoreham Americana hotels and at Union Station.
These were among the sites selected for a one-day strike by the taxi drivers on June 25. More than half of the city's taxi drivers stayed off the streets in that strike, which also was called to protest rising costs and fare increases they said were too low.
Strike leaders also said yesterday that they will hold a rally of taxi drivers at the west side of the Captiol at 11:30 a.m. today.
A wide range of drivers interviewed yesterday said they were angry and frustrated with the District's Public Service Commission over a recent interim fare increase of 10 cents a trip when the drivers had sought a 10.5 percent across-the-board increase.
"We've called another strike because after we have enlisted Mayor [Marion] Barry's support, talked to congressmen and petitioned the Public Service Commission, we still have not gotten the increase that drivers need to survive," said Norman Saunders, spokesman for the Alliance of Taxicab Businessmen, one of the groups sponsoring the strike.
Barry has said that he does not sanction such a strike but that he supports the taxi drivers' demands for the across-the-board fare increase of 10.5 percent.
"Our last hope is to enlist community support and the way to do that is to cripple the community a little bit, by getting people mad at the Public Service Commission," Saunders said. "If that doesn't work, I don't know what we are going to do. We'll have to think of something else."
William J. Wright, chairman of the Taxicab Industry Group, which opposes the strike, said, "We don't feel that it would serve any useful purpose to be on strike at this time.
"A strike would only agitate a situation that is already tense, and it's our belief that the Public Service Commission will act in good faith and give us a decent increase in August," Wright said.
Joseph Bradley, head of the Professional Cab Drivers Association, which opposes the strike but favors higher fares, said " . . . a strike would only hurt the drivers who don't have enough business now, their families and a few local people."
Cabdrivers interviewed at local hotels and at Union Stations yesterday offered differing opinions about the need for the strike and whether they would join it.
"I will not strike tomorrow because I can't afford to," said Oscar Henry, 36, a Southeast Washington resident and a cabbie here for three years. "A strike at this time will serve no purpose. It's a slow time, and you won't get most of the drivers to strike at this point. We're all individuals, so we'll be affected differently."
Robert Godhigh, sitting in his air-conditioned cab in a line of 10 cabs waiting for passengers at Union Station, said, "I'm not going to strike and I don't know the groups that are sponsoring it. I've been waiting here for one hour and still no fares. With things as bad as they are, not much business on the [Capitol] Hill, people on vacations, we would only be hurting ourselves if we struck. It's not worth it."
One driver in favor of the strike, Andragie Lemma, 29 of Hyattsville, said, "The only people who will be hurt by the strike will be the people on Capitol Hill. There aren't that many touists here this summer. We won't lose that much money during the summer."
Lemma said he would lose about $50 in fares each day by striking.
James Kent, 65, a cabbie for 20 years who supports a strike, said today is a good day to strike. "People use more cabs on Mondays than during the rest of the week.
<'This cab fare system is set up so that you cannot get ahead, that you cannot save anything," said Joseph McCall, another cabdriver and strike supporter. "For many people, including myself, this is our livelihood. I will be out there on the picket line because we need more money to survive."
Rivalry exists among the groups and the commission members and drivers say the divisiveness weakens efforts to achieve a unified strategy.
"Because of the fragmentation of the industry, it's difficult to get what is the thrust of this [fare increase] case," said Elizabeth Hayes Patterson, chairman of the Public Service Commission. "Everybody says [the drivers] need more money, but how much? They go back and forth and there is a lot of disagreement. At hearings, one group will say this group does not represent all the cab drivers, our group does."
During the past year, several of the city's seven taxicab associations petitioned the fare-setting Public Service Commision for higher fares. While most drivers and their associations say that increases are badly needed, they differ about methods to press for increase and exactly what the increases should be.
Jack Dembo, a Yellow Cab driver and head of the newly formed Independent Cab Drivers Association, which favors a strike, said drivers want a 10.5 percent fare increase across the board, a 25-cent per person gasoline surcharge with an escalator provision and a 60-cent morning rush-hour surcharge.
In January, at the request of the Taxicab Industry Group and the Alliance of Taxicab Businessmen, the commission granted a 9.5 percent temporary increase in all fares, raising them 10 cents for a one-zone ride and 45 cents for all eight zone. The groups asked for a 20 percent fare increase, the first in three years. The commission promised to consider a final increase later this year.
This spring, the commission turned down other interim increases in fares, pending their final decision, for an additional 10.5 percent overall increase and an additional 25 cents per person gasoline surcharge.
"There appears to be a misunderstanding among cabdrivers about the denial of additional interim increase," said Patterson, the commission chairman. "It is not a final action. We are still getting testimony in this case [and] people still have to have time to file and develop formal cases."