This summer hundreds of Chicago cab drivers led by the UTCC (United Taxidrivers Community Council) began a Monday Morning Rush Hour strike, timed to take place the day after the new Rules and Regulations for Taxicab Medallion License Holders took effect. UTCC cab drivers say that they feel they are not represented in City Hall and complain of high fees and taxes that make it difficult to earn a living.
I spoke to UTCC representative Liz Lucas, an acquaintance of mine, an activist whose mother drove a cab and whose punk band, the Fuzzy Bunnies of Death, recently played in my basement apartment. She put me in touch with some of the cab drivers who are UTCC members.
I tagged along with the UTCC crew on a mission to bail out UTCC chairman Fayez Khozindar, who was arrested for trespassing while returning to his car for a forgotten item, after the staging of some strike action at O’Hare airport; he says he did not think he was trespassing, as he has an active chauffeur’s license. They rode in caravan with the UTCC’s newsletter announcing the strike hanging from the windows, breezing past confused office workers trying to flag them down. At the station, the very Irish, square-jawed cop at the desk shook his head, “You’re the cab drivers, eh?” and told us he’d be done with fingerprint processing and eligible for bail in “45 minutes to six hours.” One man asked if he can leave some food for Fayez, “He’s going to be hungry when he gets out,” to which the cop responded, “Ya kiddin’ me?!” before going on to chastise the group for not sending a single spokesperson. Fayez later remarked casually that he was bailed out seven hours later.
On the way back to base, the UTCC crew talked about how much fewer cabs they saw on the road than usual, though I did see a few pass us by. According to them, there were no cabs at O’Hare in the morning.
The next day I sat down with the head of the UTCC’s strike committee, Finn Ebelechukwu, in the tiny office in Logan Square they share with In These Times. Finn became a Chicago cabbie roughly ten years ago, when he immigrated here from Nigeria (in part, believe it or not, for the winters, he says). Finn is a big man with a deep, melodic voice and a captivating charm.
Finn tells me, “A lot of drivers are living under poverty. One of the reasons it looks like we can save up money is because when you spend 12 hours on the road, no matter what amount of money you make you don’t have the time to spend it. You just have enough time to go to sleep and wake up again. So that helps you save money because the cab industry is a 24-hour, 7 day-a-week industry. The way they have it set up, it’s almost impossible for the cab driver to take a day off. Even if he takes a day off, he’s still paying for the vehicle since technically the lease is weekly.” Finn’s Crown vic costs about $600 a week “just to lease the car… gas is about $350” a week. So cab drivers tend to spend about a grand a week before they earn a dime. “Luckily for me, I drive for a good company (Flash Cab),” Finn says, citing their relatively efficient dispatch system and good client base, in his opinion.
A 2008 survey by Dr. Robert Bruno of the University of Illinois’ Labor Department, in association with the American Friends Service Committee, which funds the UTCC (so the study was commissioned by people with a clear bias), titled “Driven Into Poverty” found that the average hourly income of cab drivers in the city is $4.38/hour. The Bureau of Labor Statistics set the national average hourly wage at $10.79 per hour in 2011.
Taxi leases were previously set at a maximum of $78.50 per 24 hour shift for tier 3 vehicles (“the beaters” , which will typically be split between two drivers. The new Rules and Regulations raise that lease cap to $85 for beaters, $101 for more fuel efficient Tier 1 vehicles; the higher lease is meant to boost usage of efficient vehicles. Presumably these hikes are good for cab companies, giving them the ability to increase revenue for the company, but some drivers are understandably displeased that their rates can go up.
Another UTCC complaint about the new regulations is that cab companies are not required to pass any of the advertising revenue they receive from the cab along to the driver (Rule TX11.11). Finn says that some ads can cause drag, which slows down the vehicle and adds to the price of gas, which the drivers pay. He feels that cab companies should share ad revenue with the drives.
Cab drivers typically spend 12-14 hours in their cab, 7 days a week, because much of that time is down time; they can’t always pick up a fare. As a result, some drivers become unsafe & reckless. The New Rules & Regulations attempt to increase safety by limiting shifts to 12 consecutive hours, something drivers are unhappy about.
Finn says, “There’s a reason why they are unsafe. It’s not because drivers want to come out and be reckless on the street. The reason is close to 60% of our time in that vehicle, we are riding with no customers.”
The UTCC also complains that they don’t feel drivers get a fair shake in what they call a “kangaroo court” when they are called to pay a fine.
In addition to lease payments, gas, and upkeep, cab drivers also must pay various taxes and fees to the city and state government. Along with highway tolls, drivers have to pay a tax every time they enter or exit an airport with a ride, via the MPEA Airport Departure Tax using a stamp system that must be bought in bulk, which means that if a driver arrives at or departs the airport with no fare, he loses $2. Finn says that another problem is that as customers are sometimes not aware of the tax, “They don’t believe you, because they have this notion that cab drivers are always trying to find ways of making extra money, and it effects the tip” or “he won’t be looking at the meter, so he thinks he’s tipped you, but he really hasn’t.”
According to Finn, despite the difficulty of making ends meet, cab drivers tend to stay on the road long term, “I don’t think nobody ever quits. They may have other jobs, but they alway keep their chauffeur’s license active” because it is guaranteed work and “it’s almost impossible to fire a cab driver. The only person that can actually fire a cab driver for good is the city, when they yank their license. You can always move from company to company. That’s why we have that idea of being self-employed. But everybody in the industry dreams of getting out of it.” Finn’s dream is to open an African cuisine restaurant. In the meantime, he will continue fighting to help cab drivers make their voices heard.
Note to Readers: This article was written from one point of view, that of the UTCC, due in part to space and time considerations. Please remember that there is another side of the story, and some of the claims made by the UTCC that I’ve presented here may not be 100% accurate. I hope to explore counterarguments to these claims in a future article.