Here Comes Trouble | Feature | Chicago Reader

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Here Comes Trouble

As the July 3 taxi strike looms, a handful of drivers race to "organize the unorganizable."

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By Ben Joravsky

If all goes as the organizers hope, on July 3 the cabdrivers of Chicago--all 18,000 of them--will go on strike to protest some of the fees, fines, and regulations they say make their lives difficult. They'll park their cabs in out-of-the-way places, converge on Mike's Rainbow--a favorite diner, at 708 N. Clark--and march down Dearborn to City Hall. "We'll circle City Hall seven times--just like Gabriel blew his horn seven times--until the walls of King Daley's palace come a-tumblin' down," proclaims Steve Wiedersberg, the south-side cabbie who's leading the insurrection.

It's big talk, and the odds are stacked against the cabdrivers, as Wiedersberg, president of the Chicago Professional Taxicab Drivers Association, knows better than most. He and his allies are hoping to do what's never been done--make a unified group out of a bunch of independent, opinionated, often stubborn individuals. "We want to organize the unorganizable," he says. "Lord knows, the time has come."

Ironically, their greatest organizing tool has been the Daley administration, in particular Caroline Shoenberger, commissioner of the Department of Consumer Services, which regulates the taxi industry. According to cabbies, Shoenberger, Daley, and their City Council backers have been waging a ceaseless and senseless war against them. "It's like they want to drive us out of business, make us broke, leave us poor," says Peter Pavoni, who's been driving a cab since 1990. "All cabbies feel this way. Stop any cabbie, ask the one who takes you to O'Hare. They'll tell you--they're making it hard for us to make enough money just to pay the rent."

As the drivers see it, they have the worst of two worlds. They're convenient targets--scapegoats, really--for politicians looking to score easy points with the public, particularly the black community. And they're a good source of revenue. "We're a cash cow," says Johnny Holmes, who lives on the south side. "Want to raise some money? Slap a fee or a fine on the driver. No one knows, no one cares. Except the drivers--and who listens to us?"

In the last few years the city has imposed a bevy of fines and fees on cabdrivers, a list most of them can recite by heart. There is, for example, a $500 annual fee all drivers must pay, as well as a $3 daily fee. "Why have the daily fee if you have the annual fee?" says Diane Santucci, who lives on the northwest side. Then there's the airport fee. Drivers who pick up passengers at O'Hare or Midway must buy a sheet of stamps--ten stamps for $20--one of which is given to a monitor each time a driver gets in the airport cab line. A $1 fee is added to the meter, so the driver winds up paying $1 per fare. "That airport fee goes to help pay off the construction of McCormick Place and Navy Pier," says Wiedersberg. "Last time I looked, Navy Pier was finished and so was McCormick Place. But they're still making us buy those stamps. You tell me where the money's going." City officials say that loans for the projects are still being paid off.

Cabbies are also required to take an annual cab-driving refresher course at one of the city's junior colleges. "That costs $35 right there," says Holmes. "I know lots of people have to take training courses for different professions. Maybe we'd feel different about it if there weren't all those other fees."

Then there are the fines. In the last few years Shoenberger and Daley have become heroes on black talk radio by assuring listeners that they'll punish any driver who passes up a black fare. In the last few months they've been telling disabled residents that they'll also punish drivers who don't stop for individuals in wheelchairs.

Daley and Shoenberger contend that drivers are generally avoiding low-income neighborhoods, and to remedy the problem the city instituted something known as the one-call-a-day program, which requires drivers to respond to one call every day from someone living in an underserved neighborhood. If they don't comply they can lose their license. The neighborhoods that qualify as underserved include roughly everything north of Devon, west of Ashland, and south of Roosevelt. "It's the craziest scheme I ever did hear," says Holmes. "And you want to know why? Because there's not enough calls coming in from those underserved neighborhoods. They say we have to answer a call a day--and there's not a call a day coming in. What kind of lunatic figured that one out? How are you gonna get a call a day if there ain't a call a day coming in? It's just another way to fine us--that's all that is."

It's ironic, say the drivers, that the city's fining them for not driving in poor neighborhoods, given that the CTA has cut back crucial service in Pilsen, Little Village, and other working-class areas. "They want us to be like bus drivers, going all over the city, but they don't want to pay us bus drivers' wages," says Wiedersberg. "If they're so worried about service in those communities, why don't they bring back the CTA lines that they cut?"

Moreover, cabbies say, they're constantly being ticketed, sometimes for violations that never occurred. "The city has something called a 'flying ticket,'" says Santucci. "That's where a cop stands on a corner and writes you up as you pass. You don't even know you've been ticketed until later in the week when you pay your leasing fee. I got a $60 ticket for parking at the intersection of State and Randolph. They're just randomly writing tickets to fill quotas." She beat the ticket in court, but she had to spend the better part of a day to do it.

At a bare minimum, drivers say, it costs about $60 a day--plus gasoline--to lease and drive a cab. To make good money, they have to work 12 to 16 hours a day. "People have so many misconceptions about driving a cab," says Santucci. "They'll say, 'Just go to O'Hare.' Well, let's say you take a passenger from the Palmer House to O'Hare at three in the afternoon. That will take you about 45 minutes to an hour. For that you get about $31. Once you're at O'Hare you have a choice. You can either come back with a deadhead--an empty cab--or you can get in line to take a fare back." That can mean sitting in a staging area for one to two hours. "You sit in a long row of cabs killing time and burning gas," she says. "So to complete our example, at about six you'll get another passenger. If he wants to go to the Loop, it will take another hour through the traffic. That means four hours have passed, and you've brought in--what?--$62. You haven't even made your daily nut, and four hours are gone."

None of this is news to Daley administration officials, who've heard such complaints for years. Yet they say the drivers are ingrates who don't appreciate all the good things the mayor has done for them, particularly last November's fare hike. "We raised fares 16.8 percent, and we have guaranteed workmen's compensation--this is something that they never had before," says Connie Buscemi, spokeswoman for the Department of Consumer Services. "We have made sure that cab companies and cab affiliations cannot charge exorbitant leasing fees. We have worked very hard--and continue to work very hard--to make sure that drivers are safe and that they can earn a good living. That if they are injured or hurt on the job they or their families are provided for, and that they are able to take pride in their profession."

Far from being satisfied with November's fare hike, the drivers say it's part of a package that has made their lives worse. "Sweet Connie speaks with forked tongue--just like her boss Caroline Shoenberger and Mayor Daley," says Wiedersberg. "That bit about the workmen's compensation is the biggest bunch of bull of all." First, he says, compensation doesn't kick in until 30 days after a driver's been injured. "If we put in for a claim, we've got to turn in our licenses and wait for a month," he says. "Who can afford to do that? You're not going to see many drivers take it unless they're near death's door. And then how are they supposed to survive for 30 days?"

Second, the city and the cab companies aren't contributing to the insurance plans, as most private employers do. "I can't stand it when they tell reporters how they gave us workmen's comp," says Holmes. "They didn't give us nothing! We're paying for it. It takes $4.50 a day right out of our pocket. And who really benefits? Not the cabbies. It's probably all some sort of sweet deal for the insurance company.

"The city will say, 'Oh, but it's paid for by the passengers.' They'll say, 'Oh, we figured it out--it's all covered by that 16.8 percent fare hike, so it's passed on to the passenger.' They call it a pass-through. But what they don't tell you is that gas has gone up, insurance has gone up, the cost of buying and repairing a car has gone up. When you calculate all of that and add in the workmen's comp, in reality that 16.8 percent fare hike has given us nothing new--except for griping from passengers who get angry at us 'cause it costs more to ride in a cab. It's more expensive to drive than it was before they gave us the raise."

After the fare hike Wiedersberg and his allies decided to get serious about expanding the drivers' association. Their past organizing efforts had failed--no one's ever been able to organize Chicago cabbies except for an occasional action. Part of the problem is that cabbies are a diverse lot. They include blacks, whites, and Latinos, as well as refugees and immigrants from Asia, Africa, Central America, and the Middle East. "Some of the drivers come from countries that are fighting each other," says Wiedersberg, "but over here they're supposed to get together." Many drivers also think of themselves as entrepreneurs, not employees, and they don't want to be part of a group. "A lot of us take the job because we want to work alone," says Holmes. "We want to be our own bosses."

But Wiedersberg, Santucci, and other organizers have been persistent, and Wiedersberg (profiled here last July) has a talent for organizing. He's a big, blustery man who's not afraid of confrontation. Born and raised on the city's south side, he's a veteran precinct captain in the Third Ward Democratic organization. "Organizing drivers is not that much different than getting out voters," he says. "You just knock on a lot of doors. We went to restaurants and garages and cabstands. It wasn't that hard to sign folks up--because so many drivers are pissed off at Daley and Shoenberger."

On May 15 the organizers called for a protest march from the Rainbow to City Hall. About 1,000 cabbies showed up. Emboldened by their success--they got their pictures in the Tribune and their march covered on TV news--they decided to press on with their campaign.

They caucused incessantly, often at the Rainbow. They weren't sure exactly what they wanted, but they knew something had to change. They were tired of all the fees and fines and the lack of respect. They wanted the city to take their complaints seriously.

Some of Wiedersberg's friends advised him to change his style. Wear a suit, they suggested. Stop talking so much and so loudly. And stop referring to Daley and Shoenberger using nicknames (his latest are "Pharaoh" for Daley and "the Bride of Frankenstein" for Shoenberger). "The hell with all that," says Wiedersberg. "I'm not wearing a suit unless I'm going to court. That's not who I am. And I ain't shutting up like a sheep. You gotta stand tall or they'll crush you."

On May 30 they held a second march, and about 3,000 cabbies marched from Clark to Dearborn and over to City Hall. They chanted "Shoenberger must go," waved placards, and passed out flyers. Drivers in passing cabs honked their horns. Some pulled over and joined the march.

The Daley administration was not moved. Instead, it slapped together a press conference featuring aldermen who hailed Shoenberger as one of the finest commissioners the city's ever had. Seventh Ward alderman William Beavers called the cabbies a bunch of "misfits." Fiftieth Ward alderman Bernard Stone criticized some drivers for having dirty cabs. And 38th Ward alderman Thomas Allen said that if the cabbies didn't improve their attitude, the city would take back the 16.8 percent raise.

In the weeks since, the city's position has remained unchanged. According to Buscemi, the drivers have exaggerated their plight. She insists there have never been so many opportunities for enterprising drivers to make a good living. "There are whole areas of the city that are underserved," she says. "We have a new program called TAP--Taxi Access Program. It is a voucher system where a special-service customer can purchase a voucher that buys them a $10 cab ride for $1.50. Plus it includes a $2 tip and a $2 service fee. It's essentially worth $14."

The program, she explains, is for disabled people. "We have had so many complaints from people who are visually impaired or in wheelchairs that cabs routinely pass them by. I heard of one case where the driver said he would take the person but not the Seeing Eye dog. We get complaints from people who say the cabs won't come to their neighborhoods--and we're talking about nice neighborhoods with manicured lawns. There are customer bases out there that are untapped. These would be a new source of revenue for drivers. I would imagine that the goal of any good businessman is to expand their customer base."

But what about the rising cost of operating a cab?

"Gas prices today are lower than they were at the same time last year," she says. "Last year they were approaching $3 a gallon. I just saw gas prices for $1.75 at a station in the South Loop."

Buscemi says the drivers might do better for themselves if they improved their attitude, took a more positive approach to their work. "We would prefer that these individuals who are organizing this job action would put their energies into working on the plan that the cab industry proposed to us last November," she says. "I would hope that they take pride in their work. No matter what you do for your living, you go into it every day striving to be the best. It can be a difficult job--no one will dispute that. But it's your job. You choose every day to get into a cab and drive it. And there are certain responsibilities that come with that. Being good at what you do and taking pride in the quality of service you offer brings about rewards. That goes for every profession, cab driving included."

In any event, Buscemi says, the city is prepared to meet the needs of passengers if the cabbies carry out their threat to strike on July 3. "It's unfortunate that some of these drivers have decided to go on strike, but if that is indeed the case, people who need transportation will be transported," she says. "There are other industries who have been contacting us--liveries and private buses. I don't have all the information, but they are contacting us--we are not contacting them. I guess they see the opportunity some of our drivers are overlooking."

In response, the cabdrivers' position has hardened, and there have been incidents that suggest a new determination. Last week at O'Hare, for example, dozens of cabbies came to the aid of a driver who was about to be hauled away by police. "I've never seen anything like it--I've never seen cabbies stand up for their rights like this," says Abdul Hadi. "There was this one driver who was in line to pick up passengers at the terminals, and he got tired of waiting. So he drove out of the line to head back to the city. The monitor--the city employee who oversees the line--started yelling at him, 'You're trying to jump ahead of the line.' The cabbie says, 'No, I just want to get out.' The monitor says, 'Give me your fucking license.' The driver says, 'That's no way to talk,' and he drives away. Next thing you know, the monitor called the cops, and he tells them that the cabbie tried to hit him. It was all a lie. But the cops start to arrest the cabbie. For what? Nothing. And you should have seen it. There must have been 400 to 500 cabbies there. I'm not making this up. They got out of their cabs. They came forward to say, 'No way are we driving to the terminals unless you release the driver.' The cops there were smart. They let him go."

A few days later Hadi was one of a dozen or so cabbies meeting with Wiedersberg at the office the drivers' association rents in Uptown, a small windowless room on the second floor of a building at Wilson and Broadway. There were so many cabbies they spilled out into the corridor. It was hard to keep order--they talked at once, their voices, a mix of accents, rising to a roar.

They spoke with passion of their anger and hurt. "Who the hell is Beavers to call us misfits?" shouted someone.

"Oh, that irritates me," said Santucci.

"Shoenberger treats us like employees but gives us no compensation," said Jack Kurjian. "I believe the word for that is peonage."

What about TAP and Buscemi's insistence that it offers great opportunities?

"Give me a break--please," said Holmes. "Tell me how anyone's gonna make serious money out of $2 tips. It's pathetic how they make this stuff up." He said the subsidized but capped fares are so low they aren't worth going after.

"There's a joke cabbies have," added Arnie Kast. "The unwritten law of Mayor Daley and Caroline Shoenberger is that every other car on the street has to be a cab--and every other cab has to be empty."

The cabbies at the meeting decided to demand more--this time they'd ask the city to dissolve the November ordinance. "Alderman Allen says he's gonna take back the raise--which is not really a raise at all," said Wiedersberg. "That's fine. But take back the whole package--workers' comp included--with it. Let's start all over."

They talked for over an hour, until the heat of the room finally drove them outside. On Wilson they gathered around Santucci's cab and plotted more strategy, trying to figure out how to respond to the city's threat to bring in suburban cabdrivers on July 3. "They keep saying the other businesses are contacting them, but I don't believe it," said Wiedersberg. "I know they're out there calling those companies. We might have to go to court to get a temporary restraining order to stop them from bringing in suburban cabs."

He went on, "They think we're playing. We ain't playing. March three is gonna be bigger than the other two. We'll bring out our families. We're gonna show them we're not a bunch of misfits. We've been taking too much crap for too long. We ain't taking it no longer."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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