by Pablo Ros | June 06, 2013
NEW ORLEANS – Exel Joyner’s been driving a cab for 52 years, longer than most any cab driver in the city. His friend Elbert Hart? Going on 30 years. Together they agree on one thing: There’s never been a harder time to be a taxi driver in New Orleans than there is today.
Last year the city council passed a host of new regulations for taxi drivers that have made life a whole lot more complicated and even drove a few of them out of business. They include putting in new expensive equipment like a security camera and a credit card machine that were only available from favored contractors, and saying no vehicle more than seven years old could be on the road. This means that in a matter of months many of them had to make unplanned investments of tens of thousands of dollars.
In addition, the city decided that a cab owner’s permit – known as a certificate of public necessity and convenience, or CPNC – would now be considered a “privilege,” instead of property, meaning it can be revoked or its sale or transfer blocked. Many drivers have paid tens of thousands of dollars for a CPNC and use it as security in seeking loans. Many also count on selling it when they retire and think of it as their 401 (k).
“There’s so much stuff coming in at once,” says Hart, adding that he's overwhelmed by the regulations. That feeling is shared by many other drivers, who were given only a few months to meet all the new requirements. To many, these new requirements seem arbitrary and make little if any sense.
“We want to follow rules and regulations, but don’t just make up rules each day and each night as you go,” Joyner says.
Taxi drivers play a crucial role in the New Orleans tourism industry, a main driver of the city's economic growth. Often, a visitor's first interaction is with a cab driver, and they are called the city's "ambassadors." But as many point out, they are not treated as such.
"As a man and as a cab driver we want to have rights, too,” Hart says. “So far all our rights have been taken away. Whatever the city council comes up with, they pass it, with no consideration for us at all.”
All drivers must also submit their vehicles for inspection twice a year. But service at the inspection station is so poor that many drivers say they must arrive in the middle of the night, hours before the station opens, to get in line. And if even a small scratch is found on the vehicle, they must come back and do it all over again and pay another $50 inspection fee.
“You change the rules in the middle of the game and they penalize you by making you pay twice,” Hart complains, adding: “You shouldn’t have to lose three days of work to get your car inspected.”
AFSCME Council 17 in Louisiana is organizing the 1,600 taxi drivers in the city so they can speak to Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the city council with one voice. It's an unprecedented union organizing effort in a town where most drivers are independent contractors. Hart says nine out of ten drivers are unhappy and make no effort to hide their displeasure with the new requirements. In less than a week, more than 250 drivers have signed union membership cards.
The drivers who joined say they won’t put down their arms until they win this fight.
“I’m not giving up,” says Hart. “This is what I do for a living. I’m a black man. I’ve been fighting ever since I got here on earth. Everything I got I had to fight for.”
“We have to keep on keeping on,” Joyner agrees. “I’m not going to quit fighting. As long as I have some breath in my body I’m going to keep on fighting. That’s the way I feel about it.”
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