A Company of Equals

A Company of Equals

Cooperative launches a driver-owned taxi cab company in Alexandria.

Two years ago, as a taxi driver for Alexandria Yellow Cab, Syed Hussain had to pay a weekly “stand dues” payment of $170 to his employer — a company he was legally prohibited from leaving according to city regulations. But after a comprehensive reform of the city’s regulatory framework of the taxicab industry in spring 2005, Hussain was able to leave Yellow and spearhead a movement to create a cooperatively owned taxicab company. Now, as a driver for Union Cab Co. and president of the cooperative that owns it, Husain pays a weekly stand-dues payment of $45.

“I’m saving about $500 a month,” said Hussain in the cooperative’s new office on Mount Vernon Avenue last week. “That’s a mortgage.”

For years, taxi drivers have been petitioning City Hall to reform a 1982 ordinance that drivers felt restricted them unfairly by preventing them from transferring from one company to another. To accomplish this, the ordinance allowed companies — not drivers — to hold city-issued certificates. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8), who was a member of the City Council at the time, remembers that the city government felt it had to do something to address the thousands of complaints they were receiving every year about cab drivers — everything from surly attitudes and unclean cars to not having meters in their cars and taking roundabout directions to their destinations.

“There were a lot of phantom cab drivers who were coming in without regulation, so the ordinance was created to get control of the situation and hold the owner of the cab company responsible,” said Moran. “That was an issue I was torn on because while it put some order on the chaos, it created a situation where drivers could be exploited by the cab companies.”

Moran said that the ordinance crafted an imperfect compromise between meeting the needs of the drivers and maintaining order in the city. Although he admits it was not the ideal solution, he defends the 1982 regulatory reform as something that was a solution that worked at the time.

“I’ve often thought that they weren’t adequately compensated for their hard work,” he said. “On the other hand, there were some who were giving the whole industry a bad name.”

FOR MORE THAN 20 years, cab drivers in Alexandria have complained that the 1982 ordinance created an imbalance of power. The owners of the cab companies held all the cards — dictating to drivers whom they could work for and what stand dues they would pay. Wanting to hold their own certificates, the drivers began holding demonstrations in Market Square in the spring of 2001. Carrying signs that read “No Certificate, No Justice,” the drivers were trying to bring public attention to their plight.

“There was a point, I believe, that if the city did not give freedom to the drivers we would have had chaos in the city,” said Hussain. “The pressure was building from every angle.”

Joyce Woodson, who had been elected to the City Council a few months before the demonstrations began, took on the cause and marched with the drivers in Market Square. Inside City Hall, she formed a task force to investigate the possibility of ending the policies that prevented drivers from transferring from one company to another. The goal of the task force was to undo the onerous regulations that were created during the early 1980s, when the city was experiencing a rapidly increasing influx of foreign-born taxi drivers.

“There were elements of xenophobia because that was a time when many of the drivers were no longer your neighbor,” said Woodson, who retired from City Council last year. “These were new Americans, and there was an issue of fear.”

From 2001 to 2005, Woodson advocated the issue of regulatory reform as it wound its way through the channels of bureaucracy in the city government. Members of the cooperative describe Woodson as a “hero” for her early support and for her continued vigilance in seeing the reform to its final completion after years of negotiation between industry representatives, drivers and city officials.

“I was a member of City Council, but that didn’t mean that I left my humanity on the doorstep of City Hall,” said Woodson. “I felt very strongly that what was being done to them was grossly unfair and that we had some policy changes that we had to create.”

Richard Baier, director of the city’s transportation department, said that the 2005 regulatory reform was a reaction to the imperfections of the 1982 ordinance. He said that the city’s new ordinance governing the taxicab industry in the city has created a carefully balanced system that protects the interests of the drivers and their employers as well as the customers.

“What happened in the 1970s was that there was extreme independence, so the pendulum swung the other way,” said Baier. “Now the pendulum has swung back and we have created a system of checks and balances that give the drivers more freedom and the ability to start up a cooperative while giving the customer a greater level of service. Time will tell if the pendulum has swung too far or not far enough.”

IN THE SPRING of 2005 — four long years after the drivers held their initial demonstrations — the City Council voted to rewrite the taxicab regulations. Under the new framework, drivers carried their own certificates and had a greater sense of autonomy. This allows them to transfer from one company to another at will, although the ordinance protected the cab companies from mass exodus by limiting movement to 10 percent per year. In years when a new cab company is formed, such as this year as the Union Cab Co. launches operation, that cap is increased to 15 percent.

“I feel like this is the fruit of our struggle,” said Hussain. “We are going to make our customers very happy.”

Union Cab Co. launched on Jan. 1, premiering their charcoal-colored cabs on the streets of Alexandria. As Virginia’s first cooperatively owned cab company, Union officials say that they will maintain a spirit of brotherhood — one in which drivers look out for other drivers, take a personal interest in the well-being and financial stability of other drivers.

“Nobody is going to be first in this company,” said Berhanu Shitaye, treasurer of the cooperative. “Everybody is going to be equals.”

In their dispatch office on Mount Vernon Avenue, which they rent from Tenants and Workers United, drivers mingle and chat with each other over coffee. Recounting their years of struggle, they say that the Union Cab Co. is an organization they are proud to pay stand dues for. Many of the drivers say that owning their own company has given them a new sense of self-worth, one that has transformed their lives for the better.

“I feel that I am no longer exploited,” said Tesfaye Berhane, a member of the cooperative. “From now on, my voice will be heard.”