Friday, July 15, 2011

A Review of the Protests: A Unified Front?

 Ursula, "He's got go anyhow."
Gudrun, "I know - ccertainly he's got go. Unfortunately, where does his go go to?"
                                              D. H. Lawrence Women in Love

Cab driver and medallion holder Brad Newsham (photo, center) has been charged up by the protests at City Hall and by Yellow Cab driver Tariq Mehmood's ability to organize demonstrations.

"Tariq ... has at least tapped the passion of the larger driver body in ways that I, and others, have hoped to do over the years, but at which we have failed miserably," Brad wrote to me in a comment.  "I hope we can use this moment of passion to throw off the MTA's yoke, to reject and demolish their plan to use the cab industry as a cash cow ... And I hope we can find some unity of purpose as we move forward."

Judging from the above and other statements he's made, Brad appears to think that if enough drivers passionately unify to "strike" often enough and loud enough the "yoke" and the "cash cow" will somehow magically disappear.

You'd think the unity of purpose would have to come first. But here are few things more addictive than an adrenalin rush.

I couldn't help but notice, for instance, that a great deal of that "passion"of the last "strike" was directed, not against the SFMTA or their policies, but by one group of drivers against others. Newsham himself (along with fellow protesters like Mark Gruberg and Rua Graffis of the United Taxicab Workers and others) was slammed by Mehmood and his followers for supporting Deputy Director of Taxi Services Christiane Hayashi whom Tariq pathologically hates.

Other drivers were booed by some taxi drivers at the MTA Board meeting following the protests for supporting a plan that had been negotiated by taxi drivers (including a few of the one's doing the booing) at a series of Town Hall Meetings.

In addition, Mehmood and Newsham have diametrically opposed ideas of how the cab business should operate. Brad wants a return to the days of Prop-k when medallion were not sold but given to drivers on a waiting list. Tariq wants open auctions.

A Divided Industry

This is not a business where a word like unity makes much sense. The normal divide between owners and workers is but a hint how split this industry is. There are divisions between:
  • Large cab companies and small cab companies.
  • Medallion holders and companies.
  • Medallion holders who bought their medallion prior to Proposition K (Pre K's) and those who "earned" their medallions (Post-K's).
  • New medallion holders who've recently bought their medallions and other medallion holders.
  • Medallion holders and non-medallion holding drivers.
  • Non-medallion holders who are on the Waiting List to either get a medallion or buy one and non-medallion holders not on the list. 
  • Drivers who work for companies with good dispatching services and those who don't.
  • Yellow Cab driver Ivonne (photo) and the rest of us.

And none of the above takes into account the interests of the City, the MTA or the general public.

A Short Study in Complexity; or, How Not to Negotiate

MTA Director Malcom Heinicke wanted Peak Time Permits that were run by the taxi companies to be part of a compromise plan to add more cabs to the taxi fleet. This has been talked about for 30 years because it makes sense. There is way too much business for taxis to handle on Friday nights and way too many cabs on the street on Monday nights.

But at the Town Hall Meetings nobody wanted such permits - least of all the taxi companies. Instead the idea of Single Operator Permits (SLP) held sway. The SLP's would serve the same purpose except that they would be operated by cab drivers instead of companies  - specifically drivers who had worked in the industry for a long time but were not yet eligible to earn or buy a medallion.

It seemed like a win win win. More drivers would become their own bosses, there would be no more cabs on the street during slow times and the public would be served by having more taxis when needed.

A group of non-medallion drivers on the Waiting List presented some opposition because they wanted all new cabs to go to them. But the SLP concept was liked by most people at the Town Hall Meetings including Tariq Mehmood. There were different ideas, though, concerning how the SLP's should operate.

Mehmood and his disciples wanted the cabs to be run at fixed times. Most other people at the meetings like the ideal of a more flexible time frame. 

I won't go into the details but the logical thing to do would have been to try one solution and, if that didn't work, to try the other.

What Tariq Mehmood did instead was to take his clique into another room, come back, claim that all nine of his people favored his plan and that they were the majority so the majority should rule.

Other people at the meeting disagreed with them so Mahmood included an attack against Single Operator Permits as part of his "strike."

Enough Protests Already

A major reason for having a protest is to have the Powers-That-Be negotiate with the workers. The SFMTA has indeed done this with a series of Town Hall Meetings.

A more important reason is to get the Powers-That-Be to change their policies. The MTA has done this by: 
  • Granting a 20% meter increase.
  • Putting an end to the need for waybills.
  • Putting Open Taxi Access on the agenda.
  • Trying to reduce the 5% credit card fees.
  • Re-examining their policy on back-seat terminals.
 On the other hand, it's not realistic to expect anything more than a compromise. The City and the public have their interests too. It's also childish to expect complicated issues to be solved immediately. It might take months to negotiate lower credit card fees, for instance, and (partly because of the constant protests) there hasn't been time to complete a study on the effects on the public of back-seat terminals.

The most recent protest was probably already one too many. The MTA was (and is) already negotiating with the drivers - which is more than any other Power-That-Be has done in the twenty-seven years I've been driving taxis. The one positive - looking into 3% credit card fees - could have been achieved without a protest.

There also were negative aspects to the "strike" that people like Newsham choose to ignore (see next post.)

I have a simple question. In an environment of "passion"as opposed to compromise or thought, in a world where people"strike" over petty details, how does one decide which group of strikers and which policies to support? 

The truth is that it's simply not possible to balance the various interests and solve the complicated problems in this business by honking horns and shouting. 

Next: Perpetual Strikes or the Fine Art of Shooting Yourself in the Foot.

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