Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What Happened to the Good Old Days?

The taxicab industry has always been divided but not that long ago we all came together in a spirit of mutual respect and cooperation and saved the business with a plan that gave a little to everybody but not too much to anybody. 

Look at that picture. They're all there: representatives from all the major companies and driver's organizations and drivers themselves sitting or standing around the mediator of that peace, Deputy Director Christiane Hayashi.

That was only a year and a half ago. Hard to believe isn't it? Look what's happened since:

We've had a Taxi Advisory Council that, as one of their first acts, voted to give their own members and their kin medallions as key personnel, without having to follow the same rules as everyone else.

We've had Tariq Mehmood (sitting so politely in the second row) turn himself into a local fool by running around making asinine slanders against Hayashi at every city meeting he can find and to every public official who will agree to listen to him - as if lies could become truth through repetition.

And, of course we've had endless protests lately - including a few against agreements that many of the protesters themselves helped to formulate at Town Hall Meetings. And now they're threatening to strike even if they get what they want - despite the fact (as previously noted) that the protesters have no unified goal. And, if they do strike on August 2nd, it will be on a day when (in all probability) new medallions will be issued to the Waiting List and drivers will get a 22% raise.

Adding to this absurdity, we have Luxor, Yellow and Desoto Cabs going behind Hayashi's back to temporary Executive Director of the SFMTA Debra Johnson, trying to undercut a plan that was developed through Town Hall Meetings for the issuance of 50 Single Operator Permits and 35 medallions to the List (25 issued to the top of the list and 10 sold by the SFMTA). And, this is a plan that their own company representatives agreed to at a TAC meeting. 

They don't want no Single Operator Permits or 35 new medallions right now because issuing a these few medallions might relieve the pressure to flood the city with taxis later. They don't want no studies of whether new medallions are needed or not. They don't want no outside input. They want 500 taxis, they want them immediately and they don't want to give anyone else a chance to speak. Corporate oligarchy at its finest.

As if Ms. Johnson would be stupid enough to unleash another whirlwind of protest over 500 new medallions during her last few weeks as SFMTA chief,  just before she steps down to work for her successor, Ed Reiskin.

When Johnson didn't go along with their plan, the company reps went running off to peddle the same soap to Mayor Ed Lee with hopefully the same result. Why would Lee undermine Reiskin, his own favorite candidate for SFMTA director?

And all this when the country is on the brink of a politically induced recession.

I'm tempted to make  a call for unity - like the Beatles' song "Come Together Right Now." But, with all these clowns running around out there, I don't know if it's worth the gesture.

At least we in the taxicab business don't need to worry about being divided and conquered from the outside.  

Monday, July 25, 2011

TAC Advises Taxi Companies, "Pass No Mas!"

Monday afternoon 7/25/11, by a count of 8  to 7, the Taxi Advisory Council voted to advise the SFMTA Board to no longer allow taxicab companies to pass on credit card fees to their drivers. You read right. No more credit card charges for the drivers. Now - this is a reason for honking and dancing in the streets. Only I don't hear any horns. Maybe because nobody is sure what this means ... It's complicated.

But first the play by play.

The meeting started with Tariq Mehmood loudly launching one of his patented, semi-coherent, cretinous, psychopathic rants against "staff" and was allowed to do this by Chair Chris Sweis because Mehmood didn't mention his victim by name although we all knew who he was spewing out his hatred at.

Then Councilor John Lazar and his sidekick Charles Rathbone tried to have Councilor Barry Korengold dismissed from the Council for talking during a vote at the previous meeting to limit the right of the MTA to sell medallions. When this failed Lazar tied to get a re-vote only to be told that only the winning side could ask for one.

This drama was followed by about three hours of excruciating boredom as everyone recapped their positions on 5% credit card charges and back-seat terminals (PIM's). Not that I'm knocking boredom. It's part of the democratic process.

The theme of the meeting was set by Councilor John Han who seems to have read every document, note or e-mail ever written on the subject of credit card fees and back-seat terminals. Han's research has convinced him that, if the back-sear terminals were trashed and burned, the driver's fees could be lowered to 3% or 3.5%.

John Lazar, on the other hand, claimed that the companies were treading water at 5%. An idea seconded by Councilor Athan Rebelos and Desoto President Hansu Kim although Kim did admit to John Han that the rear-seat terminals might indeed add to the charges.

Barry Korengold said that he'd never met a driver who liked the PIM's. Councilor Tim Lapp of Yellow Cab countered him by saying he had been one of the drivers testing the terminals at Yellow and loved them. He said that he was making $12 to $15 more a shift using them and wasn't going to let anyone take the one in his cab away. Hansu Kim added that he had completed his study of the PIM's vs front seat terminals and that it showed that the PIM's earned drivers about 20% more.

Councilor and owner of Metro Cab, Richard Hybels said that his drivers were making a lot more money since he'd installed front-seat terminals in his taxis. Before that Metro didn't take credit cards. Hybels also said that he'd be forced out of business unless he could pass the charges on to the drivers.

Councilor Dan Hinds said that the companies should use whatever they earned from the PIM advertisements for the relief of driver's fees.

Councilor William Minikel thought that the credit card fees should be passed on to the customers - an idea that other people in the room liked.

Penultimately, a motion was made by John Han to end the requirement for rear-seat terminals in order to pass on credit card fees to drivers and limit the fees to 3.5%. A vote was taken and the motion failed by a count of 10 to 5.

Shortly afterwards Councilor David Kahn (photo) made his motion to stop allowing taxi companies to pass any credit card processing fees on to the drivers.

Yellow Cab driver Murai, who sat next to me, and I both thought that the measure was doomed to failure and half wondered why TAC was even bothering to vote. We foresaw another 10 to 5 defeat.

Then, Wham! The motion passed 8 to 7. I mean it was staggering. The idea had hardly even been discussed because it seemed so random.

Tara Housman, who voted for the measure, later told me that she didn't even know if she liked the idea. She said that the only reason she voted as she did was to make Kahn feel better about losing.

Nobody really knows what this means. TAC is an ADVISORY council and I'm sure that (even as I'm finishing this post at 9 am)  the MTA is fielding calls from desperate owners pleading, "say it isn't so."

If nothing else this vote should help the Taxi Services negotiate lower fees from the vendors.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Strike! Or the Fine Art of Shooting Oneself in the Foot

"There was no one else but Tariq who did almost everything except that we all joined him and came along to sing national anthem. Everyone was left with no choice but to follow his leadership. It became scary for leaders that if they do not follow they will be left alone. I guess one of the most largest strike in this town is coming soon. The one you have seen it was the preview."
                     Anonymous Tariq Mehmood Disciple

I received this the day after the June 28th "strike." That is to say that Tariq Mehmood was already planning the August 2nd strike before the last one. Just like he'd planned the last one before the one before; or, was it before the one before that?

And, his followers and many admirers like medallion holder Brad Newsham are enthused about this coming strike. They talk about "keeping the momentum going" like it's a football game. They seem to think that if they honk and holler long and loud and often enough the world will give them what they want - whatever that is. They act, in fact, as if the rest of the world doesn't  exist - a common miscalculation among groups that spend too much time talking to each other and not enough time talking to anybody else.

 The World as It Relates to Taxis

Consists of San Francisco officials (Mayor Ed Lee, SFMTA Board, Board of Supervisors) and the public. Would it be wrong to speculate about what they want?
  • The Mayor - wants more cabs and better service.
  • The MTA Board - wants more cabs, better service, lots of our money and a board meeting with no cab drivers in attendance.
  • The Board of Supervisors - wants a lot more cabs, a lot better service and don't want to give cab drivers a raise until these things come to pass. 
  • The Public wants better service, more cabs and more taxis that will accept credit cards.
Protests vs Strikes; or Shooting Oneself in the Foot: Part 1.

A protest is a way to tell the government and/or the public about injustices done and policies that should be changed. 

A strike is a way to inconvenience, to intimidate, to punish the government/public for not making those changes.

The public in this country, in this city anyway, tends to cut protesters a lot of slack. People don't mind a little inconvenience. Everyone has the right to complain. It's the American way. But, if the protests go on too often or too long, if the inconvenience grows, the public become annoyed.

From conversations with my riding public on the effects of the the recent taxi protests have exactly followed this path of regress.

  • After the first protest, everybody was smiles and understanding. They were on my side.
  • With protest two, they were concerned and confused. What was this about again?
  • With the protests that called itself a "strike,"it was like, "I just wanna go home."
What the threatened "24 Hour Strike" really threatens to do is alienate the public and turn them completely against us.

Shooting Oneself in the Foot: Part 2.

Brad Newsham wants the SFMTA to get out of the taxi business; or, barring that, he wants to pass a proposition that will keep the SFMTA from spending money taken from the cab industry on anything except cab drivers.

Well - the possibility of the MTA firing itself is pretty slim. The only way to keep the money for the drivers would be to get the public to pass ballot proposition. The best way to get a proposition on the ballot is to have either the Mayor or the Board of Supervisors vote to put it on the ballot.


Mayor Ed Lee, who wants to become a permanent mayor, is unlikely to back a group that alienates the voters and, most of the Supervisors, who have never much liked us much anyway, really dislike us now.

Meaning that the only way to get the proposal on the ballot is finding enough of the alienated public to sign a petition to put it on and then getting enough votes from the same alienated public to pass the measure.

Whoops. Whoops.

Shooting Oneself in the Foot: Part 3.

Perhaps the most consistent complaint that cab drivers have is about the illegal limos, town cars and cabs that steal legitimate cab driver's fares.

Perhaps the most consistent complaint that the public has is that taxicabs are not picking them up with enough frequency.

So, Mehmood and his minions intend to punish the public by making sure that they get fewer cabs than usual?

Now, that's what I call a brilliant strategy - for the illegal limos, town cars and taxis that is. Ubercab and that ilk should have field day.

And, you know? I've yet to hear anybody call Tariq Mehmood a genius.

Shooting Oneself in the Foot: Part 4.

Mehmood has claimed that his drivers would be striking if the MTA didn't agree to compromise on the credit card fees, the electronic waybills and the back seat-terminals. Of course we know this is a lie. He called for this strike before the last protest (see lead quote.)

Besides, the MTA has already compromised, or is considering compromising on all these things. And, this ignores the one thing that the strikers talk about the least. The elephant in the room. The fact that this Board meeting is about passing a meter increase of around 24%.

This means that even if credit card fees are not renegotiated (as the MTA says they will be) the cab drivers will still get a raise of about 18% to 20%. I would call that a compromise. Some drivers want the credit card fees passed on to the public. What do they think a meter increase does?

The only important issue on August 2nd will be to try and make certain that the cab companies do not raise the gates.

Is the MTA more or less likely to do this if they are surrounded by honking cabs who refuse to pick passengers up?

With the probable exception of Supervisor John Avalos, the Board of Supervisors is recommending that the meter increase not be put into effect.

If  drivers are going to strike no matter what the MTA does, the Board might just follow the supes advice.

I'd hate to see Tariq and his troops ruin things for the thousands - the vast majority of San Francisco's hard working taxi drivers - who won't be on strike.

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.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Review of the Protests: Successes

Friday, July 8, 2011

As entertaining as I found the recent protests, I'm a believer in real politics. Fun is fun but was anything accomplished?

If the purpose of the protests was to give drivers a chance to vent about injustice and create a feeling of empowerment, the demonstations were a resounding success.

If the purpose was to bring the SFMTA to a bargaining table, they were also successful.

If the purpose was to change certain working conditions, they were successful in some ways, not so successful in others. For this post, I want to look at the successes.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

I actually started this post last week but got sidetracked. I forget to take it off the blog and I've already got comments from people who apparently think that I don't see any successes. Not True. Sorry.

Town Hall Meetings

The most successful aspects of the tumult were the Town Hall Meetings themselves which gave drivers a chance to give their opinions on credit card charges, back-seat terminals, electronic waybills, etc.

It could be said (and was) that Taxi Services should have held these meetings before legislating major operational changes but such criticism is a little unfair. The subjects were discussed at a couple of TAC meetings and there was at least one previous Town Hall Meeting concerning various PIM choices and credit card fee options but almost nobody showed up.

This is typical. In addition to the other meetings, Taxi Services also recently held a Town Hall Meeting concerning the future of the Pilot Plan (potentially much more important than anything currently being discussed by protesters and there were only ten or twelve drivers in attendance). In this town, most cab drivers don't pay attention to taxi politics unless they're traumatized.

But I digress ... every protest (and the ensuing meetings) did stimulate at least one positive result for the drivers.

Protesta Número Uno

The major proposal that came out of the first series of Town Hall Meetings was a meter increase that should work out to around 22%. This was already in the works but there is no doubt that protests speeded up the process - possibly by several months.

Many in the taxi industry (including myself) have said that NO GATE INCREASE should accompany the rise on the meter. The Taxi companies have already been given a quid pro quo by the passing on credit card fees to the drivers.

If you do the math (assuming that half of a driver's rides are credit cards) this means that cab drivers should be getting a 19% or 20% raise - even if they are charged a 5% fee on credit cards.

Protesta Número Dos

As you may recall, some companies, supervisors and others were pushing to put as many 500 taxis on the street while these Town Hall Meetings took place. Coming up with a compromise plan was one of three proposals that come out of the discussions and the following TAC meeting

  1. 25 Single Operator Permits, 2 Electric Vehicles should be added to the taxi fleet and 25 Medallions should be given to drivers on the Waiting List. This has since been magically changed by the SFMTA to 50 Single Operator Permits, 2 EV's, 25 to the List and 10 medallions to be sold by the MTA.
  2. There was a major compromise on Electronic Waybills proposed by Hayashi.
  3. A recommendation that the MTA Board reconsider Open Taxi Access.
Protesta Número Tres

The great time out protest - which was planned at least three weeks before it took place - lead to exactly one accomplishment.
  1. SFMTA Board President Tom Nolan asked Hayashi to see if the credit card fees could be lowered to 3%. 
He also said that it was time for the Board to take another look at Open Taxi Access but that was the result of the previous TAC.

That's it kids!

Next: Not so positives.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Take Me Out from the Ball Game

The Giant's game had just ended on Saturday 7/9/2011 at about 8:15 PM I drove down Townsend from 3rd to 2nd Street. A throng of people were lining the curb as I approached the corner, several of whom flagged me. I thought about pulling around the corner to the official pick up area on 2nd but the street was so crowded that I was afraid of running over people's feet. Instead, I pulled over and stopped next to the curb.

Four middle-aged men got into my cab.  Simultaneously parking cop number 309 (photo) ran over and told me that he was ticketing me for stopping on a green light (probably true) and creating a "hazard" (false.) I had pulled off to the right, was not blocking traffic and a Yellow Cab had stopped safely behind me.

I asked the cop for his badge number (which he wasn't wearing. Has he had similar confrontations before?).  He said his badge number would be on the citation that he was writing. I waited for him to fill out the ticket and asked him to give it to me.

He refused, saying that he would send it to me in the mail. I told that I wanted the ticket and his badge number. He repeated that his number was on the citation. I asked him again for the ticket which he had finished writing and had folded into his ticket book.

First, he said that the wouldn't give it to me because I had customers in the cab. Then, he said that I'd have to wait around for it and began to walk off with the ticket in his pocket.

Then, I stupidly called him an "asshole" (thus making him look good) and drove my customer to the Hyatt Regency.

My customers couldn't believe that he'd given me a ticket. One man was so angry that he gave his phone number and said he'd testify on my behalf.  Always a good idea to have a witness.

I drove off, legally parked my car, grabbed my camera and went back to video him. I won't go into the ensuing screaming match in detail but I did get his badge number. It was either that or he'd have to explain to me on video why he'd refused to give it to me in the first place.

His story also grew on the second telling. He then claimed that I'd not only created a "hazard" but had double-parked.

I went back to pick up fans from the game two more times but I went down 4th Street to Cal Tran. There seemed to be more taxis working this location than there had been on 2nd Street.

I'm wondering if it's simply easier to go down 4th? Or if other drivers have had similar experiences with this clown?

This was the second time that I've gotten a ticket after the game. The other time was for picking up customers after stopping at a red light. This cops also claimed that I was blocking traffic thus creating a "hazard." The only thing that interfered with the traffic flow in either case was the cops wasting 5 minutes of everyone's time writing me citations.

I've recently spotted several other drivers being similarly harassed by PCO's while trying to provide service for customers. Would it be unfair for me to suggest that these characters have their priorities backwards? Shouldn't they be concentrating on getting taxis to the public instead of penalizing drivers for trying to do their jobs?

Deputy Director Hayashi told me later that any driver who gets tickets like this should fight them and send a copy to Taxi Services.