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Related Categories: East Bay | Labor & Workers
Oakland cabbies strike after owners refuse to lower weekly fees
by tribune
Tuesday Apr 14th, 2009 10:57 PM
Cabbies strike after owners refuse to lower weekly fees
By Tammerlin Drummond, Oakland Tribune
04/14/2009
Cabbies strike after owners refuse to lower weekly fees
By Tammerlin Drummond, Oakland Tribune
04/14/2009

Driving a taxicab has never been what I would consider cushy work.

Drivers often work shifts as long as 17 hours. They sleep sitting upright in their cabs in airport holding pens while they wait their turn to pick up an arriving passenger. They are away from their families for days at a time.

It used to be a modest living, especially for immigrants whose skills back in their native countries weren't easily transferable to the U.S.

But with the economy in free fall, cabbies, like a lot of people, are facing tough times. Fewer people are traveling for business and pleasure so there are fewer airport fares. In the Bay Area, JetBlue and Southwest now offer flights out of San Francisco, which has cut into Oakland Airport cab traffic.

On Monday, the drivers at Oakland's largest taxi company, Friendly Cab, went on strike. About 30 drivers protested in front of Oakland City Hall. They were back again Tuesday.

They're demanding that the city allow them to purchase their own taxi licenses, known as medallions, so that they won't have to lease their cars from Friendly Cab's husband-wife team of Surinder and Baljit Singh.

Between three companies, the Singhs control more than half of the 304 medallions issued by the city of Oakland. The drivers say the owners charge them $525 per week to lease their taxis. That's down from the $900 that drivers used to pay when times were flush, but still more, they say, than they can pay. They tried to get the Singhs to lower their so-called "gate" to $400 per week. When Surinder Singh refused to meet with them, their union, the East Bay Taxi Drivers Association, called for a strike. Half of its 100 members have gone on the picket line.

Anwar Sadran, president of the association, said his drivers' business is down 60 percent.

"We have to wait hours and hours at the airport," Sadran said. "Then, if you don't get a good fare, you're dead meat."

I am one of those "dead meat" fares. Since I live so close to the airport, my meter usually runs about $16. I always feel guilty because I know the poor driver will have to return to the airport and wait hours for another fare. I've been known to fib to the airport dispatcher and say that I live closer than I actually do so the driver can get a ticket that allows him to skip waiting in line again.

A recent decision by the Port of Oakland that now allows all cabs to pick up at the airport — rather than a select one-third of drivers, has also reduced the money that regular airport drivers were making.

Takele Alemayen has been driving a cab in Oakland since 1990. He says it's a far cry from the days when he could pick up one fare after another.

"I could take a day off," he said. "Now there is no day off. If I do take one I still have to pay the owners $75 for the cab."

There has been bad blood between the drivers and the Singhs for years.

The cabbies complain that the Singhs arbitrarily raise gate fees and refuse to meet to discuss the drivers' concerns.

Up until recently, Abdul Wahid Asghari, a 58-year-old father of four, drove car No. 206. But he says Friendly took his keys because he owed back "gate" receipts, the weekly amount that it costs cabbies to lease their cars.

He had just paid one week, but he didn't have the rest.

"I said, 'What else can I do? I don't have the money,'" Asghari said.

He said that Friendly offered to lease him back his cab — only at a higher rate. He refused.

I tried reaching Surinder Singh at Friendly but there was no answer. My cell phone message to her husband, Baljit, was not returned.

The taxi drivers say that they'll strike until they get satisfaction — lower lease fees or the right to buy their own medallions.

"If we have to, we'll drive all 50 of these cars to Sacramento, leave them at the Capitol and turn over the keys," Sadran said.
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