( NOTE: To read a longer, different, version of this article, published in San Francisco Magazine in March 2010, go to: http://www.sanfranmag.com/story/no-wonder-they’re-grumpy )
Brad Newsham, top left. Photo by John Han.
DURING THE PAST THREE DECADES San Francisco was home to the most driver-friendly taxicab legislation on this planet. A groundbreaking 1978 law stipulated that the city’s taxicab “medallions” (the permits that allow the holder to put one cab on the streets) would no longer be held by taxicab companies but by veteran cab drivers.
The cab company owners loathed the new arrangement, and between 1978 and 2007 they crafted eight separate ballot measures intended to restore their supremacy. Eight times the city’s enlightened voters said, “No -- we like our cabdrivers. The law stays.”
BUT IN 2007, a group of City Hall and taxicab industry insiders pulled off a fast one. The principals have never admitted their roles, but here’s how the deal went down:
2007 was an “off-year” election (no headliner contests on the ballot) and it was understood that voter turnout would be feather-light. Deep within the fine-print legalese of a mind-numbing, ten-page ballot proposal (“Transit Reform, Parking Regulation and Emissions Reductions”) the insiders hid a bomb -- three devastating sentences designed to abolish the San Francisco Taxicab Commission and place the cab industry under control of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA). Most cunningly, the bill specified that all previous taxicab legislation would be nullified, and henceforth any decree from the SFMTA would automatically be law in the taxicab industry. The measure squeaked through with the “yes” votes of a mere 15% of the electorate, who had no idea they’d just sabotaged the City’s 7,000 cab drivers.
THE SAN FRANCISCO MUNICIPAL TRANSPORTATION AGENCY is a sprawling octopus of more than 5,000 salaried employees. Its flagship enterprise is Muni, the perennially beleaguered bus and subway system whose brink-of-bankruptcy woes often scream from the headlines. The SFMTA’s director is paid $308,837 per year. The average Muni bus driver earns $82,000. In addition to paychecks, all SFMTA workers receive sick leave, paid vacations, and comprehensive health and retirement packages. (A typical driver earns approx $30,000/year. Drivers with medallions can earn an additional $25,000 or so by renting out their cabs and medallions. But when it comes to benefits, every cab driver is equal: no one gets a thing -- no sick/vacation pay, no health care, no 401K.)
The SFMTA just about wet its pants when the taxicab industry was delivered, bound-and- gagged, onto its doorstep. One SFMTA director publicly proposed confiscating all 1,500 medallions (no matter that medallion holders have invested their lives into the cab industry) for sale to the highest bidder. A veteran city attorney was assigned to conduct “taxicab industry town hall meetings” at which she was straight-up with those of us who attended: her job, she told us, was to figure out how to extract $20 million from the cab industry -- ASAP! -- with so very much more to come later. We cab drivers were invited to offer suggestions on how the extraction mechanisms might be most efficiently structured, but the eventual outcome was non-negotiable. Don’t like it? Well, tough! Elections have consequences.
By mid-May of 2010 all of the various tubes and spigots of the gleaming new money pipeline were operational. In June 2011 the SFMTA reported that, so far, $10.3 million had flowed from the low-paid, benefit-less, health care-less workers in the taxicab industry over into the compensation packages of the SFMTA. The cab driver body has watched all this unfold and has finally began to ask, Can this really be happening right here in God’s Favorite City? And: Are we not human, too?
The confusing reports of 5% credit card fees, backseat advertising terminals, and honking cabs surrounding City Hall, make absolutely no sense without knowing that these are the inevitable results of the brilliantly designed 2007 coup engineered by the City Hall “in-crowd.” Already, as a result of the coup, an actual fortune has been transferred from the city’s zero-benefits, low-pay cab drivers, and has gone directly into the paychecks and to pay the benefits of some of the city’s best-compensated employees. The news media have all but ignored this story, but we cab drivers can no longer afford to. Surely, in San Francisco, such a thing can not stand.
* * *
Brad Newsham, Green Cab #914, cab driver since 1985 -- www.bradnewsham.com
(Disclaimer: Opinions expressed on this site reflect the views of their authors and don't necessarily reflect the views of the website's publisher.)