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For three rainy hours on a recent Saturday afternoon, 200 surly District cabdrivers grumbled aloud in the basement of downtown’s Martin Luther King Jr. Public Library. To have heard the cabbies at this Aug. 11 open meeting tell it, it’s a wonder that anyone enters the District’s taxi business at all. It’s a job, they complained, with long hours, unsafe conditions, and expensive new regulations.

But D.C.’s hacks are even more alarmed by what may be in store for them. Rumors about plans now being hatched at One Judiciary Square to switch from a zone system of fares to meters, and the possible imposition of a “medallion” system to regulate the number of cabs in the District, have whipped up a frenzy of cabbie discontent.

Organized by taxicab commissioner and industry gadfly Sandra Seegars (most famous for comments about the hazards faced by hacks who pick up “dangerous-looking” passengers, which many public officials interpreted as racial profiling), the open meeting was a forum for the operators of the city’s taxi fleet to express their unrest and anger. The discussion left some of the cabbies who attended—including Nathan Price, chair of the D.C. Professional Taxi Cab Drivers Association Inc.—proposing a taxicab strike.

“We’re working all the time—I mean all the time—to make a good wage,” says driver Chaundhry Mammud. “If anything is going on to make it more difficult for us to do that, we need to know and stop it.”

Much of the cabbies’ ire is directed at one man: D.C. Taxicab Commission Chair Lee E. Williams. Hundreds of cabbies have signed a petition to recall Williams after only one year on the job, alleging that he is incompetent.

But if cabbies are at all unified against Williams’ tenure as commissioner, many wonder aloud if the taxi industry—which is one of the most ethnically diverse and independent in the city—can unify effectively to face down the sweeping changes that the city is contemplating.

“We have to do it on our own since we don’t have a strong union,” says driver Kiflai Kidane, who’s been hacking for four years. “I think the problem is [that] the different race groups don’t have a concrete organization they can trust.”

The embattled Williams takes a rosier view of the District’s taxicab industry. He says that it has improved steadily since he was hired last August.

The onetime Newark, N.J., police officer says that he has brought confidence back to the taxi business and implemented major changes sought by drivers and consumers. Cab fares were increased across the board by 25 percent in May, at the same time that a steadily rising gas surcharge for cab rides was eliminated. The commission is also in the process of gradually implementing new taxi-safety measures (“Pump It Up,” 2/23).

Among the hacks’ complaints against the commissioner is the snail’s pace at which the city administers testing for first-time taxicab licenses. Tests for new licenses have been suspended as the commission replaces the computers used for the exam, which first crashed in February. Cabbies say that this is just the kind of issue that’s fueled a recall petition.

Williams says that city officials can give the test if they monitor the temperature in the room to ensure that the overloaded circuits don’t overheat. But an official who works in the commission’s office (who spoke on condition of anonymity) says that the tests have not been offered for months.

Williams promises that the computer snafus will be fixed by September, when new wiring will be installed. He also plans to increase the number of available computers from 8 to 21, widening access to the test. The goal, he says, is to allow drivers to get new licenses in one day.

The taxicab-safety improvements—including partitions and emergency lights to signal distress—have also been a point of contention between hacks and the city. Cabdrivers claim that the new equipment, which must be installed by Oct. 1, is too expensive. Seegars believes that most District hacks will miss the deadline, just as they missed an earlier April 1 deadline.

Williams counters that the city has included $759,000 in the commission’s budget for a revolving loan fund to help cabbies cope with the cost of the new safety equipment—which was mandated by a law passed after a spate of violence against District cabdrivers in late 1999 and 2000.

Williams argues that his current unpopularity with some cabdrivers, as well as other commissioners, is the result of rumor and hearsay and is not an assessment of his job performance. “I won’t address the attacks and rumors directed at me,” he says. “I won’t stoop to that level. What the District and the taxi industry need is professionalism.”

The crashing computers, new safety regulations, and lengthy process it took to approve the first fare increases since 1996 may prove mere speed bumps compared with the fight that Williams and the city will face in implementing broader changes to the taxi industry—including the introduction of meters and medallions.

City officials have hinted that they’d like to discard the zone fare system that’s been in place since the ’30s (and long abandoned by most major cities) in favor of meters. A switch to a taxicab medallion system, which would strictly limit the number of cabs that work in the District, would allow the city to have an increased say in the quality of the city’s fleet.

Williams would not speculate about possible changes in the industry, saying only that he was saving his comments for an Aug. 28 D.C. Council hearing. Tony Bullock, press spokesperson for Mayor Anthony A. Williams, told the Washington Post that the mayor was going to form a task force to examine the issue later this month.

In this air of uncertainty, cabbies argue that they feel left out and powerless in a process that may change their livelihood permanently. It’s a situation, argues Price, that is fast nearing the boiling point.

“The District government likes to sit back and cry that Congress is not being democratic, but they are doing the exact same thing in some respects,” says Price about the secrecy in which taxicab-industry changes are being considered. “We’re fighting for people who won’t fight for themselves.”

Many D.C. cabdrivers oppose meters and medallions but say that they want to see a written proposal before taking action. They argue that the medallion system would bring the local cab industry under the arm of big business and discourage individual taxi operators.

Under the current system, a District taxicab driver who passes the test on the first try can expect to rack up $316.50 in fees to obtain a license. By contrast, the cost of purchasing a New York City medallion, which allows the owner to operate or lease his cab, has risen to $65,000 for a company and $45,000 for an individual, according to New York-based transportation-research firm Schaller Consultants.

If similar hikes occur in the fees to operate cabs in the District, many drivers fear that they would have to give up their own businesses and work for large companies. They also argue that medallion holders would receive preferential status from area airports, hotels, and convention centers.

These possible sweeping changes, combined with the discontent over Williams’ performance as commissioner, have some cabbies pushing for a strike.

“An army of 6,000 [cabdrivers] can do wonders,” says Kidane.

Price, who organized a successful taxicab strike in May 1997, is already eyeing two weeks in October to organize another job action to gain public attention.

The 1997 taxicab strike centered on a proposal by Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. requiring District cabs to be no more than six years old. Shortly after the strike, Barry capitulated, allowing taxi companies to operate cabs up to eight years old and individual operators to drive cabs of any age.

Whether taxicab operators can organize a successful strike in 2001, however, is an open question. Some observers argue that a lack of unity rooted in the city’s racial divide may fracture cabdrivers and dilute their collective clout. The ranks of District hacks are composed of distinct brigades of far fewer cabbies, fighting as much with each other as they are against the new regulations.

“It’s an issue we face every day, and it’s been a problem for leadership to emerge,” Seegars says. “The Ethiopians don’t like some of the other Africans, and the Africans don’t like the Hebrews, who don’t like the Egyptians, and so on. There’s a lot of suspicion among many of the varied ethnicities.”

The weak state of the industry, some cabbies argue, has allowed them to be abused. Many worry that a concerted effort by the city to change the rules of the taxicab game would meet little or no organized resistance.

Some cabbies also doubt that a strike on a business day would hold, arguing that many drivers would see it as an opportunity to exceed their usual daily earnings. The lack of a single leader for such a strike, they say, is also worrisome.

“You take a look at the unions supporting the Metropolitan Police Department, and when anything happens to one of those guys, they have 500 people behind them whether they are right or wrong,” says driver Stephan Graham. “We need to come under one group and gain some clout or else nobody is going to listen. Why would anybody pay attention to us if we’re not organized?” CP