What's up this week: Cabbies strike for fare hike, seek probe into lease overcharging

What's up this week: Cabbies strike for fare hike, seek probe into lease overcharging
Photo by Nick Moroni

Leaders from a ragtag Chicago taxi drivers union claim a five-hour citywide strike Monday is aimed at three issues they want the city to address.

The demands: A 22 percent fare increase, a city investigation into cab companies that the union alleges have illegally overcharged drivers who lease cabs, and a one-year moratorium of the new tiered-lease rates that went into effect on Sunday.

The United Taxidrivers Community Council is behind the strike.

Plans for the strike were hatched shortly after the city council passed an ordinance in January that Mayor Rahm Emanuel said would "reform" Chicago's taxi industry.

It followed an investigation by the Chicago Tribune into the city's failure to reprimand cabbies with serious driving offenses; but the ordinance didn't really get at the issue, the Tribune noted.

The new law has irked many cab drivers who are concerned that certain provisions will hurt their incomes.

Over the weekend, The Chicago Reporter contacted an Emanuel spokesperson and 9th Ward Ald. Anthony Beale, who co-sponsored the ordinance, to comment on some of the cabbies' qualms with the new law. Neither responded.

A thorn in the sides of many cab drivers is a three-tiered lease-rate system that hiked daily and weekly rates.

A driver who wants to rent a cab for an entire week now has to pay from $595 to $707--the costlier rates apply to newer, more fuel-efficient cars. Before Sunday, the weekly lease rate was capped at $513.

The new rates are "patently unfair because it's giving them [cab companies, lessors] a raise when they don't deserve it," said Peter Enger, a Chicago taxi driver of seven years and UTCC secretary. "They [city] should give us a raise first, so we can make some money for a year, before they raise the [lease] prices."

The city marketed the higher rates as a way to prompt cab lessors and companies--medallion owners and holders--to invest in newer and or more fuel efficient cars. The theory: the companies and lessors can offset the higher costs of the cars by charging cabbies more.

What's more, mileage restrictions set to go into effect in January mean that companies cannot put cabs that have 100,000 miles or more onto the road for the first time. This means, over time, there will be more of those newer, costlier-to-lease cabs on the road. By 2014, that number goes down to 75,000 miles.

"It's being done the opposite way," Enger said. "We're being hit with a lease increase, but no fare increase."

"It's back-asswards", he joked.

As a result, UTCC wants a moratorium of the lease rate hike, and it wants a 22 percent rate increase.

Drivers have not seen a fare hike in seven years, although a $1 fuel surcharge took effect Sunday, so it's now $3.25 to sit down in a cab.

Since the last fare hike, the economy has tanked and less people are taking cabs, drivers say. The tippers aren't as generous as they used to be. Gas prices are higher. And perhaps most striking is how meager the average cab driver's annual take-home is.

According to a 2008 University of Illinois study--mind you, this is four years old-- a Chicago cab driver's annual income is $12,320.95.

Enger said he estimates that he's bringing in about $12,000 a year--he works other odd jobs--and has seen about a 30 percent reduction in his annual income over the last seven years.

Enger also said it costs him about $400 a week to rent his cab, up from about $275, seven years ago. This is because the lessor he goes through just bought a new Scion, and thus, is already charging him more--legally, though.

Which summons the issue of the illegal price-gougers, Enger and  UTCC Chair Fayez Khozindar said.

Khozindar and Enger claim that, with regularity, cab companies have overcharged drivers for years, and the city has done little to address the issue when drivers have complained.

"They don't know what to do with it," said Khozindar, referring to the way the Department of Business and Consumer Protection has handled formal complaints submitted by cab drivers in the past. The department is in charge of overseeing the cab industry.

"We ask for protection and the city refuses to give us protection," he said.

"We are aware of this problem and are investigating numerous complaints," said Jennifer Lipford, spokesperson for the Department of Business and Consumer Protection.

Lipford also noted that, now, drivers will sign documents provided by the city when they lease cabs, instead of those authored by companies--something Enger said made it easy for companies to overcharge cabbies over the years.

Because of the companies' alleged overcharging, Enger and Khozindar claim that the cab companies do not need any additional money to invest in new cars.

Furthermore, they want the city to look harder into numerous complaints they've documented over the years.

It's difficult to gauge if Monday's strike will be successful, both Enger and Khozindar conceded. There are about 12,000 cabbies, citywide, and only about 2,000 are UTCC members.

Both were hesitant to offer an estimate as to how many participants there might be; they suggested between 400 and 2,000 drivers.

"This is a new age. ... We're testing the waters and we're pretty sure that ... we're going to have a significant success on Monday," Enger said.

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