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Taxi Drivers Organize for Better Treatment

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In today's business news, taxi!

Cab drivers are among the people hardest hit by rising fuel costs. With the price of gas zapping drivers' incomes, cabbies are starting to organize. They're asking for better working conditions and a greater share of profits.

Robin Yurovich(ph) reports from Los Angeles.

ROBIN YUROVICH reporting:

It's nearly 3:00 p.m. on a sweltering Wednesday. About a dozen taxi drivers line up their yellow cabs near a downtown L.A. hotel and wait for fares.

Mr. SANTIYU SALACEY(ph) (Taxi Driver): I got a pickup.

YUROVICH: After more than an hour in line, it's 53-year-old Santiyu Salacey's turn.

Mr. SALACEY: Where do we go, sir?

Unidentified Man (Taxi Customer): LAX, United.

Mr. SALACEY: Okay. Finally we got LAX.

YUROVICH: Salacey is breathing a little easier, because this $39 airport run means he'll at least break even for the day.

In L.A., and in most cities, drivers keep all their fares. But cabbies pay for gas and expenses, regardless of whether they turn a profit.

Most drivers are working 12 to 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week, says lawyer Julie Soo(ph).

Ms. JULIE SOO (Attorney): And the amount that they make is so little that unless they're working these kinds of hours they can't pay rent, they can't put food on the table. They can't care for their families.

YUROVICH: Cab drivers are considered independent business people and can't join traditional unions. But in a dozen cities across the country, people like Julie Soo, some of them advocates, but most of them drivers, are working to build independent driver associations.

Bhairavi Desai is co-founder of the New York Taxi Alliance. She says that for years, conventional wisdom held that taxi drivers could never organize.

Ms. BHAIRAVI DESAI (Co-Founder, New York Taxi Alliance): Because of the ethnic diversity, because of the fact that taxi drivers are, you know, they're independent, and because you're literally out on the streets competing with one another over fares.

YUROVICH: But for nearly a decade, New York cabbies have pulled together to protest, lobby and negotiate with taxi companies and regulators. Two years ago they won a fare hike that increased drivers' incomes by as much as 40 percent. Now, as fuel prices spike, cabbies across the country are seeking their help.

But in Washington, D.C., taxi cab industry spokesman Al Lugassi(ph) isn't worried about turmoil in the business. Drivers groups come and go, especially during hard times, he says. What's more, if drivers weren't making money, they'd quit, and he says that hasn't happened.

Mr. AL LUGASSI (Taxi Cab Industry Spokesman): The companies need the drivers to make a decent living so that they continue to work this job. I mean, there are lots of other jobs in America. And if you're not going to make a decent living in this job, you will simply go find another way.

YUROVICH: But Bhairavi Desai argues that the organizing will continue, partly because of changing demographics. Unlike the last generation of American-born drivers, the immigrant workers who now dominate the taxi industry are committed to staying in the driver's seat.

Ms. DESAI: They're building up really a resolve to change the conditions of the industry, because this is what drivers are invested in as their long-term profession, for most people.

YUROVICH: Back at the yellow cab stand in L.A., Santiyu Salacey is savoring a first victory.

Mr. SALACEY: For the first time city council said we want to talk to the drivers. Never happened. Never delayed anything the companies want.

YUROVICH: Drivers are now negotiating new work rules.

For NPR News, I'm Robin Yurovich in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robin Urevich