All's Fare in Cabbies' Union Fight 

Drivers win their first battle against Friendly Cab's Oakland taxi monopoly -- but the war has just begun.

When a cab driver gets in an accident, as 33-year-old Makhan Singh Dabb did two months ago, some taxi companies charge the driver a fine, regardless of insurance coverage or who was at fault. Friendly Cab, Dabb's Oakland employer, imposes fines ranging from $250 for a minor scrape to $750 for a severe smash-'em-up, depending on the damage done to the taxicab.

It wasn't too bad in this case: a busted signal light and a big hole in the bumper, an estimated $960 repair job for which Friendly was required to be insured. Dabb, a tall, turban-clad man with a thick accent, says he figured he'd be fined $400 tops, but the company's roadside manager promptly quoted him $750.

The driver was understandably upset. His weekly haul, after paying leasing fees known as "the gate" to use one of Friendly's taxis, was $500 to $550, with a fifth of that going to support his wife and daughter back in India.

Dabb protested, so the manager said he'd go discuss it with Friendly Cab's owners. When the manager returned, the cabbie recalls, he laid out his bosses' offer-you-couldn't refuse: Dabb would now have to pay a $2,000 fine, plus a $1,000 security deposit on the taxi. He would have to retake a driver-safety class (another $50) that he'd completed the previous month. In addition, the company would raise his weekly gate from $550 to $625.

The manager then told the stunned driver he had a few days to think about it. Soon thereafter, Dabb says, he received a call from the company. His taxicab lease had been terminated, and if he wanted to keep driving he'd need to sign a new one and comply with all of the above conditions. Dabb, in essence, had just been fired. "Drivers do not have any rights," complains the cabbie, who now works for Veterans Cab. "You have to obey."

If Friendly's cab drivers don't have any rights, that's because -- until the National Labor Relations Board ruled otherwise this week -- they were legally considered contractors, not employees. This distinction has been at the heart of an ongoing labor dispute between local cabbies and Friendly's owners, husband-and-wife team Baljit and Surinder Singh. The recent NLRB ruling may, for the first time, give the cabbies some clout.

It was precisely situations like Dabb's that prompted Stockton's Wahid Aslami to quit driving for the Singhs more than a year ago and get a job with a relative small-timer, six-car Oakland firm Golden Cab. Aslami has been on a mission against Friendly Cab, arguing, among other things, that the Singhs arbitrarily raise gate fees whenever they feel like it. As the Express has reported previously, Aslami helped rally his fellow drivers last year, petitioning the NLRB to let them form a union, and organizing a twenty-day strike that led to a city-brokered compromise with Friendly's owners.

But those efforts were a fare to nowhere. According to Aslami, little changed. Support from Oakland's Teamsters Local 70, which was assisting the drivers in their bid to unionize, stalled out, and Friendly Cab never lived up to the terms of the written compromise. But this time, a revived East Bay Taxi Drivers Association, consisting of more than a hundred cabbies, hired an attorney to formally petition the NLRB, and enlisted prominent Berkeley attorney Donald Jelinek, to sue Friendly and other Singh-owned cab companies for fraud, breach of contract, retaliation, failure to provide insurance and meet safety standards, unfair competition, and race discrimination. "We did not want it to get to this point," says Aslami, "but the level of corruption, the way they victimize the drivers. ... We all decided enough is enough."

Many of these complaints seem inevitable in an industry where the work is typically performed by independent contractors with no health insurance, sick leave, vacation, or even, as some argue, rights. For most companies the system isn't a problem, says Alfred Lagasse, executive VP of the national Taxicab, Limousine, and Paratransit Association. "Ninety percent of all taxi drivers in the United States are independent contractors," he says. "The driver keeps all funds that he earns, so there is more incentive to get out there and earn money. It's a more efficient system."

But Friendly's drivers say this arrangement has left them open to mistreatment. Many, for instance, complain about the arbitrary gate increases, pointing mostly to Surinder Singh, whom the cabbies view as a particularly unjust manager. "She would not talk to you, would not give a reason," says Mohammad Zadran, a leader in the drive against Friendly. "If we said we cannot afford [the gate increase], she'd say, 'Leave the key and go.'" The cabbies' lawsuit, filed in August, also alleges that drivers of Indian ancestry were charged a lower gate (the Singhs are also Indian).

Aslami, an Afghan, says he paid full gate fees, even though his assigned cab lacked air-conditioning and heat the entire time he worked for the Singhs. And even when their vehicles were out of commission for repairs, the cabbies say, they had to pay their gate anyway or lose use of the car.

Independent contractors can't unionize, but the drivers say Friendly's owners in fact treat them as employees, making their situation unique. The Singhs, for instance, keep a percentage of fares paid by credit card or voucher, dictate how cabbies must dress, forbid distribution of individual business cards, and dispatch rides without telling drivers the final destination or how the passenger intends to pay.

The NLRB has rejected most past unionizing efforts by taxi drivers, says Lagasse of the taxi trade association. But this time, the panel sided with the cabbies.

"Although the question of employee status versus independent contractor status for taxi drivers has vexed the board for nearly thirty years, the pervasive control exercised by Friendly Cab Company leaves no room for puzzlement," the cabbies' attorney, Robert Bezemek, argued in his NLRB brief.

But it's a long road from this initial win to the drivers' final destination. The cabbies must next vote in an NLRB-supervised election on whether or not to unionize. If they do form a union, they'll have to agree on contract demands.

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