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Through AFSCME, New Orleans Taxi Drivers Moving City Forward

By Pablo Ros
Photo: Niran Gunasekara speaks to fellow taxi drivers at meeting
Niran Gunasekara, a New Orleans cab driver, speaks to his fellow taxi drivers at an AFSCME organizing meeting. (Photo by Pablo Ros)

Cab drivers in New Orleans are often referred to as the city’s “ambassadors” since they are a tourist’s first point of contact with this historical and cultural center.

But when the city councilmembers last year fired a barrage of new regulations at cab drivers, they were oblivious to the unnecessary financial burden they were imposing on these small business owners and contractors. In the spirit of supposedly improving the city’s image in time for the 2013 Super Bowl, they forced drivers to make unforeseen investments of tens of thousands of dollars, and drove some out of business.

The misplaced emphasis on tourists as primary consumers could backfire when local residents are forced to pay higher fares.

Most of the 1,600 taxi drivers in the city of New Orleans agree: The new regulations imposed by the councilmembers and Mayor Mitch Landrieu make little sense. That’s why the drivers, through AFSCME, are organizing their ranks. They’re fighting back with union strength and solidarity.

‘Never Been a Harder Time’

Exel Joyner and his friend Elbert Hart, who drove cabs for a combined 82 years, agree on one thing: There’s never been a harder time to be a taxi driver in New Orleans than there is today.

The new regulations passed by the city included installing new expensive equipment like a security camera and a credit card machine that were only available for purchase from favored contractors. Also, no vehicle more than seven years old could be on the road, regardless of whether it was in safe and comfortable working order. In a matter of months, many drivers plunged further into debt to meet the new requirements.

In addition, the city decided that a cab owner’s permit would now be considered a “privilege,” instead of property. That means it can be revoked or its sale or transfer blocked. Many drivers paid tens of thousands of dollars for a permit and use it as collateral in seeking loans. They also count on selling it for their only form of retirement security. 

“Don’t just make up rules each day and each night as you go,” Joyner says.

All drivers must also submit their vehicles for inspection twice a year. But service at the inspection station is so poor that many drivers say they must arrive in the middle of the night, hours before the station opens, to get in line.

Through AFSCME, New Orleans taxi drivers will seek recognition from the city and a place at the bargaining table.

Check out AFSCME TV’s coverage of the New Orleans taxi campaign at afscme.tv:

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