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Backseat Battle: City’s Plan to Require Costly Computer Screens in Yellow Taxis May Lead to Strike

Clark Merrefield Apr 29, 2007

TaxiDriverBeresford Simmons, a Yellow taxi driver, is against the GPs systems proposed by the NYC Taxi and limousine commission. PHOTO: Dennis W. Ho

By Clark Merrefield

Tension is building between the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) and New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) due to a battle over the required installation of information monitors in the backseat of all yellow cabs later this year.

The TLC, the city agency that regulates taxis, claims it is attempting to bring customer service technology up to current standards. To the taxi workers alliance, however, the information screens are both a potential monetary burden on drivers and a means for the TLC to further regulate overworked and underpaid independent drivers.

The screens, which will provide an interactive map, entertainment, a credit card payment option and advertising to taxi customers, is part of the TLC’s Customer Service Technology Enhancements Project.

The monitors could be a goldmine, generating millions of dollars a year in advertising and licensing revenue. According to one report, the system would use global positioning system (GPS) technology to synchronize advertising, flashing a Gap ad on the screen, for instance, as a taxi approached a store.

According to the TLC’s own studies, cab drivers cite numerous problems with the technology, from falling prey to credit-card scams to paying processing fees of 5 percent per transaction. They are concerned, too, that fees will be passed on to them for the monitors, which could cost up to $5,600 for a three-year contract. And the taxi workers are worried about the global positioning technology, fearing that the TLC will track their movements, forcing them to maintain a frenetic work pace.

The taxi workers alliance is threatening to walk off the job if the TLC pushes ahead with the plan, which would be the first yellow-cab strike since a series of job actions in 1998. The adoption of the technology enhancement project was included in the unanimous March 2004 decision by the eight-member TLC Board to increase fare rates by 26 percent, the first raise for drivers since 1996.

“They passed very general rules about the technology enhancements for the cabs,” said Biju Mathew, an organizer with the NYTWA. “We had taken the position that we would be against the GPS system right then and there.”

The strike threat is a gamble for the taxi workers alliance as taxi drivers are classified as independent contractors, which means they fall under anti-trust law and cannot legally form a union or go on strike.

As an advocacy group and AFL-CIO member organization, the NYTWA pressures the TLC for better wages and conditions, and provides legal services to its 7,000 registered members.
The taxi workers alliance has been stepping up the campaign against the screen system, having organized a demonstration on March 6 outside TLC headquarters in downtown Manhattan. Despite the bitter cold that day and the relative lack of parking in the area, more than one thousand cabbies showed up to support the alliance.

Some cab drivers allege the city is being hypocritical by classifying them as independent contractors on the one hand while requiring them to install technology that could track their every movement on the other. The TLC, however, claims it has no intention of tracking drivers’ activities. Though they say the system does not have navigation capabilities, it would use tracking technology to help passengers recover lost items, would require drivers to record trip sheets digitally and could geographically synchronize advertising. Four companies — Taxi Technology Corp., Digital Dispatch, Mobile knowledge Inc. and TaxiTronic — will compete to get taxi medallion owners to install their particular screen system into cabs. Prices are expected to range from $2,000 to $5,600 per unit.

FAULTY SCREENS

It’s unclear who will ultimately end up paying for the systems. The TLC says that medallion owners will have to front the bill, while the alliance is concerned that drivers will pay via additional surcharges in their car and medallion lease contracts.

There does not appear to be any language in the TLC bylaws limiting such surcharges. A credit card payment system provided by TaxiTronic has been tried in Philadelphia cabs since last year, with limited success. Ronald Blount, president of the Taxi Workers Alliance of Pennsylvania, said cabs have experienced problems completing transactions because of interference from tall buildings.

“Since it’s been in here it’s just been constant trouble. Any given day 10 to 15 percent of the taxis are out of work,” Blount said. His union has been demonstrating against the Philadelphia Parking Authority, the equivalent of New York City’s TLC. Blount claims the parking authority has stated that it wants to wait another six months before scrapping the project. “We might coordinate something with New York,” he said, referring to future demonstrations.

In New York, screens have already been installed in 200 cabs as part of the TLC’s pilot program and almost 3,500 cab owners have voluntarily installed credit card swipers. A series of focus group studies conducted by the TLC since late 2004 has found that cab drivers are unenthusiastic about the technology because of the various problems they’ve encountered, while passengers were “strongly negative [when] advertising came at the expense of content.”

According to Bhairavi Desai, an organizer with and cofounder of the NYTWA, three of the four screen system providers have produced systems that link directly to the meter. She says this is a major concern because if there is any system malfunction it means the meter will also shut down.

“Can you imagine telling an airline that they’re going to be required to put in luxury technology that would make that plane inoperable?” she said. The TLC did not respond to three separate requests for an official comment.

Cisse Mohamed, who has been driving for one year said, “I think if they put in GPS I’m not going to do my job anymore.” He noted that since trip sheets would be digitally recorded, his opportunity to make offthe-books income would be limited.

Chander Loveleen, a NYTWA member who has been driving for ten years, said his customers who work in offices and stare at computer screens all day will not want to be confronted with another screen when they sit in his cab. Major media corporations NBC and WABC and advertising giant Clear Channel Communications have already secured deals with the four technology providers. “When you sit in my car you should have a relaxing time,” Loveleen said.
The TLC claims customers will be able to turn off the screens by pushing one button.

PUBLIC HEARING

On May 10, the TLC will hold a public hearing at its Manhattan office where it is expected to confirm Oct. 1 as the date by which the screens must be installed. The NYTWA plans to demonstrate at the hearing and has been distributing strike pledge cards to drivers since mid-April. According to Desai, the strike threat remains a distinct possibility if the TLC’s plan goes ahead as scheduled. “The last time we struck [in 1998] it was industry wide, so that again would be the goal,” she said.

The 1998 strike, which was in fact two separate daylong strikes on May 13 and May 21, involved over 40,000 licensed drivers, including yellow cab drivers and for-hire drivers. It was called in response to then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s implementation of driver fines up to $1,000 for minor safety violations. While it makes its strike preparations and mobilizes against the TLC’s plan, the NYTWA also hopes to draw attention to the economic strains and health issues many drivers face.

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