Union Cab Co. general manager Kedir Wako (left) and driver Aklilu Beru say they are excited that the new taxi company can offer drivers added benefits
Taxi cab driver Aklilu Beru is nursing a bump on his temple. Yesterday, a woman passenger tried to stiff him on his fare, he says. When he asked for his money she began punching and hitting him, and eventually was arrested. That's a first for him, he says, although he knows other drivers who have been robbed.
Still, Beru says, the incident can't dent his job satisfaction. For seven years, he drove 12 to 14 hours almost every day just to make ends meet. Now, driving for Union Cab, the city's newest taxi company, Beru says he's making a decent living on a 40-hour workweek.
"It's good," he says. "I have time with my family. I can see my kids and my wife. It's a change."
Beru is one of 50 drivers who came together to form Union Cab, after tiring of working for one of the six other companies.
"We started organizing among ourselves," says Kedir Wako, now Union Cab's general manager. "It had to be hidden because if the company found out we were organizing we would have been terminated."
Aklilu Beru was waiting to make a police report after a passenger punched him
In operation now for less than two months, Union is a driver-owned cooperative, affiliated with Communications Workers of America Local 7901. Its mission includes improving working conditions for drivers, as well as operating a clean, safe, welcoming and environmentally aware service.
"We promised the city we would be environmentally friendly within five years," says Wako. "Our fleet is all brand new, and already within a year we have 75 percent hybrids."
Union also provides insurance coverage that pays drivers for lost earnings as well medical bills after accidents.
"When you drive with other cab companies, you only have liability insurance," Wako says. "If you need a repair at another company you have to pay that yourself or the company will terminate you. Our drivers have full coverage automobile insurance, and occupational driver insurance."
Portland taxi drivers often own their own cabs, but they pay the cab companies a "kitty fee" for operating permits, dispatch and other services.
"In the case of Broadway, we paid $580 a week to the kitty," says Wako. "Now (at Union Cab) we pay $308."
Wako says it's near impossible for many cabbies to take a vacation or even a sick day. The "kitty fee" is due every week. If you miss it, you're going to lose your spot.
"Those drivers who pay $580 a week: nobody forces them to work more than 40 hours a week, but the system forces them to work longer hours," he says. "They miss their family time."
The drivers first approached the city in 2009 to ask for a chance to run their own company. City staffers were skeptical about issuing new permits to Union Cab, but after researching the issues they found that what the drivers said about their conditions was true.
Some of the smaller taxi companies were struggling to update cars and equipment. But the largest taxi company owners could rake in substantial profits, even as their drivers earned less than minimum wage.
And because permits were in short supply, the cab companies had little incentive to improve conditions for drivers. There were always plenty more aspiring cabbies waiting in line.
That's all detailed in a city taxi driver labor market study, released in January 2012. The study showed that on average drivers earned $6.22 an hour. Only at Radio Cab, then the sole driver-owned company, were driver earnings more than twice as high.
On average drivers were working 70 hours a week.
Kedir Wako is from Ethopia. Union drivers currently are all African immigrant men, but Wako says, after they complete six months of self-imposed "probation," the board will consider adding drivers and they plan to become more diverse
Kathleen Butler, who manages the regulatory division in Portland's Department of Revenue, said the taxi driver report raised concerns about customer safety as well as the wellbeing of drivers and their families.
"When we looked at how well drivers fared from company to company, it was extremely obvious that the driver-owned company was averaging an eight hour shift, five days a week, compared to 14 hours at the other companies," she said.
Butler said the report also found that some companies fine drivers for infractions, driving errors and even if somebody complains about them.
"Lots of drivers told us about getting a $100 penalty for being five minutes late. Our recommendation is that the city should be issuing penalties, not the companies, because the city has an independent appeals process."
Last November, Portland City Council agreed to add 50 permits for Union Cab, and 28 more permits split between Green and Radio cab. Green Cab and Radio Cab also agreed to give every driver a week without paying a "kitty fee."
It was the first time the city had raised the number of cab permits and the number of cab companies since 1998. Some drivers opposed the move, fearing that more drivers would mean less business for everyone.
But Butler says the city was set to raise the number of permits in 2006, but delayed because the recession hit tourism. Now tourists are returning, she says, and demand is rising. In addition, people with disabilities often need taxis, and if plenty of cabs are available, people who go out drinking are more likely to use them.
"It's a very delicate balance," she says. "You do want to make sure you provide the maximum level of stability for the industry, and that means drivers and companies have to do well. But you also want to make sure citizens and tourists can get a cab when they need one, and it is safe clean and pleasant to ride in.
Butler said this summer city staff is currently looking at ways to improve insurance coverage for all drivers. Next spring, after Union has been in operation for a year, the city will review the permit expansion.
Weko says he's excited that Union Cab has improved life for its drivers. And he says he wishes all cabbies could enjoy the same benefits.
"Our drivers are making good wages, but the rest of them are still paying too much."
Union Cab: 503-408-1234
Radio Cab: 503-227-1212
Green Cab: 503-234-1414
New Rose City Cab: 503-282-7707
Portland Cab: 503-256-5400
Broadway Cab: 503-333-3333
Sassy Cab: 503-656-7065