Cabs outside Embassy Suites

Yesterday morning, around 25 cabs circled the downtown Embassy Suites on SW Pine and 3rd. Holding up traffic and in general causing a mild discomfort for the hotel, the cabbies had signs in their windows that read: “End Hotel Corruption.” Their beef with Embassy Suites? According to cabby Red Diamond, who organized the moving protest, the doormen at Embassy Suites and many other hotels in town take illegal “kickbacks” from cab drivers to steer hotel business their way. But that might not be all that’s going on. Other signs referred to new permits the city is expected to issue, suggesting a storm might be brewing among different factions of the city’s taxicab community.

“We have hotels taking kickbacks and we are being neglected by Mayor Adams,” said Diamond. The 48-year-old cab driver has been the driving force behind the Cabdrivers Alliance of Portland, Oregon (CAPO), a cabby-run mutual aid network. Diamond contends Mayor Sam Adams has done little for Portland cab drivers while in office, which isn’t exactly true.

In a press release issued by CAPO, the group notes that in September 2011, the city Private For-Hire Transportation Board—which partially oversees cabs and limos—approved an anti-kickback ordinance. The problem is the ordinance has yet to go to city council for final approval. However, Frank Dufay from the Revenue Bureau—the other city agency that oversees cabs and limos—says Diamond’s concerns might be overstating the problem a little.

Dufay told the Mercury kickbacks were a big problem in the past and that Embassy Suites had been one of the worst offenders. But several years ago a number of hotels were fined for taking kickbacks. At that time, Dufay says, Embassy Suites was also fined and has since gotten all new management. “I don’t know if they are still a problem,” he said.

As of this post, Embassy Suites hasn’t responded to my request for a comment (a spokeswomen told me she would track down the right person to make a statement). But, like I said, kickbacks aren’t the only thing Red Diamond is mad about.

Just last week, the Revenue Bureau made its permit recommendations, stating the city should add 132 new cab permits to its existing 382, something Diamond says will increase competition and cut into his and other drivers’ income. Well, not all other drivers.

In April 2011, cab driver Kedir Wako, with the help of the local Communications Workers of America (CWA), requested permits for himself and 49 other cabbies. With these permits, Wako hoped to form a new cab company, one run on a cooperative model similar to Portland’s own Radio Cab.

Wako’s chances of getting his wish fulfilled were slim. The city hadn’t issued new permits in years. But the group persisted. They also told the city about just how shitty it can sometimes be to be a cab driver. This prompted Adams’ office to request a study, which the Revenue Bureau took on. In January of this year, they released what ended up being a harsh indictment of Portland’s cab industry. But the new permits weren’t issued, not yet. However last week, they got a lot closer.

On September 26, the Revenue Bureau released its recommendations on new permits. Among the 132 new permits are 50 for Wako’s Solidarity Cab Cooperative (also called Union Cab). Diamond was notably angry when I asked him about this.

“I don’t support it [Solidarity Cab Cooperative]," said Diamond. “The CWA has been very selfish. What they want is 50 new permits at the expense of everyone else. And these people [Solidarity Cab enthusiasts] have family elsewhere and they are going to bring these people in, and they’re going to take jobs away from Portland cab drivers.”

Exactly what effect new competition will have on Portland cabbies is, as yet, an unknown. But Dufay says the industry is long overdue for new permits.

“We haven’t had new permits since 1998,” said Dufay. “And people need cabs. We’re building apartments without cars and people are using more public transit, and studies show when mass transit use goes up so does cab use.”

But if this extra competition hurts Diamond and other Portland cabbies, given their past statements—and how they fought for an investigation into Portland’s cab industry—this probably isn’t the intent of Wako and CWA.

In an interview earlier this year, Wako told the Mercury, “It’s not only about 50 cab drivers. It’s about all cab drivers in this city.” And on Tuesday, CWA Local 7901 president Madelyn Elder, who has helped Wako organize the co-op, told the Mercury, “This whole thing about the co-op isn't about 50 people getting things they want. We want to change the face of the industry. We want to show it is possible.” Elder also said she would continue to fight for the reforms, she says, the industry needs.

As for the new permits, they’re currently only recommendations. On October 10, the Private for Hire Board will vote on whether to approve the new permits. But the board’s word isn’t final. The last word belongs to the city council, which is expected to vote on the issue sometime in November.