ALL KEDIR WAKO wanted was a day off. In 2008, the Ethiopian immigrant and 11-year veteran Broadway Cab driver was sick and wanted some slack on his weekly $580 payment to Broadway.
"I asked the company to give me a day off because my face swelled. I couldn't talk and couldn't even drink water," says the 40-year-old Wako. "They said no, and told me I still had to pay them."
That denied sick day launched Wako on a mission to improve the lot of Portland's 900 cabbies—a campaign the city's revenue bureau bolstered last week with the release of a new study supporting the cabbies' widespread claims of poor treatment.
The revenue bureau study reveals that drivers at Portland's five privately owned cab companies work an average of 6-7 days a week, 12-14 hours a day, and make $6.22 an hour after their average weekly cab company payout (called a "kitty") of $500. This means drivers make $2 less than Oregon's minimum wage.
"Frankly I expected better from us as a city," says Mayor Sam Adams, who ordered the report in May 2011 after meeting with Wako and other drivers.
Since drivers are independent contractors, they can legally make less than minimum wage, but they cannot form legally protected unions, as Wako discovered when he tried to rally fellow cabbies. Instead, after his 2008 face-swelling, no-sympathy incident, Wako worked with the president of the local Communications Workers of America chapter to form the Portland Drivers' Self-Help Association, a group of drivers who pool earnings to pay the kitties of sick and injured members. In January 2011, Wako and members of the group requested 50 new taxi permits to start a new employee-owned taxi company, Union Cab, and later filed a series of grievances with the city's revenue bureau.
In looking into the grievances, the bureau compared working conditions at Radio Cab, Portland's only employee-owned cab company, to the city's five privately owned companies.
"The driver-owned company came out significantly better in all categories," says Portland Revenue Bureau's Kathleen Butler. According to the study, Radio Cab employees worked only 5.5 days a week on average and their kitties were, on average, only $245 a week—half the charge of the private companies.
"It showed what I already knew: That we are best," said Steve Entler, general manager at Radio Cab.
Broadway Cab—which also owns Sassy's Cab and has about 40 percent of the city's available permits—declined to comment for this story.
After all the hassle and vindication, it's unclear whether the city will allow Wako to actually start up the new Union Cab company. Since 1998, the city has capped the number of taxi permits in Portland at 382. Snagging 50 new permits for Union Cab would entail getting the city council to sign off on raising that cap, likely over the protests of established cab companies. The city is waiting until April 2012 to approve all new permits, including theirs. Disgruntled drivers say they'd switch to the driver-friendly Union Cab in a heartbeat, if it's allowed to form.
"Nobody is telling their companies because if you tell them you will get fired automatically," says one Green Cab driver who has worked at the company for over 10 years and asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.
In the meantime, the cabbies are crossing their fingers, hoping for stricter city regulation of their employers. The revenue bureau's Butler says in April, the city will start looking into new regulations: "An unintended consequence of the cap on permits is that drivers are not in a good bargaining position to find a company to work for. I think it is our responsibility to balance out that condition with some regulations."
Wako sure hopes so. "It's not only about 50 cab drivers," he says. "It's about all cab drivers in this city."
Read the city's cabbie study here!