FOR THE PAST four years, 50 Portland cab drivers have been attempting a feat akin to crashing an exclusive, invitation-only party.
In a town where the number of cabbie permits has been calcified in place for years, they've been trying to form an employee-owned company—and they're closer than ever to getting their wish.
Except that, in a twist, the cabbies are facing an unlikely opponent: their own colleagues.
On Wednesday, October 10, the city's Private for Hire Transportation Board was scheduled to vote on adding 132 new taxi permits to the city's existing crop of 382. These include permits for the 50 insurgent drivers and their company, Union Cab, also called Solidarity Cab Cooperative.
But despite the fact that Portland hasn't added cabs in more than a decade—and despite evidence that Portland has significantly fewer taxis than comparable cities—the cabbies' own elected representative on that city board has been pushing to shut the whole idea down.
The bubbling fight has left cabbies taking sides against other cabbies—all the while dancing around the uncomfortable specter of racism in a profession that draws heavily from Portland's immigrant communities.
"We can't absorb a 35 percent increase in the fleet right now," says Red Diamond, the cabbies' rep on the board, saying it would cut into the earnings of drivers like him.
And, so far, Diamond has been making headway in his effort.
Early on Wednesday, October 3, Diamond semi-officially launched his campaign. He managed to bring out 25 other drivers to circle the downtown Embassy Suites, in what was billed as a protest against a long-controversial practice of doormen taking bribes from drivers in exchange for exclusive access to the hotel's guests. Embassy Suites declined to comment for this story. But Diamond's critics say the protest was really an attempt to rally Portland's cabbies against new permits.
Diamond told the Mercury, during the rally, that he thought Union Cab members were being selfish. "What they want is 50 new permits at the expense of everyone else," said Diamond.
Union Cab's founder and president, Kedir Wako, disputes the accusation. But the debate, in many ways, still starts with him.
In early 2011, Wako and other Union Cab members met with Mayor Sam Adams. The cabbies told the mayor they wanted to start a cooperative similar to Portland's Radio Cab. According to Portland Revenue Bureau reports, they also discussed problems in Portland's taxi industry, including low net pay, long working hours, and a lack of basic workplace protections. ["Cabbie Crackdown," News, Feb 2 2012]
Adams responded by ordering an investigation. When the Revenue Bureau finally published its findings last month, it covered not only new permits, but also a series of reforms designed to address the workers' complaints.
Wako's feeling pleased with the report. Diamond, however, calls the recommendations an "absolute betrayal." And the two have been sparring ever since.
"We had this expectation that the city was going to study our circumstances, and they were going to come up with a proposal that would help us," says Diamond, "but these proposals hurt us."
Diamond has also repeatedly—and publicly—made the claim that Union Cab is made up of Ethiopian immigrants like Wako who want to take jobs from Portland drivers. He also mentions "persistent rumors" that Union Cab drivers have promised permits to relatives in other states.
Not true, says Wako—who accuses Diamond of racism.
"Our members are current city cab drivers and are licensed in Portland or Vancouver," says Wako. As to Union Cab's ethnic makeup, he says, "We have Russian drivers, we have people from Iran, and we have Asian drivers."
"I don't think it's a racist comment," says Diamond. "It's an observation. I don't think there are any American-born people in that union. I don't think there are any European-born people in that union. I don't think there are any white people in that union."
Asked again, about his statements, Diamond responded, "It doesn't bother me that they might be all Ethiopian. I don't know where you get that. What bothers me is I've heard persistent rumors from a variety of sources that they intend to bring in family members from out of town." And, Diamond says, he won't be convinced otherwise until he sees Union Cab's membership.
So far, Union Cab hasn't released the names of its members for fear the city's current companies might retaliate if the new permits are rejected. Portland Revenue Bureau's Kathleen Butler says Union Cab is well within its rights to hold back. "My understanding," says Butler, "is that [Union Cab members] are a group of currently working city of Portland drivers and there is no one ethnic component to the formation of their company."
Whether the new permits will help or hurt cabbies remains an open question. However, the revenue bureau's argument for them is persuasive. For every 10,000 Portlanders, there are just 6.6 taxis. Seattle has nearly twice as many, and Denver and Minneapolis have almost three times as many.
"The statistics are really clear," says Mayor Adams. "The lack of cabs are hurting the overall industry and the drivers."
Wednesday's meeting likely won't be the last word. If the transportation board votes yes, then city council has final approval. It's also possible the city council could overrule the board should it reject the permits. Adams declined to comment on whether he would pursue the permits if the board says no, but added, "I will tell you that the analysis behind the recommendations appears to be very thorough."
In the meantime, Wako says he's hopeful for the new permits and the reforms, saying, "Even if I get these 50 permits, I am still going to fight for [other] cab drivers."