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On the picket line

September 14, 2007 | Pages 14 and 15

New York City taxi drivers
Woodfin Hotel

New York City taxi drivers
By Peter Lamphere

NEW YORK--Taxi drivers here held a 48-hour work stoppage last week that, although not a complete success, had a clear impact and marked a step forward for the New York Taxi Workers' Alliance (NYTWA), the union representing taxi drivers.

While the union's claim that 90 percent of cabs were off the street may have been an exaggeration, even the New York Port Authority was forced to admit that only half of the normal 17,000 pickups happened at New York's two airports on the first day of the strike.

To keep even half of the cabs off the street is a victory in an industry where most drivers live on their day-to-day income (a NYTWA survey a few years ago reported that 62 percent of cabbies are in arrears on rent, mortgage payments or utility bills).

The taxi drivers were striking to prevent the installation of new metering devices, whose purpose is to process credit card transactions, provide GPS tracking for passengers and monitor drivers.

Under the new system, a 5 percent fee would be taken out of each and every credit card fare. Additionally, there will be installation fees of $4,000 to $5,000 and a monthly maintenance fee.

"There is no question," said Mamnun Al Haq, a 13-year veteran of the industry and member of the NYTWA organizing committee, "that all of the costs of this will be put on drivers' shoulders."

But there's anger about much more than GPS to fuel the NYTWA's attempts to organize the industry. As one cab driver, Muhammad, put it: "Why isn't the city willing to spend money and effort on creating a place to use the bathroom? Or why not give us some health care, or paid vacation time, or retirement benefits?"

Bhairavi Desai, the leader of the NYTWA, gave this assessment of the strike to the mainstream press: "We basically had two solid days that have given us the experience to perfect our skills."

Taxi drivers will need this experience, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg hasn't budged on the GPS system. And drivers face an uphill battle to successfully organize the industry.

While the taxi drivers have impressive allies in the city labor movement, recently joining the Central Labor Council and using the New York City Transport Workers Union hall as strike headquarters, the key to a successful organizing drive will be more participation from rank-and-file cab drivers beyond the small picket lines set up for this strike.

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Woodfin Hotel
By Julie Guilfoy

EMERYVILLE, Calif.--Workers from the Woodfin Hotel celebrated a victory August 24 when the City Council ruled that workers were owed $300,000 in back wages as a result of the hotel's refusal to honor a local living-wage ordinance. Woodfin was also fined $50,000 for failing to produce records required under the ordinance.

In December 2006, the hotel fired workers who demanded their fair wages under the law. The hotel claims that workers received "no match" letters from the Department of Homeland Security and therefore had the right to fire them, even though the letters state that the employers are not allowed to fire workers, only to inform them of possible irregularities with Social Security numbers.

Before the hearing, more than 200 protesters marched outside City Hall. For the past year, workers and community members have picketed the hotel and held numerous actions. Although some of the workers were reinstated after the firings, they have had to endure a hostile work environment.

"We are all brothers and sisters in the fight for a living wage," hotel worker Luz Dominquez told the crowd. "You have all given me the strength to stand up and speak out. This is not just about our small struggle, but about us uniting as workers and citizens to demand fair wages and working conditions."

Sara Norr from the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, the organization spearheading the fight against Woodfin, said she was elated at the outcome, but says that the struggle will continue until the hotel actually pays the workers. Since the hotel has vowed not to comply with Ordinance C and the ruling, the boycott of the hotel and other actions will continue.

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