Addis Gebreselassi is a taxi driver in Washington, DC. Like a lot of other immigrant drivers, he’s pretty highly educated — he was formerly an accountant. But he’s been driving a cab in the district for about 14 years.
Even though the job doesn't get much repsect, he says it has its benefits: "You can work when you want it, not working when you don't want it.”
The flexibility allows drivers to take care of their kids, take classes or even travel back to their home countries without wondering if they'll lose their jobs.
In many ways, DC is an especially good place to set up shop as a cab driver. It’s the only major metro area in the US where a majority of drivers are independent owners and no company dominates the market. There are more than a hundred cab companies in DC, and, unlike in New York or Boston, licenses are pretty cheap.
But the DC Taxicab Commission controls pretty much everything drivers do, and drivers have long felt mistreated. “Some of the drivers get abused. They know in their hearts there is no fairness in this city," Gebreselassie says, echoing complaints among drivers.
The commission doesn't only hand out licenses. It also acts as a quasi-police force for taxis, with the power to ticket drivers for anything from minor traffic infractions to defects in their cars to just bad paperwork. The commission has also historically made the rules with little to no input from drivers.
The commission says it’s just trying to ensure that passengers get safe, comfortable rides. But drivers complain bitterly that taxi inspectors hand out tickets unfairly and arbitrarily. For them, the stakes are high: one ticket can equal a week’s income.
Many drivers believe they’re treated poorly in part because they’re immigrants.
At a hearing last year, the DC Taxicab Commission refused to let an immigrant driver from Ethiopia speak because he hadn’t brought a copy of his written statement. His English was fine, but the commission insisted that everyone had to follow the rules.
With palpable condescension, they explained that, “The reason we’re asking for written testimony is because a lot of our cab drivers have difficulty with our language.” Later in the same hearing, an African American driver was allowed to speak despite the fact that he also didn't bring a written statement to hand to the commission.
Some drivers have talked about unionizing in the past, but attempts fell apart when drivers organized along ethnic lines.
One night last August at DC’s Union Station, driver Jesse Black was waiting in the taxi line. “I was sitting there reading my Washington Post and the guys were having this discussion, and they were interrupting me reading my paper," Black says. "And just about that time, Mo pulls up."
Mo, or Mohamud Samantar, is an immigrant driver from Somalia. Jesse Black was born and raised in the US. Other drivers that night included Gebreselassi, originally from Ethiopia, and another driver from Nigeria.
"So we started talking and we said, the only way we are going to defeat this negativity towards us is if we form an association or something," Black remembers.
Last September, the men booked a room for 200 people so they could gauge interest in a possible union — 400 drivers showed up. At the next meeting, more than 1,000 drivers came. They voted to start the Washington DC Taxi Operators Association and work with the Teamsters, a large and powerful union.
Drivers like Gebresellasi, Samantar and Black all knew one thing — for the association to gain the community’s trust and garner widespread support, it needed to be truly representative. Everyone needed to feel like they had a say at the table.
Today, the leadership council is a pointed mix of ethnicities, religions and even genders. Samantar and Gabreselassi are on the Leadership Council, while Black handles drivers’ complaints with the city and often goes to court with them. Almost half of the city’s active cab drivers have now joined the union.
“A cab driver’s a cab driver," Samantar says. "It doesn’t matter where you come from.”
They’ve all had to learn a lot about labor organizing and city laws, and quickly.
And although they know change won’t happen overnight, they have already started to make a difference. They’ve had tickets thrown out, gotten legislation started and organized successful protests. And for the first time, they feel like the Taxicab Commission hears them and is taking them seriously.