So it figures that there is a strong feeling of “solidarity forever” in the air at Dover. The Taxi Rank and File Coalition, the “alternative” cab union in town (alternative to Harry Van Arsdale’s all-powerful and generally despised Local 3036), has been trying to organize the Dover drivers. Ever since I started cabbing, Rank and Filers have been snickered at by most drivers as Commies, crazy radical hippies, and worse. A lot of this was brought on by the Rank and File people themselves, who used to go around accusing old-timers of being part of the capitalist plot to starve babies in Vietnam. This type of talk does not go over too big at the Belmore. Now Rank and File has toned down its shrill and is talking about more tangible things like the plight of drivers in the face of the coming depression, and members are picking up some scattered support in the industry. Dover, naturally, is their stronghold; Van Arsdale’s people have just about given the garage up for lost. Suzanne Gagnes wears a Rank and File button. Suzanne says, “It’s not that I’m a left-wing radical or anything. I just think it’s good that we stick together in a situation like this.”
Last winter a bitter dispute arose over an incident in which a Dover driver returned a lost camera and the garage allegedly pocketed the forthcoming reward money. The Rank and File leaders put pressure on the company to admit thievery. The garage replied by firing the shop chairman, Tom Robbins, and threatening the rest of the committee. Tempers grew very hot; petitions to “Save the Dover 6” were circulated. Robbins appealed to the National Labor Relations Board , but no action was taken. There was much talk of a general strike, but Rank and File, surveying the strength of their hardcore membership, decided against it. Now they have another NLRB suit against Dover and the Van Arsdale union for what they claim is a blacklist against Robbins, who has been turned down in attempts to get a job at twenty different garages in the city.
Gerry Cunningham, who is the boss at Dover, says Rank and File doesn’t bother him. “You’d figure there would be a lot of those types here, the way I see it. Big unions represent the median sort of guy, so you’d figure that with the general type of driver we have here, there would be a lot of Rank and File. Look, though, I’m not particularly interested in someone’s religion as long as he produces a day’s work. If the drivers feel a little togetherness, that’s fine with me.” Gerry, a well-groomed guy with a big Irish face, is sifting through a pile of accident reports and insurance claims in his trailer-office facing Hudson Street. It seems like all cab offices are in trailers or temporary buildings; it’s a transient business. This is the first time, after a year of driving for Dover, that I’ve ever seen Gerry Cunningham. I used to cash the checks too fast to notice that he signed them. Cunningham smiles when he hears the term “hippie garage.” “Oh, I don’t mind that,” he says. “We have very conscientious drivers here. We have more college graduates here than any other group … I assume they’re having trouble finding other work.” Gerry is used to all the actors and writers pushing around Dover hacks and thinks some of them make good drives and some don’t. “But I’ll tell you,” he says, “of all the actors we’ve ever had driving here, I really can’t think of one who ever made it.”
Gerry Cunningham thinks that’s kind of sad, but right now he’s got his own problems. “Owning taxis used to be a great business,” he says, “but now we’re getting devoured. In January of 1973 I was paying 31 cents for gas, now I’m paying 60. I’m barely breaking even here. It cost me $12.50 just to keep a car in the streets for 24 hours. Gas is costing almost as much as it costs to pay the drivers.”
It’s no secret that fleets like Dover are in trouble. They were the ones who pressed for the 17.5 per cent fare rise and still say it’s not enough to offset spiraling gas costs, car depreciation, and corporate taxes. Some big fleets like Scull’s Angels and Ike-Stan, which employ hundreds of drivers, are selling out; many more are expected to follow. There is a lot of pressure for change. The New York Times has run editorials advocating a major reshaping of the industry, possibly with all cabs being individually owned.
But Gerry Cunningham, who is the president of the M.T.B.O.T (The Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, which represents the fleets), isn’t planning on packing it in. He thinks he can survive if the fleets institute “leasing,” a practice the gypsy cab companies have always used. Leasing means, according to Cunningham, “I keep all my cars and lease them out to drivers for about $200 a week. That way only one man drives the car instead of the six or seven who are driving it now, the car lasts much longer, and you cut away a good deal of the maintenance and things like that.” Cunningham thinks leasing is the only way the fleets can make it right now. “It’s got to be,” he says, “because for the first time in my life, it’s hard to come to work.”
Leasing could really shake up the cabbing and crabbing, although Cunningham claims it won’t affect the “parttime actor and writer types” and the guys “who think of cabdriving as a stop along the way.” These people, he says, can always “sublet” taxis if they can’t come up with the $200.
A couple of Dover drivers who are really actors and musicians are talking about leasing while waiting in line at the La Guardia lot.
“What a drag leasing would be,” says an actor who has only $12 on the meter after four hours out of the garage. “If that happens, I don’t know, I’ll try to get a waiter’s job, I guess.”
“Yeah man, that’ll be a bitch all right,” says the musician. “I hate this goddamn job. Hey, I’d rather be blowing my horn, but right now I’m making a living in this cab. I won’t dig it if they take it away from me. Damn, if the city had any jobs I’d be taking the civil-service test.”