The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, in charge of both Reagan National and Dulles International Airports, is debating changing a more than 40-year-old taxi management framework. At the same time, the unofficial Washington Flyer Drivers Association of the Dulles Airport Washington Flyer Taxi Service is vowing to continue its sporadic work strikes for what it calls a lack of job security.
Beginning April 26, some drivers for the Washington Flyer Taxi Service, who are the sole drivers permitted under contract to operate out of Dulles Airport, began a series of work stoppages and protests, including three drivers who went on week-long hunger strikes. According to several board members of association, the strikes are being done to bring attention to a lack of an oversight committee to hear and address their complaints with their independent management company, Dulles Taxi Systems.
The strikes came in advance of an announcement that the airports authority would recommend Dulles Airport to renew the current contract with the independent management company, Dulles Taxi Systems, for the self-employed taxi drivers for one year.
The extension, which was approved by Dulles Airport on May 3, was done in light of the authority saying it would review managerial options over the coming year before deciding what to ultimately do about the current system, according to Tara Hamilton, public affairs director for the airports authority.
"We are serious about looking at the system to see if improvements could be made and if that means a different contract, we will make the recommendations," Hamilton said. "I think one of the options we will consider will be in looking about opening the airport up" to other area cab companies for the first time since the airport was opened in 1962.
Hamilton declined to answer specific questions about the nature of the strike and the relationship with Dulles Taxi Systems and the drivers, stating that the conflict is solely between the drivers and Dulles Taxi Systems.
"These are independent cab drivers and they have their independent relationship with the contractor," she added. "What we're concerned about is in what is the best way to provide our customers with a service. It is very important for any airport to have dependable and quality taxi service."
THE STRIKE WAS in protest of Dulles Taxi Systems policies, according to Mesfin Belayneh, a driver for Washington Flyer since 1998 who was also one of the protesters to engage in the hunger strikes.
"We have a lot of problems with DTS and we have tried to meet with them and they have not been able to resolve our issues," Belayneh said as he sat in his taxi in line for fares at the Dulles Airport. "We wanted them to recognize our drivers association and to protect our rights as workers."
"The drivers never have any input into what goes on with [DTS]," said Abdul Ahamed, a driver and an elected board member for the drivers' association. "We want to address our problems, but it's a one-way street. It is their way, or you hit the road."
"I'm a little perplexed by" the strikes, said Charlie King, president of Dulles Taxi Systems. "I'm aware that there have been problems in the past with certain issues ... but our company has had and will continue to have an open-door policy with any of our drivers with a complaint.
"My impression is that our drivers feel comfortable with our team and we have been open with them," King added.
King said that Dulles Taxi Systems has listened to drivers' complaints in the past and has made "significant changes" to "personnel and realignment of responsibilities" as a way of making the company better for drivers.
DULLES AIRPORT HAS hired Dulles Taxi Systems to be an independent taxi management service for the Washington Flyer Taxi Service. The Washington Flyer taxis are a collaboration of more than 600 self-employed cab drivers who work at Dulles Airport with a license they receive from Dulles Taxi Systems, after having met a certain set of quality criteria and paying a weekly total fee of $168 to Dulles Taxi Systems, according to King.
Ahamed said that he and the other drivers have no independent body in which to file complaints of "abuse, mistreatment and discrimination," and that Dulles Taxi Systems holds the right to suspend the work license of any driver without giving a reason or the possibility for an official appeal.
"It's like somebody committing a crime against you and you're not able to go to court," said Ahamed, who alleged that he was fired last week for unknown reasons. "They can kick out anyone they want without compensation."
"If we pay [almost] $170 a week [licensing fee] to operate out of this airport and they cannot protect our rights and listen to what we say, why do we pay that?" said Belayneh.
As part of the original contract with Dulles Taxi Systems in 2000, the airports authority facilitated the creation of a Taxi Cab Advisory Committee as a forum for members representing the airport, Dulles Taxi Systems, the drivers and the airports authority to meet to discuss any specific work-related problems "three to four times a year," according to Hamilton.
The drivers and Dulles Taxi Systems have since been able to work out driver-requested increases in rates and a fuel surcharge, Hamilton added.
"I think that the advisory board has had success in addressing a wide range of issues," said King. "[The drivers] have a lot of say in what goes on."
According to Ahamed, the panel does not allow the drivers any form of effective representation and while he confirmed that the increases were made through the panel, he said that they only came after several months of threats to strike.
FOR SOME OF the drivers, the struggle for fair and just labor representation with Dulles Taxi Systems is more than just about wages or rates, but about standing up for the rights they have come to enjoy as American citizens.
"I come from a society that is very button-down, very strict," said Zamani Ali, a driver with Washington Flyer for 8 years who immigrated to the United States from Afghanistan in 1982. "I came here and I learned about the first amendment [guaranteeing free speech] and I learned about the rights that you are granted in America and I don't see them here. Something is wrong."
Ali, a board member who also participated in the hunger strike, said that his license to drive his cab was suspended by Dulles Taxi Systems "for standing up for my rights, and the rights of other drivers."
Although King confirmed that both Ali and Ahamed have had their licenses suspended, he would not discuss specifics.
"We meet with and listen to our drivers all the time, and we listen to the leaders of" the drivers' association, King said. "We have had and will continue to have an open-door policy with all of our drivers."
King and Hamilton said that these threats of strikes and increased problems with the drivers in recent weeks have been historically consistent with the process for a new contract.
"I think the biggest need we had to address is to get some stability in our contract situation," King said. "Historically, during these times, there have been issues when the drivers will use this time to try and get their voices heard on certain issues."
"Our business is a difficult business and it's hard to make everybody happy," King said. "I think the drivers have legitimate complaints and our company is going to be as responsive as possible."
WITH THE GOAL of getting a co-op of drivers to independently manage themselves, Mukit Hussein of the Virginia Muslim Political Action Committee has said that the problem lies in the lack of communication between the management and drivers.
"There's a whole slew of complaints and there is no one to make these complaints heard," Hussein said. "Every time someone makes a complaint, they just suspend the driver. There's no group that can hear the drivers."
According to Hussein, the drivers have an array of complaints ranging from being refused fares by dispatchers to inappropriate comments made by members of Dulles Taxi Systems about the drivers' ethnic backgrounds.
"Since there is no oversight committee that can hear the complaints and make necessary recommendations, the symptom simply becomes the cause of more driver frustration," he added. "We have a systemic problem here."
Hussein said that he is speaking with lawyers about uniting the drivers and developing their own management system to hopefully make a bid on the Dulles Airport contract when it comes back up for bidding.
"My objective is to get [the drivers] empowered as far as their livelihoods are concerned," Hussein said. "If they can bid and get the contract than the fate of their livelihoods will be in their hands."