The streets of Clarendon typically echo with the sounds you'd expect from a popular bar and restaurant district — but around lunchtime Tuesday, shouting voices carried a different message:
"No justice, no cabs!"
"Respect human rights for taxi drivers!"
"We have to stop fighting taxi drivers for no reason!"
"We want justice!"
A throng of cab drivers, about 70 strong and representing seven different taxi companies, marched from Clarendon Central Park at the Metro station, down Clarendon Boulevard, through the Whole Foods parking lot and back down Wilson. They shouted, waved signs and handed out fliers — all in an effort to pressure the Arlington County Board to investigate their working conditions.
"If the public would support us, that's what we want," said Fasil Berhe, a driver for Blue Top. "Because most of our customers, they don't know."
Berhe told Patch he works 15 hours a day, seven days a week — leaving him little time to see his wife and two children.
Likewise, Bezabeh Andargia, a driver for enviroCAB, said he put in about 17 hours a day in August. His car, which he had to buy, broke down and the parts for the hybrid vehicle didn't arrive for two weeks. He still had to pay to work those two weeks.
"We don't have rights," Andargia told Patch. "If I say something, they can fire me. And I don't want to be on the street."
Andargia said he starts each week owing $244 to enviroCAB. After paying that, his vehicle payment, and his car and medical insurance, he earns whatever money is left.
Cab drivers equated their cars to rolling sweat shops and said they were unable to move between companies. If you were fired from one, which, as an independent contractor, can be done on a whim, then you would be blacklisted by the others.
"I wouldn't say it's slavery, but it's urban, modern sharecropping," said Jon Liss, executive director of the Virginia New Majority. "… We've been trying to do things backchannel for three years, and for three years we've been strung along."
The cab drivers are asking for a bill of rights that spells out protections for them under the local ordinance.
Liss said Arlington County Board Chairman Walter Tejada and board member Chris Zimmerman supported the plight of the cab drivers, but the other three local elected officials were on the fence. "And as long as they're on the fence, a cab driver suffers," Liss told Patch.
The marching throng specifically called out Arlington County Board Vice Chairman Jay Fisette, who they said had a history of opposing measures that would help drivers. Fisette is running for reelection this year.
Liss said the Arlington United Taxi Operators (AUTO) union and the grassroots Tenants & Workers United prepared a 50-page report on ways to improve the local taxi ordinance, but it was ignored.
The AUTO union pleaded their case before the Arlington County Board in December, when elected officials were deciding whether to issue certificates for any new cabs in Arlington.