Cabbies seek pay hike, citing gas expenses

Chando Souffant spends $930 a month in tolls ferrying passengers to Logan Airport and back. Fellow cab driver Valville August's wife does all the work at home on her own, with August working 16 to 17 hours a day. And Pierre Duchemin is thinking about getting out of the business altogether.

"This is the life style," Souffant says. "You're working for nothing. They call us ambassadors of the city, but they treat us like a slave."

Most taxi cab drivers in the city work 7 days a week, at 16 to 17 hours a day, the drivers say.

"Those who want to make money," Duchemin says.

"That's the only way you can survive," Souffant, 41, says.

"We don't have any leisure time to spend with our family," he adds, as he struggles to recall the ages of his three girls - 15, 11 and 14.

Having organized into a union, under the United Steelworkers, Boston cab drivers are now pushing for a meter rate increase, citing the rising costs of gas, food and housing. Classified as independent contractors, they don't have health care, even though the state now demands it, says Duchemin, 52, who like the others assembled for a joint interview at the union's headquarters this week, is Haitian.

Over 300 cab drivers attended a June 24 hearing at Roxbury Community College to press for the rate increase. The city has 3,800 taxi drivers, many of them immigrants.

"These guys bring a lot of money to the city every day," said Emile Milou, a union representative. "They bring people back home. They bring their grandmother to the doctors."

The increase would be the first since 2002, when gas was about $1.50 a gallon. Now, as that price creeps towards $5 a gallon, cab drivers say they want the starting fare to increase by 50 cents to $2.75, and the first mile's fare to go to $5.90 from $4.35.

First mile fares vary in other cities, from $6.85 in Chicago to $5.10 in New York and $4.90 in San Francisco, according to the union. In Boston's surrounding communities, Chelsea and Cambridge's first mile fare clocks in at $4.75, while Somerville and Dedham's fares are $3.10.

A fare increase must be approved by the Boston Police Department, regulating the industry through the Hackney Carriage Rule and Regulations.

Duchemin says out of a 12-hour shift this past Monday, when he was up at 4:30 a.m., only $15 will go towards him, with $81 going to the owner and other money going towards gas and other taxi fees.

"I might go home empty-handed," he says glumly.

On average, drivers are earning between $3.44 and $5.63 an hour, including tips, according to labor activists. How much they take home varies widely from driver to driver, from $400 to $600 a week.

"I can't afford to stay a taxi cab driver in the city anymore," says Iriel Gerard Boursiquot, 69, who has worked as a taxi cab driver for 25 years. He emigrated from Haiti in 1964 and now lives in Milton.

During the last recession in the 1990s, the Boston Globe reported that about 100 Boston cabdrivers were living in their taxis, homeless, with some staying in idling cabs to keep warm.

To be sure, conditions have somewhat improved.

But this past May, Duchemin was kicked out of the Dorchester apartment he was sharing with two other cab drivers because they couldn't make the rent. He now rents elsewhere in Dorchester.

Cab drivers are also calling for reform of the Hackney Carriage Rule and Regulations, referred to by drivers as "Hackney."

They are hoping Mayor Thomas Menino will set up a task force to look into the division, which some drivers call dysfunctional and unresponsive. They also say police are disrespectful and harass them.

"You're always wrong" is the refrain he gets from the division, Boursiquot says. "I ask them to give me respect, that's it."

The call for reform has drawn support from City Council President Maureen Feeney.

In a June 23 letter to Police Commissioner Edward Davis, Feeney wrote, "The taxicab industry has been described as 'sharecropping on wheels' with drivers forced to pay thousands of dollars in fees before they can earn any salary. This system penalizes both drivers and passengers. It is time for a comprehensive look at our taxi cab system in Boston."

Feeney also said her office had received reports of illegal and out-of-town cabs operating in the city, with illegal kickbacks from hotel doormen. "In short, rising gas prices demand immediate relief for cab drivers in the form of a meter rate increase," she wrote. "However, more serious reforms are needed to ensure that the rights of both taxi cab drivers and passengers are protected in the long term."

A Davis spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter.