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What do we want?” screams a lone taxi driver, shaking a placard at a group of downtown Orlando office workers on lunch break.

“Justice!” a group of drivers yells back.

Nearby, in front of City Hall, veterans play patriotic songs as Orlando Police Department officers change the flags. Cops ask the group of more than 100 taxi drivers to be quiet and respectful. That’s not likely to happen.

Instead, drivers from more than a dozen companies dance to the music, chanting “Justice!” to the beat. One man in a red shirt and sunglasses sees several drivers taking a rest in the shade. “We’ve got to jump in line. We can’t eat!” he yells as he grabs them by their arms and draws them into the picket line.

“Keep moving, keep moving!” shouts another.

In business they are competitors, but here they are all on the same team.

“We’ve been suffering for a long time. A taxi driver is a taxi driver,” says Fanor Jeanbaptiste, an independent driver, also known as a “gypsy” by fellow drivers.

What unites them is a desire to see the end of what they deem a near-monopoly of the Orlando taxi business by Mears Transportation Group, fair working conditions and a permitting system controlled by the city that would give drivers from all companies an equal shot at making a living.

Mears controls 53 percent of all Orlando taxis, 70 airport shuttles, 207 Lincoln Town Cars and all International Drive trolleys. It also runs exclusive shuttles to Disney World and Port Canaveral. Just over 20 percent of the 3,400 vehicles from about 600 transportation companies permitted to operate at the Orlando International Airport are owned by Mears. Drivers say Mears owns so much of the game that it’s difficult for other companies to compete. At the same time, Mears drivers barely make a living due to the high cost of working as an independent contractor for Mears.

Drivers from the city’s six cab companies – including Mears – want to unionize but say they are fearful of what they’re up against. Many are afraid to come forward. They say that’s what Mears counts on.

That stronghold has allowed the private, family-owned company to squeeze drivers for higher fees and extra charges. But even as drivers complain of mistreatment and competitors fight for market share, Mears, which owns Checker, City and Yellow cabs and numerous specialty companies, remains the city’s darling, pulling in an added 23 permits – one permit allows a company to put one cab on the road – last year alone, more than any other company. And that’s the way the city wants it.

“If it was up to me,” says Orlando Police Department deputy chief Eugenio Bernal, who oversees the city’s taxi permits, “I’d have one company.”

Road to monopoly

Paul Mears got the business off the ground in 1939 with the purchase of three taxis. In the late 1940s, he jump-started the company’s reputation by becoming the primary cab service for military personnel at McCoy Air Force Base. The company joined the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce in 1957.

He also began buying out competitors. By the 1970s, following a growth spike with the opening of the Walt Disney World, the company had 200 cabs and was providing all of the taxi service in the city.

In 1976 one of Mears’ four sons, Paul Jr., made a business decision that changed the industry. He fired every taxi driver, then offered them positions as independent contractors. Drivers were required to lease their cars from Mears, which they had to fill with gas purchased from Mears (a requirement that no longer stands). They used Mears’ dispatch system.

But because they weren’t employees, drivers weren’t covered by worker’s compensation insurance and weren’t eligible for health insurance. The company paid for auto insurance that covered everyone who rode in the car except the driver. Drivers were on the hook for deductibles up to $800 if they caused a wreck.

Drivers revolted, formed a union and went on strike. They complained to the National Labor Relations Board that Mears owed them $1.5 million in back wages because, though considered independent contractors, they did not actually control the conditions under which they worked. The lawsuit was settled for $480,000 in the late 1980s.

By 1981, Rachel Pellino, owner of Town & Country Taxi, became frustrated and reported to the U.S. Justice Department that the city refused to let her expand her business. Pellino had asked the city for permits, but was told there were no permits and no permitting system. To that point, Orlando had simply allowed Mears to operate as the only taxi service, without challenge. The feds had a problem with that.

After it was chastised, the city put a system into place in 1982 that allowed other companies to seek permits. More than a dozen bought the permits, though many later went out of business.

Today, one permit is offered for every 1,000 of Orlando’s 231,400 residents. Additional permits are added based on the 18.2 million passengers that came through Orlando International Airport last year and the need for wheelchair-accessible cabs. The city is also required to ensure that 18 percent of the taxi companies operating within the city are minority-owned and 6 percent are owned by women.

With the addition of a permit system in 1982 came a series of taxi “traffic lights” at the airport. Each light marks a spot where a cab is signaled to advance from a waiting line. The number each company got was in direct proportion to the number of city permits they held, meaning Mears walked away with a majority of the airport lights. On top of that, because Mears was considered the primary taxi concession holder, the company won the right to control taxi starters, the individuals who hail the airport cabs and determine when cabs can pick up passengers.

Carolyn Fennell, a spokeswoman for the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, says that the light system has proven to be the most efficient way to ensure that cab companies share business based on the number of permits they hold.

“It ensures that each company gets their fair share,” she says. “It’s a unique system that cuts confusion about who comes up next.”

There are 100 lights at the airport; 52 are operated by Mears and the remaining 48 are split between five other companies.

In the meantime, Mears hit a period of large growth with the opening of the Orange County Convention Center in 1983, followed by expansions through much of the 1990s. Also in 1983, the company, which had until then only offered taxi service, purchased Airport Limousine Services. Mears added luxury sedans to its fleet in 1985, followed by the purchase of three motor coaches in 1988.

Then Mears got aggressive, forcing a shuttle operator named Howard Gumbs out of business in 1991. Gumbs and other small providers offered cheap shuttle transportation from Orlando International Airport to Kissimmee. Airport officials complained that Gumbs gave Orlando a bad image by aggressively soliciting customers. In 1991 all of the business was handed over to Mears.

Today Mears is larger than ever. It operates 635 cabs, 207 Town Cars, 70 shuttles, 211 motor coaches and 13 stretch limos. In addition to the 298 permits the company holds from the city of Orlando, Mears has dozens of exclusive contracts with resorts and hotels. They also operate in unincorporated Orange County, and the company’s Winter Park Taxi is the only licensed cab company in that city.

Maintaining control

Mears prospered under the city’s taxi permitting system, or lack thereof, for decades. But the same city permitting system that finally opened up the city to other cab companies also ensures that Mears maintains its grip on the taxi business.

Chapter 55 of Orlando’s municipal code, which dictates how permits are awarded, caters to the company. It stipulates that new permits will be handed out in proportion to a company’s existing number of permits, which means Mears will always receive a larger share of new permits.

Last year the city decided to add a new company to the mix. Quick Cab was given 20 permits to operate in the city following a drawing from a pool of 23 interested companies. Then another 43 permits were handed out to accommodate growth. Mears took 23 of those.

“They’re each allocated permits based on the percentage of permits they have,” says Bernal, who says having fewer taxi companies in the city makes it easier to police. “As far as I’m concerned it’s easier for us and more manageable.”

He is partial to Mears because it’s the only company that serves the population of the city outside the airport well (though all companies are required to ensure no more than 75 percent of their fleet is at the airport), and it’s also the only company to offer wheelchair-accessible cabs, which are cost-prohibitive for smaller companies.

Chris Mahadeo, president of the Florida Taxi Drivers Association, says it amounts to a good-ol’-boy system that has gone unchecked for decades.

“It’s about money and power. They pay everyone off,” he says.

Mears and its executives are heavy contributors to the powers that be. They showered more than $5,000 on Mayor Buddy Dyer’s 2008 re-election campaign. Other city council members also have received substantial support. In 2007 commissioner Patty Sheehan received $3,000 in campaign contributions and commissioner Sam Ings got $2,500. In 2006, Ings and commissioner Tony Ortiz each got $1,000 and commissioner candidates Belinda Ortiz and Mable Butler each received $500.

None of the company’s competitors would speak on the record because they say that Mears would use their political contacts to bully them. However, a representative of one company, who asked not to be named, says Mears’ contacts with local leaders give them a leg up.

“They’ve got bigger people in their back pocket,” says the representative, who notes that the company is well-connected to city and local transportation officials. “They get `contracts` through bullying `competitors and local officials`.”

Despite benefiting from a permitting system set up to its advantage, Mears says it doesn’t have the upper hand in securing contracts and permits. Roger Chapin, vice president of public affairs for Mears, says the company uses the same system that many other companies use to track open bids for new contracts.

Having a lobbyist in Tallahassee doesn’t hurt, though. Chapin says the lobbyist doesn’t deal with local items and last assisted with lobbying for an item related to a fuel charge for buses about five years ago. (He requested that Orlando Weekly refrain from contacting Larry Williams, their lobbyist and a lawyer with powerhouse Tallahassee law firm Akerman Senterfitt. Williams didn’t return calls for comment.)

Chapin acknowledges that Mears is the city’s “dominant player” but denies the situation amounts to a monopoly. He says Mears’ growth over the years stems from reliable service and its reputation.

Driving in the dark

Mears’ own drivers have been taking steps toward making a change. They pulled off a strike on March 10 and another on April 28. They’ve also tried to unionize themselves. Several former Mears drivers recently formed the Florida Taxi Drivers Association, hired a lawyer, complained to city officials and began planning additional strikes.

Many of the drivers are immigrants or minorities. They say Mears charges so much to lease a cab – about $830 a week for a regular sedan – that they work 16 hours a day yet are lucky to bring home $400 to $500 a week. The company calls them independent contractors, yet drivers say some have been fired for striking or speaking to the media.

Other city-permitted companies charge between $700-$760, an all-inclusive price, to lease a cab each week, but the bigger price difference is in the extra fees that only Mears charges. Mears drivers are charged 36 cents for each mile over 1,500 miles, 8 percent of prepaid fares, 6 percent of all fares paid by credit card, including driver gratuities, and $2.70 for each fare picked up at the airport. (While that entire fee goes to the airport, most companies include airport fees in the cab lease price.) Those extra fees often result in drivers owing several hundred dollars beyond the lease fee each week.

Cab drivers from other companies have been supportive of moves against Mears because they say Mears’ control reduces the amount they can earn. Mears’ decision to increase the cab lease at least $61 a week, only days after the city raised meter fees by about 10 percent in February – the first increase in three years – made it even more difficult for drivers. Mears spearheaded the effort to increase city meter rates by requesting higher meter fees, though the city didn’t acknowledge that until after it had been approved.

“They can’t make enough,” says Mark Reader, organizing director of the International Union of Journeymen and Allied Trades. “They pay $700 or more a week just to rent a cab then have to make money on top of that. The system isn’t working. Their voices aren’t being heard.”

Reader has been working with the drivers to help them join the union. When four of the taxi companies refused to voluntarily recognize the group because they are considered owner-operators, not employees, cab drivers hired an attorney to file a petition March 26 to unionize with the National Labor Relations Board. But the requests from Star, Town & Country, Ace and Diamond Taxi were denied by the NLRB because it didn’t consider the drivers company employees, eligible to join the union.

Reader says taxi drivers aren’t owner-operators because they can’t control the price of the fares charged. He says the company can take back cabs from drivers for a multitude of reasons, ranging from being unable to afford the weekly fee to speaking out. Mears drivers also aren’t allowed to own their own cabs, as drivers can in many other major cities; they aren’t even given copies of the contract they sign.

“The problem that drivers have is that Mears controls Disney. Mears controls the airport. Mears controls everything and the other guys just fall in line,” Reader says. “They’re very angry.”

Abraham Basha, co-president of the Florida Taxi Drivers Association, says Mears continues to intimidate drivers. He left the company last year and now drives for Ace.

“The biggest problem is the price of the cab is too high. You have to work seven days a week to pay them and try to make money for yourself. We’re asking the city to take care of that and fix the price,” he says. “We have no insurance or anything. Even after working 30 years I’ve seen `former drivers` become homeless. These are humans. They work so hard all these years but they can’t put anything away.”

In control

What the drivers really want is a medallion policy similar to the system in New York City and Miami, where individual drivers own licenses to operate a cab. Those licenses often become so valuable – sometimes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars – that drivers count on them for retirement.

They want Orlando and currently unregulated Orange County to regulate licenses and permits held by drivers, not companies, and they want an end to the light system at the airport, turning it into an “open stand,” or free industry.

One way Mears maximizes profits is permitting cabs only in certain areas or cities. Yellow or City Cab can pick up at the airport, but not drop off, for example. Checker Cab can pick up at Disney and along International Drive, but is banned from dropping passengers there and can only drop off at the airport. City Cab can drop at Universal Orlando but can’t pick up fares there.

Ultimately this means that most Mears drivers spend half their drives with an empty cab.

“They don’t get all the permits so they can control things,” says a Mears driver, who asked not to be named because he was worried about losing his cab. “They’re pretty smart. I don’t agree with the system, but it makes a lot of business sense for them.”

Drivers also have balked at the airport starters employed by Mears and argue for a “first in, first out” system where cabs from all companies form a single line and patrons take the next available cab. However, there is no legal standing to protest those guidelines because at one time, three out of the four city-permitted companies agreed to the Mears starters and the light system.

In a March letter to numerous city and county officials, the Florida Taxi Drivers Association argued that when there is no Mears taxi in the bullpen, starters wait instead of calling another company cab.

“The starter waits for a ‘No. 1’ company taxi to come. He does not call for another taxi to be sent at the dock. It is unfair and not in the best interest of the city,” the group writes in the letter.

They want independent operators, not Mears employees, to work as starters both at the airport and at Universal Orlando. And most of all, they want the city to step in and regulate cab lease fees.

“We are sweating blood, working outrageous hours for the company to benefit,” the letter reads. “Taxi drivers all around Orlando are uniting as a result of this demanding fairness and justice. We are tired of slaving and barely making ends meet.”

A driver might make $13,000 a year working 14-hour days without taking days off, they write, averaging $2.78 an hour, while Mears would bring in nearly $45,000 from those fares off one cab.

Chapin says that the system of permitting cabs only in some areas is the only way they can ensure top-notch service. Otherwise, the entire fleet would linger at the airport and only the city’s profitable areas would get served.

“After 70 years don’t you think we’ve found a way to maximize profits for us and the driver? The guy in the back of the cab is not paying us. The driver is paying us,” Chapin says. “I think it is safe then to assume that most independent business people are pleased with the income opportunities our services offer.”

The weekly lease rates, he points out, include access to the dispatch system, residential call volume, insurance, access to contracted properties, the vehicle, and service and maintenance, all of which is specified in the contract.

He doesn’t deny there’ve been complaints. “What employer doesn’t have complaints?” he asks.

Chapin says starters are neutral and utilize a process managed by a computer that dictates who gets the next cab. He says the first-in, first-out system isn’t feasible because then taxis would race back to the airport after dropping off passengers. The city doesn’t want that, he says.

“They want to control entry into the city of Orlando and manage companies, not individual taxi operators, which is why I believe they don’t have an open system like Orange County,” Chapin says.

Preparing for a fight

Back at the taxi drivers’ rally in front of City Hall, the sun is beating down, but the longer the strike continues, the more energetic the drivers become. One driver is excitedly speaking in Creole. Drivers are cheering and waving their arms.

Circling drivers are yelling, “Hey, hey; ho, ho; the monopoly has got to go!” as they hold up their bright yellow handmade signs.

“They’ve got money, we’ve got our voice!” screams one driver as cars along Orange Avenue slow and passersby crane their necks. Beads of sweat roll down their faces as they continue to march, joined by another dozen drivers arriving that afternoon.

“We work like slaves,” Nixon Francisque says. “We just want to be like every other city.”

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