Ever take a cab from the Portland Jetport? If so, chances are that your driver was an African immigrant. The non-reserved taxi queue at the Jetport, where taxi drivers can wait in line for a fair without being reserved by phone, has been cornered by Somali and other African immigrants since 2001. Now, after a decade of service, the drivers are being told to leave.
After 9-11 airport travel plummeted. No one wanted the job of sitting in a cab at the airport for hours and hours waiting for a single $15 fare. This created an opportunity for new immigrants. Today over 100 immigrant workers make their living driving passengers to and from the jetport.
But that could all change. Airport Administrator Paul Bradbury and the Portland City Council Transportation Committee are exploring ways to open non-reserved jetport taxi permits up to a lottery.
Under a lottery system, every licensed taxi driver in town, including those working for large taxi companies, could enter the lottery for an $800 permit that would grant them access to the jetport queue. Every year a certain number of permits would go to lottery, leaving the permit holders uncertain of whether they will be able to keep the permit or not. Currently the permits are renewed yearly and do not expire, and when a driver chooses not to renew, that permit is exchanged on a first come, first served basis.
If the jetport taxi drivers lose their permits, then they will likely lose their cabs. Most cannot afford a dispatch system nor any advertising needed to survive as a taxi driver outside the jetport.
Since the permit is for the cab itself and not the driver, and because a cab needs to run 24-7 to survive, most permits support 2 or more drivers. The plan being discussed would completely eliminate 9 out of 49 permits immediately and put another 10 up to lottery. That could mean the loss of over 40 jobs for immigrant drivers who support their families on the low-wages they earn driving cabs.
But there is good news. The drivers are organizing. With the help of Southern Maine Workersâ€™ Center, African Diaspora Institute, and members of Interfaith Worker Justice of Southern Maine, the taxi drivers are meeting with City Councilors and Airport officials to negotiate. They have counter-proposals to offer that could both create new permits for drivers across the city and save the jobs of the current drivers.
The drivers have already gained ground. Paul Bradburyâ€™s plan has already been mitigated, and the Transportation Committee is reluctant to rush into a decision. This is a sign that the drivers are showing their power, and that Portland officials are listening.
If you would like to help, contact the Southern Maine Workersâ€™ Center at 207-200-SMWC (7692) or firstname.lastname@example.org.