On Tuesday, June 29, Alemshet Workie and about ninety other drivers angrily disconnected themselves from Freedom Cab -- at least for now. In a demonstration at Freedom's headquarters, a small office near the train tracks in northeast Denver, drivers formed a caravan along Smith Road and, one by one, removed dispatch equipment and meters from their taxis.
"We care about the customer," the drivers chanted, huddled in an excited mass in Freedom's parking lot while company managers watched from behind locked doors. Many protesters carried signs, hand-lettered in labored scrawls, that condensed the drivers' gripes. "Don't raise fare for customer. Make marketing. Lower leases NOW," read one.
The protest followed a week of efforts by cab drivers to meet with Freedom's owners and managers to discuss proposed changes to the drivers' lease arrangements with the company. Under the new system, the drivers would pay nearly $300 a week -- an increase of $50 over the past six months -- for dispatch services, use of the company name and insurance. And although Freedom's rates are the lowest of the three Denver cab companies -- Yellow Cab and Metro are the top dogs -- its drivers say they don't get their money's worth. All of Freedom's 115 drivers own their own vehicles and must pay for gas and maintenance. The protesting cabbies claim that Freedom, which owns the operating permits issued by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, raises lease and meter rates without explanation, hires drivers when there's no demand for them, and ignores safety concerns and suggestions from the fleet.
"We know a driver who was in trouble and he radioed Freedom for help," says Samuel Berhe, a twenty-year-old driver from Eritrea who graduated from the University of Colorado this past May. "The dispatcher said, 'Well, you've got a cell phone. Why don't you call 911? I'm too busy.' At Metro, you have computers, GPS, a panic button built in to protect the driver. Here we have nothing."
"By the customer we are okay, but by the company we die," adds Alemshet, who spent the day helping drivers free their cabs from the Freedom mainframe. "We are the ones who drive the city to the airport and give the service. We are the ones who meet the tourists and show them the town. We are the ones who take the blood to the hospital in the back of our cars. We are the ones who make the city very beautiful.
"Do the cab companies care?" he continues. "They don't care how many drivers they get, because they all pay them the money. Why? For what? We pay the gas, fix the car. If we pay them more money, are they going to do more to help us?"
Freedom manager Haile Gerbe-Michael refused to negotiate with the drivers that day, nor did he meet with them the following morning, when a group of about eighty cabbies returned to Freedom's headquarters. Through his lawyer, Jerry Stevens, he offered to set up a later meeting with an appointed group of drivers as well as Adam Bartolik, president of the new trade group ProTAXI, which represents many drivers. The long-term solution is more likely to come through dialogue than emotional protests, according to Stevens.
"I figured out that this kind of approach didn't work when I was in college," he says. "When you push for something like this, you put yourself on one side of a line. But that line pushes back. These guys are talking about not making enough money to support their families. What are they going to do if they lose this job because of what goes on today?"
Freedom's dissenting drivers met with representatives of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, which licenses taxi companies in the state, to discuss the possibility of forming their own business, a process that could take months; in the meantime, they're collecting money to hire a lawyer for possible legal action against Freedom.
The divide between Freedom's management and drivers is just one of the problems currently plaguing the cabbie community. In early June, more than ninety drivers attended a forum hosted by Denver City Council president Elbra Wedgeworth and Councilwoman Judy Montero in which they aired a panoply of gripes about their profession. For more than an hour, drivers lamented the long holding times at the airport, poor treatment by police and ground-transportation agents, and a licensing system that makes it too easy for inexperienced drivers to get on the road, causing an overabundance of cabbies competing for a limited number of customers.
"We thought it was long overdue for a review of this whole profession," says Wedgeworth. "There hasn't been a comprehensive look at cab companies for a long time. A lot of the drivers, particularly those from Africa, are U.S. citizens, and they love this country, but they just want to be treated fairly. A lot of the individuals didn't think they had a voice, but after a while they just started talking, and they had a lot to say."
Wedgeworth and Montero plan to meet with officials from the PUC, the Denver Police Department and DIA, as well as the managers and owners of the three major cab companies, to address drivers' concerns. In the meantime, Alemshet and his compatriots are holding out hope that they can reach an agreement with Freedom. Alemshet insists that they won't return to work until things improve.
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"At least I have stood up for myself, and I always will have a friend who helps me if I need some help with money or something," he says. "Our people come together when something bad happens to help each other, and that's what we are going to do until this is resolved."
Last week, the cabbie community came together to monitor progress in the first-degree murder case against Amber Torrez, the nineteen-year-old Denver woman accused of stabbing Freedom driver Mesfin Gezahgn to death on March 29. About ten drivers were in the room when Torrez appeared briefly in Denver District Court on Monday, June 28; the scheduled preliminary hearing was delayed until early August. At that time, the court will also hear evidence in another first-degree murder case, one that charges Torrez with killing John Hand, the founder of Colorado Free University, who was stabbed to death in Capitol Hill on March 28.
In police interviews, Torrez has confessed to both crimes; she's facing life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, perhaps even the death penalty. Gezahgn's friends say they plan to be there every step of the way. "He would be there for us," Alemshet says. "He was everybody's friend."