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LIC limousine drivers stage strike for better wages

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While bus drivers waved placards and walked the picket line last week, a smaller but more revolutionary strike was being waged by a unionized force of limousine drivers who decided to play cards rather than pick up passengers.

A group of limousine drivers for Prime Time Transportation in Long Island City went on strike in February, demanding change in an industry they say has exploited immigrant drivers for too long with long hours and low pay.

“They’re not reporting to work,” said Kevin Lynch, the director of organization for District 15 of the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers, in a phone interview last Thursday. “Twenty-five of them are playing cards in the office here” at the union’s headquarters in Elmhurst, he continued.

The striking drivers claim they can barely eke out a living after paying exorbitant fees and penalties to operate their cars. They were scheduled to hold a rally Wednesday evening near the bull sculpture in Lower Manhattan to drum up support for immigrant limousine drivers to receive “dignity and a living wage,” according to a flier.

But the company’s attorney said the union is putting out propaganda that does not reflect the true relationship between drivers and Prime Time.

Rabbi Michael Feinberg, the executive director of the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition, which helped organize Wednesday’s rally, said the drivers’ struggle reflects a more widespread problem in the so-called black car industry.

“It’s really something of an obscenity that you have low-wage immigrant workers making something like $20,000 a year, barely eking out an existence, driving around some of the wealthiest high-paid people in the city,” he said.

Much of the drivers’ work comes from large corporations in Manhattan.

The drivers had voted to join the Machinist Union more than two years ago but have yet to negotiate a contract with the company. Lynch said the strike will continue until the drivers get an agreement.

“We have not collected any dues from them, and we won’t until they get the benefits of a union contract,” Lynch said.

Contract negotiations only began with Prime Time Feb. 26, when the union presented contract demands that are now being considered by the company.

The strike represents a bold step for an industry in which drivers are typically considered to be independent contractors rather than actual employees of the companies they serve.

A 1998 decision by the National Labor Relations Board, which was upheld last year by the State Supreme Court in Queens, determined that the drivers at Prime Time are indeed employees within the meaning of the National Labor Relations Act — a decision the company still disputes.

“Prime Time considers these people to be independent contractors,” said Cliff Chaiet, the attorney representing Prime Time. “But until such time as a court overrules the Labor Board, we are obviously bound to pay attention to the Labor Board ruling, which means that we are obligated to bargain with the union as the representative of the drivers.”

Chaiet said the drivers had not approached management to begin brokering an agreement until recently.

“There was not so much a refusal to bargain as a lack of communication entirely,” Chaiet said. “You’ve got to ask the union why they sat on their hands for 2 1/2 years.”

The strike has failed to shut down the company, which Chaiet said is still operating with a majority of its drivers responding to calls.

“Less than a third of the company’s drivers are refusing to drive,” Chaiet said. “So in effect the company is still operating and we’ve seen a number of the people who were initially refusing to drive come back to work.”

The drivers claim the management favors some drivers, preventing many from earning a living despite long hours on the job.

“We want to be unionized because the owner is taking a lot of advantage of these drivers who are immigrant people,” said Jahangir Kabir of Queens Village, a driver with the company. “The owner has favorite people who make double, triple the amount of us. Those people make more than us, but they don’t work that many hours.”

The company denied such claims.

“There is no favoritism on assignments,” Chaiet said. “They all have computers, they all have radios, they can all listen to the work that is put out on the air. The drivers that hustle will make a very good living, and the drivers that sit and wait for things to drop in their lap will not.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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