Something rare happened last week. Business interests squared off against labor interests in City Hall, and business won.
I know you think it’s a joke and you’re waiting for a punch line. But it’s true. It really happened last Wednesday in downtown Los Angeles. The City Council’s transportation committee voted 5-0 in favor of a measure backed by taxicab companies. In so doing, the committee essentially snubbed the usual coalition of labor unions, environmentalists and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, all of whom argued against the companies.
Stop and think about that. I mean, the UCLA football team last won a national championship in 1954 and the last time a motorist was able to drive at the speed limit on an L.A. freeway was in 1969, but when was the last time business beat labor in City Hall? (I don’t know for sure, but I think they were wearing double-knit leisure suits.)
The issue last week boiled down to whether the city should renew the taxicab companies’ franchises for five years or for two years or less. (All of the city taxi franchises expire on Dec. 31.) The companies wanted five years; labor wanted two years or less.
The labor-environmental coalition wanted the short renewal span to do a study that would probably become the basis of an argument for changing the way the taxi system works in Los Angeles. The group would not admit that it is aiming to unionize the taxi drivers. That’s OK. I’ll never admit that I’m dreaming of winning the lottery.
And the labor coalition members made their usual dramatic and effective testimonials to the transportation committee on Wednesday afternoon. Several alleged that cab drivers work long hours for low pay. One called it a "rolling sweat shop" and another said it was time to end L.A.’s "corrupt, abusive, exploitive system." One said the "SEIU is firmly behind this effort." People in the audience clapped and cheered them.
But then something odd happened. When it was time for the taxi businesses to make their pitch to the committee, they didn’t line up the usual dark-suited businesspeople to make numbers-based arguments and to spout public-policy philosophies. Well, OK, there were a couple of those, but mostly real people testified. There were taxi drivers who supported the five-year renewal. A disabled man who had breathing problems and a disabled senior woman who lives in South Central Los Angeles gave passionate but reasoned explanations of why the five-year renewal would benefit them. People in the audience clapped and cheered them on.
In short, the business people finally did what the labor folks have done for years: They turned the 15-minute testimonial time into a bit of theater, complete with emotions and passionate positions. (Note to business community: This is how you do it.)
One argument made by the taxi businesses was particularly powerful, considering the oh-so eco-conscious City Council. They said they need the stability of a five-year renewal to get loans so the taxi owners can buy hybrids and CNG taxicabs to help Los Angeles get greener.
Another strong argument was that unless the city renewed the franchises for five years, it would forego $2.5 million in federal funds to buy 50 new taxi vans equipped to handle the handicapped. Actually, some city staff types hemmed and hawed on that point – maybe the money would be imperiled, maybe not – but Amir Sedadi put an end to that. He testified that he checked with the feds, and the city would indeed lose the money if the renewal were for a short term. (Points for bravery go to Sedadi, the assistant general manager of the city’s transportation department, since his statement undercut the mayor’s position.)
In the end, the transportation committee members were in a box. Most probably wanted to vote with labor, but they couldn’t turn down $2.5 million for the handicapped or slow down the greening of the taxi fleet or go against that disabled senior woman from South L.A. They had to give the business interests what they wanted.
Actually, there may be a punch line yet to come. That’s because the taxicab question is scheduled to go before the full City Council soon. Arms are sure to have been twisted by then.
But who knows? Maybe, in a true rarity, the full council will go against the labor-environmental coalition and vote for the business interests.
And maybe Angelenos can drive at the speed limit on the 405 this evening.