For cabbies, idealism is put to the test during the ongoing Marriott strike. (Courtesy photo/Douglas O'Connor)

One step over the (picket) line

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If anyone happened to be surprised by the SFMTA’s recent decision to limit the number of taxicabs allowed to work at SFO to only those with paid medallions and wanted to know how the transit agency could pit cab drivers against each other so easily, you wouldn’t have to look much farther than Powell and Post. Or Fourth and Market. Or Howard and Third. Or New Montgomery and Market.

At each of these locations you’ll find a hotel owned by the multinational hospitality company Marriott International. And, over the past three weeks, you’ll see two things that shouldn’t be happening simultaneously: workers on strike, and taxis in the hotel cabstands, waiting for fares.

Last Wednesday, after picking up Veterans 233 from the National yard, I head out into The City, making the usual rounds. I cruise through the Mission, drop down into SoMa, check on Caltrain and then meander up the Embarcadero to investigate the Ferry Building and downtown hotels.

In Union Square, the picketers outside the St. Francis have upped the ante, making a full-on ruckus outside the erstwhile opulent hotel. Besides the usual bullhorn-led chants, they’re stomping, banging, rattling and creating a spectacular percussive racket. It’s awe-inspiring. But then, spotting a bunch of cabs queued up along Powell Street, as if business as usual, I’m immediately disgusted by my fellow cab drivers.

Yeah, I know, these scab cabs will make the same old argument: they’re just trying to feed their families and, for many, pay for overpriced medallions that they were hoodwinked into buying by the SFMTA. But these striking hotel workers are also trying to feed their families, hold onto their jobs and secure the bare minimum of benefits.

So who’s more right?

While idealism is often a luxury of the privileged classes, the statement emblazoned on the picketers’ signs: “One Job Should Be Enough” seems like an idea most taxi drivers can identify with, since so many of us have been forced to look for supplemental employment while continuing to drive a taxi.

And yeah, as the strike entered its third week, it’s painful to lose access to seven major hotels in The City.

I get it. But without solidarity, we are powerless. Without collective bargaining, agencies like the SFMTA will continue to run roughshod over us until they’ve finally accomplished their ultimate goal, which seems to be eliminating taxis from the streets of San Francisco.

Even when you’re committed to the plights of workers everywhere, figuring out how to navigate these delicate situations can get super confusing.

On Thursday night, I’m at the Orpheum when a woman approaching my cab says something to her friends about taking a taxi to the St. Francis hotel. As I struggle to think of the protocol for dropping people off at hotels with striking workers, luck comes to my aid and a young couple going out to the Sunset beats her to my door handle.

The next afternoon, though, I pick up a family at Alcatraz Landing going to the Marriott Marquis. En route, the strike comes up in conversation. The father mentions how awkward it’s been staying there, even though, as the mom puts it, “most of the normal workers are still around.”

I try to explain to them what the workers want: better pay, job security and protection from harassment. Since they seem receptive to these demands, as we approach the hotel on Mission, I consider asking the family to disembark at the front of the driveway, to avoid going all the way through and facing the strikers on Fourth. But there’s so much commotion, it’s impossible to make a quick getaway. Instead, I pull up to the entrance.

Once clear, I lock my doors and leave my toplight on while exiting.

Around 4 a.m. on Sunday morning, my idealism is put to the ultimate test.

After driving empty for an hour, I’m cruising past the Gold Club, about to turn onto Hawthorne, when I hear someone shout.

“Hey, stop!”

Just past the gentleman’s club, the doorman from the W. is waving. Next to him is a woman. With suitcases. They are far from the strikers on Third.

Stuck at the light, I only have a few seconds to make a decision …

Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. His zine “Behind the Wheel” is available at bookstores throughout The City. Write to Kelly at piltdownlad@gmail.com or visit www.idrivesf.com

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