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Volunteer in a Taxi
Daniel Horwitz ’13 helped wage a successful 18-month campaign to help a group of Ethiopian immigrants achieve the American dream.
Being stuck in traffic in a cab to the airport to fly home for the Christmas holiday is everyone’s worst nightmare. When Daniel Horwitz, Class of 2013, found himself in that situation in December 2010, he struck up a conversation with his driver, an Ethiopian immigrant. He found himself listening incredulously as the man described a draconian permit system that made it almost impossible for Nashville’s cab drivers to earn a living wage. “Like everyone else in the city, I knew absolutely nothing about what was going on in the taxi industry,” Horwitz said. By the time he reached the airport, Horwitz was determined to find out why it was so difficult for Nashville’s cab drivers to make a living and to help them if he could.
As soon as he returned to Vanderbilt for the spring semester, Horwitz began researching the plight of Nashville’s cab drivers. One of his first discoveries was a 2008 study that revealed they were among the lowest paid workers in the entire United States. “In 2008, the average cab driver in Nashville earned just $2.40 an hour after expenses—less than a third of the current federal minimum wage,” he said. “Because taxi drivers are designated as independent contractors by their parent companies, they also don’t receive any benefits like health insurance or workers’ compensation.” Horwitz soon learned why their expenses were so high and their profits so low. While Nashville’s cab drivers owned their own vehicles and paid all the costs of insurance, maintenance and fuel, none of them owned the permits they needed to drive a cab for hire. Instead, all 585 of the taxi permits issued by the Metro Transportation Licensing Commission (MTLC), which oversees Nashville’s taxi industry, were owned by five companies that leased the permits to individual drivers at rates ranging from $165 to $205 per week. The companies themselves paid Metro Nashville just $255 a year for each permit. “These companies are completely unnecessary middlemen who provide no goods or services whatsoever to the people of Nashville,” Horwitz wrote in an editorial published in the Tennessean. “And they actually call themselves ‘franchising companies.’ They don’t own cabs or drive cabs. All they provide drivers is a company name and a dispatching service—plus the permit, of course, for an exorbitant weekly fee.”
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Adding to the drivers’ difficulties, the MTLC had capped the total number of taxi permits at 585—a number Horwitz believed was both arbitrary and too low. That meant that anyone who wanted to drive a cab was forced to lease a permit from one of the five existing companies that owned them. “The permits drivers were forced to lease represented their greatest expense by far,” Horwitz said. “Driving a cab is a good entry-level job for recent immigrants, but the fact that many drivers were new here and didn’t understand how the system worked also made them vulnerable to what mirrored an antitrust situation. The five existing cab companies had complete control of the market, and because of the city’s artificial cap on the number of permits, new competitors couldn’t enter it.”
An attorney from the local United Steelworkers union had helped Nashville’s taxi drivers in an attempt to organize in 2008. Through him, Horwitz connected with a group of 61 Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants who worked as cab drivers and hoped to start their own cab company. He soon concluded not only that the five companies that owned the taxi permits were charging drivers exorbitant fees, but also that the MTLC’s director, Brian McQuistion, was actively shielding these companies from new competition. “Many of the drivers were refugees who had been granted asylum here, and all were legal immigrants,” he said. “I can’t begin to tell you how frustrated they were to come to the land of opportunity believing that they’d be able to direct their own futures, only to find themselves at the mercy of five cab companies that were legally colluding to exploit them with help from a city official.”
Horwitz and attorney Lynn Agee, who served as special counsel to the United Steelworkers union in Nashville, agreed to work pro bono on the immigrants’ behalf. Together, they helped the drivers draft organizational bylaws, incorporate their company, and pool their resources to hire two local attorneys and a city lobbyist.
As a law student, Horwitz couldn’t offer legal assistance, but he supported the effort by launching a vigorous public relations campaign to raise awareness about an industry that he described in an editorial in the Tennessean as an “oligopolistic taxi cartel.” His goal was to pressure the MTLC to grant new permits to the Ethiopian and Eritrean drivers, who planned to name their new company “Volunteer Taxi.”
A frustrating year of delays followed, during which time it was reported in the media that drivers involved in trying to start the competing cab company were being fired and harassed by the existing companies.  Some drivers were subjected to lengthy vehicle inspections by officers flashing badges who appeared to be police. Finally, in December 2011—a year after Horwitz’s cab ride—the MTLC’s board voted to lift the permit cap and grant 61 additional permits to Volunteer Taxi.
But the battle didn’t end there. The board subjected the increase to several contingencies that could not be met until at least the following July. That spring, the drivers’ cause received a sudden boost from an unexpected source: A Huffington Post story published on April 6 revealed that the officers who had been harassing Nashville cab drivers were actually MTLC taxi inspectors who had illegally posed as police officers, complete with bogus badges and blue lights. On April 20, Metropolitan Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson published a scathing four-page memo to McQuistion online, detailing the MTLC’s illegal activities and McQuistion’s role in the MTLC staff’s misconduct. In June 2012, Horwitz published a second blistering editorial in the Tennessean lambasting the MTLC and calling for McQuistion to issue the additional taxi permits or be fired.  A month later, McQuistion stepped down from his position as MTLC director.
A new director was appointed, and shortly thereafter, a study that the Metro Nashville government had commissioned to gauge demand for taxi and limousine services in the city indicated a clear need for more taxi permits. On August 24, Volunteer Taxi finally became Nashville’s first driver-owned cab company when the MTLC voted to grant 120 additional taxi permits, 30 of which were immediately released to Volunteer Taxi. The company is slated to receive 30 additional permits.
Horwitz celebrated the hard-fought victory with Volunteer Taxi’s management at Mesob, an Ethiopian restaurant in Antioch. For Horwitz, the meal was a satisfying conclusion to a year and a half of vigorous campaigning for justice. He had helped 61 hard-working immigrants secure their own taxi permits, which—combined with their ability to negotiate a group medical insurance premium—meant roughly a $15,000 annual raise for each cab driver. By getting their own permits, “the drivers literally got a 100-percent raise overnight,” Horwitz said.  
For the drivers of Volunteer Taxi, the permits meant a chance to build a business and a new life in Nashville. As Shimenes Tafesse, vice president of Volunteer Taxi, told a City Paper reporter: “This is the American dream.”
Winter 2013 • Vanderbilt Law School
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