Recent taxicab news in Chicago has been fairly tame: Cabdrivers request a fare hike. The mayor announces he wants to lease and auction no more than 100 cab medallions to raise $14 million for city coffers.
But there was a big hubbub that emerged nearly three decades ago when the late Mayor Harold Washington pushed to expand the number of city medallions, or taxicab licenses, enabling drivers to be their own bosses rather than work for a company.
Washington died 25 years ago this Sunday, and what I recall of the mayor was his concern for the average man. The taxicab issue, perhaps a bit modest, was one of many examples.
To mark the anniversary, I talked to Brenetta Howell Barrett, who was the commissioner of the city's Department of Consumer Services, now part of the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.
"Thousands of new medallions were made available during the Washington administration," said Barrett, 80, who lives on the Near West Side. "There was a broad section of minority groups that couldn't get medallions before Harold. They were worth about $30,000, and our department organized a lottery for people who wanted them."
Let's back up a bit for some history: For decades, two muscular cab companies had controlled about 80 percent of the city's 4,600 taxi licenses.
Some drivers had wanted to open up the cab industry before. Many had complained about working long hours and barely making a living.
But people with accumulated power rarely give it up voluntarily. The owners warned that offering up more medallions would deregulate the city's cab industry, making it vulnerable to unsafe "gypsy" operators.
When one of the owners said the city was already doing a poor job policing taxicab abuses by independent drivers operating illegally, Washington sarcastically praised the owner's "good citizenship" and said the city would step up policing efforts on all taxicabs and limousines.
Barrett said she repeatedly met with the companies' attorneys.
"They were reluctant to accept the fact that they wouldn't have a monopoly," she said. "It meant having taxis that would go to all parts of the city — and that was very important.
"Once my office had received a call from the late Judge R. Eugene Pincham (an African-American) because a taxi driver who was not a person of a color passed him by when he was frantically trying to flag a cab."
The taxi issue was gaining momentum, but then Washington died.
Afterward, factions of aldermen battled — mostly over who would be the heirs to Washington's legacy — but in January 1988, the City Council voted to increase the number of taxicab licenses. The lottery was held in April.
"Mayor (Eugene) Sawyer picked up the threads of what was going on," Barrett said. "Washington was intent on making sure the new medallion holders understood what was required of them, and that remained a part of the plan."
She said he wanted the drivers to view themselves as entrepreneurs. The city brought in experts for training sessions. They gave lessons on the types of insurance that was needed, and the best bookkeeping practices for paying taxes. Physicians discussed health problems that might arise from sitting for 12 to 14 hours a day without getting up.
"Sometimes, the drivers wouldn't eat the right kinds of foods or maybe they didn't take enough restroom breaks because they were afraid they'd miss fares," Barrett said. "This may seem insignificant now, but it was valuable information given by people who appreciated Harold and donated their time. The goal was to help the cabdrivers be successful."
Barrett said her department, which was also responsible for servicing and inspecting the cabs, had an arrangement with the hospitality departments of the city's community colleges. They published a booklet called "My Kind of Cabbie," an official training manual explaining not only how to operate the vehicles but also how to treat passengers.
"We knew cabdrivers did a lot of business picking up passengers at the airport," Barrett said. "For visitors to the city, the cabdriver might be the first person to give you a sense of the city. It was important to make a good first impression."
Today, there are about 6,674 active medallions; 1,790 belong to individual operators, said Jennifer Lipford, spokeswoman for the city Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.
"It was an effort that made quite a difference in the lives of drivers," Barrett said. "It gives you an idea of what Harold meant when he said he wanted a city that worked for everyone."