George Knapp: Cabbies deserve a fair deal, in spite of themselves

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George Knapp

Displaying all the charm and grace for which they are so widely known, Las Vegas cab drivers have started their own unofficial media campaign in support of the driver strike against Yellow-Checker-Star, the second-largest taxi company in town. Those silver-tongued cabbies, masters of nuance and subtlety, are wooing local reporters by threatening to cut the nuts off of any journalist who does not cover the strike, every hour of every day, in every newscast and newspaper, every waking moment.

You think I’m exaggerating? You should see the e-mails I received last week while I was on vacation, accusing me of being in the pockets of the cab companies, being league with the Mafia and calling me out for deserting drivers in their hour of need. Basically, the drivers were pissed because they had not seen any news coverage about their strike on TV. The reason they did not see such coverage is because they did not actually watch any newscasts. Contrary to their assumptions, the strike had been covered repeatedly on television, even before the labor action began. Undaunted by this surprising revelation, a few drivers left caustic messages on my phone in which they threatened to tell the world who really owns local newspapers and TV stations, to spill the beans about my own Mafia ties and to reveal “all kinds of dirt about you pricks.”

Like I said, what charmers. It’s almost as if Noel Coward or Oscar Wilde had moved to town to drive taxis. There’s nothing quite like overt threats if you want to win friends in the journalism community. Being called a prick always makes me want to run right out and write something nice about the name-caller.

It wouldn’t matter if every newscast in town began with in-depth coverage of the taxi strike, every night, on every channel. We could report that 99 percent of all cabbies are honest, salt-of-the-earth do-gooders worthy of sainthood. We could bash the taxi companies and praise the drivers as being handsome, philanthropic stud-muffins, and still the cabbies would bitch. That’s because bitching is what cabbies do. They grouse and grumble and gripe and groan. They lament. They bellyache. They complain, pitch fits, flip birds, fret, curse, yell and cry in their beer.

Oh, and they threaten.

The well-known tendency of Las Vegas cab drivers to bitch about every frickin’ thing in the world could be one reason they were not taken seriously in their threat to go on strike. Cab company owners could hardly be blamed for thinking the latest round of gripes was just the cabbies letting off steam, which seems to be a round-the-clock preoccupation for many of them. And I am guessing the taxi companies figured the public would also see it this way and not give much credence to the issues the drivers have raised.

That’s too bad, because it sure seems like the drivers are right.

Driving a taxi is no longer a good job. Most of these guys work 12-hour shifts to barely make ends meet. As mentioned in this space in the past, a lot of them have become outright crooks, stealing from the public by long-hauling unsuspecting visitors, a practice that is certainly tolerated if not encouraged by the companies, which largely look the other way. The companies, by the way, are making hefty profits these days while drivers have a tough time putting food on the table. Although drivers write to me and say they would never long-haul, in the same letter they defend the practice because they see it as necessary for their personal survival as they compete against other unscrupulous co-workers.

Driving a cab is a dangerous, thankless job. Imagine navigating the traffic of the Strip all day or night, dealing with the drunks, nutballs and gun-toting pimps. The strike has provided proof of sorts for what the cabbies have been saying for a long time — there are too many cabs on the streets. The proof? Y-C-S took about 250 or so of its cabs off the street because of the strike, and yet there have been no problems for taxi passengers. That suggests to me we have at least 250 cabs too many on the streets, which is exactly what the drivers have alleged for years.

Drivers deserve to make a decent living, and the cab companies need to open up their hefty wallets a bit to make that happen. I was prepared to write a more detailed and impassioned account of the cabbies’ plight, but that was before I listened to all of my recorded messages. By coming out in support of the striking drivers, I’m probably inviting another onslaught of cabbie charm.

I wasn’t going to write anything about the weird story about how SNWA boss Pat Mulroy was supposedly “on the short list” to become secretary of the Interior, a story that ran two weeks after someone else got the job. I have no doubt that Mulroy wanted the job, and I even think she could have done well. After all, she had no experience whatsoever with water issues when she was given the top post at the Water District. Plus, she’s been telling the BLM what to do for years already, so she’d have a head start in dealing with land-use issues.

But to say the White House took a hard look at Mulroy for the Interior job is stretching it a bit. One phone call does not quite equate as a full-court press.

And I find it hard to believe that the thin-skinned Mulroy, who bristles when someone challenges her decisions, would enjoy a job in which she faced actual oversight from elected officials who were not beholden to her, as are most of the electeds who “oversee” the water agencies here at home. Mulroy rarely faces tough questions and pretty much does what she wants (including frequent travel around the globe), which is one reason our community is in such a bad situation water-wise.

This question of proper oversight has now been raised at the state Legislature. As reported here a few weeks ago, Sen. Mike Roberson has introduced legislation to put Mulroy’s water agencies under the control of the Public Utilities Commission. To my utter amazement and delight, Roberson has put together a coalition of other lawmakers, co-sponsors who are brave enough to take on the politically powerful water czar, including senators David Parks, Mark Manendo and Barbara Cegavske.

Mulroy is fighting back, arguing that it is far better to have local elected officials control our water rates rather than some far-away board, omitting the fact that those local elected officials succumb to Mulroy’s every wish, such as approving billions of dollars in water-project spending that required a 300 percent hike in water rates for many local businesses just last summer.

What Mulroy fears is a body of overseers who are not intimidated by the developers and casinos owners who have always been her muscle. Such a board might decide that raising water rates to pay for a $15 billion water grab in rural Nevada is a pretty crummy thing to do to local water customers. Such oversight would be even less fun than facing hostile members of Congress.

GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8. Reach him at gknapp@klastv.com.