Elegy for a Cabbie

A veteran driver who fought the Nazis in Europe and the bosses at home

"Leo would say what he thought. He didn't care who was listening. So the union's flunkies would come after him, and a few times I had to step between him and them," recalled Paul Friedman, a tough Vietnam War veteran and one of the coalition's founders.

Of course, hacking was dangerous enough already. A dozen times Lazarus was robbed. A good friend was shot dead on the job. "I would tell them, 'Put the gun away, here's the money,'" he said. But when cabbies reported the incidents to their garage, the question was about the health of the taxi, not their own. "All they wanted to know was, 'Is the cab OK?'"

Righteous anger about those encounters and the union's laissez-faire attitude about member gripes in general boosted the dissidents' reputation, and they decided to run a candidate against Van Arsdale in 1971. They chose Lazarus. No one gave him much of a chance, but when the ballots were counted, he had 37 percent, enough to give the old guard a good scare. And if they lost that race, Lazarus and his cohorts won other, smaller battles, forcing the union to hold elections for shop committees and to go to bat for those unjustly fired. When the union echoed the fleet owners' line that their biggest problem was the gypsy cabs working the streets where most cabbies feared to go, Lazarus stood up to object. "They're workers just like us, trying to make a buck," he said to applause at another hectic meeting.

photo: Holly Northrop/hnorthrop.com

The fleet owners eventually figured out a way around both the union and its dissidents, leasing their cabs to drivers who paid up-front fees for the privilege of driving. Local 3036 faded away as the older generation retired and the militants went on to other pursuits. But in the 1980s, as immigrants from Pakistan to Haiti took over the now leaner and tougher jobs, Lazarus was still driving. And when he couldn't push a hack anymore, he helped show a new crop of industry dissidents how to do it.

"When I first started organizing in 1996, Leo and Steve Seltzer, another longtime driver, were my guides to the garages," said Bhairavai Desai, co-founder and executive director of the New York Taxi Workers' Alliance, which led a one-day taxi strike in 1998. "We used to stand outside on the street talking to drivers. He'd be out there with such amazing energy and confidence. You'd see this tall skinny man, and if you only heard his voice and his energy, you would've thought he was a man in his twenties. I feel blessed to have started out with him."

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