John Misurale and Ed Kulenski, who are hoping to start their own cab company, set out Wednesday morning to collect signatures of students dissatisfied with Metro Taxi’s service, but among the nearly 150 signatures they recorded from frustrated customers were several names of frustrated drivers.

“Fifteen Metro drivers actually signed the petition, which I find pretty good,” said Misurale, who petitioned the state Department of Transportation last year for six new cab licenses to compete with what he called Metro Taxi’s near-monopoly of the New Haven cab market. “They’re in a position where if they want to go somewhere else, they can’t because there’s nowhere to go.”

But soon, both customers and drivers may have somewhere to go — a new company and a union.

As Misurale continues his nearly six-month quest to break into Metro’s dominance of the market, Metro drivers, who have long complained the company charges high leasing rates that cause them to work 18-hour days, may soon gain the right to form a union. A bill is moving through the state Legislature that would declare cab drivers employees and set a cap on the lease fees for cabs, and on March 13, Misurale will get a hearing before the DOT.

Many of Metro’s drivers have complained that the company’s monopoly hurts them as much as their customers, giving them few alternatives but to work for the company, which charges drivers $725 per week for its newest cars and provides no benefits. Though Metro drivers attempted to unionize last year, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that since they were independent contractors, the drivers could not unionize. But after testifying before the Legislature Monday in support of the bill, Metro drivers said they were hopeful they will be able to unionize after all.

“I think it will go through, and the labor board will have to change [its ruling],” said Donel Ballard, a Metro driver for 14 years who testified Monday.

Among the officials pledging to help the drivers, who were organized by the United Auto Workers, is Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who testified that the lease rates charged to drivers made cabs “sweatshops on wheels.”

Metro owner Bill Scalzi was out of town Wednesday, and representatives from his office refused to comment.

Though supportive of unions in general, Misurale said he questions how helpful they would be to smaller cab companies, where drivers do not pay such high lease rates for cabs. Increasing competition would improve service, Misurale said.

“A union could never hurt a situation. They can only make it better,” Misurale said. “The way it is now for Metro, I don’t think it could get any worse. But it would hurt smaller companies because we only have six drivers at most. I don’t know if we could form a union with six drivers.”

Misurale added he is hopeful with the signatures he collected he will be able to start his company.

“I think people want and need a new taxi company, as going by the 150 signatures we got,” said Misurale, who plans to collect more signatures in different locations throughout New Haven and West Haven every Wednesday until the hearing. “If the public wants it the DOT can’t say no. The DOT is there to do what the public wants it to do.”

But Alderman Jelani Lawson ’96, who petitioned to have Misurale’s hearing in New Haven rather than the usual Newington so that area residents could attend, said he still sees a long road ahead.

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