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Boston taxis: Treat cabbies as employees

Taxi cabs were parked on Atlantic Avenue by the South Station bus terminal.

David L. Ryan/Globe staff/file 2013

Taxi cabs were parked on Atlantic Avenue by the South Station bus terminal.

Marty Walsh vowed on the campaign trail to help taxi drivers, and there’s one simple way the mayor can make good on that promise. In the 1970s, the city began allowing taxi companies to classify cabbies as independent contractors instead of employees, depriving them of some legal protections. That opened the way for many of the abusive practices that now dominate the industry, a pattern of mistreatment that was documented by a series of Globe Spotlight reports last year. By requiring cab companies to treat drivers like employees again, the city could give taxi drivers more legal protections and the leverage to demand better pay and benefits.

Changing drivers’ status shouldn’t have to wait for the findings of a commission on the future of the taxi industry, which former mayor Tom Menino promised after last year’s Spotlight report but which has been slow to materialize. The commission, which is expected to take a broader look at all the regulations governing hackney service, is certainly needed. But the way drivers are paid warrants independent action.

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The commission, when it forms, will probably come under intense pressure from taxi medallion owners, who are increasingly alarmed by the competition from upstarts like Uber. In other cities, their first impulse has been to insist that regulators quash the interloper. In Cambridge, for instance, medallion owners backed a plan before the city’s licensing commission to effectively ban Uber or similar services. It’s important that Boston’s panel start from the understanding that its job is to make sure customers have the safest, cheapest, and most convenient options — not that any single class of business remain protected.

Indeed, if the long wait to seat a commission has a benefit, it’s that with every passing day, Uber and similar services are forcing taxi companies to do what decades of kvetching by customers and attempts at regulatory reform haven’t: They’re forcing the cab companies to improve, or face the real possibility that the value of their medallions may plunge. Since ensuring better service is what the commission should be seeking to do anyway, Walsh needn’t rush when the marketplace is already pushing toward the same outcome.

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