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The real money in the Toronto taxi business was never made behind the wheel of a car or dispatcher's microphone.

Instead, it was amassed through meetings with politicians, timely loans and visits to funerals, where the widow of a recently deceased cabbie might be persuaded to sell her husband's taxi licence.

These licences -- now worth more than $115,000 -- have proven to be the only item of actual value in the notoriously tough business. Their price tag is based on a strange mix of politics and economics.

"It's a licence to print money," says Eugene Meikle, a Toronto driver who waged a years-long reform campaign, arguing that the city's licensing system had been hijacked by private interests who had used it to skim off money at the expense of drivers and the fare-paying public.

Now, Mr. Meikle's battle is played out on a new stage as Canada's biggest airport finds itself gripped by a dispute familiar to anyone who has ever studied the taxi industry.

At issue are taxi and limousine licences issued by the Greater Toronto Airports Authority. There are just 627 of them, and they sell on the open market for as much as $300,000. Their value is based on the fact that they represent a guaranteed position in an artificially controlled industry.

The battle is over who should get to use the licences -- the drivers, or limousine companies. The GTAA has always given the licences to the companies, arguing that it streamlines their job, and makes it easier to ensure quality of service. The drivers say the licences should be theirs. Until this week, the dispute has been waged behind closed doors. But when the GTAA announced that 60 new licences would be handed out to the companies, the drivers brought the dispute to national attention by blockading roads to the airport, causing traffic backups so severe that many passengers missed their flights.

The angry public response has obscured the critical points that underlie the dispute.

"I'm sorry that people have missed flights," one driver said. "But no one ever listens. We're being ripped off, and the public is being ripped off. The whole system is wrong."

Since drivers are unable to get a licence of their own, they are forced to rent one from someone who does. Most drivers report paying about $2,800 a month -- nearly five times what the licence holder pays to the GTAA. And then there are the "cookies" -- extra benefits that the plate holders can extract for the use of their plate. Some drivers report that if they wanted a plate, they had to buy a car from the holder, or join a particular dispatch service.

"We do all the work, and they make all the money for doing nothing," another driver said. "That's why we're fighting."

GTAA communications manager Connie Turner said the behind-the-scenes battle over the licences is not airport management's problem. "It's not a question of trying to eliminate the driver," she said. "This is a premium service. There has to be quality control."

Ms. Turner said it's easier for the GTAA to issue blocks of licences to companies than to individual drivers: "The GTAA doesn't want to manage individuals. We want to outsource the service. If we need food service, we outsource that, too. How these companies treat their employees and compensate them isn't our problem."

The airport dispute is a smaller-scale version of the one that has gripped countless cities over control of taxi services. Few North American municipalities take a laissez-faire approach to the business, since it involves matters of public safety. But as history has shown, taxi licences are subject to the same kind of gerrymandering that black marketers once used in the Soviet Union to make money off such artificially restricted commodities as sugar and cigarettes.

This same type of opportunity was created in Toronto in the late 1950s, when the city's taxis were placed under the control of a newly formed licensing commission headed by Fred Hall, a former reeve who was hounded by allegations of corruption.

Over the following decades, a handful of key players assembled large collections of taxi licences -- known in the business as plates -- and pushed for bureaucratic changes that allowed them to skirt bylaws forbidding renting them out. Among the tactics that were used to get control of licences was lending money to drivers and holding the plates as collateral, and approaching cabbies' widows.

Two of the biggest players in the business were Abe Bresver, an accountant who eventually collected nearly 200 plates, and Sam Grossman, a once-impoverished immigrant who assembled a collection of more than 140 along with his brother-in-law, Irving Oilgisser. By the time of his death in 1993, Mr. Grossman was a multimillionaire.