Photo: Taxi drivers taking part in the Aug. 3 rally. Credit: New York Taxi Workers Alliance
On August 3, on the steps of New York City Hall, drivers of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance launched their campaign to raise wages to a livable rate and end unjust firings.
The central demand of the drivers is raising wages to $25 per hour in take-home pay, after all expenses such as gasoline. NYTWA has united both taxi and app-based drivers in all of its organizing, bridging the divide that gig economy apps such as Uber seek to wedge between “formal” and “informal” workers.
Expenses in NYC are on the rise. Food prices are 9.1% higher than the previous year and gas prices reached an all time high this summer at over $5 a gallon. Landlords have raised rents on average 30% in the past year, as so-called “COVID rent discounts” come to an end. The resulting displacement due to rent prices has been immediate. According to a StreetEasy report, about 44% of the empty units in Manhattan have been made available due to the exodus of tenants who could not afford to renew leases originally signed in 2020 and 2021.
This is the context in which New York City cab drivers live and work, and yet wages stagnate as inflation soars. Drivers of the classic NYC yellow cabs have not seen a raise in 10 years. And app-based drivers are being “deactivated,” or removed from the app without reason, and with little to no right to appeal. “Deactivation is the fancy Wall Street term for basically firing workers,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the NYTWA.
NYTWA has outlined 24 demands including their central ones for raising wages and ending unfair deactivations. These include several measures to increase wages for drivers such as capping Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) fines and building driver solidarity by ensuring that Uber and Lyft cannot charge below the yellow/green taxi meter rate.
NYTWA also takes on broader political issues that are of deep concern to the working class. Last week, NYTWA organized a solidarity caravan in which they coordinated taxi rides for recently arrived asylum seekers from Latin America. These migrants had been cruelly bussed almost 2,000 miles from Texas by Governor Abbott to Manhattan last week, as part of Abbott’s anti-immigrant policy. “Such a cruel act of political theater to traumatize people who’ve suffered war, poverty and persecution. We were honored to say, welcome to NYC,” NYTWA tweeted on August 7.
The Alliance is coming off the heels of a major victory last summer, in which drivers won a city government guarantee to massively ease the burden of medallion debt.
In 2004, Mayor Michael Bloomberg encouraged taxi drivers to purchase costly taxi medallions, which are the certificates required to operate a yellow cab. Many workers took out loans to purchase them at inflated prices through 2014. However, when gig economy apps — which did not require drivers to purchase medallions like Uber and Lyft — entered the market, the city failed to regulate the companies as tightly as the taxi industry, causing the value of medallions to plummet. Taxi workers were left in catastrophic amounts of debt. Nine drivers committed suicide between 2017 and 2018.
In 2021, NYTWA fought hard for the city to forgive medallion debt. After a two week-long hunger strike and a nearly two month-long protest outside city hall, NYTWA finally won an agreement with the city in November. As the Alliance’s website states, “the outstanding principal on all medallion mortgages will be restructured to no more than $170,000 per loan, with monthly payments capped at no more than $1,122.”
With a record of militant action and victory, NYTWA is set up for a hard-fought but promising struggle for raises and job security.