On Wednesday, taxi drivers, local elected officials and their allies gathered outside New York City Hall to announce the start of a hunger strike. They are protesting a plan announced last month by the de Blasio administration to help taxi drivers reduce their debt, a plan that the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, the 21,000-member group leading the hunger strike, considers insultingly inadequate.
As a Pulitzer Prize winner New York Times investigation Created in 2019, lenders, medallion brokers and city officials spent years profiting from a program to inflate the prices of taxi medallions that allowed New York City drivers to operate cabs. The victims were mostly immigrant taxi drivers, now with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. There have been three suicides by owner-operators in recent years.
I spoke with two of the dozen hunger strikers minutes after they stopped eating. Zohran Mamdani, who came to New York from Kampala, Uganda, at the age of seven, wore two pins on his lapel: the red rose of socialism and another reserved for members of the state assembly of New York. He has represented a district in northwest Queens since January.
At 63, Richard Chow is more than 30 years older than Mamdani. After moving to New York in 1987, he bought his taxi medallion for $410,000 in 2006. He still owes almost all of that money due to interest payments and the need to take out further loans to buy new taxis. Her brother, Kenny, bought her locket for over $750,000 in 2011. Burdened with debt, he is dead by suicide in 2018.
About how much is the locket you paid $410,000 for today?
Richard Chow: Now medallions are only $75,000. We have been under water for so many years. The city created this crisis.
What are the de Blasio administration and the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) proposing about this?
Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani: They have a plan of 65 million dollars. This is the one that would provide eligible drivers with about $20,000. The problem with this plan is that it allows monthly payments of up to $2,000 per month. It allows the principal to be up to $330,000. It takes into account the conditions of the very crisis it is supposed to resolve.
What Richard and the New York Taxi Workers Alliance are asking for, what the city council’s own internal review has asked for, is a city-backed guarantee. The reason collateral is so critical is that it eliminates risk for lenders. By taking the risk out, it then incentivizes those lenders to offer really affordable terms. Capital less than $200,000. Monthly payments of approximately $800 per month. Interest rate around 4 to 5 percent.
Right now what the city is offering is worse than what the market was offering. The power of government is not simply to replicate the market, it is to take over the market. The $65 million would provide a temporary band-aid which, within 12 months, will be torn off. Because that’s when the subsidies will end, and we’ll see a lot more drivers having to choose between debt or death.
What do you normally earn after expenses, taxes and maintenance, Richard?
Food: After expenses, a driver can earn less than $10 an hour, less than the city’s minimum wage of $15. Mr. de Blasio has always said that he helps the working class. After expenses, we earn $10 an hour. It is totally unacceptable. He broke his promise.
Mamdani: He says it here. It’s on one of our signs. Mayor of Blasio, August 2020“In terms of some sort of bigger effort…if there’s a change in Washington, I think the idea of potentially getting some sort of bailout becomes a much more real possibility.” Earlier that same year, the TLC president said, “My goal is to work with the board and the drivers to try to find a solution to reduce the monthly driver payments to less than $1,000 per month.” And yet, he and she together came up with a plan that allows payments of up to $2,000.
Food: $2,000 is too much. My lender asked me to pay $1,600 per month. I can not do that.
People who haven’t been following this closely might think that Uber and Lyft are 100% responsible for this problem. That’s not the whole story. What happened?
Mamdani: I was one of those people. I used to think it was Uber and Lyft that drove the yellow cabs into the ground, and they were the real bad guys. Let’s be clear, they’re villains in this story, but they’re not the only ones.
In 2001, [then–Mayor Mike] Bloomberg comes into office and has a Shortfall of $3.8 billion. He identifies taxi medallions as a way to generate revenue for the city. The city then realizes 855 million dollars on the sales of medallions, implementing in addition a transfer of 5%. Then the city sets the opening bid at each auction. The city artificially inflates the value of these medallions. The city has an internal review that indicates the cost of the medallion exceeds the actual value because for decades medallions cost around $200,000. No change in the market and now it’s four to five times more expensive? It’s completely absurd.
While all of this is happening, they’ve also let Lyft and Uber in without regulation. The value of these medallions is based on the fact that there is a closed market. Uber and Lyft are only allowed to be villains because the city allowed them. It’s the city’s guilt again and again and again.
How did your and your brother Kenny’s income change once Uber and Lyft came on the scene?
Food: Kenny, me, all the drivers, our income was down 40 or 50%. My brother’s loan was $3,600 a month. The city created a bubble, then Uber and Lyft arrived. We couldn’t survive. That’s why my brother committed suicide.
What else should people know?
Mamdani: The other thing is that it’s not just a matter of justice for workers. It is also a question of justice for immigrants. Ninety-four percent of drivers are immigrants. These politicians, they walk around and say, “We want you to come to this country. We want you to work hard. We want you to support your family. Then you too could have this life.
The city actively marketed these medallions to these people. Native-born New Yorkers no longer bought medallions the way they used to. The fact that 94% of them are immigrant drivers – many of whom are not fluent in the language of the English bureaucracy and are also seen by so many elected officials as a political constituency that cannot create consequence – has allowed to get there.
What led to today’s hunger strike in terms of the response you received from the de Blasio administration?
Mamdani: The Taxi Workers’ Alliance has been protesting for years. Richard has been on the front line for years. The preparation for this moment is that the city has offered the $65 million. The city said that a large part of its action relies on federal money. They receive this money and everyone has a sense of optimism about what is now possible, given their own words. You hear, “The city is investing $65 million in debt relief.” It sounds like a good story. But the pilots knew from the jump that it was a betrayal of what had been promised.
So since then, we’ve been organizing. We’ve gotten to the point where we have Majority Leader Chuck Schumer vocally calling for the city-backed guarantee.
Free loans and lack of oversight created this crisis. We have to do things right. pic.twitter.com/6mepG32Tv8
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) September 22, 2021
We have done all the due diligence to form a grand coalition. It’s the 32nd day of being in front of City Hall. I’ve been communicating with the mayor’s team for weeks, requesting a meeting with the mayor. The mayor refused us on all counts.
I heard you say, Richard, that you have high blood pressure and diabetes. Are you worried about your own health?
Food: We have no choice. I went to see my doctor to get medicine and make sure I could go on a hunger strike. I don’t know how long I can stay here. This is our last moment to fight. I am risking my life so that Mr. de Blasio can save the lives of thousands of medallion owners and their families.
And you said you were going to be here every day. This is your new office.
Mamdani: I will go on a hunger strike as long as it lasts. It will be debilitating. I had friends who were on hunger strike in the excluded workers fight. I was talking last night with Marcela Mitaynes, the MP who was here earlier. She said to me: “You know, after three days, you can no longer take the train alone. You cannot walk alone. You have to have someone with you because you won’t be in control of your body like you’re used to.
And yet, what I will go through is nothing compared to what Richard will go through and what so many other pilots will go through. I am 30 years old. I am in relatively good health. The face of this hunger strike are people who have ruined their bodies for the city. Sitting in a chair for up to 16 hours a day. Develop all sorts of complications from sitting for so long. The fact that they don’t have bathrooms available to them. The fact that they always try to find any type of parking just for lunch, dinner. They deprive themselves of the fundamental aspects of a dignified life in pursuit of the American dream. For some drivers, after 10 years, others 20 years, 30 years, are they now going to do that? It’s really heartbreaking.