Taxi drivers

NYC cab drivers are on hunger strike for debt forgiveness

Taxi drivers organized with the New York City Taxi Workers’ Alliance (NYTWA) have been protesting outside City Hall for 43 days. Twelve days ago they went on a hunger strike, demanding the cancellation of the debt of the thousands of taxi drivers buried under the debts of a medallion. The drivers were plunged into a financial crisis, leading to depression and other health problems. This situation led to nine workers committing suicide in 2019 due to the overwhelming burden and misery caused by their exorbitant debt to the city. For two years, their situation has become even more precarious due to the Covid-19 crisis which has drastically reduced their workload.

City Hall workers held vigils for the nine drivers lost in 2019 and posted signs demanding debt forgiveness and condemning the lies they faced from the state and banks . In our discussions with drivers, they explained that many had been tricked by the city into taking out huge loans to invest in the yellow cab medallion that allows drivers to operate in New York’s five boroughs. The price for the medallion rose to $1 million before 2014. Many drivers – the majority of whom are immigrants – thought it was a good job opportunity and a safe long-term investment. It was the dream that was sold to drivers in countries like Tibet, Haiti, India, Pakistan and Nepal. As one driver said, “It was our American dream. It turned out to be a scam.”

A scam is exactly what it was – the result of decades of exploiting taxi drivers to fund the New York City budget. Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani “placed political allies on the Taxi and Limousine Commission and ordered it to sell medallions to help them balance budgets and fund priorities”, according The New York Times. His successor, Democratic Mayor Michael Bloomberg, continued the practice in order to balance the city’s $3 billion budget deficit. Drivers saw the price of medallions begin to skyrocket in the early 2000s. artificially even more the prices of the medallions. The drivers found themselves in hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt with no relief in sight.

The city government earned $855 million from these drivers, who ran into debt after being promised the exclusive right to operate taxis in the city. But in 2014, Uber and Lyft burst in, decimating the taxi industry and tapping into a new sect of contract workers with meager labor protections. While taxi drivers are burdened with a number of regulations and fees such as permits and license fees, Uber can operate in the city with almost no regulations. Uber has made huge profits by completely undermining the city’s taxi drivers, while hyper-exploiting its own drivers who only see a fraction of each fare. As a result, the value of the medallions plummeted.

Many workers who voted for de Blasio in 2014 are now disillusioned with his mayoral administration. In 2014, the city received federal funds earmarked for the taxi business. Instead of using the money to bail out drivers crushed by their loans, de Blasio gave the money to banks and hedge funds that engaged in predatory loans targeting taxi drivers. One driver shared the heartbreaking story of another driver who committed suicide outside de Blasio’s mansion: “The mayor still doesn’t do anything.

The current financial crisis that is destroying the lives of New York taxi drivers is the failed agenda of more than one mayor; it is the result of a strategy of the two capitalist parties to take advantage of the backs of the workers. Whether Republican or Democrat, bourgeois politicians have the same goal: to maintain the exploitation of the working class for capitalist profit. There is no interest in the livelihoods of workers.

Taxi drivers, who are not only responsible for paying for their taxis and confiscating part of their income from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the TLC (Taxi and Limousine Commission) and credit card companies, are also still responsible for repaying the loans for the medallion itself. A driver expresses his frustration: “We can’t make any more money. I’m paying off $650,000 in loans I’ll never repay and there’s too much competition in town to really do anything. Our pandemic started in 2014 when Uber showed up.

While striking taxi drivers condemn Uber and Lyft, they don’t see the workers who drive for them as enemies, acknowledging the similarities between their predicaments. A driver commented, “I have friends who drive Uber. They would have an 80 dollar ticket to the airport and get nothing out of it. The experience of drivers in the public and private sectors is marked by precariousness and exploitation. That’s why taxi drivers need to connect their fight with that of Uber and Lyft drivers by organizing together and thus strengthening the fight for drivers’ rights.

The taxi drivers have had enough and are organizing as workers to defend their demands – a crucial step in improving their lives and realizing their own strategic position within capitalism.

The working class must stand in solidarity with the taxi drivers, demanding total cancellation of the debt rather than acquiescing in meager subsidy programs that barely scratches the surface of driver debt. We must also oppose predatory speculation on working class life by banks and lenders. Additionally, exploitative app companies like Uber and Lyft should be banned from wreaking havoc on the working class and devastating public transportation. The state, which is responsible for providing safe and efficient public transport, instead works in favor of the banks, hedge funds and corporations that destroy the lives of workers.

The plight of New York’s taxi drivers illustrates how corporations, bourgeois politicians from both capitalist parties, and the state work hand in hand to profit off the backs of the black and brown immigrant workers who keep the city running every day. This is why it is crucial to build an alliance between taxi drivers, enforcement drivers and even MTA workers responsible for dealing with the crumbling infrastructure of subways due to climate change. It is clear that neither the government nor its capitalist politicians will provide the necessary solutions; only the consolidated power of the working class and the oppressed will.