A group of New York taxi drivers went on a hunger strike to alleviate their debt. NPR’s Michel Martin speaks with labor leader Bhairavi Desai about the strike.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A group of taxi drivers and supporters are now on the 11th day of a hunger strike. Drivers say they are crushed by the debts they incurred to pay for their taxi medallions, the government-issued permits that allow them to drive their taxis in the first place. These medallions were once worth more than a million dollars each. But now they’re only worth about a tenth of that because of ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft as well as the COVID-related travel shutdown. But drivers are still stuck with payments. They want financial help, which has been offered by New York City, but they say it’s not enough. They have therefore been feeding themselves with water and coconut water for a week and a half in an attempt to force the hand of the city.
Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, an organization that says it represents some 21,000 drivers in New York, joins them in their protest. And Bhairavi Desai is with us now. Bhairavi, thank you very much for talking to us.
BHAIRAVI DESAI: Thank you.
MARTIN: How are you feeling?
DESAI: We are all hungry. We are tired. We, you know, feel a certain level of weakness. Many of our members who are on hunger strike have severe headaches and dizziness. But I tell you, the truth is that they refused to settle for anything less than real debt relief so drivers and their families could get their lives back.
MARTIN: How did the idea of a hunger strike come about? And I want to mention that you have been in a bigger manifestation for a few weeks now. There was – there is a campsite in front of the town hall. A few weeks ago taxis blocked the Brooklyn Bridge at one point. What were the conversations like about taking that step to start that hunger strike? Because it’s pretty – it’s – how to say – it’s dangerous, I mean, frankly.
DESAI: It is. It’s dangerous and it’s drastic. And I’m telling you, we’ve been pushed to this edge. We have been trying for over two years to have the city listen to us and sit with us. This campaign, Michel, really started for us about six years ago, when we started meeting with banks and credit unions. The average debt is over $550,000. And I want to state that the reason we’re in this crisis is basically New York City’s fault. The city is the one that issued the medallions in the first place. There’s a New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning survey that found that for more than 12 years in the Bloomberg era, the city inflated the value of the medallion. They engaged in direct mail and advertising campaigns to an almost exclusively immigrant driver workforce, mostly people of color, to sell them the American dream through this medallion.
MARTIN: So I understand what you’re saying – that the city played a direct role in establishing the market value. How did these drivers get into so much debt to begin with? Where did people get these loans?
DESAI: So they got the loans mostly through credit unions, some through banks, a lot through what we call brokers, medallion brokers. So basically a lot of banks that weren’t allowed to lend anymore after the real estate market crash because of their role started to enter this industry. There was no check – like the real estate crash, there was no check on whether or not people had the ability to repay the loan because the medallion was the collateral, and that’s was seen as, you know, a bubble that would never burst.
MARTIN: I understand there’s a pretty broad agreement, at least in New York – I want to mention that it’s a phenomenon that other cities are experiencing, like Miami, Boston and San Francisco. There are similar issues. I understand that at least in New York, there is a fairly broad consensus that debt relief is needed, and the city has announced a debt relief program. But you and the drivers you represent say it’s not enough. I mean, I understand it’s complicated, but as briefly as possible, why isn’t that enough?
DESAI: Well, because I’m telling you there are a number of drivers who, after getting a $20,000 grant from the city to negotiate a $550,000 debt, they’ve already received letters from their lenders saying that after the city under the city program, they’re going to be left with a debt of $500,000, $400,000, $300,000. It is a debt beyond their lifetime. They will earn less than minimum wage to pay off that debt. What the city has put on the table is essentially a roadmap to failure. They will always end up being seized, losing their jobs, everything they have invested in. And along the way, they’re going to live in poverty with 60, 70 hours of grueling weeks. It is simply not acceptable.
MARTIN: What are you looking for? Are you looking for a ceiling on the debt, or are you looking for them to erase the debt? And how do you think it should be paid?
DESAI: We are looking to New York City to use its leverage to bring lenders to the table. We are not – it is not – all the debt will not be erased. We are considering debts to be restructured up to a maximum of $145,000 repaid at $800 per month.
MARTIN: Before I let you go, you know, New York taxis are iconic. I mean, how many movies have they been in? I mean, I’m sure everyone who’s ever been to New York has a cab story. But it’s also, I think, that New Yorkers have a love-hate relationship because on the one hand, as you certainly know, since you live there, New York taxis are just a big part of the life of New York taxis. On the other hand, there are years of complaints about taxis refusing to take people to certain neighborhoods, refusing to take people to neighborhoods outside of Manhattan, refusing to take people – black people in particular – or to take them to certain places.
So there are reasons why these disruptive services like ridesharing apps have found their audience. Have you thought about what the future of this industry might look like? What would the future look like that both makes this more human, but makes it something that everyone feels serves them?
DESAI: Absolutely. Absolutely. As an organization, we have always confronted refusals based on race and simply on prejudice. You know, at every general meeting, it’s a subject of discussion. It’s something that requires both education and some significant changes in how the industry works. Having more, you know, what we call electronic tails (ph) – right? – where you don’t have the same level of individual bias, for example, determining pick-up and drop-off from a trip. No, that’s not the only solution, by the way, because even in the Uber and Lyft model, you still unfortunately see rejections, you know, and race-based rejections. And, you know, it’s a work in progress. This ongoing work, however, must be done alongside labor rights where workers are not crushed. I argued that our union has always believed for 25 years if the economic rights of drivers had not been crushed during those decades, we would be in a much better, more informed and more powerful place to address these issues so that we could have equality of work along with equality of service.
MARTIN: It is. Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. Bhairavi Desai, thank you very much for talking to us. I hope we will speak again.
DESAI: Thank you, Michael.
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