NYC Taxi Drivers Hunger Strike Against Predatory Capitalism

For two weeks, the New York City Taxi Workers’ Alliance (NYTWA) members have been engaged in a hunger strike outside City Hall demanding Mayor Bill de Blasio grant debt relief for the taxi medallion price crash affecting thousands of drivers.

To obtain their medallions, many drivers–quite a few immigrants from Tibet, Haiti, India, Pakistan, and Nepal–took out loans for upwards of $1 million they now recognize “turned out to be a scam.”

That price, dropped to $100,000 due to ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft, and decreased demand for taxis during the pandemic.

The ensuing debt attributed to at least nine driver suicides in 2019.

According to Truthout:

“A scam is exactly what it was—a result of decades of exploiting taxi drivers to fund New York City’s budget.”

As The New York Times reported:

“[Former republican mayor Rudy Giuliani] placed political allies inside the Taxi and Limousine Commission and directed it to sell medallions to help them balance budgets and fund priorities.”

His successor, Michael Bloomberg, continued it, under the auspices of “balancing the city’s $3 billion budget deficit.”

All the while, medallion prices spiked and predatory lenders encouraged more loans, leaving drivers responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

By 2014, the year Uber and Lyft arrived, the city had collected $855 million.

Now cab drivers had another problem: ride-share companies that provided little to no worker protections absolved from virtually all regulations to which the taxi drivers were legally bound to adhere.

Naturally, fewer people relied on taxis, driving down medallions’ cost.

NYTWA executive director and founding member, Bhairavi Desai, recently stated on Democracy Now!:

“At this point, where drivers have an average debt of $550,000, the city has basically no solution. They’ve come out with what’s really just a cash bailout to the banks, with no real relief for the drivers. Thousands and thousands of families are going to be left in a debt, that it will be beyond their lifetime, and they’ll be earning below minimum wage just to pay it off.

“We’re not looking for subsidies. We’re looking for real relief, so people can get on with their lives. I mean, besides the suicides, we have seen so many members that have died an early death and so many drivers that have had strokes, that are now permanently paralyzed. I mean, widows of drivers who are retired and, you know, thought that they left behind an asset, now have a payment that’s even more than their Social Security monthly income. I mean, this is a dire crisis of poverty.”

One of the hunger strikers, taxi driver Augustine Tang, who knew one of the suicides, added:

“I’ve been on hunger strike before the 6,000 families that has been affected by this medallion crisis. These men and women have invested in the city and drove 20, 30, 40 years of their lives, just to have their retirement taken away from them and also having–about to lose their homes and their jobs, as well, too.”

In March, Mayor de Blasio offered a $65 million debt-relief package to banks if they agreed to forgive some of the drivers’ debts.

But for some, like Mohamadou Aliyu, that wouldn’t go far enough to alleviate the $630,000 he owes.

He explained:

“I’m going to be enslaved for the rest of my life. Not only that I will never be able to pay it off—my kids will never be able to pay it off.” 

Image credit: Mattia Cioni via Unsplash

Ted Millar is writer and teacher. His work has been featured in myriad literary journals, including Better Than Starbucks, The Broke Bohemian, Straight Forward Poetry, Caesura, Circle Show, Cactus Heart, Third Wednesday, and The Voices Project. He is also a contributor to The Left Place blog on Substack, Liberal Nation Rising, and Medium.