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What Our Drivers Need

The leader of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance weighs in.

Bhairavi Desai Mar 5

Issue 233

In the front seat of the yellow, black and green cars that help one million of us get around every day — on holidays, in snow storms — there is a workforce in trouble.

There have been three suicides by drivers in our city in as many months. Foreclosures, bankruptcies and eviction notices are on the rise. Drivers are facing a vicious race to the bottom, brought on not by technology, but by a political economy that favors Wall Street over workers. It’s the front line of the gig economy. And drivers need armor in the fight of their lives.

A longtime black car driver, Douglas Schifter, killed himself in front of City Hall on February 6. He posted a note on Facebook shortly before his death, saying he faced financial ruin because New York City streets were flooded with too many vehicles. Douglas knew the culprit: Wall Street darling Uber and its cohorts.

Regulating fares across for-hire vehicle sectors will lay an economic floor for drivers.

There are now at least 65,000 Uber-affiliated vehicles in New York City. For every one fare waiting, these companies want 10 drivers in line. Nine drivers go home empty, but the company increases its chances ten-fold of beating its competitors. Unlike taxis and green cabs that are capped, these companies can get away with it.

“There seems to be a strong bias by the mayor and governor in favor of Uber,” Schifter wrote, “a company that is a known liar, cheat and thief.”

In 2016, Uber and Lyft together had more lobbyists than Amazon, Microsoft, and Wal-Mart combined. Uber and Lyft, aka Uber-lite, use their political might to fight off any regulations that would slow down their unfettered expansion. That includes minimum wage and hour laws, paid sick leave and employee rights for drivers.

It doesn’t have to be this way. 

City Hall can cap the number for-hire-vehicles flooding our streets. Through attrition, we can reach a number that allows drivers to earn a living wage and doesn’t choke our roads.

The gig economy titans don’t just hurt drivers in other sectors — their own drivers are the first to suffer from their greed. Uber drivers often make so little that many sleep in their cars. We need a minimum fare rate across all sectors based on the regulated yellow and green cab meter.

Our movement organized for 16 long years to win rates that brought drivers out of poverty. When first in town, Uber and company slashed fares to outcompete cabs. Today, Uber is charging passengers more while paying drivers at a lower rate. Regulating fares across for-hire vehicle sectors can lay an economic floor for drivers the way the minimum wage does across the economy. Rates need to go up immediately.

Drivers now work so many hours just to stay afloat that they can’t take care of medical needs. Others simply can’t afford health-care coverage. Schifter in his post talked about homelessness and starvation. This was after working 100-hour weeks. It’s unconscionable. This can’t be what we are as a society.

We need a health and benefit fund for drivers, so they can get the care they need. Our union won such a fund for yellow cab drivers a few years ago, but it was fought by fleet owners who sued. The mayor could have enacted it while the lawsuit continued but he failed us. Drivers deserve both health care and living wages. The City Council must legislate as such.

While drivers are on the brink of despair, the city continues to see them as an easy source of revenue through ticketing. In December, Danilo Castillo, a livery driver in the Bronx killed himself after writing a suicide note on the back of a summons from the Taxi and Limousine Commission.

We need to limit the outrageous fines imposed on drivers. Fines should be commensurate with earnings. The city can’t continue to provide Uber an unfair advantage while also grabbing for driver incomes.

Finally, we have to ramp up the fight against the new world corporate order of turning full-time jobs into poverty gigs, stripped of the most basic protections. This isn’t our inevitable future. It’s a call to fix a broken economy.

Bhairavi Desai is the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.

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Photo: An NYC cab driver waits for a fare in Midtown Manhattan. Credit: Erin Sheridan.