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Vox Pop: Taxi Drivers Celebrate Major Debt Relief, End Hunger Strike

We hear from six New York Taxi Workers Alliance drivers who part took in months-long action to lessen their medallion debts.

Amba Guerguerian Nov 12

Taxi drivers look on as an array of speakers mark the debt relief win.

On Tuesday, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance —  New York City’s largest taxi driver union, representing around 20,000 of the city’s cabbies — and their allies rallied on a blocked-off section of Broadway between Murray and Warren streets, in front of City Hall, to celebrate a hard-fought win.

“We have a tradition that’s rooted in consciousness and militancy and democracy and my brothers and sisters, we must protect that tradition because that is the tradition that has landed us this victory today”

Bhairavi Desai

On Nov. 2, putting an end to a 15-day hunger strike, a taxi driver-owner debt relief plan was announced that cuts medallion debt in half and includes a city-backed guarantee of affordable monthly mortgages. Loans to medallion-holders will now be restructured to max out at $170,000 rather than the Bloomberg-era $1.1 million. Debt will also no longer extend beyond a driver’s lifetime and their homes will no longer be repossessed to pay medallion debt. 

After 46 unsuccessful days of camping out on the same block in front of City Hall with their demands that Mayor Bill de Blasio add loan guarantees to the city’s revised budget, due Oct. 31, to reduce the crushing debt they carry, eight owner-drivers went on hunger strike on Oct. 20. Over the next fifteen days, they — mostly older men over the age of 55 — would be joined by other drivers and allies until the announcement of a viable debt relief program.

A buffet of free South Asian food was offered to the celebration’s attendees.

Senator Chuck Schumer, whose father-in-law once drove a cab in New York City, brokered the deal between Mayor de Blasio, the NYTWA and Marblegate Asset Management, the largest medallion loan holder. Marblegate will reduce the amount that each driver owes to $170,000 from an average of about $500,000 per driver. And a driver’s monthly payments will now be restricted to $1,122 per month. In return, the city will give the lender a cash payment of $30,000.

Representatives from the Democratic Socialists of America; supporting city councilmembers; Chuck Schumer, who helped negotiate the deal; Comptroller Scott Stringer, and even Mayor de Blasio himself congratulated the drivers who would later celebrate over food and dance. 

“No more suicide, no more bankruptcy!” cheered the drivers who turned the block into a flurry of festive celebration speeches, dances and cheers. (Between late 2017 and early 2019, nine debt-fearing drivers committed suicide.)

Bhairavi Desai, the head of NYTWA, spoke to cheering drivers about the import of the union. 

Listen here to NYTWA leader Bhairavi Desai’s victory speech.

“We are the same union that went out on strike at JFK airport against the racist Muslim ban. We are the same union that went out on strike for workplace privacy,” Desai said to the crowd. “We have a tradition that’s rooted in consciousness and militancy and democracy and my brothers and sisters, we must protect that tradition because that is the tradition that has landed us this victory today,” she triumphed. 

The worker-won victory comes after years of hardship. In 2014, when Uber (to be joined by Lyft the next year) came to New York City, the medallion market crashed and tens of thousands of drivers spiraled into debt. This came after two decades of medallion-price hikes on the part of the brokers who sell the medallions to the drivers. “The value of medallions inflated more than fivefold from 2001 to 2014, to more than $1 million. Owner-drivers couldn’t bring in enough money to make their loan payments, and their medallions had depreciated so much that if they sold them, they’d still be personally liable for hundreds of thousands in debt,” writes Steven Wishnia for The Indypendent. Then, “last year, the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown almost completely eliminated their street-hail business.”

At Tuesday’s celebration, six different taxi drivers spoke with The Indypendent about life before the win and the struggle leading up to it. 

Suves

The problem is I bought this medallion in 2014. My price, $851 [thousand]. So every month I had to pay a loan mortgage of like $7,000. That’s why every month I have to work, continue. No rest. 

Everyday I work like 12 hours, 13 hours. Every day I have to work. Seven days a week. Without rest. Everyday, I have a call from my family, Where are you? 

Four years I have to drive. Still, I am sick. But now I am relaxing. My debt is still more than $700,000. Because when I bought the medallion, Uber, Lyft came to the city. 2014, when I bought it. So the city made a plan. After it sold the medallions, Uber came. From Uber, the City took a lot of money. So this is their plan. 

Now, the medallion price is zero. Zero means below $100,000. Nobody is buying them. 

I requested for my bank and broker to reduce my payment. I said, Take your medallion and give me my money back. Or give me freedom. Because I cannot make money. Business is bad. How can I pay? 

They told me, You have a house. What does that matter? My house? I have three kids. I have a lovely family. Where would they live? In the ocean? I didn’t buy this house with your bank’s money. I bought this house in 2004. 

So we decided we had to protest at the mayor’s house for two weeks. We were there. Then this recent action, 46 days we were here. But the problem wasn’t solved. So we decided to plan a hunger strike. 

I went on hunger strike for 7 days. My family cried. They were worried about my life. My wife came here and said, come home. So I stopped striking. I continued to come support my brothers every day, though. Continued fighting. 

Pabitra 

We were here for forty days and nobody was listening to us. We were frustrated and desperate to have something done. That’s why we went on hunger strike. 

Before the hunger strike, we were right here on the sidewalk, chanting, 24/7. We had shifts. 

Nobody was listening. We were here, very frustrated. We thought nobody was listening to us. We decided we needed to do something else. 

After I started the hunger strike, everybody said you should still drink. So I drank some juices like water, Vitamin Water, fruit juice. 

I didn’t eat for four, five days. I was feeling weak. My blood pressure was very low. I thought maybe things would get bad within a short time. A doctor here was checking us and suggesting not to be without water. 

When we found out about the victory, we thanked God. We were here when we found out. Desai was negotiating inside the area. De Blasio was listening. But before that, he wasn’t listening. He wasn’t listening before, only after so much pressure. 

People were afraid we were going to die. That’s why they were always watching us, making sure we drank water. That’s why we survived. 

Balkar

I bought a medallion in 2000. We still have to borrow money, pay fees. We borrow money for college, children, to buy the house. This negotiation will help all owner-drivers in debt. 

We demonstrated for a long time. In March, we went to Gracie Mansion for 15 days. The mayor didn’t do anything. So then we came here in May, 15 days here, not listening. So then we came here again and started the 24-hour camp about 50 days ago. 

A lot of people were coming by and starting to help. Schumer, [New York State Senator] Mamdami. Then we started the hunger strike, a lot of people came, everybody knew. And then things started happening. 

Not eating for ten days was hard. I was drinking gatorade, electrolyte powder, coconut water. But then the electrolyte powder made my blood pressure too high. But I was able to keep on until victory. 

I said, Until victory, I’m not going home. I’m going to stay here. Some days, I slept in my car. My friend had some health problems and was doing the strike in a hotel so I would go take care of him, use the hotel’s bathroom and shower. Everything around here closes at night. 

A lot of people were staying overnight, in the car, and kept going. A lot of people were coming by, helping us, giving us energy. 

When we found out about the victory, we were really excited. We were crazy during that time. We got our life back. 

Before, my life was hard because I was paying $3,000 a month and now they’re saying it’s going to be more like $1,100 so our life is going to be easier. 

Weggens

I stopped driving because it was impossible to make money. I stopped just after Uber came into the business, within a year or two. That was a killer. 

Uber had just started. They came with some really low prices to attract people to their company and so now [the people] prefer to take an Uber than a cab. But you still have your bills and expenses and there’s no money on the street. 

I call it corruption. The system that should support us wasn’t with us. They were with uber, the governor, the city council and I will even say the broker. Not that they were with Uber, but they didn’t do anything to protect us. Because of this, we end up paying the price. Now, they’re crying. But that was the job of the broker. To go and fight for the drivers who are driving for them, working for them, giving them money. No, they are just sitting here and collecting money. Taxi and Limousine Commission didn’t do anything and the governor — even at a certain time, the governor said that the cab drivers needs to accept Uber. Don’t fight against Uber because at this point, Uber is here to stay. 

Bloomberg was also a part of this — can I call it conspiracy? One of the TLC commissioners said — in a meeting they asked her why she thinks the cab driver suffers the way they do. She said, Uber is a corporation with investment but the yellow cab is not an investment business where people can buy stocks or do this and that. Until the yellow cab can be a stock business, they won’t be strong. She said it and I never forgot that. 

I am thinking about driving again now. Now, we will have lower bills each month, which allows you to have more money in your pocket. Everything we learned because of the union … We know a lot of things we didn’t know before. The union opened our eyes. 

I would like to say thank you to people like you and to every New Yorker who tried to understand, who listened to the crying of the drivers and then became a part of this struggle. That made it easier. 

Sonny

This program will be for every cab driver[-owner] who can be part of it. Not just the union. Not just people who’s medallions aren’t paid off. I like that we are going to have low monthly payments and no more balloons. The balloon is the idea that you go to the broker and they give you a loan with 5% [interest], next two years it goes up to 11 percent. That’s why we cannot move. After two months, it goes up. 

Now, we are happy. We can actually live. 

I started driving in 1984. I have been driving for more than 30 years. I lost all my youth because of the lending. They’re killers, you know. You pay, pay. You pay, and you still owe more. I don’t know what kind of accounting they’re doing. They’re killers!

Being in the union means having a stronger voice, not only to educate you but also in the form of expression. They represent you, they go, they fight. They ended up bringing all of these people together. An individual driver is much weaker. That’s the importance of the union or people who organize themselves. 

William 

William is both a taxi driver and a statistics professor. 

It’s a big difference. Before this victory, I was depressed. Look at me, a college professor who is going to look in the garbage for a sandwich. I was totally depressed but I didn’t know it. I would wake up every morning and think, It’s clear. They will take everything. They will take the house.

Before, I was paying $4,000. Now I should be paying $1,222. But I’m not sure yet. 

I am sure of corruption and greed in this country. Yeah, it’s good. But the wealth is not properly distributed. 

We have to fight because nobody’s going to change for us. We have to fight for this by ourselves. The people are creative. 

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