On February 26th, 200 members of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) rallied across the street from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s NYC office. The drivers protested a new state tax that adds $2.50 to all fares collected below 96th Street.
A packed crowd held signs for the governor and drivers to see. Cries of “Tax the rich! Not the poor!” “No more bankruptcies! No more suicides!” belted from the men and women in the area. Drivers, yellow cabs, and even truck-drivers honked in solidarity of the protest. For a few moments, traffic was halted by cab drivers. The mood to fight in the case of worsening conditions was palpable.
The new $2.50 tax will be added on top of a base fare of $5.50, bringing the total base bare upwards to $8. This is part of Cuomo’s “congestion pricing” plan to raise money for the subway. Cuomo has proposed another tax for every vehicle that enters Manahattan. Taxi workers told us they do not oppose this second proposed tax, but the tax on every Manhattan fare, which the workers have to pay out of pocket every three months, will be too much.
Instead the taxi workers are calling for taxing the rich, including: Closing tax loopholes for the incomes of billionaire hedgefund managers; passing a multimillionaires’ tax that would include new brackets of $2 million, $5 million, and $100 million; and instituting a tax on luxury homes over $5 million not occupied by their owners.
Taxi Drivers Fight Back
The new tax comes on top of a mounting financial hardship for cab drivers. Uber and other ride-sharing multinational corporations have added 80,000 low-fare cars to New York in recent years that have seriously undercut the incomes of cab drivers.
In 2018, 8 cab drivers committed suicide because of less ridership, low wages from less riders, long hours of up to 100(!), and an inability to pay debts in order to drive. More and more cab drivers are going into bankruptcy because of the high amount of debt taken on for their cars, gas, etc. Because of ride-sharing apps saturating the market, the once coveted medallion has dropped in value from $1 million to $200,000, and some cab drivers are left with having to pay that $1 million debt!
At the rally, taxi workers called out the clear corporate bias of Cuomo’s tax. For starters, Uber was cut a deal where their pool rides only have a 75 cent surcharge per rider, yet yellow and green cabs cannot report the same costs. Also, this surcharge only applies to cabs, so private limousines and private cars pay no charge whatsoever. In a speech, the head of the NYTWA, Bhairavi Desai, pointed out how Cuomo and DeBlasio were willing to give $3 billion worth of corporate subsidies to bring in Amazon, a trillion dollar company, into Long Island City, yet somehow they cannot use that money to fund the MTA, affordable housing, healthcare, and education.
The NYTWA staged another protest in Albany on March 20. Taxi drivers have also taped protest signs on their cabs, organized motorcade protests around Cuomo’s offices, and talked to their riders about their hardships. There is even discussion about possible strike action.
Protests and strikes of taxi workers have grown worldwide due to the effects of Uber and other ride-sharing apps. As recently as February, taxi drivers in Spain went on strike for 16 days over the imbalance of competition from Uber. In 2016, French cab drivers went on strike over the unfair competition and the driving down of their living standards. And in 2014, drivers in Germany and England staged protests over Uber. Jumping back to now, Uber and Lyft drivers in LA had staged a 12-hour strike over cuts in wages and are now fighting for an hourly minimum wage of $28/hr. Drivers in Montreal have likewise staged their 12-hour strike.
Ultimately, Uber’s model is to drive down costs as much as possible by pushing capital costs onto the driver under the guise of “being your own boss” in the form of independent contract work and payment per ride. In reality, this is no different than payment by piecework for garments workers experienced at the turn of the twentieth century. By hiring workers as independent contractors, Uber can drive down wages and circumvent protections and laws afforded to hourly wage workers. Despite the rhetoric, Uber and Lyft drivers are just as much employees as any other company, and deserve the same protections other workers win.
An Important Public Service
Taxi drivers provide a necessary public service and fill in transportation gaps in urban and suburban areas. The subways, trains, and cabs don’t need to be pitted against each other, but can instead work in unison to provide everyone an truly affordable and robust public transportation system. We support the demands of the Taxi workers to scrap the tax on Manhattan fares and to instead tax the rich to fund the MTA. We also support their right to make a decent living off their work and to have a union, workplace rights, and a real voice in how the industry is organized.
Currently, the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission, the regulatory agency of taxis, consists of nine members, all appointed by the mayor and not one of whom is a taxi driver. Eight of the nine members are all paid heads of other non-profits and private companies that have nothing to do with taxi cab driving whatsoever (the exception being the head of the commission which receives a salary). If the current commission is not going to seriously address the problem of wages and suicides, and if de Blasio isn’t going to put up any serious fight against Uber, then an alternative is needed. A new commission should be established, but under the direct democratic control of taxi workers and the broad public.
Such a commission should be empowered to develop a plan to guarantee the industry provides both decent jobs and a quality public service. This can’t be done on private, for-profit basis, which is the source of the current crisis.
Today, it is estimated that at least two-thirds or more of all medallions – considered an investment under capitalism – are owned by big taxi fleet companies and private investors. For example, the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, found that he owned “numerous” medallions. These cabs owned by big investors and the biggest taxi fleet companies should be brought into democratic public ownership under the control of a new commission.
From there, a framework could be established that begins to work out a plan that fully guarantees a real living wage, a fair fare system, a maximum 40-hour work week without any loss in income, and safe working conditions.. Steps could be made to ensure the new commission takes responsibility for fuel, repairs and other costs now paid out of pocket by by drivers. For those drivers who own their own cabs and medallions, the new commission could develop a plan to purchase and refinance medallion debt and provide assistance for debt burdened. This transition could be paid for by the NYTWA’s current tax proposals and additional taxes on the multinational ride-share companies, with all money put into a fund that is democratically controlled and administered by taxi workers.
This plan should also incorporate drivers hired by apps. Given the abysmal record of Uber, Lyft, etc, to guarantee the health and safety of their drivers, a new taxi workers commission should be empowered to regularly audit these companies. If Uber and other apps refuse, steps should be taken to bring all ride-share drivers into a democratically-run public system.
Every worker deserves a living wage, to not have to work over 40-hour weeks, and a true sense of dignity. Taxi workers in NYC and around the world are showing that dignity can be fought for and won!