This weekend, in the face of the White House’s executive order barring entry to anyone from seven Muslim-majority countries, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance stopped fares at John F. Kennedy International Airport, bringing attention to JFK just as thousands of other residents streamed in to fight the ban. It was a small but visible piece of protest that culminated, thanks to work by the ACLU, with the courts issuing a temporary stay on Trump’s edict. Here’s how they did it.
When the Muslim Ban was first announced on Friday, it was clear to Bhairavi Desai, founder and head of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, that it was going to have “a ripple effect” on her constituents. She could not sit idly by. So she didn’t. The statement and strike she organized brought visibility, urgency and humanity to the campaign against the ban, carried forward to the successful (but again, temporary) judicial opposition to the executive order. New York City’s taxi drivers did not end the fight against the Muslim Ban; they helped get it started.
Trump’s Muslim Ban is of everyone’s concern. It would be enough that it stands directly against America’s laws of not discriminating against people for their race, religion, or country of origin. It would be enough that it’s actively bad for our country’s campaign against terrorism. The both of them together should be enough to convince every American that this is a bad idea. But every American didn’t show up to campaign against the ban. New York City’s 19,000 organized cab drivers did.
I spoke with Bhairavi Desai to get a sense of how the protest and strike came together, if only as a guide for any other group facing a situation like this in the coming years.
“Yellow cab drivers have been found to be independent contractors,” Bhairavi pointed out to me over the phone, while getting ready for Sunday’s big protest in downtown Manhattan, not quite within earshot of Wall Street and City Hall. “We don’t have a dues checkoff. We don’t have collected bargaining. But the courts don’t decide who is a union. It’s the worker’s decision.”
This take-charge attitude is very much the spirit of Bhairavi’s organization. When I asked her what others should do if they find themselves in a similar position to NYC’s cabbies, her answer was clear. “I would say, first and foremost, don’t be afraid. Second, rise up.” Their work this weekend validated that attitude, with booming support from the city culminating in a federal judge’s temporary stay on the ban, with many more lawyers still fighting each individual detainee’s case in airports across the country.
The timeline of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance’s organization was similarly to the point. “There was a deep-seated sadness on Friday,” Bhairavi said, when the ban was first announced. “I mean, not just on Friday, but that was when it boiled over.”
Airport protests sprung up the next day, with one set to take place at JFK at 6 p.m. “Seeing others protest at airports inspired us. How could we not stand in solidarity?”
Early Saturday afternoon, Bhairavi’s New York Taxi Workers Alliance put out a statement condemning the act in the strongest language we had yet seen. There was no tip-toeing around the point with language of “the magic of America.”
There was a direct clarification of how the ban hits taxi drivers and that they were going to do something about it:
NYTWA STATEMENT ON MUSLIM BAN:
Professional drivers are over 20 times more likely to be murdered on the job than other workers. By sanctioning bigotry with his unconstitutional and inhumane executive order banning Muslim refugees from seven countries, the president is putting professional drivers in more danger than they have been in any time since 9/11 when hate crimes against immigrants skyrocketed.
Our 19,000-member-strong union stands firmly opposed to Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. As an organization whose membership is largely Muslim, a workforce that’s almost universally immigrant, and a working-class movement that is rooted in the defense of the oppressed, we say no to this inhumane and unconstitutional ban.
We know all too well that when government programs sanction outright Islamophobia, and the rhetoric of hate is spewed from the bully pulpit, hate crimes increase and drivers suffer gravely. Our Sikh and other non-Muslim brown and black members also suffer from anti-Muslim violence.
Today, drivers are joining the protest at JFK Airport in support of all those who are currently being detained at the airport because of Trump’s unconstitutional executive order. Drivers stand in solidarity with refugees coming to America in search of peace and safety and with those who are simply trying to return to their homes here in America after traveling abroad. We stand in solidarity with all of our peace-loving neighbors against this inhumane, cruel, and unconstitutional act of pure bigotry.
“Our leadership body put out the statement,” Bhairavi explained, “but meanwhile we had an emergency call.” Much of the union’s leadership had already been talking with their constituent drivers, drivers who wanted to be involved. “At the very least, we could put out a call for the job action,” Bhairavi said, referencing a strike.
The New York Taxi Workers Alliance reached out to its members with text messages, phone calls, emails, and robocalls. It was the texts and the phone calls that worked best, Bhairavi said, with a 94 percent listening rate. Bhairavi was proud with the organizing effort.“This isn’t our first rodeo,” she laughed.
Bhairavi co-founded the New York Taxi Workers Alliance in 1998 and had been working with organizing since 1996. She spoke of the pride of her members, who she argues are ambassadors of the city. You can read this excellent New Yorker profile from back in 2011 to learn a bit more about how she got things started, but it’s clear she’s good at what she does. The taxi drivers halted pickups in the first hour of the protest, giving it the attention it needed. In spite of the resulting hold ups, support was overwhelming, at least in the city. On a plane landing during the protest, passengers cheered when the pilot explained that protesters at Terminal 4 would mean delays.
The New York Taxi Workers alliance isn’t sure of how many people turned out; it was a protest of non-presence, keeping the taxi line empty not full. And it wasn’t a long-planned event with careful counting of participating members. It came together over the course of a day alone. Still, thousands of protesters turned out at JFK, even as the Port Authority and (Trump-supporting) NYPD shut down access to the airport blocking subway riders and everyone else riding the airport airtrain. Ultimately, the protest re-organized and spilled out in front of the city courthouse in Brooklyn.
Hours later, the ACLU got its stay. It was a Federal Judge in a New York district, supported by the National Immigration Law Center and the ACLU working in New York. The stay carried over for any case nationwide, but it started in NYC. The influence of the taxi-supported protest in the city should not be underplayed.
“We put out the statement as a reflection of how we felt,” Bhairavi clarified. “We didn’t put it out expecting to see such a show of support.”
Taxi drivers, as Bhairavi put it, “get used to working in a sense of isolation.” Their immediate desire to join in where they could help is particularly heartening for those of us also in our own isolated spaces.
“You cannot be separated from the people around you,” Bhairavi said, touched by the messages of support for the alliance’s initial statement and then proud when she saw so many others join in the protest. That initial step was so critical, but Bhairavi never described it as anything but rational, necessary. “When we saw people turning out at the airport, it gave us strength to go out with them.”
“On the progressive side, you worry if you’re going to have support,” Bhairavi put it. “We can see that the faith of the people will be with us.”