In mid-September of 2021, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance began what would become a 45-day protest against regulations that left taxi drivers swallowed up by debt, left with few options and, in many cases, considering, attempting, or committing suicide. A new feature from The Nation shows how fierce unionization and solidarity held the city of New York accountable and changed the lots for taxi drivers.
To give some context, NYC taxi drivers have been maltreated for years, and a large part of that has come down to the taxi medallion system. Medallions were government-created constraints on taxi drivers and cabs; a city would only issue so many medallions, which enabled taxi drivers to operate a cab.
Most cities increase the number of medallions at a much slower rate than the growth for medallion demand, which means medallions were essentially an investment tool. The problem came when medallions in NYC hit a peak of over one million dollars in value before being undermined by rideshare companies that allowed anyone to become a driver. Many cab drivers, who were often immigrants or minorities, had taken out predatory loans to help fund their goal of earning a taxi medallion, only to find that massive investment became worth nothing. And with no support from the city, taxi drivers were essentially left to struggle.
The Nation writer Molly Crabapple was there on the scene for much of this year’s strike. From the article:
I stopped by the encampment at midnight to find eight drivers trading jokes on the lonely concrete of the Financial District. Augustine Tang invited me to join them. Thirty-seven years old, with the characteristic swagger of a native New Yorker, Tang had inherited his father’s taxi medallion—the badge that gives cabbies the right to operate—along with $530,000 of debt. He was one of the group’s most eloquent spokespeople and also one of the youngest. His companions were all older, men who had spent decades behind the wheel—like Mohammed Islam, from Bangladesh, who owed $536,000, and “Big John” Asmah, from Ghana, who owed $700,000. At an age when many people are contemplating retirement, these drivers instead faced a future of 14-hour workdays that would bring them no closer to freedom as well as harrowing financial burdens they would pass on to their kids.
But these drivers also knew a way out, which is why they had decided to camp outside the gates of City Hall.
In late September of 2020, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance had drawn up a plan to cap drivers’ loans and limit their monthly payments. The city ignored it, just as, for years, it had brushed off NYTWA’s protests against medallion debt. This sit-in was an escalation—an attempt to force New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s hand.
Inspired by the drivers’ struggle, I kept coming back, night after night, then week after week. I listened to their stories, drew their portraits, marched in their picket lines, and ultimately joined their hunger strike. Despite their defiant assurances of victory, I could not shake the sense that I was witnessing the doomed last stand of yet another group of working-class New Yorkers who would be crushed by the hedge-fund Bretts who run this city.
Instead, on November 3, NYTWA announced that the city had adopted almost every detail of its plan. The drivers had won.
That’s only a small part of the rest of the article, which is beautifully written and worth your time. Stop what you’re doing and go read the story of how NYC taxi drivers achieved one of the greatest, unthinkable victories in labor history.