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A group of New York City taxi drivers launched a hunger strike Wednesday demanding the city provide debt relief from their taxi medallion loans. Since 9/11, thousands of taxi drivers have accrued massive debt largely due to the city artificially inflating the cost of taxi medallions, the permits required to drive a taxi. Drivers have also denounced the mental health impacts triggered by the financial ruin. At least nine have died by suicide. “At this point, drivers have an average debt of $550,000, [and] the city has basically no solution. They’ve come out with what’s really just a cash bailout to the banks with no relief for the drivers,” says Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. “Thousands of families are going to be left in a debt that will be beyond their lifetime, and they’ll be earning below minimum wage just to pay it off.” Despite popular congressional support for a solution being put forth by the union, Desai says Mayor Bill de Blasio hasn’t been willing to discuss the proposal.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to turn now to yet another strike that’s underway, this one in New York City, where a group of taxi drivers are launching a hunger strike today, demanding the city enact debt relief for thousands of drivers who have been devastated by massive debt, accrued largely due to the artificially inflated cost of taxi medallions. This comes after taxi drivers held a 30-day, round-the-clock protest outside City Hall. Drivers have also been denouncing the mental health impacts triggered by the financial ruin. At least nine drivers have died by suicide.
This is striking New York City taxi driver Richard Chow, speaking Tuesday to Democracy Now!
RICHARD CHOW: I’m driving for yellow cab for 16 years. I’m fighting for this hunger strike. This is very important for us, because we are fighting for — not only for my reduce of my loan; we are fighting for 6,000 medallion owners, devastating. We’re struggling the financial hardship. We lost everything because of the city’s reckless — the city program. And the TLC program is not helping us out, because we are under the water so many years. So, we are fighting for this crisis so we can save the 6,000 medallion owners and plus their family, we can survive. So, this — my brother committed suicide. Nine drivers have committed suicide. Because this fight is very important for us, I don’t want to see another driver committing suicide like my brother, Kenny Chow. That’s why we must win this fight, and so we can survive.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Bhairavi Desai, the executive director and founding member of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, the union that represents thousands of taxi drivers in New York City.
Bhairavi, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the dire situation faced by taxi drivers in New York?
BHAIRAVI DESAI: Oh, it’s just been really devastating. I mean, we’ve had nine driver suicides. And at this point, where drivers have an average debt of $550,000, the city has basically no solution. They’ve come out with what’s really just a cash bailout to the banks, with no real relief for the drivers. Thousands and thousands of families are going to be left in a debt, that it will be beyond their lifetime, and they’ll be earning below minimum wage just to pay it off.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bhairavi, I’m wondering if you could talk about how the crisis got to this spot where, basically, at one point, I think under the Bloomberg administration, they were selling — they were auctioning medallions at a million — more than a million dollars each. How was it that this huge debt piled up on so many taxi drivers?
BHAIRAVI DESAI: Yeah. So, the city of New York issues the medallions, and the medallions are just the number you see on top of the cab. They are the permit that allow yellow cabs to have exclusive street hail rights across New York City. The Taxi and Limousine Commission sets what’s called the opening bid when they auction off new medallions. 2013, they set that opening bid at $850,000.
This crisis really — this scandal really goes back to several years now. After 9/11 and the economic impact, the Bloomberg administration started to auction off medallions to raise revenue for the city. In the process, they raised over $855 million off the backs of the drivers. Seven government agencies noted that the city inflated the value of the medallion. The Taxi and Limousine Commission did direct mailings and advertising campaigns to almost, you know, a predominantly immigrant driver workforce. And then the same officials allowed in Uber and Lyft without regulations, which really crashed the market. And so, between 2011 and 2019, drivers, adjusted for inflation, saw a decrease of 44% of their earnings. Meanwhile, these expenses had remained completely fixed. And so, that’s why they are in such deep underwater. This is day 31 that we’ve been out on the streets, a 24/7 protest, but we’ve yet to hear from our mayor.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, the mayor, Mayor de Blasio, had much support from the taxi and limousine industry when he ran for mayor, but he promised to try to resolve the crisis facing the yellow cab driver. What has he actually done?
BHAIRAVI DESAI: Well, you know, it took three years for the city to pass what’s called a cap on the number of vehicles, because we all know that a central part of Uber and Lyft’s business model has been to flood the streets with cars. By the time the vehicle cap was passed, there were already more than 80,000 vehicles on the road.
And then, today, when there’s an average debt of $550,000, the mayor had tasked his taxi commission to come out with a program, but all they could do was come out with a $20,000 grant program, where, according to their own rules and regulations, the banks and private equity firms could even charge as much as $2,000 a month to a driver, leave drivers at even $500,000 in debt. You know, there’s no solution. And the second part of their proposal is a $9,000 subsidy, you know, because they themselves know that they’re leaving drivers — it’s a setup for failure, where drivers are not going to be able to pay off these debts, and so they’re agreeing to subsidize drivers’ payments for a year.
We’re not looking for subsidies. We’re looking for real relief, so people can get on with their lives. I mean, besides the suicides, we have seen so many members that have died an early death and so many drivers that have had strokes, that are now permanently paralyzed. I mean, widows of drivers who are retired and, you know, thought that they left behind an asset, now have a payment that’s even more than their Social Security monthly income. I mean, this is a dire crisis of poverty.
We have a solution that’s been endorsed by the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, the entire New York City congressional delegation, over 70 state and city elected officials, and popular support across the city among New Yorkers. And yet the mayor is not even meeting us at the table to discuss a proposal that will cost the city of New York less than $3 million a year. Mind you, the city has a budget of an annual $100 billion. They took $850 million off the backs of the drivers. Our proposal will cost the city less than $3 million to bring our people out of poverty and a debt beyond their lifetime. And the mayor still won’t even talk to us.
AMY GOODMAN: Bhairavi, very quickly, many people may see this as the New York taxi drivers versus the Uber and Lyft drivers. Maybe it’s versus Uber and Lyft. But, actually, a number of Uber and Lyft drivers are in solidarity, is that right?
BHAIRAVI DESAI: Absolutely. During our 24-hour camp, many of our Uber and Lyft members have come out, stood in solidarity. Some have even stayed overnight during the late-hour shifts. This is a worker issue. This is a labor issue. Fundamentally, this is also an issue of democracy, where City Hall — we’ve been camped outside the gates of City Hall. They haven’t even had the decency to come and speak to us, even though the city is centrally responsible for this crushing crisis.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Bhairavi Desai, New York Taxi Workers Alliance, speaking to us from here in New York City.