It’s a hot, humid afternoon in mid-July and sixty-year-old Richard Chow is one of several hundred New York City cab drivers demonstrating in front of City Hall. As members of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance—a member-funded organization that represents more than 18,000 professional drivers, almost all of them immigrants—he was part of the latest salvo in a months-long campaign demanding that Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Council to protect their livelihood and end their economic despair.
“Driving used to be good,” Chow says with a shrug. “Now it’s killing us.”
The facts, the alliance argues, speak for themselves: Since November 2017, six taxi drivers have taken their lives, leaving hand-written notes and posting Facebook messages to describe the economic hardships they’d faced.
For Chow, it’s deeply personal. Less than two months earlier, his younger brother, Yu Mein “Kenny” Chow, was found in the East River. Kenny, Richard explains, had purchased a taxi medallion—essentially a transferable permit required of all yellow cabs since 1937—in 2010 for $700,000 and was deeply in debt.
His expenses were crushing: Kenny’s mortgage on the medallion came to $3,500 a month, or $42,000 annually. He also had to pay approximately $1,500 a month for gas, car maintenance, tolls, and other fees. Then there were living expenses, not just for Kenny, but for his wife and college-student daughter.
Since November 2017, six taxi drivers have taken their lives, leaving hand-written notes and posting Facebook messages to describe the economic hardships they’d faced.
“In the last three years, every driver has lost between 25 and 30 percent of their income because of competition from Uber, Lyft, Via, and other app-based companies,” Chow tells me at the rally. “We used to work ten hours a day, but in the last three years we’ve had to work twelve- to fifteen-hour shifts, seven days a week. It’s exhausting and stressful. My brother felt it but after his wife got diagnosed with stage four cancer, Kenny couldn’t take it and got very depressed. I begged him to file for bankruptcy so he could spend more time taking care of her, but he wouldn’t. His death has left me heartbroken.”
As he tells his story at the rally, Chow points to the signs his colleagues are carrying: “Stop the Race to the Bottom. Protect Full-Time Jobs.”
Other hand-held placards pay homage to the six suicides—Danilo Corporan Castillo, Nicanor Ochisor, Alfredo Perez, Abdul Saleh, Douglas Schifter, and Kenny Chow. The drivers plead that these names be remembered as martyrs to the gig economy. It’s an emotional argument, but one that the Taxi Workers Alliance backs up with statistics.
Mohammad Tipu Sultan, a former driver who now works for the group, says the influx of app-based for-hire vehicles has resulted in 130,000 cars competing for fares, up from 47,000 in 2013. This, he continues, has led to horrific traffic congestion, an increase in air pollution, and severe gridlock, with cars—many of them without passengers—crawling through lower Manhattan at six-to-eight eight miles an hour.
And then there’s the crisis surrounding medallions—one that is being felt in urban hubs beyond New York City, including Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Most current policies in large cities mandate medallions for yellow cabs; this is not required of Uber, Lyft, Via, Juno, and other for-hire vehicles.
This disparity, the Taxi Workers Alliance says, has put cab drivers in a vulnerable position. According to the group’s website, medallions cost about $50,000 in the mid-to-late 1970s. Forty years later, in 2014, the purchase price had skyrocketed to $1.3 million. Since then, they’ve been in freefall, and are now worth $150,000 to $200,000.
This has left drivers, like Kenny Chow, saddled with huge debts on something of little value.
Timing, of course, is everything, which is why cabbie Raja Hasan considers himself lucky. Hasan began driving in 1988, renting a car from a medallion owner, but after 12 years of diligent work, he was able to purchase a medallion of his own for $195,000.
‘In the last three years, every driver has lost between 25 and 30 percent of their income because of competition from Uber, Lyft, Via, and other app-based companies.’
“At one point a medallion was a solid investment,” he says. “People I know sold all their family land in my home country, Pakistan, to buy medallions and many of them lost everything. It’s very bad. I’ve paid off my medallion, but many drivers are desperate because they can’t repay the loan and also support their families. This has to change.”
The Taxi Workers Alliance, now in its twentieth year, stresses that it does not reflexively oppose all changes to the taxi industry; rather, the group is working to establish fair labor standards with uniform fares for all drivers. It also wants to cap the number of for-hire vehicles at the current 130,000, and is demanding that the city pressure lenders to lower interest rates for medallion owners, 80 percent of whom are in arrears. Lastly, they want the Taxi and Limousine Commission, the 47-year-old city agency that is responsible for licensing, inspecting, and regulating medallion taxis and for-hire vehicles, to set up a retirement fund for drivers.
This, they say, is the only way to ensure that drivers earn enough to survive.
Their argument got a boost thanks to a study released in May by the Economic Policy Institute. The report documented the economic downturn among all drivers, including Uber, and found that “the income Uber drivers get after deducting Uber fees and driver vehicle expenses from passenger fares averages $11.77 an hour.” What’s more, if Social Security and Medicare taxes—required to be paid by all self-employed workers—are factored in, the average hourly wage shrinks to $10.87 for the 833,000 Uber drivers nationwide.
‘Uber’s end game is monopolization. Once it has that monopoly, it will go automated—driverless—and raise fares.’
At the July rally, New York Taxi Workers Alliance executive director Bhairavi Desai described homelessness and hunger among drivers and noted that Uber and Lyft spent more on lobbyists in 2016 than Amazon, Microsoft, and Walmart combined. “Uber’s end game is monopolization,” she told the crowd. “Once it has that monopoly, it will go automated—driverless—and raise fares.”
This idea is horrifying to Richard Chow, Raja Hasan, Mohammad Tipu Sultan, and the hundreds of other yellow cab drivers who stood in the hot sun to press city lawmakers to protect their jobs.
“I hold onto the dream that this situation will be fixed,” says protester Victor Salazar, a taxi driver since the early 1990s. “I still believe that the people in City Hall have the political will to do the right thing. Driving should be a valued and respected job. We pay taxes to the last cent we make and deserve to be treated with dignity.”