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NYC taxi drivers enter day 11 of hunger strike for medallion debt relief

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A group of taxi drivers and supporters are now on day 11 of a hunger strike. The drivers say they are being crushed by debts they took on to pay for their taxi medallions, the government-issued permits that allow them to drive their taxis in the first place. Those medallions were once worth more than a million dollars each. But now they're only worth about a tenth of that because of ridesharing apps like Uber and Lyft as well as the COVID-related travel shutdown. But the drivers are still stuck with the payments. They want financial relief, which has been offered by New York City, but they say it's not enough. So they've been subsisting on water and coconut water for the last week and a half to try to force the city's hand.

Joining them in their protest is Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, an organization that says it represents some 21,000 drivers in New York City. And Bhairavi Desai is with us now. Bhairavi, thank you so much for talking with us.

BHAIRAVI DESAI: Thank you.

MARTIN: How are you feeling?

DESAI: We're all hungry. We're tired. We're, you know, we're feeling a certain level of weakness. Many of our members that are on hunger strike are having severe headaches and dizziness. But I tell you, the truth of the matter is they refused to settle for anything less than real debt relief so drivers and their families can get their lives back.

MARTIN: How did the idea of a hunger strike come about? And I do want to mention that you're some weeks into a larger protest. There's been - there's a campsite in front of city hall. There's - a couple of weeks ago, taxis blocked the Brooklyn Bridge at one point. What were the conversations like about taking this step to move into this hunger strike? Because it's pretty - it's - how can I say - it's dangerous, I mean, frankly.

DESAI: It is. It's dangerous and it's drastic. And I tell you, we've been pushed to that edge. We have been trying for over two years to have the city listen to us and sit down with us. This campaign, Michel, really started for us about six years ago, where we first started to meet with the banks and the credit unions. The average debt is over $550,000. And I do want to state that the reason we're in this crisis is essentially the fault of the city of New York. The city is the one that issued the medallions in the first place. There is a New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation which found that for over a 12-year period under the Bloomberg era, the city inflated the value of the medallion. They engaged in direct mailings and ad campaigns to an almost exclusively immigrant driver workforce, mostly people of color, to sell them the American dream through this medallion.

MARTIN: So I understand what you're saying about - that the city was a direct player in setting the market value. How did these drivers take on so much debt to begin with? Where did people get these loans?

DESAI: So they got the loans mainly through credit unions, some through banks, many through what we call brokers, medallion brokers. So basically, many of the banks that were no longer allowed to loan after the housing market crashed because of their role started to enter this industry. There was no check - similar to the housing market crash, there was no check on whether or not people had the ability to pay off the loan because the medallion was the collateral, and it was seen as, you know, a bubble that would never burst.

MARTIN: So it's my understanding that there's pretty broad agreement, at least in New York - I do want to mention that this is a phenomenon that other cities are experiencing, like Miami and Boston and San Francisco. There are similar issues. It's my understanding that at least in New York, there's a pretty broad consensus that debt relief is called for, and the city has announced a debt relief program. But you and the drivers that you represent say it's not enough. I mean, I understand it's complicated, but as briefly as you can, why isn't it enough?

DESAI: Well, because I tell you there are a number of drivers who, after getting a $20,000 grant from the city to negotiate a $550,000 debt, they've already received letters from their lenders saying that after the city under the city's program, they're going to be still left with $500,000, $400,000, $300,000 debt. That is debt beyond their lifetime. They will be earning below the minimum wage in order to pay off that debt. What the city has put on the table is basically a roadmap to failure. They're still going to end up being foreclosed on, losing their jobs, everything they've invested into. And along the way, they're going to be living in poverty with 60, 70 hours of backbreaking weeks. It's just not acceptable.

MARTIN: What is it that you're looking for? You're looking for a cap on the debt, or you're looking for them to wipe out the debt? And how do you think it should be paid for?

DESAI: We're looking for the city of New York to use its leverage to bring the lenders to the table. We're not - it's not - all the debt is not going to be absolved. We're looking at debts to be restructured to no more than $145,000 paid off at $800 a month.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, you know, New York taxis are iconic. I mean, how many movies have they been in? I mean, I'm sure everybody who's ever been to New York has a taxi story. But it's also, I think, New Yorkers have a love-hate relationship because on the one hand, as you certainly know, since you live there, that New York taxis are just a big part of New York taxi life. On the other hand, there are years of complaints about taxis refusing to take people to certain neighborhoods, refusing to take people in neighborhoods outside of Manhattan, refusing to pick people up - Black people in particular - or take them certain places.

So there are reasons why these disruptive services like these ridesharing apps found their audience. Have you thought about what the future of this industry might look like? What would the future look like that would make this both more humane, but would make this something that everyone feels serves them?

DESAI: Absolutely. Absolutely. We, as an organization, we've always taken on race based and just generally bias-based refusals head on. You know, at every general meeting, it's a topic of discussion. It's something that requires both education as well as certain material change in how the industry operates. Having more, you know, what we call electronic tails (ph) - right? - where you don't have the same level of, like, individual bias determine the pick up and drop off of a trip. No, that's not the only solution, by the way, because even in the Uber and Lyft model, you still unfortunately do see refusals, you know, and race-based refusals. And, you know, it's a work in progress. That work in progress, though, must happen along side with labor rights where the workers are not crushed. I have contended our union has always believed for 25 years had the drivers' economic rights not been crushed for these decades, we would be in a much better, more enlightened and more powerful place to take on these issues so we could have labor equality along with service equality.

MARTIN: That is. Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. Bhairavi Desai, thank you so much for talking with us. I do hope we will talk again.

DESAI: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.