Volume 2: Number 1                 November 1, 1998

In this Issue...
Gail Omvedt and Liberalization Natarajan, Faolain and Philip
The Biggest Corporate Takeover Basav Sen
Vanaik Book Review Vijay Prashad
Foil Notes

The New Dreams of the Yellow Wheels

Biju Mathew

On May 12, 1998, Rudy Giuliani, the Mayor of New York City said that the threatened strike by yellow cab drivers the next day - May 13 - was the handiwork of a handful of reckless cab drivers who wanted to continue to drive recklessly. The rest of them, he said, would be working the next day.

On May 13, New York City woke up to a historic strike. 98% of the city's 24,000 yellow cab drivers had struck work on a call given by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA). As the day wore on, two things became clear: First, the strike had proved that the old wisdom, mostly put out by corrupt and inefficient locals, that taxi drivers were beyond organization, was false. The popular assumption that this ethnically diverse industry, where more than 90% of the workforce are recent immigrants from Asia, the Caribbean, Africa and Eastern Europe, was beyond organizing had been shattered once and for all. Second, as a 20 year veteran driver reminded us all that day with a smile across his face: "This is great. Just terrific. But remember, this is just the beginning. Its going to be long one."

The brother was indeed right. By later that afternoon the City's first responses became clear. The Mayor threatened to call in the IRS and the INS in an attempt to scare the immigrant workforce. Then he attempted bravado by saying that he was considering "a taxi free Tuesday" plan. Later, he tried scare tactics again - threatening to take away medallions and hack licenses. By Friday much of the bluster was gone. He withdrew most of his statements as it became patently obvious that he had no legal standing on most of them. On Friday he played his final card. He threatened to introduce livery cabs that normally serve the outer boroughs into Manhattan - a Mayor trying to turn other driver brothers into scabs. By Monday morning, it was obvious that he had failed. Very few livery cabs entered Manhattan. Not only had the strike united an ethnically diverse workforce of 24,000, but now bucking the Mayor's offer, another 30,000 immigrant livery cab drivers who serve the outer boroughs had extended their solidarity. Their message was clear - "we stand by our yellow cab brothers and sisters."

The immediate cause of the strike was a set of seventeen new rules that the City's Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), a Mayoral agency, had proposed for a "public hearing" and vote set for May 28th. However, the proposed 17 new rules were just the proverbial last straw for
The NYTWA again stands as
the only organization which had
clearly attempted to represent
the interest of the lease
driver community.
drivers who have been facing deteriorating working conditions for the past several years. Drivers' real incomes had been falling for many year, with current earning estimates ranging between $50-$80/day. The NYTWA had been for more than year spearheading a campaign for three demands - a basic set of economic rights, a reform of the TLC's justice system, and for driver representation inside the TLC.

The drivers' earning potential of $50 a day, or a maximum of $2000 per month, makes for interesting comparison with the earnings of the TLC and garage owners. In the last six months of 1996, the TLC reported earnings of $70.0 million (12 m/month). Of this a little more than 30m was through the sale of medallions. The remaining 40m was through fines levied, hack license renewal fees and inspection fees - in other words money made mostly out of the drivers' pocket. A small garage with control of over ten to fifteen medallions reports revenues of close to a hundred thousand a month, again money out of the drivers' hard-earned savings.

The industry is tightly controlled through the medallion system, a medallion being the only artifact that that gives one the right to put a cab on the road. The city officially auctions the medallions, keeping a close control over the number of medallions operational at any one point in time. As a result, a seller's market is created for the medallions - the market price of a medallion has risen steadily since 1980, with the current prices ranging between $260,000 and $300,000, a price at which only garages and brokers can buy them. A driver on the other hand, leases a medallion and car from a garage for an average of a little more than $100 per shift. In other words, even before he has started driving, he has already put down a $100, not to mention the $20 worth of gas that he is responsible for. On a good day, the driver may meter about $180-$200 by the end of his shift, leaving him approximately $60-$80 to take home. But even this figure is an exaggerated understanding of his earnings, for there are other costs that are invariably associated with spending 10 hours a day on the road - tickets, for instance. "You rarely get less than 2 or 3 tickets at one shot once you are stopped by a cop" says Asif, a member of the NYTWA.

Add to that the three or four days a month that a driver invariably misses - because of failed inspections, because of health, because of a car breakdown or simply because he got stuck on Queens bridge for two hours on his way back from LaGuardia, and it all adds up. The driver is constantly stuck in a loop of fending off the immediate crises of survival.

What the TLC's 17 new laws and NYTWA's strike call did was to bring out the collective expression of anger among 24,000 drivers who are faced with a complexly structured industry that uses every aspect of the real disempowerment of immigrant workers in the US to exploit them. However, the spontaneity and the euphoria of the strike was bound to wane, and the city was bound to strike back, which it did. Within days, the cracks within the industry also began to show up as two more strikes followed, the first on May 21, and the second on May 28. First the large medallion owners - the garage owners and the brokers - began working hard to break the drivers' unity. A few days before the second strike, The Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade (MTBOT), a fleet owners' association began circulating flyers that announced "The Real Deal. The Strike is Off". Despite this call the second strike was more than 80% successful. By the time of the third strike, both the fleet owners and brokers had gotten more desperate as they bought radio spots to make claims on behalf of drivers, claiming among other things that drivers earn $150.00 a day. In addition the contradictions facing small medallion owners - those who own between one and twenty medallions - also came to fore. Whom were they to support? The lease drivers who had responded to NYTWA's call or the larger fleet owners under MTBOT?

At the hearing on the 28th, one after another, drivers, owners and industry experts all walked up to the podium and said that the new rules would destroy the industry. And yet at the end of the day, the TLC voted in favor of implementing 15 of the 17 laws. The most significant rule to be dropped was the one that required a 100,000 surety bond for injury compensation - a rule that would have affected large fleet owners most significantly. The campaign of misinformation that the fleet owners, brokers and now the small owners had started now swung into full gear as they all prepared to go to court to challenge the TLC. While the NYTWA held that the fight was a political one with no legal resolution, every other organization in the industry attempted to smooth over the anger of the driver community through the claim that the court case would solve the problem. Once the opening was visible, the media moved in too. Every newspaper and radio station made pronouncements throwing their weight behind the ownership. On July 2nd, the judge ruled that the rules (all except one which does not effect drivers at all) were okay and could be implemented. In a sense we have turned a full circle. The May 13 strike was called by the NYTWA alone without the support of any other organization. Then a whole host of organizations representing different interest groups in the industry jumped in and the outlines of the battlefront became confused and difficult to read.

Now , after the July 2 ruling of the court, the NYTWA again stands as the only organization which had clearly attempted to represent the interest of the lease driver community. In the end therefore, the Alliance will gain from the hectic roller coaster ride that had been created by all the different forces over the last two months as they stand differentiated and distinct in the driver community. The rules went into effect from July 26, but for the NYTWA and for the drivers, the struggle continues.

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