After a two week hunger strike and two months’ worth of sit-ins in New York City, taxi drivers hosted a long-awaited celebration outside City Hall in November 10.
New York City and New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), a union that fights to relieve taxi drivers from thousands of dollars of debt, reached an agreement on November 3rd. The union aims to pay off the medallions and physical permits they need to operate taxis. According to NYTWA, taxi drivers owe an average of $600,000.
“Today marks a new dawn, a new beginning for a workforce that has struggled through so much crisis and loss,” said Bhairavi Desai, Executive Director of NYTWA, in a statement. “Today, we can say owner-drivers have won real debt relief and can begin to get their lives back. Drivers will no longer be at risk of losing their homes, and no longer be held captive to debt beyond their lifetime.”
Zohran Kwame Mmadani, a New York State Assemblymember from Queens, participated in the 15 day hunger strike in solidarity with taxi drivers who live in his district. Mamdani shared the words and actions of Douglas Schiffer on day 12 of the hunger strike. Schiffer was a taxi driver who lost his life because of financial stress.
“Wake up and resist,” Mamdani read. “I hope with this public sacrifice I make now that some attention to the plight of drivers will be made to save them and it will not be done in vain.”
Today marks the 12th Day of our hunger strike.
271 hours of non-food.
To commemorate this moment, I read from Doug Schifter’s last words before he took his life bc of this crisis.
They broke my heart.
We strike in honor of his memory & in honor of the drivers still with us. pic.twitter.com/4Im65lGoIS
— Zohran Kwame Mamdani (@ZohranKMamdani) October 31, 2021
A 2019 New York Times investigationAccording to the report, at least nine taxi drivers were faced with the same fate and ended their lives due to overwhelming debt. Kenny Chow from Myanmar, who took out a $700,000.000 loan in order to purchase a medallion, was one of those drivers. His brother Richard Chow (a taxi driver with thousands of medallion debt) participated in the 15 day hunger strike in his name.
“Finally, we made history, and I’m very proud,” Chow told The City. “I’d like to see my brother alive. If it were three years ago, my brother would be here for this celebration.”
New York City taxi drivers — 94 percent of whom are immigrants — took out hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans to cover the cost of taxi medallions because they viewed it as a ticket to the middle class in the United States. In 2004, the average taxi-medallion cost was $200,000, but Michael Bloomberg, then Mayor of New York, raised the price to $1 million by raising the price by 500 percent. Unregulated ride-sharing apps such as Uber and Lyft rose in popularity in 2015. Cab revenues fell by 36 percent in 2015. This dropped the value to $80,000 and left tax drivers with debt and trapped under predatory lending agreements.
The agreement reached between the city, the taxi drivers union, and Marblegate Asset Management — a private equity firm that is the largest holder of medallion loans — will restructure the crushing debt for thousands of taxi drivers. The terms of the restructure would restrict loans to $200,000 and then drop to $170,000 with a grant by the city of $30,000. The interest rate will be set at 5 percent for a term of 20 years, which will translate into monthly payments in the amount of $1,122.
The NYTWA is optimistic that this organizing win has mapped out a path to curb predatory credit, as long there is both political will and funding.