Taxi Drivers in New York City Are on Hunger Strike for Debt Forgiveness

Taxi drivers organized with the New York City Taxi Workers’ Alliance (NYTWA) have been protesting outside City Hall for 43 days. Twelve days ago they started a hunger strike, demanding debt forgiveness for the thousands of Taxi drivers buried by medallion loan debts. Drivers have been immersed in a financial crisis, leading to depression and other health problems. This situation led nine workers to commit suicide in 2019 due to the overwhelming burden and misery brought about by their exorbitant debt to the city. In the last two years, their situation has become even more precarious due to the Covid-19 crisis which drastically reduced their amount of work.

Workers at City Hall held vigils for the nine drivers lost in 2019 and displayed signs demanding debt forgiveness and condemning the lies they faced from the state and banks. In our discussions with the drivers, they explained that many were duped by the city to take out huge loans to invest in the yellow cab medallion that permits drivers to operate in the five boroughs of New York City. The price of the medallion rose up to $1 million before 2014. Many drivers — the majority of whom are immigrants — believed it was a good job opportunity and safe long-term investment. This was the dream that was sold to drivers from countries such as Tibet, Haiti, India, Pakistan, and Nepal. As one driver said “That was our American dream. It turned out to be a scam.”

A scam is exactly what it was — a result of decades of exploiting taxi drivers to fund New York City’s budget. Republican mayor Rudy Giuliani “placed political allies inside the Taxi and Limousine Commission and directed it to sell medallions to help them balance budgets and fund priorities,” according to The New York Times. His successor, Democratic mayor Michael Bloomberg, continued the practice in order to balance the city’s $3 billion budget deficit. Drivers saw the price of medallions begin to skyrocket in the early 2000s. At the same time, predatory lenders were encouraging buyers to take out as much money as possible in order to profit off the interest of these loans, which artificially inflated medallion prices even higher. Drivers found themselves in hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt with no relief in sight.

The city government made $855 million from these drivers, who went into debt having been promised the exclusive right to operate taxis in the city. But in 2014, Uber and Lyft swooped in, decimating the taxi business and exploiting a new sect of contracted workers with meager labor protections. While taxi drivers are burdened with a number of regulations and fees such as permits and licensing costs, Uber can operate in the city with almost no regulation. Uber has raked in major profits as it completely undermined taxi drivers across the city, while hyper-exploiting its own drivers who see a fraction of every fare. As a result, the value of medallions plummeted.

Many workers who voted for de Blasio in 2014 are now disillusioned by his mayoral administration. In 2014, the city received federal funds reserved for the taxi business. Instead of using the money to bail out drivers crushed by their loans, de Blasio gave the money to banks and hedge funds who engaged in predatory loans targeting taxi drivers. One driver shared a heartbreaking tale of another driver who killed himself in front of de Blasio’s mansion: “The mayor still does nothing.”

The current financial crisis destroying the lives of New York City taxi drivers is more than one mayor’s failed program; it’s the result of a strategy by both capitalist parties to profit off of the backs of workers. Whether Republican or Democrat, bourgeois politicians have the same objective: maintaining the exploitation of the working class for capitalist profit. There is no interest in the livelihoods of workers.

Taxi drivers, who are not only responsible for paying off their cabs and forfeiting pieces of their earnings to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the TLC (Taxi and Limousine Commission) and credit card companies, are also still burdened with paying off loans for the medallion itself. A driver voiced his frustration: “We can’t make money anymore. I’m paying $650,000 off in loans that I’ll never pay off and there is too much competition in the city to make really anything. Our pandemic started in 2014 the moment Uber showed up.”

While the striking taxi drivers condemn Uber and Lyft, they do not see the workers who drive for them as enemies, recognizing the similarities between their plights. One driver commented: “I have friends who drive Uber. They’d have a fare for 80 dollars to the airport and get nothing from it.” The experience of drivers in both the public and private sectors is marked by precarity and exploitation. That is why taxi drivers must connect their struggle to that of Uber and Lyft drivers by organizing together and thereby strengthening the fight for drivers’ rights.

Taxi drivers are fed up, and are organizing themselves as workers to fight for their demands — a crucial step in improving their lives and realizing their own strategic position within capitalism.

The working class must stand in solidarity with taxi drivers, demanding total medallion debt forgiveness rather than acquiescing to meager grant programs that barely scrape the surface of the drivers’ debt. We must also stand against the predatory speculation upon the lives of the working class by banks and lenders. Moreover, exploitative app companies like Uber and Lyft should be banned from wreaking havoc upon the working class and devastating public transportation. The state, which is tasked with providing safe and efficient public transportation, instead works in favor of banks, hedge funds, and corporations that destroy the lives of workers.

The plight of New York City taxi drivers illustrates how corporations, bourgeois politicians of both capitalist parties, and the State work hand-in-hand to profit off the backs of Black and Brown immigrant workers who keep the city running every day. That is why it is crucial to build an alliance between the taxi drivers, app drivers, and even MTA workers tasked with dealing with the crumbling infrastructure of the subways from climate change. It’s clear that neither the government nor its capitalist politicians will bring the necessary solutions; only the consolidated power of the working class and oppressed will.