On the night after Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban executive order was announced, thousands headed to airports to protest the detention of refugees who had arrived after the order went into effect. That same night, taxi workers across New York City famously went on strike in solidarity with those protesting at airports.
“We are very proud of the fact that the history books will say that the taxi workers in New York City were the first workforce to strike against Donald Trump,” says Bhairavi Desai in this interview conducted just days later.
Desai is the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), the union that called the strike. She also sits on the executive board of the country’s oldest labor federation, the AFL-CIO.
Many Muslim, refugee and immigrant workers drive taxis, says Desai, and this reality helped to inspire the workers’ strike.
At the time of their protest, Travis Kalanick, the CEO of the Uber Corporation (which flooded drivers to the airports in an apparent effort to take advantage of the strike action) sat on the president’s business advisory council.
After thousands of people protested by deleting the Uber app from their smart phones, Kalanick stepped down from the council. That was a win, Desai says, but not the end of her beef with Uber: Both Uber and Lyft are Trumpian institutions, not just through affiliation, she says, but through their working model.
Laura Flanders: Why did the New York Taxi Workers Alliance decide to strike?
Bhairavi Desai: We were just outraged…. These executive orders were just so deeply offensive to our sense of humanity, so inhumane, just absolutely wrapped in bigotry. We, as a workforce — it’s largely Muslim, almost universally immigrant — needed to stand up and break our silence.
What happened and when?
On the Saturday after the executive order came down, we knew that people gradually were beginning to fill up the airports. We were really moved by the protesters and we wanted to stand in solidarity with them. We wanted to show the people of the world that the taxi drivers are with the people. That’s where the power is at. The airport is a place that drivers work at every day and we wanted to turn our workplace into a site of justice.
What did you do?
We started organizing ourselves and we decided to hold a one-hour solidarity strike from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. We wanted the entire focus to be on the protesters. We had no idea that the word had even gotten out. [We’d] done no media for it during the stoppage or beforehand, but we wanted the protesters to know that we were going to do our share, and the way that workers do their share is you withhold your labor. That’s how you make the world remember your power. That’s what we did for that hour.
What do you say to those that don’t understand why withholding your labor from transporting travelers to and fro is an act of solidarity?
We heard some folks say, “Why would you inconvenience the travelers?” I think, because there’s been injustice committed against a community of people. What is inconvenience in the face of injustice? I know, we believe that travelers understood. We saw that when people were coming out of the terminals they were putting their fists in the air and giving high fives and people were really moved. You could see the travelers themselves were really moved by the protesters. There’s nothing more powerful than when workers go out on strike. It’s the hardest decision that you make and, in some ways, it’s the easiest decision that you make.
This is a democracy movement. What this country is now developing is a broad-based democracy movement. We know in the history of democracy movements that capital is often the last to be moved and that’s because labor is sometimes the last to move. When labor moves is when capital is forced to make a choice. We’re really proud of the fact that we’ve created an opening to hold corporations accountable.
Some other corporations involved in taxi service did the opposite of withholding labor. They actually reduced their prices and tried to compensate or take advantage of the situation that you were helping to create. Can you tell us what the actions of Uber and the others were?
We were out at the airport; we didn’t even realize that Uber had sent out a message that it was going to be lowering the rates. We’re so used to these messages from Uber. The prices go up, the prices come down. Majority of the times … all the time, it’s down on the backs of the drivers. What we didn’t realize, though, is they were really trying to undercut the spirit of our action. We realized that, for masses of people across this country, what they saw was this Wall Street $64 billion corporation say, “We’re not going to sacrifice our profits,” and meanwhile you have all these thousands of workers, low-wage, on the front lines of this bigotry saying, “We’re going to stand up and use our voice for change.”
Don’t you also represent taxi drivers who work sometimes for Uber?
When we put out the call, it was for all drivers, yellow cab, green cab, Uber, Lyft, black car drivers in New York City. We’ve had a unity platform for over three years, and so that’s held really strong, something we’re really proud of. At Kennedy airport, you have this huge lot. When you’re an organizer, you feel like a kid in a candy store because you walk in and all you see are drivers. The yellow cab lot has over 700 spots. Then there’s a black car lot for Uber and Lyft and other black car drivers, and taxi drivers had slowed down that dispatching. We knew that the strike was effective. The word had spread into both of the lots at that point. We knew that the drivers stood firm. We never thought of Uber, we didn’t think of any corporation in the industry. This was the workers taking a stance. As workers took a stance for justice, they came in, trying to undercut it.
Uber has quite a relationship with Donald Trump.
Uber itself has one-third more lobbyists than Walmart. Most of its operatives came out of the Democratic Party — well-known liberals — but their business model is deeply anti-worker, it’s as Trumpian as you’re going to get.
After the word got out about your action and theirs, thousands of people began to tweet on Instagram and Facebook that they were deleting their Uber app from their phones. What did you make of that? What’s the status of that? Is Lyft an alternative? If not them, who else?
When you go out on strike, the first thing you face afterwards is isolation. To have the people stand up with you and recognize you … it was a very powerful show of solidarity from the public. I really think that it signified that there’s a deeper support for workers and a working class than we’ve been led to believe by the powers that be.
Is Lyft an alternative?
Lyft is an opportunistic company. Lyft, Uber, these are not the resistance. Lyft, Uber, Handy — all these companies that are “gig economy” — they have been at the forefront of a vicious race to the bottom for this entire workforce. We don’t see them as the alternative. We see them as the other side of the same coin.
What is going on? Uber was the contracted carrier for the DNC. Lyft was offering reduced price rides for attendants of the Women’s March in Washington. Looking from the outside, people would think these are liberal-supporting companies.
Before Uber hooked up with the DNC, it first quartered the RNC. These companies will go where they can make profit. They will sideline democracies and social principles as quickly as they try to squash workers’ voices. The solution and the hope aligns with the workers, it doesn’t align with these companies. Our loyalty should be with the working men and women of this world. It should not be with any corporation.
Two more questions. One has to do with what’s happening in New York State. I understand there’s a bill you’re trying to fight. Do you want to tell our audience a bit about that?
While all this is going on, nationally, we’ve been in the middle of a very vicious fight in New York, where our governor has been championing a massive deregulation bill by Uber and Lyft and all these companies. They’re set up to operate as what are called transportation network companies, TNCs, which essentially means that they have special [exceptions] from existing taxi and for-hire vehicle laws because they claim to be a technology company. It’s very famous: In a lawsuit regarding violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Uber has famously stated, “The ADA doesn’t apply,” because they’re a technology company that operates in cyber-space. Where, apparently, earthling law, no, it doesn’t apply.
Are you isolated in the labor movement? Have you seen a response from your colleagues? You sit on the executive board of the AFL-CIO.
I do know that other unions were out there at the airports, as well as across the cities over the weekend. I think we’ve seen more at the local level. I think you’ve seen locals come out where you wouldn’t expect the national [leadership] of those unions to be out there on an issue like a Muslim ban. That’s been really heartening to see. We’re waiting for the day where we can really have a concerted work stoppage with our fellow workers across the economy.
Your members face high levels of violence in any case. How have things changed, or have they, since the election of Donald Trump?
Taxi drivers … universally, you’re 20 times more likely to be killed on the job than other workers. In some cities, those rates are even higher. I remember New York City a few years ago when there was all this hate rhetoric around the Islamic Center downtown near Ground Zero. Out of that rhetoric, the incident that occurred was a taxi driver was slashed across the neck. The question he was asked by the attacker was, “Are you Muslim?” When he said yes, Ahmed was slashed across the neck. The idea that today people are being asked, “Are you Muslim?” When they say, “Yes,” they’re being turned away. There’s an easy leap there. These policies … unlike wealth, hatred trickles down.
We talk a lot on our program about the intersections between race, class and gender and the relationship between white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism. How do you see those things playing out in your life and your work? Are you affected by patriarchy in this mix?
I’m a woman, so absolutely. Absolutely. I tell you something, though, the people that have supported me the most in my 20 years of organizing have always been the drivers. They were always the first to respect me. Long before any official, and the labor movement, or elected officials, or even parts of the media.
You do have some women drivers.
We have. Drivers, as a whole, are about a 99 percent male workforce. We have women in our movement. They’re the women drivers, but also the wives and daughters and family members…. I can’t tell you the number of widows that we work with, that we organize with, who continue to stay active with us.
What man can say he wasn’t influenced by a woman? It’s impossible. When I first started, it took a lot of … many of the feminist-thinking, feminist-identified men drivers in our movement to stand up and show solidarity with me and say, “No, she’s got a right to organize us.” I would be a fool and I’d be a liar to tell you that I haven’t faced patriarchy. I had one year where we had gone out — it was right after we had gone out on strike — where literally, I did not have a week where I didn’t have an incident of either being harassed or assaulted. I used to work until really late at night — till three, four in the morning — and I’d be followed by people, and all sorts of things.
You don’t realize it, but those are also impacts of patriarchy. Who gets to work late at night? If you want to organize taxi drivers, you better be at the restaurants at three in the morning. Nothing says that if you’re a woman, you can’t go out and do that work.
Beautiful. Finally, just in case we don’t have it. How many people do you represent at this point and who are they?
We have over 19,000 members in New York City alone. I should tell you that it wasn’t just New York City that had a solidarity strike. Our brothers and sisters in Philadelphia did a solidarity strike on the Sunday right after ours. Our brothers and sisters in Los Angeles. In LA, it’s such an impoverished workforce, mainly because of companies like Uber and Lyft, who’ve been really part-timing what’s been a full-time profession by dispatching the private motorists and flooding the streets with vehicles, [making it] really difficult for full-timers to piece together a living.
In LA you get to go to the airport once a week, and people will work 16 to 20 hours on that day because that’s the day of the week that they earn the maximum living. Yet, there were dozens of drivers who drove around the terminals in solidarity. We’re really proud of who we are, we’re deeply proud of our membership. I feel so honored that this is the union and membership that I get to serve.
One more tiny question. A lot of working-class people — all right, a lot of not-quite-working-class people, a lot of people who think that they’re working class — voted for Trump. A lot of people who think he’s a man of the people voted for Trump. What do you want to communicate to them? Why is it that your union has been so resistant to his message?
I think many of the people that voted for him probably are similar to people that I grew up with. I grew up in a really small, working-class factory town, where losing a job meant you had to take two buses to get to your next job and “babysitter” meant you found your friends who worked in the night shift so they could take care of your kids in the daytime. I understand. A lot of these communities have been stripped economically and people feel very much politically disenfranchised. We’ve had a Democratic Party that has had close ties to Wall Street that it’s not had to answer for [and] a big part of that, I blame on the labor movement that’s not held them accountable.
I also think that many of those same voters … and you see it on social media, are really terrified of what they’re watching this president unleash on the people. Certainly, he is going to unleash policies of impoverishment. That’s why I’m mostly not too surprised by companies like Uber and Lyft and the so-called gig economy that we call The Share-the-Scraps Economy, as Robert Reich calls it. They’ve been unleashing policies of impoverishment … they’ve been doing it with a liberal rhetoric that many liberals and/or progressives have fallen for.
When you look at the business model of an Uber and you look at the business philosophy of a Donald Trump, that’s the real connection. Whether Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber, steps down from the advisory council or not, fundamentally, it’s his business model that is Trumpian. That’s the connection that we need to break.
What makes his business model Trumpian?
Uber, Lyft — all these companies [that follow] the transportation network company, TNS business model — are predicated on part-timing full-time work. It’s predicated on misclassification, on saying that the workers are not employees. That’s right of “right to work.” “Right to work” is an assault on collective bargaining and unionization, but the workers still retain employee rights and basic labor protections. In the new model, promoted by Uber and Lyft, the workers are not even considered employees. Fundamentally, when you don’t have those bottom-line protections, why would a minimum wage law matter?
I saw a quote by an Uber driver in Los Angeles in response to the donations that Uber and Lyft had been making. This gentleman said, “Sure, it would be helpful if there’s a donation fund set up for us, but I haven’t become a citizen yet, because I couldn’t earn enough money to pay for my citizenship.” It sums it up.
A lot of people don’t want to be employees, they want to be entrepreneurs or small business owners or think that’s what these programs allow them to be.
I grew up poor. I don’t know anybody I grew up with, any working-class person, say, “I’m an indie worker.” It’s just not working-class talk. It’s not how working-class people talk and think and feel about the economy. You go to work every day to have security, to have a sense of your future. Then you want to enjoy life with those that you love and participate in civil society. When you are kept impoverished, that itself is an act against democracy. Keeping workers poor keeps them disenfranchised. What these companies are doing is keeping people poor.