New York City taxi drivers held a vigil on Tuesday to honor livery car driver Douglas Schifter, who killed himself in front of City Hall Monday morning after writing a long Facebook post condemning local politicians and Wall Street-backed apps like Uber for pushing him into financial ruin. He wrote, “I worked 100-120 consecutive hours almost every week for the past fourteen plus years. When the industry started in 1981, I averaged 40-50 hours. I cannot survive any longer with working 120 hours! I am not a Slave and I refuse to be one. … There seems to be a strong bias by the Mayor and Governor in favor of Uber. A Company that is a known liar, cheat and thief.” Over the past five years, the number of for-hire cars has more than doubled in the city, largely thanks to Uber. But the soaring number of cars has resulted in a financial crisis for many longtime taxi drivers who now struggle to get customers. We speak to Bhairavi Desai, executive director and co-founder of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents over 19,000 taxi drivers in New York City.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show here in New York. On Tuesday, taxi drivers held a vigil to remember a livery car driver who had committed suicide outside the gates of City Hall Monday. Douglas Schifter is believed to be the third New York City driver to commit suicide in the past three months.
In a message posted on Facebook, Schifter blamed city and state leaders and ride-sharing apps like Uber for pushing him and other taxi drivers into financial despair. He wrote, quote, “I worked 100-120 consecutive hours almost every week for the past fourteen plus years. When the industry started in 1981, I averaged 40-50 hours. I cannot survive any longer with working 120 hours! I am not a Slave and I refuse to be one. … Bloomberg, deBlasio and Andrew Cuomo have each had their part in destroying a once thriving industry. There are over 100,000 of us suffering daily now. It is the new slavery,” he wrote. He went on to say, “There seems to be a strong bias by the Mayor and Governor in favor of Uber. A Company that is a known liar, cheat and thief,” Schifter wrote.
Over the past five years, the number of for-hire cars has more than doubled in the city, largely thanks to Uber. But the soaring number of cars has resulted in a financial crisis for many longtime taxi drivers who now struggle to get customers. Schifter had warned about this in the pages of the publication Black Car News, where he wrote a monthly column. But his warnings were ignored. Neil Weiss, owner of Black Car News, said, quote, “His life was really falling apart. He couldn’t pay his house or for his car. He was doing his best to pay for what he owed.”
We’re joined right now by Bhairavi Desai, who is executive director and co-founder of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents over 19,000 taxi drivers in New York City. Last April, she testified before the Taxi and Limousine Commission and warned about the rising despair among drivers.
Bhairavi Desai, welcome back to Democracy Now!
BHAIRAVI DESAI: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: This tragedy that has just occurred, talk about what happened on Monday, who Douglas Schifter was.
BHAIRAVI DESAI: Well, Douglas Schifter was a longtime, over 30-year, professional black-car driver in New York City. And he had also been an activist. He was a prolific writer for the industry papers. And he went, early morning, in front of City Hall, and he shot himself. And before he had shot himself, he wrote a post on Facebook where, you know, he really just outlined, I think, the reality that over 100,000 drivers, professional drivers, in New York City are facing.
AMY GOODMAN: What is that reality?
BHAIRAVI DESAI: It’s a race to the bottom. Every day, people are going deeper and deeper into poverty. And this is the reality of the so-called gig economy. It’s about destroying what has been a full-time profession, turning it into part-time, poverty-pay work. Uber and company — Uber and Lyft — and, by the way, they are absolutely the same. It’s all one same business model. They use their political might. In 2016, Uber and Lyft combined spent more on lobbying than Amazon and Walmart combined, and Microsoft, as well. And so, they use their political might to win deregulation bills.
AMY GOODMAN: They used more money on lobbying than Walmart, Microsoft —
BHAIRAVI DESAI: And Amazon.
AMY GOODMAN: — and Amazon combined.
BHAIRAVI DESAI: Combined, yes. And a few years ago, Uber had 33 percent more lobbyists than just Walmart itself. And, you know, Amy, the most amazing thing here is that what they’re lobbying for is, first, exemption from existing taxi local rules and regulations. They go straight to the state level, so they are exempt from city level regulations. Once they win that deregulation, they’re able to flood the streets with vehicles in order to outcompete the existing taxi industry.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what those regulations they no longer have to abide by are.
BHAIRAVI DESAI: So, the regulations would be around, for example, vehicle requirements, you know, the number of inspections a vehicle has to go through, the amount of mileage that a vehicle can have, as well as insurance requirements in cases of accidents, as well as, you know, criminal background checks on drivers in the licensing process, and, of course, any kind of a permit. Like in New York City, you know, it’s famous for the medallion, the number you see on top of the yellow cab, which is its own capital and at one point here cost close to a million dollars for the corporate medallion. Uber and Lyft enter into these cities with none of these expenses. And so, it’s not a — it’s obviously not a level playing field.
But what’s also important to note is, after they’re able to deregulate the taxi regulations and flood the streets with vehicles — and the way they flood them with vehicles, by the way, is they use Wall Street money to lure drivers with these high bonuses. Soon as the bonuses dry up, the drivers start to plummet into poverty. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission fined Uber $25 million for false advertising over these bonuses. And then Uber and Lyft used their lobbying might to exempt themselves from existing labor laws. In 21 states, they’ve got an exemption, that, basically, companies that are part of the so-called gig economy — so, if the work is dispatched through an app, that these companies then — they would be exempt from any employer responsibilities. They could cut the rates as low as they want, even if the drivers earn below minimum wage. There’s no protection for the driver. There is no economic floor for the workers. And so, professional drivers, like Douglas, are seeing their profession, you know, just being economically crushed. And there is no alternative for them.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to another excerpt of what Douglas Schifter posted on Facebook before he killed himself in front of New York City Hall on Monday. He said car companies had slashed their rates since the introduction of Uber and Lyft in the city. He wrote, quote, “Due to the huge numbers of cars available with desperate drivers trying to feed their families they squeeze rates to below operating costs and force professionals like me out of business. They count their money and we are driven down into the streets we drive becoming homeless and hungry. I will not be a slave working for chump change. I would rather be dead,” he wrote on Facebook and then killed himself.
BHAIRAVI DESAI: You know, and I’ve been organizing for over 20 years in the taxi industry. We were on the verge of a historic victory just a few years ago, before Uber and Lyft descended into town. I have never seen drivers in more deeper despair and crisis. You know, every day there are more vehicles that these companies put out onto the streets.
And what’s important to note is that it’s a revolving door. Uber itself has said that more than 50 percent of the drivers only stay with Uber for six months at a time. I mean, you know, a few years ago — right? — the questions would be: Are unions relevant? The question of the gig economy is: Are workers relevant? And imagine, you know, you’re working 12 hours, barely making $50 for yourself, and the entire time you’re hearing that automation is right around the corner. Because, you know, as far as these companies are concerned, you’re earning $50 too many. So, of course there’s a sense of hopelessness.
And particularly, you know, we know that the economy is not accidental. It’s not an act of God. It’s not a natural disaster. These are politically motivated decisions that give corporate America and these Wall Street companies advantages and allow them a free will to destroy livelihoods.
AMY GOODMAN: Bhairavi, we’re talking about Douglas Schifter. But on December 20th, hours after a hearing about the Taxi and Limousine Commission’s threat to take away his license, Danilo Corporan Castillo, who was 57 years old, plunged from the roof of his Harlem — of a Harlem building, after calling his wife in distress after the mounting fines he owed. Douglas Schifter is just the latest suicide.
BHAIRAVI DESAI: That’s right. This is the third — Douglas was the third suicide we know of in — within these just two to three months. And there is a crisis. There’s a human crisis as a result of the political failures, you know, that have given these Wall Street companies a free hand. And, you know, most of their lobbyists, by the way, come out of the Democratic Party. Many of them went straight from the Obama White House to work for Uber, you know. And it’s not —
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the role — in this case, we’re talking about New York, but this is happening around the country. Schifter specifically talked about Bloomberg, whose family he said he had driven around, his mother and daughter. He talked about current Mayor de Blasio, and he talked about Governor Cuomo.
BHAIRAVI DESAI: Yes. I mean, Governor Cuomo has really been Uber’s biggest cheerleader in the state of New York. You know, Douglas’s main post talked about the saturation of vehicles. There’s not enough fares. There’s too many cars. Nobody can earn a living. It’s a race to the bottom.
A few years ago, the mayor, you know, de Blasio, actually went to initiate a cap on the number of vehicles, as did the Taxi and Limousine Commission. It was the governor who intervened on behalf of Uber and, at that time, said that Uber was — and called it a startup. This was a company, at that time, had a $40 billion valuation, and they continued to call it a startup.
So, you know, there’s been a massive political failure. And it’s urgent, but things can change. The city and the state can enact real change. And, you know, by the way, Governor Cuomo’s loyalty went as far as — not only did he expedite a deregulation bill in Albany, in our Capitol, simultaneously, when Uber drivers themselves were filing for unemployment, one of them, Jeff, had filed because even though he worked 40 to 60 hours a week, there were weeks he took home a penny in his paycheck, and so he was considered unemployed, by definition. Those claims gathered dust. We had to sue in federal court in order for the claims to even be processed. So, how on Earth can workers not, you know, be made to feel expendable in this kind of a political economy?
AMY GOODMAN: Did you win in that lawsuit?
BHAIRAVI DESAI: We won in that lawsuit. We even won at the Department of Labor. When the investigations occur, these companies are found to be the employers that they are, and their misclassification is held accountable. But New York has still not had a proper audit, even though the law judge found them to be an employer.
AMY GOODMAN: Bhairavi Desai, you say, “Half my heart is just crushed. The other half is on fire.” Talk about the drivers you represent. Where do they come from? Tell us the story of their communities.
BHAIRAVI DESAI: Well, over 90 percent of the drivers in New York City are immigrants. We have one of the largest Muslim and Sikh workforces in the city. And we’re the proud union that went out on strike last year, in 2017, against the Muslim ban. You know, we represent workers from over a hundred different —
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you did, just for people who aren’t familiar.
BHAIRAVI DESAI: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: As thousands raced to airports to protest President Trump’s Muslim ban.
BHAIRAVI DESAI: Yes. On January 28th of last year, we shut down JFK Airport, that while protesters were at the terminals, our members, in the middle of this economic turmoil and despair, you know, they took such an act of courage and consciousness, and they refused to leave the lot. They went out on strike in order to give the protesters at the terminals, you know, solidarity and boost.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did Uber do?
BHAIRAVI DESAI: Oh, and Uber told the public that they would lower their rates, basically trying to lure them. And, you know, Lyft wasn’t any —
AMY GOODMAN: At the airports, at that moment.
BHAIRAVI DESAI: Yes, at the airports, at that moment, to destroy our strike. Lyft wasn’t any better. Lyft is Uber-lite. And no company in the gig economy is any better.
AMY GOODMAN: You mention, and it’s been written about — Sonali Kolhatkar wrote for Truthdig “How the Democratic Party Befriended Megacorporation Uber for Its Convention.” But the number of people and the high-level Obama officials, for example, people like Plouffe, who I think ultimately has since left Uber.
BHAIRAVI DESAI: Yes. I mean, there are so many. Every single city and state they go into, first thing they do is hire the former regulators. In New York City, our former TLCchairman went to work for Lyft. His policy director went to work for Uber. You know, it’s been a revolving door. And so, they know — they are former regulators who know exactly how to destroy regulation and regulatory framework, including regulations that were set in place. You know, ones that our movement for 20 years fought for to protect the workers are now all being destroyed.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what you see would be fair. The city has been flooded. It started with something like what? Nineteen thousand cars?
BHAIRAVI DESAI: Yes. I mean, today we have over 130,000. There used to be only about 13,000 yellow cabs and another 40,000 liveries and black cars combined. Now you have, you know, over 130,000. Nobody can earn a living.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what must be done? And you’ve pointed out this isn’t a war between Uber drivers and yellow taxi cab drivers.
BHAIRAVI DESAI: That’s right. This is really a battle between Wall Street and a workforce that is literally dying to keep its profession alive. It should not — you know, they work so hard. They collectively serve a million people every day in the city of New York. They do it with dignity and integrity and with sweat. They should not have to shed their blood, on top of it.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what do you — what do you think are the three most important things that have to happen right now?
BHAIRAVI DESAI: There must be a cap on the number of vehicles, and done in a way that protects full-time work. The taxi meter, which is regulated, must be the meter that is used across all of the sectors, so Uber and Lyft cannot continue to drop the fare. That rate of fare needs to go up. And there needs to be a health and benefits fund that will take care of the drivers. On of the things that Douglas said was, as he faced his poverty, he also lost his healthcare. People cannot afford it. There is too much at stake here.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for joining us. Bhairavi Desai is the executive director and co-founder of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents over 19,000 taxi drivers in New York City.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, one of the most significant police corruption cases in a generation, and it’s playing out in a Baltimore courtroom. Stay with us.