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Taxis Take a Stand

In New York City, cabbies are protesting 24/7 for debt relief

On a chilly October night, a dozen immigrant yellow cab taxi drivers and allies sat around a foldable table in protest outside Manhattan’s City Hall, their bodies awash in the unblinking glare of traffic and neon lights. Signs for Chase, Citi Bank, and Bank of America clashed with the high beams of cars speeding by. If you took out the idle yellow cabs, their illuminated roof lights spelling out medallion numbers and letters, the scene could be in any major city worldwide.

But no, this was New York City, known for its enduring hustle, for the possibility of deliverance. Any roving yellow taxi driven by an immigrant isn’t only transporting city residents to work, carrying businesspeople to airports, or screeching to a halt at the sight of would-be Carrie Bradshaws waiting at the curb to be ferried to the club. It’s also freighted with its driver’s hopes for new beginnings and economic stability.

Today, these modern-day Charons, numbering nearly fourteen thousand and hailing from the sunbaked lands of Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Haiti, ushering poor and rich alike through the recurring rites of city travel, are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. And the person who should be their likeliest ally is their staunchest opponent, standing in the way of true debt relief. In 2013, Mayor Bill de Blasio ran on a promise to close the economic chasm bifurcating New York into a Tale of Two Cities, a campaign slogan about runaway inequality turbocharged when billionaire Michael Bloomberg was at the helm of city governance. (Disclosure: I worked for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Democracy NYC Initiative as a communications director from December 2020 to January 2021.) Eight years later, de Blasio is facing a 24/7 protest encampment outside City Hall, where drivers and allies distribute leaflets with the headline: “TELL MAYOR DEBLASIO: Help the Cabbies, Not the Banks!”

The fight for debt relief for yellow taxi drivers counterposes the overwhelming power of rapacious banks and private equity firms against workers’ political power.

The source of their debt is taxi medallions: city-issued permits required to own a cab and pick up street hails in parts of Manhattan. New York created the first tin-colored plates bolted to the hoods of yellow cabs in 1937 as a way to regulate the unlicensed taxis crowding its streets. For decades, medallion driver-owners could make a decent living in a regulated industry overseen by the city Taxi and Limousine Commission, and, provided they could raise the funds for a down payment to purchase a medallion, there was little barrier to entry and high earning potential, especially for immigrants seeking better lives for their families and good working conditions in a foreign land.

But then, capitalist vultures began wheedling low and got a taste of the easy profits that could flow from exploiting these workers. City agencies, in cahoots with banks and hedge funds, artificially inflated the value of medallions to $1.3 million at the apex of one of the largest speculative bubbles since the housing crisis of 2007, according to a 2019 investigation by the New York Times. Immigrant drivers were sold lies about the equity they could accrue through owning a medallion, and they took out exorbitant and predatory loans averaging nearly half a million dollars. All the while, the city knew drivers would be on the hook for underwater loans.

Add to that the fact that Uber’s arrival in 2011 and Lyft’s in 2014 decimated the already imperiled livelihoods of yellow taxi drivers. Revenue for the yellow taxi industry plummeted. Uber broke nearly every law in a previously regulated market intended to limit the number of cabs on the street and ensure licensed drivers could command decent fares. The result was a race to the bottom. Medallion driver-owners competed against app-based workers for meager scraps in an oversaturated market, while banks and billionaires profited off their immiseration. Then, the pandemic’s economic fallout compounded their already precarious lives, plunging them further into a financial crisis. As streets emptied, the hardships mounted, and bankruptcy and foreclosure loomed, with fears of personal ruin stalking drivers. Federal stimulus aid provided a fleeting reprieve from destitution, but the funds were quickly swallowed up by expenses like rent, mortgage payments, food, and utilities.

After years of outcry from medallion driver-owners, including extensively covered suicides and escalating protests, Mayor de Blasio announced in March a $65 million relief fund. The Taxi Medallion Relief Program offers $20,000 in grants to lenders to restructure loans and reduce the debt owed. Another $9,000 goes to drivers to help with monthly payments. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents 21,000 for-hire and yellow taxi car drivers, charges that the mayor’s plan is inadequate because driver-owners would still be left with monthly payments as high as $2,000, leaving them earning sub-minimum wage after debt payments are factored in. The program also excludes owner-drivers already in foreclosure or bankruptcy proceedings.

They aren’t the only ones with objections: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has called the mayor’s relief fund “poorly structured” and “inadequate,” and further added that he negotiated the $6 billion federal aid package New York received with the understanding that stimulus funds “should go to help the taxi crisis.”

For their part, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance have put forward a counter proposal that will only cost the city $92 million over thirty years, a steep discount from an earlier proposal topping $500 million. The benefits of the union’s proposal include a city-backed guarantee to pay lenders in the event a driver-owner defaults on a medallion loan. That guarantee would in turn serve as incentive for lenders to reduce restructured loan principals to $145,000 and lock in monthly payments at $800. On Friday, October 8, taxi owner-drivers testified before the City Council ahead of a quarterly budget modification deadline of October 31 that would allow Mayor de Blasio to increase funding to the city’s current program and add a city-backed guarantee. But months before his second term ends, de Blasio is continuing to fend off calls to adopt the NYTWA’s proposal from immigrant, medallion driver-owners, New York City’s entire Congressional delegation, banking and finance experts, and a varying cast of state and local elected officials.

When workers challenge the calculus of the boss hammering them on the shop floor, they do so because of the power in their numbers and the vital leverage their specific workplaces grant them as part of their overall strategic importance in the economy. But that’s wholly different when workers are broke, and the terrain of the fight isn’t a fixed workplace. The fight for debt relief for yellow taxi drivers counterposes the overwhelming power of rapacious banks and private equity firms against workers’ political power.  

To better confront corporate power from this difficult position, the union has forged a strong alliance with the Democratic Socialists of America (of which I am a member) and the organization’s stalwarts like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, state senator Jabari Brisport, and state assemblyman Zohran Mamdani. The union’s strategy is to work with political allies as a countervailing weight to Mayor de Blasio, who aspires to higher office in the state.

Yellow cabbie Kuber Sancho-Persad, a stocky twenty-six-year-old from Trinidad, is one of thousands of workers mired in the debt crisis and worried about how to make payments on his hefty $570,000 loan. A January 2020 report published by the Taxi Medallion Task Force estimates the median debt yellow taxi drivers carry is approximately $499,000.  “We’re not looking for a handout,” said Sancho-Persad. “We’re looking for them to do the right thing and restructure the loans, so we can live with dignity for the rest of our lives—instead of working behind the cab with a ball and chain and be indentured servants.”

Sancho-Persad began driving with his father Choonilal Sancho-Persad in 2015, when they would alternate between night and day shifts. His mother had recently been diagnosed with cancer. Despite now having two incomes, the father and son duo had to put in scads of hours to make ends meet. Where it used to take eight to nine hours to earn $400, “now it was taking twelve to fourteen, maybe even eighteen hours, basically sleeping in the car just to do the same thing,” Kuber Sancho-Persad recalled.

Still, he got through two semesters at the New York City College of Technology, where he was studying mechanical engineering. “My dad didn’t want me to be a cab driver,” Sancho-Persad said. “He wanted me to go to school. And he thought that having the medallion, he would have been able to pay for my schooling. So I don’t have to go borrow money from the banks or anything.”

“I’ll pay for it,” his dad told him. “You don’t have to worry about it.”

“But he didn’t get to do that,” said Sancho-Persad.

In 2017, Choonilal Sancho-Persad died from a fall that resulted in an aneurysm. Two months beforehand, Sancho-Persad senior had received a foreclosure notice in the mail. Three years later, the court sent him a notice to appear before a judge. Amid pandemic-related shutdowns, the family had to appeal to their city council representative in the Bronx, hire lawyers, and go through the taxi board to update the paperwork marking his father as deceased.

Workers like Sancho-Persad say they must push their bodies to drive more than sixty hours weekly as part of a peonage that’s been passed one from one generation to the next.

Now, Kuber Sancho-Persad is working full-time to cover his late father’s debts. He assumed the role of family breadwinner after his surviving elderly mother, still battling cancer, was unable to continue working as a home health aide in order to make monthly payments of $3,700 on the medallion loan. “There’s not a day I start the car and remember what happened because my dad died believing that he was poor, and he left me on the road, believing he left me on the street, and he lost everything.”

Because he doesn’t have the medallion in hand, as it’s in foreclosure, Sancho-Persad is one of thousands of drivers who is ineligible for the mayor’s proposal. “With the mayor’s plan, I would not see anything. I will actually have to fight on my own.”

Despite the hardships they face, more than a dozen drivers I spoke with still beamed when talking about their profession and the value of yellow cabbies to the city.

“We’re therapists; we’re the doctors,” said Sancho-Persad. “We’re giving them home remedies from back in Trinidad. [Take] lime, honey, and all this kind of crap.” And the yellow cab “is a staple of the city. Just like the subway is a staple, the Empire State Building, and the Brooklyn Bridge,” he added one Friday night at the encampment, exuding swagger and a knack for banter. Eloquence flowed from him like smoke from a cigarette pressed between the lips of Humphrey Bogart.

But then, the overflowing pride in his voice gave way to a dour recognition: the promise of a medallion has shriveled like so many other speculative bubbles, leaving drivers in a struggle for survival. “He always thought the medallion would build itself up again, because it always did,” said Sancho-Persad recalling his father’s reasoning for the investment. “It went down, it went up, and it went down. But this time, it was different. There was no rebound.”

Yellow taxi workers like Sancho-Persad say they must push their bodies to drive more than sixty hours weekly as part of a peonage that’s been passed from one generation to the next. 

“Look at this guy,” he said, as the rush of traffic lights makes his fingers flicker like the iridescent scales of fish out of water. He pointed to a parked yellow taxi. “He has an eagle on the back of his cab. That’s something you put on a truck. My dad used to do that, too.” Asked what the eagle represents to yellow cabbies, he said, “Freedom.”

“That medallion used to mean being your own boss, making a better life for your family. The city took that away from us.”

Dipan Das, forty-nine and a native of Bangladesh, began driving a yellow cab in 2006, after years of toiling at a deli and clocking in fourteen-hour days. The day he threw in the towel, his wife had just given birth to their baby girl, Somya. Buoyed by the intoxicating chemical cocktail of parent brain and overjoyed at the prospect of laying eyes on his first-born, he asked his boss at the deli to take off work to be with his wife and daughter at the hospital.

“I have to see my baby in the hospital,” he remembers saying. “My wife is crying.”

“I don’t have any other people to continue working,” Das recalls the boss telling him. “If you want to work, you have to continue.”

“I can’t come anymore,” Das told him. “I have to go a different job because you will not give me the day off.”

Fed up with the indignities of working a low-wage job with no time off, he was lured by the freedom of owning a taxi medallion and cobbled together $20,000 by borrowing from friends for a down payment on a loan. Even if the hours required to drive a yellow cab were still grueling, he found a sense of control over his time in working five days a week on a sixty-hour schedule as opposed to eighty hours, seven days a week. And, at the time, the City of New York was promoting the medallion as a sound investment. “The medallion is better than investing in the stock market,” Das told me multiple times when we spoke, recalling the sales pitch that would assuage his griefs and worries about his crappy job at the deli.

During the pandemic, he fell behind on his $2,800 monthly payments, and the lender threatened to take his medallion unless he got on a payment plan. He was offered a $250,000 cash settlement option or a $300 weekly payment arrangement. Both offers were onerous, but he signed on a weekly payment schedule. Then, in late September, the lender took the medallion from Das anyway, he said.

“I agreed, okay, $300, but then they took my medallion,” he told me. “They are now lying to me. They are saying we have to calculate all the payments when the pandemic started.” The bank, he said, is now requiring him to pay $45,000 up front on a loan of $630,000.

New York City, under Mayor Bill de Blasio, is known for exulting in its immigrant past—honoring the immigrant as an object of noblesse oblige; the immigrant as supplicant of charity and pity; the immigrant as the modern-day pieta in human form (think: the deluge of flood waters that drowned eleven people in their basement apartments in Queens from decades of disinvestment in infrastructure, racist redlining policies, and a topology intended for water, not dwellings for Indo-Caribbean immigrants). It is far less interested in immigrants with the agency to demand more than reading a précis of their exploitation at a press conference while flanked by donors; more than being reduced to bit players in a pitiful tableau of philanthropy porn.  

After all, it is among the living and breathing immigrants of today that Walt Whitman’s barbaric yawp leaps over the rooftops of East Flatbush, Bensonhurst, Sunset Park, Washington Heights, Tremont, the South Bronx, East Elmhurst, Corona, and Flushing, echoing through the ages: I, too, speak for myself. Call it the joie da hustle that imbues the working lives of immigrant workers the moment they inhale the polluted air upon arrival at John F. Kennedy International Airport. 

And yet this drive to overcome history—to wipe clean the palimpsest, or free people from the grooves of their social circumstances—appears to have loosened its hold on the imagination of some taxi drivers. That’s a breakthrough, even if the fanciful promise of social ascendancy many immigrants and native-born people alike entertain—call it the American Dream—was always fraudulent to begin with.

Sancho-Persad described the toll of that disillusionment. “They might not have died of suicide, but they died of stress, anguish, losing their sense of pride, of being diminished to nothing. A lot of drivers died like that. It doesn’t have to be yellow, doesn’t have to be green. They were broken. They were promised something, and they were given something else.”

Asked if the city can make it right, he said, “it starts with debt forgiveness to restructure our medallion sector. As we go on—with making things right in the black car industry, to make the black car survive, to make green cars survive, make everything a reliable industry—make us proud to be New Yorkers.”

Alongside the pride New York City evokes in drivers, Sancho-Persad offered up an expansive vision of a unified taxi industry, echoing his own father’s response to Uber and Lyft tanking the wages of all for-hire drivers. “My dad had hope in the industry,” said Sancho-Persad. He recalled his father telling him to pay no mind to Uber and Lyft drivers. “They got to make their money, you got to make yours,” his father told him. “Let them do what they gotta do. They gotta make a dollar, too.”

“We should be one unified industry. But the only way the city keeps us apart is because they keep us fighting each other.”

It’s almost midnight. Sancho-Persad and I have been talking for over an hour. Under the golden orbs of taxi lights burning bright like stars caught in amber, I allow myself a smidgen of self-disclosure and tunnel through memories of my own father, a livery taxi driver since 1995.

Immigrant parents don’t usually allow their children into the intimacies of their hurt, and when they do, it’s often inadvertently. Growing up, I’d find my taxi driver father asleep on weekend afternoons, mummified in layers of sheets, with his hands unclenched, floating above his head as if summoned into an under-arrest pose. But it was more likely a position meant to ease the ache of his back, the pain on his wrist from gripping the steering wheel over fourteen hours during seemingly endless nights of driving.

Today, with taxi fares ever diminishing, he’s been forced onto an array of delivery apps. My father has been seeking a way out from driving a taxi for years, but he hasn’t lucked out. He broods over janitorial job applications that go unfinished for lack of a proper resume and his refusal to go through the exercise of completing it. He’s only held three kinds of jobs in over thirty years living in NYC: factory worker, restaurant worker, and taxi driver.

In the disappointment of these economic realities, Sancho-Persad pointed to new possibilities, ones that go beyond broken promises and get at what it means ultimately to work and live in the city: a world of solidarity encompassing drivers like our fathers and all workers, and not a race to the bottom in competition with each other.

“He didn’t care for the industry to be self-segregated like it is now,” said Sancho-Persad. “We should be one unified industry. But the only way the city keeps us apart is because they keep us fighting each other.”