On Wednesday, Oct. 20, a group of taxi drivers in New York City with the New York Taxi Workers’ Alliance began a hunger strike to demand that the city enact life-saving debt relief to workers who have been taken advantage of and squeezed to the breaking point. The infiltration of app-based rideshare services like Uber and Lyft has been disastrous for taxi workers and their industry, undercutting rates and creating a perpetual race to the bottom for everyone. On top of that, taxi drivers in New York City, many of whom are immigrants and people of color, have found themselves crushed under the weight of massive debt and are facing financial ruin. This debt stems from the artificially inflated cost of taxi medallions, the city-issued permits drivers are required to have to own a cab and pick up street hails in the city.
In this urgent interview, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez speaks with Mouhamadou Aliyu and Bhairavi Desai about the dire situation taxi drivers are facing and their life-or-death struggle to get City Hall to take action. Mouhamadou Aliyu is a longtime taxi owner-driver in New York City and a member of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance; Bhairavi Desai is the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.
Pre-production/Studio/Post-production: Dwayne Gladden
Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome, everyone, to The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez. I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, and it’s great to have y’all with us. On Wednesday, Oct. 20, a group of taxi drivers in New York City with the New York Taxi Workers Alliance are going on a hunger strike to demand that the city enact lifesaving debt relief to workers who have been taken advantage of and squeezed to the breaking point. As we all know, app-based ride share driving services like Uber and Lyft were always presented to us as a low-cost option for transportation for customers, and an easy option for ‘independent contractors’ to get some extra cash. But the infiltration of these services into cities like New York has essentially been a nuclear torpedo directed at taxi workers and their industry, Undercutting rates, and creating a perpetual race to the bottom for everyone.
But on top of that, taxi drivers in New York City, many of whom are immigrants and people of color who are trying to make a decent, dignified living like the taxi industry used to provide for its workers, have also found themselves crushed under the weight of massive debt. That debt is largely the result of the artificially inflated cost of taxi medallions, which are the city-issued permits drivers are required to have to own a cab and pick up street hails in the city. As the great writer and Real News Network contributor Luis Feliz Leon writes in a recent piece for The Baffler, “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 down 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.
So, combined with the market disruptions from companies like Uber and Lyft, as well as the hammer blow that came with the COVID-19 pandemic, this situation has created a truly horrendous downward spiral for New York taxi workers who are facing financial ruin. And they are fighting back with everything they’ve got to get people to care about their vital struggle, and to get City Hall to provide the relief that workers so desperately need. And I’m honored to be joined today by two people who are directly involved in that pivotal struggle. And I’d like to ask them to introduce themselves. So, Mouhamadou, why don’t we start with you, and could you please introduce yourselves to viewers?
Mouhamadou Aliyu: Sure. Thanks for having us this afternoon. This is a pleasure. My name is Mouhamadou Aliyu. I’m a New York City Yellow Cab owner, medallion owner, and driver. I came to this country in 1994 in the pursuit of a better life. I was really young and I was loaded, very loaded. So, I start doing work here and there, here and there, then by 2001 I get into the taxi business by driving a cab. Few years later, I was like – I’m dreaming big – So a few years later, I was like, why don’t I get a medallion? And thanks to God, in 2004, the city auctioned a medallion, which I place a bid on. And then I won. What? Dream is coming true. I was happy, working hard, dreaming coming true, and then living it. By 2012, my dream starts turning into a nightmare. I mean, I started losing ground in the city because I want to… Remember everyone, the medallion is like, it’s a license given by the city of New York that gives you exclusive right to pick up street fares within the five boroughs, so we buy into that.
We pay for that license, knowing the city will guarantee that license for us. But unfortunately, by 2014, here we are, open market with Uber, Lyft, you name it, anyone coming into this market, with no regulation at all. Something that people are paying over $1 million for, this big company comes in and gets it for free. So I start losing, my medallion starts losing value. Value. And then as I’m speaking right now, I owe $630,000 on my medallion. If you have $100,000 in your pocket, as we’re speaking, you go out there, you take one medallion. So the question is, what am I going to do with this loan? And then the situation I’m in, created by the City of New York with no fault on my own, the City of New York is the one who sells this license, and they guarantee us the exclusive right. Permission to have this. They even say at one point you better buy a medallion than buy a house.
They even promote it there. So here we’re today, they put us in this situation where they inflated the value of the medallion. And after me having all this room, and then they have the open market and then boom, the medallion is not even worth $100,000. So I’m a member of New York Taxi Workers Alliance. I’m so desperate. I’m dying. Many, many times I went to City Hall, cry for help, beg for help because I’m a father of four, I have three little ones. And then, this is all I know. This is all I live for, and it has been taken away from me. I mean, it’s like, my life has been destroyed. They’ve just completely… They buried me alive. I don’t know if you guys know, nine people, nine of my fellow drivers, committed suicide. There is no day I don’t think about committing suicide. Because as a young kid, when I came here in 1994, I had this dream and then I was living it.
And then all of a sudden, I have been robbed of the American dream for no faults on my own. So, many time we went to City Hall, because that created this, that made this, this is, this is their own making. They’re responsible for this thing. We ask them to fix it. At least give us back our life or give me back my life. But until now, they all will agree that something should be done. We should have you a relief. It’s not like we are asking for something free. No no no, we want justice, something needs to be done here. Because all this situation we are in, the only crime that we commit is being an immigrant. Simple, plain and simple, there is no other way around to explain this crime, this nightmare, this pain. The pain is all over. And then, how much more do we have to take this before the Mayor listens to us? I don’t know, I don’t get it. I went many, many times after this Mayor, please do something. He said, no, it does not have no money. Not too long ago, They gave this city $6 billion. Within 2 billion [inaudible] to help us out.
All the mayor does is give us $65 million. This is peanuts. I owe $630,000. According to the New York City plan, if this thing goes forward, my money will be $520,000. While you can go out there, buy a medallion for $100,000, which means I will be a slave the rest of my life. Not only I will be a slave the rest of my life, I have three little one that will bear this debt on their shoulders. Something needs to be done, and the city can do it only by listening to the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which I’m a proud member of. They probably don’t have a plan, but we have a better plan, and it’s a win-win situation. All it takes is for this mayor to listen to us, to work with us. Instead of him completely, completely ignoring us.
I thank you guys for having us here. I have a message for Mr. Mayor: We are human beings. We are citizens, and we do vote, we have it hard. We don’t deserve what we are going through. He can fix this thing. We’re calling. We’re so desperate, we’re even going on hunger strike, because we went all over, all over to get this thing fixed. Because our life has been turned into a nightmare. Our life has been destroyed, completely destroyed. Please, give us our life back. So, I don’t know. I cry many times. I cried many times. I’m so desperate. Not really because of myself, but because of my kids. Because I mean, how in the world, a kid, it’s like, I’m on, I’m on my way out of poverty. And the system is, pulls me back to poverty. The system is making it for me not being able to get out of poverty, but I’m not going to take it. No.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, geez, man. I mean, Mouhamadou, thank you so much for laying that out for us. I mean, it’s so obvious how unjust this situation is, how much pain it is putting you and your fellow drivers and family through, and how unnecessary that pain is. This hits very close to home, as someone who is the children of immigrants who came to this country also seeking that American dream, who felt like they had it for a moment. And then in the financial crash in 2008, it all went away. We lost our house, we lost everything. And it felt like we were doing everything we were told to do. We were working hard, like we were told to do, but that doesn’t stop all the predatory practices like this medallion licensing system that has just burdened you and so many others with this tremendous amount of debt. It’s really awful and horrifying. And I thank you so much for sharing that with us.
And, Bhairavi, I wanted to bring you in here and first ask you to introduce yourself to viewers. And maybe if you could expand on what Mouhamadou was saying, and talk a bit about what this situation looks like for taxi drivers across the city? And what City Hall’s role has really been in creating this disaster, and why are they not doing anything now to fix it?
Bhairavi Desai: Sure. Hi, my name is Bhairavi Desai. I’m the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. You just said it a few minutes ago, Max. When you think of this issue, I feel like the word ‘pain’ really encapsulates it. There has been such a grave injustice, and as Mouhamadou was saying, the city inflated the value of the medallions going back to right after 9/11, when there was a deficit and the city saw an opportunity to sell these medallions and make a lot of money for itself. It made $850 million from these sales through the years. They directly advertised to mostly immigrant lease drivers, saying, why do you have to lease from a garage? You can invest in the medallion. It’s more secure than the stock market. We have leaflets where they’ve said that even going back to 2013, when they knew that they were going allow in Uber and Lyft without any regulation.
So, there were seven government agencies at the city, state, and federal level that all knew that the Taxi and Limousine Commission, our industry regulator, had inflated the values of the medallion. At one point, the TLC was even basically fudging its public reports on the actual value of the medallion, right? So there were direct mailers and advertising campaigns targeting the drivers to invest. And then the banks, many of them that were no longer allowed to loan after the 2008 housing crisis that you noted, they were rolled out a red carpet to loan to immigrant drivers. And those banks, many of them started to work directly with industry brokers to really hound the drivers, to go ahead and invest. Many of the City Hall officials that were involved in creating this bubble, and allowing in Uber and Lyft unregulated, then went straight to work for Uber and Lyft directly.
So, you see the movies and the headlines about the political corruption, which we know happens globally. We take for granted the degree to which it happens really at the local level. And so, what we’re seeing here is a complete tragedy for over 6,000 individual families that invested in that medallion. Many of them are now in a lifelong debt on average of $550,000. Many of the owner-drivers are older men and women who were dependent on the medallion for their retirement income, that they could lease it out to a driver and that would become their retirement income. All that’s been wiped out. They’re now having to work full-time shifts. We have members who are in their 70s and 80s that have had to go back to behind the wheel. It’s unconscionable. It is unconscionable what this city has done. It’s made its money. It owes a large debt to the drivers. We refuse to leave these streets before that debt is paid.
Maximillian Alvarez: And I mean, I’m genuinely overwhelmed again by the injustice of all of this, just really taking advantage of workers like Mouhamadou who are out there trying to make a living. And who were actively advertised too, as having this be a pathway to making, to attaining the American dream, to making that comfortable middle class existence for themselves and their families. And now that we have seen the corruption in that model, we’ve seen the inflated prices of the medallions, of the debt that it has buried workers under, too bad. It’s, kind of like, well, tough. Right. What are they, what are drivers supposed to do in that situation? And Mouhamadou even mentioned some drivers have committed suicide, others are facing financial ruin. And now we’ve gotten to the point where drivers with the New York Taxi Workers Alliance are going on a hunger strike by the time that people see this video. I guess I wanted to ask, Mouhamadou, if you could talk about what it means for you to go on this hunger strike and how you and others have been pushed to this point.
Mouhamadou Aliyu: Well, we have been pushed to the limit. I mean, if there is another word to describe this. We’re desperate, and we’re [dying]. And then, I mean, we don’t want to go on a hunger strike, right. But we did all we can to get the mayor’s attention. But if I can remember now, we have been since 2003, I have been going after the mayor, after the governor to get some help, for them to show us some mercy. Since then the Mayor appeal has denied us any kind of help possible. Anything that could have get out of this mess, the Mayor refuses to provide it. So it does put us in this situation, where we really do not want to hunger strike, but the only thing that is left us for now to do is that hunger strike. Many people committed suicide, that does not change this mayor’s mind. How much, how much more is he asking for? But I believe in the higher power one way or another we’re going to make it through. We’re going to find our way out. Thank you.
Maximillian Alvarez: Thank you, man. I really, really appreciate you sharing that with us. Cause I know it’s not easy, the true pain and suffering that this, that taking advantage of drivers like Mouhamadou is causing not only to them, but to their families and something absolutely needs to be done. And, I don’t want to keep y’all any longer than I absolutely have to, but I was wondering, Bhairavi, if you could kind of pick up on where Mouhamadou left off and maybe talk a bit about this, the kind of protests that have led to the hunger strike, what viewers should know about the hunger strike itself, and what folks can do to show support for drivers like Mouhamadou and his family, and for the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.
Bhairavi Desai: So, we’ve been out here protesting outside City Hall. This is day number 30. These are 24-hour protests. There’s always people out here on these streets. It has been really taxing on the body, but our spirit is unmoved. We are going to now escalate into a hunger strike right outside these same gates until the mayor starts to reason, and recognize that the plan that his taxi agency put together is a setup for people to fail. And, the city owes a debt to the drivers, and it needs to pay that debt. You know, the thing here that’s so striking besides the pain is the obviousness of the solution. I mean, as Mouhamadou was saying, we have a proposal, a solution to have the city basically guarantee the loans for the banks. So just to backtrack a little bit, in order to address this crisis, we needed the City of New York to make up for the lack of leverage that drivers have at the table in dealing with the banks.
And so the city said, okay, we’re going to offer a $20,000 cash down payment to the banks through the drivers, so it’ll be a grant to the drivers. And they hand it off to the banks. Banks, and then the city, came out with rules as to how the bank can qualify to get that money. Even if they only reduced the loan by 10%, as long as one term that the city considers predatory is not in the new loan agreement, they can still get the $20,000, the bank. So, even if the relief is 10%. And that’s nothing. And as Mouhamadou was saying, his lender is basically offering only a 20% relief for many drivers, that’s going to leave them at $500,000 in debt.
Meanwhile, we had a solution. Our solution is, have the city say to the banks, bring down the debts to no more than $175,000. On top of that, the drivers will get a grant to reduce the debt to actually $145,000 paid at $800 a month. The city guarantee would only bear a cost if there’s a default. And, if after the default, the bank seizes the medallion and resells it, and the reselling value is still lower than whatever is left on the $145,000 loan, it’s a very minuscule cost to the city of New York. We’ve had our proposal vetted by our chief financial officer at the city, the comptroller, who’s found it to be fiscally sound. Cost, we’re talking about on the high end, is like $93 million over 30 years. $3 million a year for a city with an annual budget of $100 billion, a city that took in $850 million from the sales of these inflated medallions to the drivers, and the city and a state that have collected $1 billion in taxes from Yellow Cab drivers from 2009 to today.
So the money is there, the proposal is there, it’s been vetted by our comptroller, by our state attorney general, which had filed a complaint against the city for defrauding drivers. It’s been endorsed by the Senate majority leader and the entire New York City congressional delegation, as well as over 70 state and city elected officials. We have popular support on change.org, we have over 43,000 signatures in very little time. We know that people support our fight. And so, we’re asking you to come and join us. You can stand with us as the days go on. As our hunger strikers are not going to be able to continue with their marches and rallying, we ask the public to stand with us and be that voice, be that marcher for us, for our justice.
We’ve been doing absolutely everything humanly possible in our control. It’s now a question of really further isolating the mayor, for him to recognize that his taxi commission failed the assignment. We cannot let them fail drivers’ lives, cannot let them punish any more children. It’s now become generational debt because the debt is so high. Cannot let any more of our families suffer through the poverty and the indignities of a lifetime debt where you’re literally handcuffed to that steering wheel. Come and stand with us at City Hall, Broadway and Murray. You could go on our website, nytwa.org, you can call the mayor’s office directly. You can sign the petition that’s online, and you can come out and join our protest.
Maximillian Alvarez: That is Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York City Taxi Workers Alliance, and Mouhamadou Aliyu, a driver-owner and member of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance as well. Thank you both so much for taking time to talk with us, and we are sending nothing but love and solidarity to you all as you continue this important struggle.
Bhairavi Desai: Thank you so much.
Mouhamadou Aliyu: Thank you very much.
Maximillian Alvarez: For everyone watching, this is Maximillian Alvarez from The Real News Network. Before you go, please head on over to therealnews.com/support. Become a sustainer of our work so we keep bringing you important coverage and conversations, just like this. Thank you so much for watching.