Calling it “a historic day,” the New York Taxi Worker Alliance (NYTWA) announced on July 12 that the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) had approved a 17 percent fare hike that would be used to create a Health and Disability Fund for taxi drivers and to increase their pay for the first time in six years.
“This is a significant step forward in ensuring that men and women who labor 60-hour work weeks, serving half a million people every day, will have a decent shot at earning a livable income for the first time in years,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of NYTWA. ” All drivers are earning 25 percent less today compared to 2006, more than half have no health insurance, and no driver has disability insurance. When drivers are left jobless due to injury or sickness, our families have nothing to fall back on.”
The taxi workers victory was the result of a protracted organizing and mobilizing campaign. The campaign included rallies and demonstrations like the ones that NYTWA called earlier this year to draw attention to cab company abuses like overcharging drivers for leases, a practice that NYTWA says will be ended when TLC’s new rules passed along with the fare increase go into effect. It also included mobilizing members to testify at TLC hearings and lobby TLC members.
But the mobilizing and organizing that resulted in this victory began long before this year. Taxi drivers organized NYTWA in 1998 when the city passed new ordinances that made their jobs harder and lowered their pay. To protest the new rules, the union called a one-day strike that shut down taxi service, giving the drivers a sense of their own power.
What happened after that was many years of hard organizing made more difficult by the fact that taxi drivers were classified as independent contractors, who didn’t have the legal right to organize a union or bargain collectively–in fact, they still don’t.
It wasn’t always like that. At one time, New York taxi drivers were classified as employees and had a union, but in 1979, the TLC reclassified them as independent contractors.
Since then their pay has dropped 75 percent below what it would have been then, and they work 15 percent longer. They no longer have paid sick leave or vacations and they aren’t eligible for unemployment insurance or workers compensation.
These harsh conditions led the drivers to organize even though their jobs were not governed by the state’s or country’s labor laws. “Workers are workers,” said Desai last year at a conference of excluded workers organized by the AFL-CIO. They will always seek ways to protect their collective interests through collective action.
Even though it doesn’t have the advantages of being a traditional union such as a union security agreement that allows for the collection dues through payroll withholding, NYTWA membership has grown to 15,000.
What they do have is a willingness to take collective action to protect their jobs and working conditions. For example, after a spate of assaults on drivers, NYTWA in 2010 built a grassroots campaign to get state lawmakers to introduce and pass the Taxi Driver Protection Act, subsequently vetoed by Gov. David Patterson.
They have also been willing to take their fight directly to the cab companies who employ them. The demonstrations at cab companies described above are good examples.
Through it all, NYTWA has worked hard to create a sense of solidarity among drivers, most of whom are immigrants from dozens of different countries. When a Muslim cab driver in 2010 was attacked and slashed across the neck in what appeared to be a hate crime, NYTWA members rallied to his defense and called for an end to the racial and religious bigotry that led to the attack.
NYTWA also has built a communications network that educates and informs drivers about the issues. In 2011, they brought back Shift Change, a newsletter for drivers that had been dormant for a few years. They made the newsletter available at stops like airports where the drivers were waiting to pick up riders. NYTWA also created a website that drivers could go to for information about issues and mobilizations.
Last year, NYTWA officially affiliated with the AFL-CIO and became the first union in 50 years to receive a charter as an organizing committee. With this charter in hand, NYTWA formed the National Taxi Workers Alliance and plans to organize taxi drivers all over the US.