The yellow cab, that quintessential fixture of Manhattan’s landscape, is also one of the least healthy spaces to work in the city. Drivers face not only constant stress from snarling knots of traffic but also a phalanx of exhaust and smog, all while being painfully cemented to a driver’s seat. And often, their cabs are better insured than they are. Now they face legal gridlock in the long-awaited launch of an unprecedented pro-worker medical program.
In 2012, the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), the agency that regulates the industry, agreed to set up supplemental health and disability coverage for drivers, financed with a six-cent-per-fare deduction from earnings. Managed through a special nonprofit affiliated with the advocacy organization Taxi Workers Alliance (TWA), the fund would expand on the barebones benefits offered through the state Workers Compensation system. By providing weekly payments of about $300 to $350 for sick and injured workers, the fund would offer vital support, particularly for off-duty disabilities or illness. That added safety net could have a real impact in an industry plagued by economic instability and lack of regular medical benefits.
The fund, which also enjoyed the support of the de Blasio administration, marked a political victory for the TWA, a self-proclaimed unofficial union with about 17,000 members of a workforce of more than 52,000. Since the late 1990s, the group has pioneered novel organizing tactics for a historically marginalized service sector, where supposedly “independent” drivers are systematically priced out of an oligarchical ownership regime.
But the initiative was routed by the State Supreme Court earlier this month, with a pro-business ruling in a lawsuit reflecting fleet owners’ fear of the cabbies’ increasingly militant organizing efforts. The convoluted suit, brought by cab operators aligned with the industry, accused the TLC of “creat[ing] a multi-million dollar slush fund by seizing taxicab drivers’ hard-earned income.”
With a legal rationale that mirrors right-wing attacks on the Affordable Care Act, Judge Margaret Chan deemed the fund unnecessary and overstepping executive authority—and even suggested drivers’ prior neglect of preventive healthcare was to blame for their current illnesses: