The New York City taxi trade is in crisis, with an increasingly competitive labor market making it ever more difficult for drivers to make a living. Several drivers have already committed suicide this year, and labor advocates are demanding that the city respond to the industry’s economic squeeze. Drivers of all stripes—from the real-estate agent moonlighting with Uber to the yellow cabbie working off medallion debt—share common needs for stable work, but they all are hamstrung by a broken regulatory system.
The New York Taxi Workers Alliance’s (NYTWA) program to promote sustainable driving jobs would ensure one fair set of labor standards for the whole industry, including both traditional yellow-taxi and app services. The NYTWA hopes to address longstanding issues of economic equity for traditional yellow cabs, as well as the disruptions the industry has faced since Uber has jammed the streets with new vehicles under lax regulations.
“For five years a lack of regulation has created such an imbalance in this industry,” says NYTWA organizer and co-founder Bhairavi Desai, “and it’s such a vicious race to the bottom. And something needs to be done to help keep whole the entire workforce.”
If the city does not intervene now, labor advocates warn that we may see worse than drivers’ financial devastation. Two longtime drivers have committed suicide in the past few months alone; one of them, Doug Schifter, was an activist who had denounced the rideshare industry as a grave threat to workers’ livelihoods, before killing himself in public.
With the streets saturated with a freewheeling for-hire fleet of some 100,000 cars—over two-thirds of them app-based vehicles—the crisis facing the driver workforce has been punctuated by reports of extreme social despair. Facing punishing nonstop schedules, drivers are sinking deep into debt and sometimes resorting to emergency appeals on services like GoFundMe. The volatility of a hyper-competitive market, combined with the everyday costs of leasing, gas, and tolls, is fueling drivers’ anxiety. Rideshare apps have introduced new uncertainty to fares as they often receive up-front payments calculated via app, rather than a consistent metered fare. Cabbies and app-based drivers alike risk being stiffed by customers, slapped with traffic tickets, or dinged by passing bicycles. The threat of assault and robbery is an everyday hazard, along with the more chronic fear of getting their paychecks shorted by their licensing company.
Rather than the regulatory whack-a-mole that has polarized Uber drivers and cabbies, the NYTWA, an informal labor union for taxi and for-hire vehicle drivers, is focused on “protecting full-time work and creating livable incomes.” Unlike traditional yellow-cab drivers, Uber drivers have shifting pay scales because of the app’s “up-front” pricing, so the NYTWA’s goal is to set a uniform base wage under a standard fare based on “the yellow cab and green cab metered taxi rate…as the minimum wage floor.” The fare standards must be inclusive, Desai adds, because if app-based drivers remain on an independent wage system, “where does that leave rest of the workforce that is literally dying? It would be so unconscionable if the City Council and the mayor were not to have a comprehensive approach.”