New York City taxi drivers commenced a hunger strike Wednesday, aiming to bring awareness to their plight and attempt to secure better debt relief terms from the de Blasio Administration.
Cabbies have been protesting outside City Hall every day for the past month and have taken other actions, such as blocking the Brooklyn Bridge, to demonstrate their distaste with de Blasio’s $65 million relief plan, which they say will keep many still in hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt.
“The city thinks it can ignore us, but they’re wrong. For thousands of drivers across New York, this is a matter of life and death,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance union, in a Tuesday statement. “We will not sit back and let the city consign us to a lifetime of poverty and death in a debt trap.”
The city’s iconic yellow cabs have been on the decline in recent years as rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft have taken over New York’s car-hailing industry. The brunt has been felt not by the city so much as by the drivers, who have to buy a medallion for the right to drive a yellow cab. At their peak, medallions were trading for up to $1 million apiece, but the market crashed as apps took over, and medallions now routinely sell for less than $100,000.
At the same time, the city and lenders were purposefully inflating medallion prices, as a means of revenue generation for the city and profiteering by lenders, a bombshell investigation by the New York Times found.
As a result, cabbies who took out massive loans for medallions are now left with a comparatively worthless asset, and are left in mountains of debt. Many cabbies have committed suicide amidst the turmoil.
This spring, de Blasio had proposed a $65 million grant relief program for drivers in debt, which was greenlit by the Taxi and Limousine Commission earlier this month. Under the plan, cabbies can get up to $200,000 in debt forgiven and get monthly payments reduced to $1,500 per month or less. The mayor’s office said last week that over 100 medallion owners have received over $16 million in relief so far, including 21 whose debt was entirely eliminated.
The Taxi Workers Alliance has rejected the plan as an “injustice,” arguing that many cabbies will still have hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt even if they get a maximum reward under the city’s plan. The union says the average cabbie is in $550,000 of medallion debt.
The union’s own plan calls for capping driver debt at $145,000 and monthly payments at $800, the restitution of foreclosed medallions to their owners, and, crucially, for the city to guarantee the loans.
“We will be in the streets until we get what’s owed: a city-backed guarantee on medallion debt that allows for real relief,” Desai said.
The drivers are being joined in their strike by Queens Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani, as well as former Queens City Council candidate Jaslin Kaur, whose father’s struggle with medallion debt animated her campaign in eastern Queens.
At his daily press briefing Wednesday, the mayor rejected the idea of a more generous package for distressed cab drivers, opining that it would be too expensive and would send a message to others in financial distress that the city would bail them out.
“I’ve been asked many times before, could we do a full bailout?” Hizzoner said. “We cannot. We’ve been really clear about that. That’s hundreds of millions of dollars, and has a lot of other ramifications for other folks who have gone through tough situations and could ask for a bailout. We are really trying to be as helpful as we can in a smart way.”