NYC taxi workers celebrate after medallion debt relief agreement reached; hunger strike over

After a two-week hunger strike, protesters were finally able to eat Wednesday after reaching a deal with the city to help resolve the massive debts of NYC taxi cab drivers.
Photo by Dean Moses

Taxi workers have finally brokered a debt relief agreement with New York City and a private asset management company after more than a month of protests calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio to do more to help thousands of drivers struggling with medallion debt.

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance reached a deal on Wednesday with Marblegate Asset Management, who control a large number of the city’s medallions, to “supplement” the city’s existing taxi medallion relief program.

“Taxi workers have worked tirelessly to make New York City the most vibrant city in the world, and we refuse to leave them behind,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio, in a release. “I’m proud to have worked with Senator [Chuck] Schumer, NYTWA, and Marblegate to reach an equitable, sustainable solution that builds on the success we’ve achieved in reducing debt burdens for the hard-working drivers who keep our city moving.”

Cab drivers need a medallion to drive within city limits. In the 2010s, when driving a taxi was a lucrative business and demand for the medallions was high, lenders artificially inflated medallion prices to up to $1 million, forcing hundreds of cabbies into debt as they tried to make a living.

The bubble burst and the value of medallions dropped — and so did business, as riders opted for more convenient options like Uber and Lyft. Medallion owners were left hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and without the means to pay it off – driving several to suicide.

Protests began in September, after the Taxi and Limousine Commission approved de Blasio’s $65 million Taxi Medallion Owner Relief Program. While some drivers were able to take advantage of the program to settle their debts, many said it just wasn’t enough.

Loudest among those voices was the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a 25,000-member union of livery, yellow cab, and ride-hail app drivers. NYTWA members led protests and a long hunger strike as a last-ditch effort to get more help from de Blasio and the TLC.

“It’s unbelievable! To be honest I did expect something, but not for a long time,” driver Basia O. told amNY “Some people didn’t believe, but I know there has to be justice. They simply stole the money from us. The victory is unbelievable. I worked for so long and I lost my medallion and they wanted to go after my house.”

Taxi workers and their supporters took to Twitter to celebrate the agreement.

“We have won a city-backed guarantee,” NYTWA wrote. “Loans will be restructured to max $170K! No more debt beyond our lifetime. No more risk of losing homes.”

Under the new agreement, Marblegate will restructure existing loans to a principal of $200,000, with $170,000 as a guaranteed loan and the remaining $30,000 as a grant from the city and a 5% interest rate. The restructured loans will be on a 20-year plan with scheduled monthly payments, which will be capped at $1,122 for “eligible medallion owners.” The city has said they will act as a guarantor for the principal and interest — a longtime demand of the NYTWA — and will negotiate with other lenders to work out the same agreement.

“After a long and painful journey, we made it home to victory,” said Bhairavi Desai, Executive Director of NYTWA. “Today marks a new dawn, a new beginning for a workforce that has struggled through so much crisis and loss. Today, we can say owner-drivers have won real debt relief and can begin to get their lives back. Drivers will no longer be at risk of losing their homes, and no longer be held captive to a debt beyond their lifetime.”

Desai thanked de Blasio for standing with drivers and working toward an agreement, and Marblegate for “working with us in good faith to reach a resolution.”

Drivers also had an unexpected ally in Washington – Senator Chuck Schumer, whose father-in-law worked as a taxi driver, has been outspoken about the need for debt relief for medallion holders.

“This resolution was not possible without Senator Schumer whose leadership secured funds and helped steer our ship,” Desai said. “And this victory was not possible without our broad coalition of supporters. The city we love had our back and so today we can say, we have won!”

Assemblymember Zohran K. Mamdani, who represents parts of Queens, joined the hunger strike in solidarity with struggling drivers.

“It’s a horrible feeling to go on a fast for 15 days, to deprive yourself of food for more than two weeks is to strip your body of one of the most basic elements of dignity,” Mamdani told amNY. “We’re talking about feeling faint, dizzy headaches. You know, losing all of your bearings when you stand up too quickly. Blurred vision, inability to sleep, unrelenting hunger. When you talk to drivers about what it means to be in the throes of this crisis to be $500,000 $600,000 in debt. They talk about feeling the same symptoms. So we felt what they feel for their lives. We felt that for just a few weeks.” 

TLC Commissioner and Chair Aloysee Heredia Jarmoszuk said the agency’s primary concern “is all TLC Licensees and the health of the Industry.”

A New York Times investigation found that the TLC, along with former mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, had not just failed to act on predatory loans — they had encouraged the practice, forcing desperate drivers further into debt as medallion prices rose.

“We remain committed to the success and vitality of the Taxi segment and look forward to building on the success of the Medallion Relief Program in collaboration with Industry stakeholders and elected officials,” Jarmoszuk said.