Bhairavi Desai

Bhairavi Desai

New York taxi drivers have been speaking out for months against new city regulations that require all taxis to have new technology installed including credit card machines and global positioning systems that will track where the cabbies drive. Faced with an October 1 deadline to make the switchover, thousands of cabbies pulled their vehicles off the streets Wednesday and Thursday in the first citywide taxi strike in nine years. With the strike winding down on Thursday night, New York Taxi Workers Alliance Executive Director Bhairavi Desai spoke with The Indypendent about what was accomplished, how her group pulled off the strike and what they might be ready to do next.

JT: What’s your assessment of how the strike has gone?

BD: We feel it’s been phenomenally successful. There’s 13, 187 taxis in New York and between the day and the night shift about 26,000 drivers. Definitely, there are 20,000 drivers that were on strike in these two days … I was just talking to a driver. At his garage, they have 167 cabs. Only three of them were dispatched. There’s a mechanic shop that services cabs as their whole business. They take in $4,000 per day. Yesterday, they took in $400. From 4:30 in the morning, we were at different locations counting the cars. There’s a visible difference.

JT: What do you say to the numbers from Mayor Bloomberg?

BD: That’s nonsense! There’s no way that you could have 75 percent of the cabs on the street with the streets looking as empty as they are. The media keeps showing parts of Midtown because that’s where the cabbies who crossed the picket line were going. Even at the airports, you would not have more than 30 cabs at one time. That’s significant. In different parts of Manhattan, you don’t see the number of yellow cabs you would on any other normal day. There are many streets in Manhattan on any given moment where you look out and all you see is a canvass of yellow. In these two days, what you see are only specks of it.

JT: How do you feel about the way the press has covered the story?

BD: Oh God. Corporate media… They clearly wanted to keep the position established by the city which was to downplay the strike. Yet, at the same time all the details of the articles were clearly evidence of how the strike had an impact.

JT: Sum up the objections the drivers have to the new GPS system.

BD: The technology as a whole raises a lot of different problems. There’s economic concerns over the fact that the drivers are having to pay for this at a rate of $15-45 per week plus there’s a surcharge of 5 percent on credit card fares. Because the GPS tracking is on the meter, it’s delaying activation of the meter. For example a fare jumps out and the next fare jumps in and the driver wants to activate the meter. The meter becomes much, much slower. Sometimes they will have to drive two to three blocks without the meter on but the fare is in the backseat. That’s money directly out of the driver’s pocket. Drivers have little money to spare to begin with. Expenses are $130-160 for a 12-hour shift and they need to earn that before they break even.

JT: What impact do you think the strike will have on the City and the Taxi and Limousine Commission?

BD: We know that there were businesses that were impacted. This [the GPS system] has gone from an issue that was an industry issue to becoming an issue that hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers and people around the world are aware of compared to the day before the strike.

JT: With the Oct. 1 deadline coming up for the switchover to the GPS systems, do you expect the TLC to revisit its decision?

BD: We do. It’s not only the TLC but the Mayor’s office we are looking at. We’re going to do everything we can to continue this discussion. I can’t imagine a responsible city government ignoring the fact that tens of thousands of workers went out on strike over an issue. The day before the strike he (Bloomberg) he kept saying only a handful of drivers will strike. The industry said nobody will strike. We said from the beginning the overwhelming majority of drivers will strike. Ours is the only credibility that has stayed intact and we plan to build upon that. Fact is, drivers are in high spirits. They aren’t following the spin by City Hall. They know how many cars are usually at different locations throughout the city.

JT: Is TWA considering calling another strike if the City and the TLC don’t change their position?

BD: Yes, that’s absolutely open.

JT: Would it possibly be longer than two days?

BD: Yes.

JT: Describe how TWA was able to overcome some of the obstacles of organizing taxi drivers given their isolation and the feeling they need to keep on driving to make ends meet.

BD: We’ve been hitting the streets. We’ve handed out over 35,000 fliers in the past two weeks. The he membership we’ve built in the past nine years is a solid base. There’s no better publicity than a fellow driver rolling down his window at a red light saying, “Listen brother, I’m going to strike. We need to stand up in solidarity.” That’s what was happening. Strikes are only successful when workers become organizers.

JT: And that’s what happened with TWA?

BD: Yes, absolutely. Our membership went into action. Before the strike, we had about 100 members actively mobilizing. But now we have 20,000 strikers who see in action their ability and power. Believe me, they are going to be motivated to keep that unity in tact. Drivers know how invaluable solidarity is. When you work in isolation, you learn that even better.

||The Indypendent