A jubilant crowd of dozens of yellow taxi drivers and their supporters celebrated last week’s historic news that New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission agreed to a medallion debt restructuring plan. Organized by the 25,000-member strong New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), the cab drivers were joined by a plethora of elected officials like Mayor Bill de Blasio, Senator Chuck Schumer, Comptroller Scott Stringer, Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani among others, as they spoke about the importance of the victory.
“Brothers and sisters, finally the sun is coming for a new day for all of the drivers,” said Richard Chow, a driver and member of NYTWA, to a boisterous crowd. “You must believe in what you fight. You don’t fight you lose. You fight, you win!”
The celebration comes after taxi drivers staged an exhausting two-week-long hunger strike and a nearly two-month-long encampment outside City Hall to demand a medallion debt relief program. Facing mounting pressure and with the help of Senator Chuck Schumer, last Wednesday the de Blasio administration announced that it has reached an agreement with the NYTWA and Marblegate Asset Management, the largest medallion lender, to initiate a taxi medallion debt restructuring plan that would provide affordable rates to drivers as well as ensuring a city-funded guarantee on the principal and interest for medallion loans.
“This was such a long and painful journey,” said Bhairavi Desai, President of the NYTWA. “This campaign started six years ago and for the past three years, it has been nonstop mobilization for us. So we need a moment to celebrate the triumph.”
Wayne Chen, a veteran yellow cab driver of 20 years from Burma is ecstatic about the City’s debt relief plan. Prior to the pandemic, he was already struggling to pay back his debt but the pandemic really pushed him over the edge.
“During the pandemic, we had no work,” he said. “Everything was shut down. We could not pay our debt. The new plan is more affordable for us.”
How we covered it: New York Taxi Drivers Win Their Fight Against Medallion Debt
Former City Council Candidate and NYTWA organizer Jaslin Kaur believes that after all the suffering cab drivers have endured during the course of the pandemic, drivers are entitled to a moment of celebration.
“This is an extension of such an amazing victory to have a proper celebration,” she said. “You get to see a rare coalition of folks who have come together for real worker justice at a time when we are still not done with the pandemic and folks are struggling to keep their homes and families fed.”
For her, this victory hits close to home. Kaur’s father is a yellow cab driver. In an act of solidarity with her father and the other drivers, Kaur participated in the hunger strike as long as she could until her health began to fail. She hopes the City’s debt relief program will elevate drivers’ economic burdens.
City Councilmember Elect Shekar Krishnan, whose district includes Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, was on the frontlines with the drivers from the beginning of the City Hall occupation. For him, the taxi workers’ victory is an opportunity for them to center their struggle in the mainstream and become a vocal political force in the city.
“I think this was such a wonderful expression of working-class solidarity and power,” he said. “Our taxi workers are one of the most essential workers in our City.”
Krishnan, whose district is home to a large community of immigrant cab drivers, had centered cab drivers issues throughout his campaign for city council. When he is officially sworn into office in January, he plans to push for cab driver representation on the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), the agency that regulates the yellow cab industry.
“Our TLC has never had a driver represented on its board,” he said. “That is unbelievable to think that in this city there has never been driver representation. I want to make sure in conjunction with NYTWA that there is at least one if not more drivers on the commission.”
After the speeches by the elected officials concluded, taxi drivers gathered in mass for a long-awaited feast consisting of an array of South Asian food like naan and samosas. After they were served, many gathered with each other to engage in warm conversations over cups of chai. One of the volunteers distributing the food was Pakistan-born Javid Tariq, co-founder of the NYTWA and a yellow taxi driver for 25 years. After participating in the hunger strike it warmed his heart to be able to feed his fellow drivers, he said. Although the hunger strike was difficult, the outpouring of support he witnessed made it much less difficult.
“It was difficult but every day we had people come and support us morally,” he says. “That gave us the courage to keep going on.”
Now with the victory at hand, he believes the City had saved the lives of drivers like him.
“This victory means no driver is going to have a fear to lose their home. It’s really saving the lives and assets of the drivers. We are really really happy about that.”