The roaring 20s were a great time to drive taxis in New York City, but the industry suffered during the Great Depression. The driver market was flooded with desperate men looking for work just as the rest of the population was seriously cutting back on expenses. Taxi salaries plummeted, and drivers’ frustration boiled into a strike. On February 5, 1934, the strike spiraled out of control, leading to violent confrontations across the city between drivers and police.
Even during the Depression, taxis remained an important part of the New York economy. In 1930, New Yorkers spent as much money on taxis as they did on all of public transit combined. Unfortunately, drivers didn’t benefit, as they had little leverage against fleet owners, with more than four willing drivers for every cab. Some owners demanded expensive daily leases, while others took a high percentage of the fares. Either method resulted in a long day’s work that might net only a few dollars. Some drivers resorted to illegal activity, like renting their backseats to prostitutes, to make ends meet.
During the 1933 election, Fiorello LaGuardia campaigned for the taxi driver vote by denouncing the existing nickel tax on rides, which the courts helpfully got rid of just as he took office in 1934. Even with an ally in City Hall, though, driver grumbling continued over how to distribute the nickel tax refunds, culminating in a decision to strike on February 3.
Striking taxi drivers was nothing new- the first strike took place in 1908, a year after the first taxi company was founded. But this strike had a hostile energy to it, as strikers went hunting for scabs to punish. As one driver put it, “the bastids that was scabbin’, we pulled the doors off their cabs.” Independent cab owners, who had nothing to gain by striking, had their windows smashed by blocks of ice and passengers thrown from their cabs. Police who tried restore order had their tires slashed and marbles thrown under their horses. By February 5, angry crowds of driving were brawling in the street with the police and torching independent cab cars.
In a move that makes Bill de Blasio look like Rudy Giuliani, LaGuardia insisted that striking drivers had First Amendment rights and took away cops’ billy clubs to prevent police violence. Other than brief truces, the protests carried on for months. In 1937, the state legislature passed the Haas Act, which created the modern-day medallion system, stabilizing the number of city-issued medallions under 14,000 (a percentage of which went to independent owners), which allowed steady wages for the remaining drivers. This framework served drivers well until the 1970s.
The tensions between drivers and fleet owners, independent owners and fleet drivers, and the industry and city regulators will all be further explored next week, when we post a lengthy look at the taxi industry. It’s a fascinating world, one that so many New Yorkers participate in on a regular basis.
To learn more about the history of taxi driving in New York City, check out Taxi! by Graham R.G Hodges.