Today in NYC History: Taxi Drivers and Rudy Go To Battle (1998)

Bhairavi Desai, Executive Director of Taxi Workers Alliance, at 1998 rally. (Photo by AP.)

Bhairavi Desai, Executive Director of Taxi Workers Alliance, at 1998 rally. (Photo by AP.)

It can be easy to forget, in our hurry to get places, that taxi drivers have it pretty tough. Between the rise of Uber, Lyft, and their imitators, and the introduction of the green outer-borough taxis a few years ago, life has never been so convenient for taxi passengers.  For drivers, on the other hand, the future is unsettlingly turbulent. But they’ve had their backs to the wall before.

On May 13, 1998, 24,000 drivers stayed off of the streets to protest Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s new taxi regulations. The 90s were challenging times economically for drivers. A profession that had for more than a century served as an entry into the middle-class for successive waves of white immigrants was now suffering under terrible wage stagnation.

Most yellow taxi drivers lease their medallions from garages on a per-shift basis. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, a driver might pay $130 for a shift (plus $20 for gas), and thus not make a single dollar for himself until he clocked in $151 worth of fares. Increases to cab fares didn’t help, as the medallion owning lobby used fare increases to lift the “lease cap,” the amount they were legally permitted to charge drivers to lease their cars. Thus, most of the fare increases were bypassing drivers.

Compounding the roughness of the job was the relentlessness of the Taxi & Limousine Commission, which saw drivers as a cash cow. I don’t know if this is still the case, but through the mid-2000s, the TLC generated more revenue for New York City (through taxi driver fines) than any other agency except for the Parking Violations Bureau. In 1998, Giuliani went back to the well, seeking new regulations that would substantially increase driver driver fines. The new and Indian-heavy Taxi Workers Alliance organized for a strike.

The strike lasted for several days, and made an obvious impact on city life. The city refused to back down, however, with Giuliani snarling back, “This is a strike and a demonstration for the purpose of being able to drive recklessly and have nothing done about it. This is a theater of the absurd.” Police Commissioner Howard Safir compared the strike to “a terrorist threat,” a regrettable phrase. (As an aside, few industries suffered bigger hits from 9/11 than the taxi industry, as the drop in tourism and concurrent recession led to a free-fall in taxi ridership.)

During the 1998 strike, the drivers were led by an unlikely leader, the 25-year-old Bhairavi Desai. Standing barely five feet tall with no experience driving taxis, an Indian-American woman from New Jersey seemed like a dubious choice to organize an industry that has always been 99% male, prone to ethnic factions and aggressive, individualistic personalities. Today, after nearly two decades at the helm of the Taxi Workers Alliance, Desai is well-known in the City’s leftist circles, and has been widely recognized for her impressive organizing tactics.

In 1998, Desai was going up against Rudy Giuliani, a media wizard who couched his regulations in the language of pedestrian safety, and was met with wide support. As one New York Times reader commented about New York life during the taxi strike:

Pedestrians didn’t have to worry about reckless cabs disregarding pedestrians or plowing into crowded sidewalks; cyclists didn’t have to worry about cabs swerving in front of them to pick up a fare, and buses didn’t have to worry about cabbies blocking bus lanes and stops to pick up and drop off passengers — at least for one day.

Of course, left unsaid in that critique is the consumer demand that leads to such cabbie behavior. Who hasn’t let out a groan when a cabbie slows at a yellow light? Who hasn’t asked to be dropped off in a bike lane? To blame cab drivers for such behavior is like blaming immigrant bicycle delivery people for aggressive bicycling. They wouldn’t have to if people were ok waiting longer for their food. Let he without sin and all that.

The strike of 1998 was a failure by any contemporary account. Giuliani easily pushed through his oppressive regulations. Nor did Rudy let up, quickly setting up “Operation Refusal,” a sting operation designed to catch cab drivers bypassing black people, in violation of the law. Though some drivers were motivated by prejudice, the economic arguments against driving minorities to poor, remote neighborhoods were sound, as white gentrifiers learned in the early 2000s.

Around that time, the Taxi Workers Alliance started to produce some real wins. After months of lobbying, the TWA persuaded FEMA to provide drivers with financial assistance in the aftermath of 9/11. Then, following another short strike in 2004, the TWA was able to negotiate a deal in which the lease cap was raised 8% and the fare 26%, meaning that drivers could pocket two-thirds of the fare raise. This impressive win left the taxi workers union with a promising future.

The impact of Uber and other companies is a complicated question that merits a much longer article, but the main question is this: Are there a finite number of competent drivers willing to work for the modest wages the industry provides? If so, organized drivers will eventually exert their leverage over Uber just as they did over the yellow cab medallion owners. If private ride-share companies are able to attract legions of part-time drivers calibrated to consumer demand, however, the yellow cab industry as a whole could be in trouble.

Whatever the future of the taxi industry holds, the drivers who must put in the work, put up with passengers, and avoid the fine-savoring regulators will be in a stronger position to make a living if they stick together. If they continue to do so, they can look back on the May 13, 1998 strike as the moment when the fight began.

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