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Guide to the New York Taxi Workers Alliance Records WAG.319

Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
70 Washington Square South
New York, NY, 10012
(212) 998-2630
tamiment.wagner@nyu.edu


Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive

Collection processed by Margaret Fraser in 2013

This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit on August 10, 2015
English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

 Edited by Heather Mulliner to reflect updated administrative information  , Aug 2015

New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) History

The New York Taxi Workers’ Alliance was founded in 1998 by members of the Lease Drivers Coalition (LDC), an advocacy project of the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV). The union, led by Executive Director Bhairavi Desai since its inception, fights for structural change in the taxi driving industry, regularly ranked by the Department of Labor as one of the most dangerous job in the country. The NYTWA supports drivers through legal advocacy, health education, and numerous campaigns fighting for safety and economic justice for taxi workers. Because taxi drivers are considered independent contractors, the union cannot engage in collective bargaining.

Despite this limitation, the NYTWA uses legislation, work-stoppage strikes, demonstrations, and petitions to affect change. They mobilize drivers and build membership through meetings, outreach and fairs in airport waiting lots, industry research, organizational partnerships, and assisting drivers with tickets and fines. The NYTWA claims it has increased taxi drivers’ incomes by 35%-45%, including advocating for the implementation of the first-ever Living Wage standard for US taxi drivers in 2004.

In May 1998, four months after their formation, the NYTWA organized a 24-hour strike of thousands of licensed taxi drivers in protest of proposed Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) regulations that would quadruple liability-insurance costs, increase fines and probationary periods for new drivers, and increase the frequency of drug and alcohol testing for drivers. The NYTWA demanded a moratorium on the new rules, an in-depth study of the taxi industry, and an end to double ticketing (the practice of issuing multiple tickets at the same time for similar driving infractions). Though the strike did not affect immediate change on TLC regulations, it was influential because it solidified the NYTWA as a union and was able to bring together workers from a notoriously segmented group with no central point of organization.

Early organizing activity for the union includes City Council Bill 472, which fought against TLC codes of conduct for drivers (primarily regarding license revoking procedures) which the council ruled to be “onerous” on drivers. Another early campaign fought against the long wait times drivers faced at the Queen Boulevard TLC Office, which took valuable time out of a drivers’ average 60-hour work week. The NYTWA focused their efforts in the early 2000s on studying the impact of September 11, 2001 on taxi drivers and New York City immigrants and subsequent relief efforts (including federal disaster assistance for taxi drivers).

During the mid-2000s, the union focused on the detrimental effects new taxi technology (malfunctioning credit card machines, the loss of 5% on fares from credit card use, and GPS tracking) had on driver earnings and individual rights. They also worked to raise the wages of drivers through economic justice campaigns, which fought for fare increases, caps on the cost of leasing cars and medallions, and for a fuel surcharge on all fares. Union activity in the late 2000s concentrated on health initiatives; Intro 705, a bill which allowed drivers to choose credit card machine operators; and the Taxi Driver Protection Act, which called for heavier penalties for assaults on drivers and a sticker in each taxi warning of these penalties.

The NYTWA also spends much of its resources on providing discounted or pro bono legal, financial management, and health services for its members. The NYTWA claims a membership of 16,000 drivers and was voted into the New York City Central Labor Council in 2007 as the first non-collective bargaining agent member of a Central Labor Council in the US. Together with the Taxi Workers Alliance of Pennsylvania, the union hosted a conference of international taxi unions in 2007, which resulted in the creation of the National Taxi Workers Alliance, now headquartered at the NYTWA.

History of Taxicabs in New York City

Despite the iconic status of yellow cabs in the city of New York, documentation of the industry and its workers is sparse. The transitory nature of the industry and its history of union creation, corruption, and short-lived organizing efforts made it both hard to organize, and hard to document. Henry Allen started the first taxi fleet in New York City in 1907 (The New York Taxicab Company), with the first organizing and strike efforts taking place just one year later over the cost of uniform rentals and gas prices.

By the Great Depression there were more cabs on the streets of New York than there are in 2013 (about 16,000 in 1932 compared to 13,000 in 2013). To regulate this number, the city passed the Haas Act and introduced the medallion system. A medallion licenses a car to pick up and taxi passengers in New York City. By restricting the number of medallions, rather than driver licenses, the city can regulate the number of taxicabs on the streets of New York. More than half of the medallions created went to fleet owners who rent cars and medallions to licensed drivers for two shifts a day. The rest of the medallions were reserved for driver-owners, who are required to drive for a certain number of shifts before they can lease the medallion. The Act allowed for the transfer of medallions between owners and since the number of medallions did not increase until 1996, the cost increased exponentially. The cost was around $10 in 1937. By 2012, medallions sold for almost $1 million.

In 1971, the city created the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) to regulate the taxi and limousine industry, which had previously been under the jurisdiction of the New York City police department. The TLC is in charge of licensing and regulating the taxi industry while the NYPD enforces traffic laws. Thus, New York City taxi drivers must be aware of the rules and regulations of several agencies: The Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), the New York City Police Department (NYPD), and the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

In 1979, the city legalized the leasing system. This system chaged drivers’ status from employee to independent contractor. Instead of receiving a percentage of the days’ earnings, drivers now pay a set amount to lease the car and medallion for the day or week. Over the next few years, all garages moved to the leasing system. Since then, taxi drivers lease cars (and their medallions) from fleet garages or brokers by the day or by the week. A “DOV” driver (Driver Owned Vehicle) owns their vehicle but rents the medallion from the broker. By 2011, there were over 13,000 medallions and almost 50,000 licensed cab drivers. Since the retirement of the iconic "checker cab" in New York, most taxicabs were Ford Crown Victorias, one of the cheapest options of the TLC-approved cars until the 2010s. Because the Crown Victoria was discontinued in 2011, the TLC and Mayor Bloomberg introduced the Taxi of Tomorrow plan, which plans to replace all existing cars with an approved Nissan design from 2013-2018. The plan was controversial because the approved Nissan was neither an hybrid, nor was it wheel-chair accessible.

The taxi industry has always employed the recent immigrant population in New York City, though the proportion of drivers born outside of the U.S. increased dramatically in the last quarter of the 20th century. By 2005, less than 10% of drivers were born inside of the U.S. and the majority came from the South Asian countries of Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. This demographic composition has a wide-ranging impact on the industry and its patterns of organizing.