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Taxi drivers in NYC are on a massive hunger strike against rising debt. They're on day seven.

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance have launched an indefinite hunger strike so the city will listen to its demands.

Taxi drivers in NYC are on a massive hunger strike against rising debt. They're on day seven.
Image Source: NYTWA / Twitter

Since 2019, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) has run a campaign for debt forgiveness for medallion owner-drivers. Now, members of the union have initiated a hunger strike to highlight their desperation to policymakers. They are currently on their seventh day. Among other demands, the union members have called on lenders to restructure medallion debt at $145,000 and refinance for $800 per month, or to make cash settlements for no more than $145,000. They argue that the medallion debts are unpayable. In fact, several taxi drivers in New York City have been driven to suicide as a result of mounting debt. The hunger strike will rotate participants, so no one starves themselves. Other notable participants include New York State Assemblymember for District 36 Zohran Kwame Mamdani and Democratic nominee for New York City Council District 39 Shahana Hanif, The Indypendent reports.



 

NYTWA head Bhairavi Desai said in an interview with the news outlet, "The city is still not responding to our call for real debt relief." According to her, the mayor's continued inaction is relegating drivers "to a lifetime of poverty and death in a debt trap." Individual drivers own an estimated 40 percent to 45 percent of the city’s 13,587 yellow medallion cabs, the only taxi service permitted to pick up street hails in central Manhattan south of Harlem. In the past, owning a medallion enabled cab drivers, almost all of the immigrants, to work for themselves instead of leasing from a fleet. It was also an asset for their retirement.



 

However, consequent crises over the past seven years have had debilitating effects on medallion cab drivers. First, their already-stagnant incomes plummeted after the city allowed app-based services such as Uber and Lyft to flood the streets of NYC. Second, the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdowns eliminated their street-hail business. Third, the value of medallion cabs inflated more than fivefold from 2001 to 2014, to more than $1 million. The arrival of app-based cabs "popped the bubble." Now, owner-drivers cannot bring in enough money to make their loan payments. Making matters worse, their medallions have rampantly depreciated. Even if they sold their vehicles, they would still be personally liable for thousands of dollars in debt. At a rally, Desai asserted, "Half the cabs are sitting in storage."



 

Richard Chow, one of the hunger strikers, is an immigrant from China in his 60s. He spent $410,000 for his medallion in the year 2006 and now has monthly loan payments amounting to $2,766. Even though his lender has offered to reduce his loan amount and monthly payments to $275,000 and $1,600, respectively, Chow is hesitant. "Even $1,600, I can’t afford it," he said. "There’s not enough business out there." He has thus urged Mayor Bill de Blasio to fix the crisis.



 

In late August, the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) launched a Medallion Relief Program, which provides $65 million in grants to distressed owners. As of October 16, the program has helped 102 yellow medallion taxi owners, reducing their average debt of about $325,000 by almost half. According to the TLC, it has helped reduce some drivers’ payments to less than $1,500 a month. Nonetheless, Desai argued that this level is still not sustainable. In comparison, the NYTWA's proposal would give individual drivers grants of $30,000 and reduce monthly payments to $800. Comptroller Scott Stringer, who has surveyed the proposal, stated, "I’ve run the numbers. This makes sense. This proposal will save an industry, save lives. We’ve got to go all in." In the meantime, the hunger strike continues. You can donate to the NYTWA's strike fund here.



 

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