This article is part of Belabored Stories, a series by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen featuring short accounts of what workers are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Send your stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.
For about two decades, Mouhamadou Aliyu has driven his cab through the streets of New York, but for the past several years, his life has been on a downhill slide. First, his cab—which had long been his most prized asset, and which he expected to leave to his children—dragged him, and thousands of other cab drivers, into a financial quagmire. Then, during the pandemic, his income from cab fares evaporated.
When asked how he’s been getting by during the city’s long lockdown, his words tumble out of him with a mix of panic and resignation: “I’m not surviving. I’m dying. I’m dying right now. . . . It’s sad; it’s painful; it’s stressful. . . . It’s untenable, it’s unspeakable.”
Yellow cab drivers have been mired in debt for years, as their trade, once considered a springboard to the middle class, has dropped due to two major ruptures in the for-hire vehicle market. First, a surge in competition from rideshare apps Uber and Lyft began pouring tens of thousands of largely unregulated cars into the streets a decade ago. Around the same time, the market for so-called “medallions”—a badge that represents a cabbie’s ownership of their vehicle—crashed, after the price was inflated through the speculation of dodgy investors and brokers.
After peaking in 2014 at over $1 million each, the price of the medallions imploded, saddling many drivers with toxic debt. Many cabbies had invested their life savings and refinanced multiple times, often after being roped into taking out usurious loans. The city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, which tightly regulates fares and licensing for cabbies, did not intervene in the wildly inflated market to prevent the medallion price collapse, and has so far failed to provide a comprehensive relief program to mitigate drivers’ ongoing debt spirals.
“I’m still trying to find a word that will really describe what I’m going, because I’m going through so much,” Aliyu said. “I’m dying. I’m desperate. . . . There is no day I do not think about committing suicide, because this is not supposed to happen.”
Aliyu, who immigrated from Sierra Leone in the 1990s, noted that many of the cabbies in crisis today are, like him, new Americans, who had hoped taxi driving would be an opportunity to earn an honest living. Now they feel like the city and its bankers have swindled them. A spate of driver suicides in recent years haunts the cabbies, whose debts keep piling up while the pandemic has further eroded what little business they previously had. According to the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), drivers owe an average of $500,000, while their business has plummeted by 90 percent since the onset of the pandemic.
“[When] I was buying this medallion, the only dream I had was . . . when you bought a cab and you have your medallion, that’s great. That’s all I knew about this thing,” Aliyu said. He added:
But after I get this thing, they start inflating the value. [The brokers] only keep harassing you about financing, equity. “You have money, you have money, you can borrow money, you can borrow money. How much you want, 50, 100?” This is the word you heard [each] time you go to your broker’s office. They just push you, push you, push you [to take] this fake loan.
Today, the NYTWA is campaigning for medallion debt forgiveness for New York City cabbies. At daily rallies the drivers carry signs proclaiming slogans like “City lied, drivers died, let us live” and chant “No more suicides! No more bankruptcies! Talk to the union!”
NYTWA, which represents some 21,000 taxi, rideshare, and other for-hire-vehicle drivers citywide, has denounced a proposal from the mayor’s office to offer limited debt forgiveness in the form of a $20,000 loan. They argue in a press release that the plan is just another predatory financial scheme, because the loan would be used to make up-front cash payments to lenders, so that “Banks and hedge funds get an overnight infusion of cash, while drivers are left to fend for themselves.”
The NYTWA is demanding that Mayor Bill de Blasio consider its alternative proposal: that the city back a comprehensive debt-relief plan based on “loans that are restructured to $125,000 and amortized over no more than 20 years with a monthly mortgage of $750 per month.” That way drivers would have a manageable repayment plan and a pathway toward solvency.
The NYTWA, which has been organizing cab drivers since the late 1990s, is a unique union, in that it represents drivers who are legally deemed independent contractors. But any New York cabbie will tell you that when they’re driving thirteen hours a day and barely breaking even, their supposed self-employment is an undeniably proletarian vocation. And over the past decade, for many drivers, it has basically become debt bondage.
Aliyu hasn’t given up yet. Organizing with the NYTWA—which has united rideshare drivers and yellow cabbies to demand fair wages and working conditions for all drivers—gives him hope that the struggles of the city’s drivers, and the untimely deaths of his fellow union members, won’t be in vain.
“I really don’t believe this is America,” he said, “because I know this country. The justice will be delayed; but I’m confident it won’t be denied. One day. One day the truth will come out, and all these things they did wrong to us because we are immigrants, they will pay for it.”
Michelle Chen is a member of Dissent‘s editorial board and co-host of its Belabored podcast.
Mouhamadou Aliyu was interviewed for an article on worker centers in the American Prospect. You can read more about the NYTWA and other worker centers here.