The president of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka, opened the passenger front door of the taxi at the curb outside Queens Medallion in Long Island City, Queens.
Long Island City is the neighborhood that houses the taxi industry. Queens Medallion leases the second-largest number of taxi medallions in the city. Medallions are the permits required for cabbies to pick up street hails in New York City. Every one of the roughly 45,000 taxi drivers in that city must have one every day on the job, but they cost something like $30,000 apiece.
Trumka had come here, and I was with him, because New York’s independent cab drivers, who have been organizing for years, have put things into a higher gear. Since December, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance has held more than 50 demonstrations against the companies with the highest medallion and car lease rates and fees. The Taxi Workers also received the first new national organizing charter from the AFL-CIO in more than 60 years. The new organization is called the National Taxi Workers Alliance. The Taxi Workers needed Trumka’s help. He jumped out of the taxi and into a light rain. I handed him his suit coat.
Speakers wired and bolted to the outside walls of Queens Medallion blasted rock music over the heads of about 40 taxi drivers, who chanted and shouted on the sidewalk. TV cameras recorded the scene from beneath umbrellas held by reporters, who also struggled to take notes at the same time.
“They think they can drown out the truth with those speakers.” said Bhairavi Desai, the director of NYTWA and the NTWA.
Then Desai, who stands about five feet tall and has an amazing ability to sum up the injustices of the taxi trade, began to shout into a megaphone to shame the managers of Queens Medallion, who stood stone-faced by the open door of the building’s garage just a few yards away.
“The brokers don’t own the drivers,” Desai hollered. “You don’t have to pay personnel or expenses. It’s all gravy for you. But we’ve had enough! We’re sick of the lies! We’re sick of the exploitation! Shame! Shame! Take notice! Your days over thievery and exploitation are coming to an end!”
Then Trumka, who wore a dark suit and tie, took the megaphone.
“I bring the greetings of 12 million workers in the AFL-CIO. They do everything to make this country run, just like you make this city run. God bless you for it,” he said. He drew parallels between the taxi workers and the plight of working people all across America. The taxi workers shoulder all the risk of rising gas prices and slow business. Credit card fees from the garages eat 5 percent of every transaction. It’s a whole system rigged for the owners, he said.
“This reminds me of the United Mine Workers,” said Trumka, who started in the labor movement as a coal miner in western Pennsylvania, just like his father and grandfather. “They made us pay for our tools. We only got paid for the coal we dug out of the ground, and they cheated us on that, too. But with our union, we changed those jobs into good jobs.”
The taxi workers cheered.
After about 15 minutes in front of Queens Medallion, the whole group walked down the street and around the corner to another garage, this one called SJS Jet. After more speeches and more chanting, the march continued to a third business, called Midtown Operating Corp.
Under the green girders of an elevated train track, the marchers chanted, “Lower the lease!”
The rain continued to drizzle. Low clouds obscured the tops of buildings. It was time for the afternoon shift change, so yellow taxis cruised in and out of the lot. Many of the drivers waved and honked. Two drivers left the queue in line for cabs and walked across the driveway, directly in front of the owners of Midtown. The drivers joined the march, turned around and shouted, “Shame! Shame!”
Many of the drivers said the managers at Midtown routinely refused to accept payment from some drivers at the start of the shift, and then penalized those same drivers with a $25 late fee later in the day.
“We’re your union! Taxi drivers unite!” hollered someone into the megaphone.
“Divided we beg! United we win!” yelled Desai in her clear voice. “We’ll be back!”
A few minutes later, the marchers began to disperse, so the drivers could work for a few more hours before the end of the day. Trumka patted his pockets but couldn’t find his reading glasses. He checked the taxi we had been in, to no avail. He asked me if I had noticed them in his suit jacket when I handed it to him. I had a sinking feeling that I had. One of the drivers, a Bengali immigrant named Jamil Hussain, jogged back along our marching route to Queens Medallion with me. Sure enough, the glasses—bent and scratched—lay there at the graveled base of a sapling in the sidewalk. Mortified, I picked them up, and we jogged back.
Gamely, Trumka sat in the taxi. He bent his glasses back more or less into shape and dried the lenses on his shirt.
“I’m sure I dropped them. I’m sorry I’m so damn clumsy,” I said. I felt terrible.
“It’s my fault. You didn’t know they were in the pocket. I should have said something,” he said. He put the glasses on his face. “They’re scratched, but they’ll do.”
The taxi pulled away from the curb and headed toward Manhattan to the first fundraiser of the National Taxi Workers Alliance. You can read more about the taxi workers forming a union on the website of the AFL-CIO here.