NEW YORK, N.Y.—Outside of City Hall Apr. 25, the taxi driver unfolds two pay stubs on plastic-slick receipt paper.
He doesn’t want to give his name, but he’s in his early sixties, has an Afro-Caribbean accent, and has been driving a yellow cab for more than 15 years. One of the stubs shows he made $169.08 for a 24-hour shift.
He’s not supposed to work more than 12 hours, he says, but “if I want to make money, I have to do a double.” The stub he shows for a 12-hour shift says he cleared $23.59 after expenses including the $175 he paid to lease the cab.
More than 200 taxi drivers and supporters were rallying outside City Hall, demanding that the city pass legislation to regulate the flood of app-based cars and provide relief to drivers whose incomes have dropped dramatically since Uber and other app-based taxi services arrived in 2011.
Drivers in all sectors of the industry are “workers trying to defend a full-time job in a gig economy that offers nothing but poverty pay,” Bhairavi Desai of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance told the crowd. Four—two livery-cab drivers, a black-car driver, and a yellow-cab owner-operator—have committed suicide in the last six months “because of the financial hardship,” she reminded them.
City Councilmember Ruben Diaz Sr. (D-Bronx) announced he had introduced the first of several possible bills intended to regulate app-based for-hire vehicle services. His bill, Intro 838, would require them to be licensed by the city and prove that there was a need for more cabs in their area to get or renew a license. Drivers of those vehicles would have to pay $2,000 a year for their license, and would be allowed to work for only one app company.
The Diaz bill has divided the two main unions representing the city’s cab drivers. The Independent Drivers Guild, which advocates for Uber drivers, is strongly opposed. The $2,000 license fee, IDG founder Jim Conigliaro Jr. said in a telephone press conference Apr. 25, would “force drivers deeper into poverty,” and confining drivers to one app would likely increase Uber’s domination of the industry, because drivers would choose the company with the most business even if others pay better.
NYTWA supports the bill, Desai told LaborPress after the rally, as it would be the first real regulation of the app-based taxi sector. But it hopes to get the $2,000 fee removed. That burden “should not be on the driver,” she says. “Drivers didn’t flood the streets.”
App-based services upended the industry order in place since the 1930s, in which the number of yellow cabs was limited in order to ensure that there wasn’t so much competition for fares that drivers couldn’t make a living, and other types of taxis had specific niches—green cabs, livery and car services largely in outer-borough neighborhoods, and “black cars” handling corporate accounts. The city, according to NYTWA, now has about 13,600 yellow cabs, 4,000 green cabs, and 14,400 livery and black cars—and 68,000 vehicles affiliated with Uber, all added in the last six years.
“Everybody’s pay has dropped,” yellow-cab driver Pat Johnson told LaborPress. “I’ve been here six and a half years, and I’ve already seen it.”
NYTWA released a lengthy list of policy proposals and demands Apr. 25, including regulating app-based taxis and the companies that lease and finance vehicles for their drivers. It wants the city to cap the number of vehicles, “with a moratorium on new vehicle licenses”; set a wage floor by making the yellow-cab rate the minimum fare for all for-hire vehicles, “so no company can lower rates on drivers’ backs”; and raise fares. It also wants restrictions on “predatory lending” and lower Taxi and Limousine Commission fines on drivers.
The IDG opposes capping the number of vehicles, arguing that the city should instead limit the number of drivers. That would “make drivers’ work more valuable” and “reduce unpaid downtime,” member Michele Dottin said during the press conference. The union has also asked the TLC to set a minimum pay scale for drivers at Uber and other app-based services.
While the two unions have some common demands, they are not working together. IDG executive director Ryan Price said its efforts to reach out to NYTWA had been “met with hostility.”
They have strong ideological differences over how to organize when cab drivers are legally independent contractors not allowed to bargain collectively. The IDG decided in 2016 that working within Uber as a “works council” would help drivers more than agitating from the outside. NYTWA felt that was too much collaboration with an exploitative business model, and has tried to get the courts and state agencies to rule that drivers are employees covered by labor-law protections.
Councilmember Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn) told the rally he supports capping the number of for-hire vehicles, and is developing a bill that would regulate drivers’ pay.
“Uber took over the whole industry,” says Lyft driver Diogenes Carrasco, 50, of the Bronx, who spent 13 years as a yellow-cab driver. “As a taxi driver, we’re all bound by regulations. The app companies are not.”
He used to work four or five days a week, he says. Now he works 12 to 14 hours a day, driving six and sometimes seven days a week. “Longer hours, less money,” chimes in the man behind him.
“We just want to have a fair shot, because right now, we are all struggling,” Carrasco says.
Joe Maniscalco contributed reporting to this article.