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New York City taxi drivers on hunger strike to demand debt relief

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
The New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) wants outstanding medallion loan debt significantly decreased. (file photo)

Progressive US lawmakers have expressed solidarity with New York City taxi drivers who are on hunger strike in the hopes of getting city officials to accept a proposed debt relief program for “medallion” owners.

Members of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) launched a hunger strike last Wednesday. They had protested for about a month outside the City Hall.

For decades, New York City officials promoted medallions, the certification required for taxi drivers to operate yellow cabs, as a reliable investment with good returns for hardworking people. Many ended up running huge debts to purchase medallions that have now plummeted in value – and working a job that pays little more than minimum wage.

According to the NYTWA, the average owner-driver owes $550,000 on medallions that are worth just over $100,000 apiece.

The union has proposed a debt relief program that would cap outstanding medallion loan debt at $145,000 and monthly payments at $800 per month, arguing that the debt crisis has caused widespread despair and financial ruin among the drivers.

“This is a workforce that has been so, super exploited," Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the NYTWA, said in a video message.

 "There has been such a sense of despair among the drivers. And so to see drivers get past the suicides and the bankruptcies and all the heart attacks and the strokes and the utter level of despair and depression, to now being on the streets, refusing to leave until justice is won," he added.

The plight of heavily-indebted New York City drivers has drawn the attention of a number of local and federal progressive lawmakers who have called on city officials to take action.

“Taxi drivers in New York are the backbone and soul of this city. Their pain is ours. They shouldn’t have to be on a hunger strike. Cancel the debt,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) wrote in a tweet.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) are also among the lawmakers urging the city to accept NYTWA's debt relief proposal.

"We're here standing strong with our taxi workers because we need to make a wrong, right, and we have to make sure that we reestablish hope and life for our taxi workers," Ocasio-Cortez said on Friday. "They are an essential industry here in New York City...and we need to make sure we're doing right by them.” 

City officials have offered a $65 million debt restructuring program for medallion owners. But NYTWA  has rejected the proposal as “nothing more than a banker bailout” that will “give $65 million directly to the banks and hedge funds that own medallion debt in exchange for a negligible reduction in the principal owed on them.”

Some medallion debt holders do not qualify under the city’s scheme.

The medallion market has for long been a major source of revenue for New York City, generating a total of $850 million for the administrations of Mayor Bill DeBlasio and his predecessor Michael Bloomberg.

Service providers Uber and Lyft as well as the COVID-19 pandemic have reduced demand in recent years, leaving yellow cab drivers struggling to pay their medallion debts.


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