On Monday, February 5, a New York City cab driver named Douglas Schifter shot himself to death outside of New York City Hall. Just hours before his death, he posted a Facebook status in which he claims that politicians drove him to his suffering. In his status, he states the following: “I will not be a slave working for chump change. I would rather be dead.” There has been a negative relationship between the New York cab industry and so-called “startups” like Uber and Lyft for a while now, as there has been between taxi drivers, and Uber in particular, during the taxi strike against the Muslim immigration ban around this time last year.
I assume it’s pretty well-known that many of New York City taxi drivers are immigrants of color. The New York Times reported in 2004 that 84 percent of taxi and livery drivers in the city are immigrants. This number has only risen over the years, from 38 percent in 1980 to 64 percent in 1990. The majority of taxi and livery drivers come from the West Indies (Dominican Republic or Haiti), followed closely by drivers from South Asia (Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India). The majority of yellow cab drivers, specifically, are South Asian immigrants.
So, why is this relevant? Let’s trace back the timeline. In January of last year, there was a taxi strike at the John F. Kennedy International Airport. I remember the energy of this entire weekend being heavy and urgent. Donald Trump had issued an executive order on that Friday as part of what he called an “extreme vetting plan” to keep out whom he Islamophobically calls “radical Islamic terrorists.” So, lawyers were stationed at international airports across the country working to release people who were denied entry and detained. The taxi drivers were protesting outside of JFK airport between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m.. That afternoon, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance Facebook page posted the following statement: “by sanctioning bigotry with his unconstitutional and inhumane executive order banning Muslim refugees from seven countries, the president is putting professional drivers in more danger than they have been in any time since 9/11 when hate crimes against immigrants skyrocketed.”
While the organization was standing by (Muslim) immigrants of color, Uber had decided to continue operating with service to the airport and lower its rates as well. This difference in response between New York City taxi drivers and companies like Uber (and Lyft, which capitalized on the public’s outcry at Uber’s continued service as its rival) reflects a much larger issue under the surface: over the years, Uber and Lyft have used their “political might,” as executive directer and co-founder of NYTWA Bhairavi Desai claims on Democracy Now!, to win deregulation bills and outcompete the existing taxi industry.
Still known to many as startups, Uber and Lyft combined “ironically spent more on lobbying than Amazon and Walmart combined, and Microsoft, as well.” Desai claims that these companies are operating in a “gig economy,” which she describes as “destroying what has been a full-time profession, turning it into part-time, poverty-pay work,” and they’re using Wall Street money to do it.
Douglas Schifter, according to Desai, was the third taxi driver to commit suicide in just the past few months. Desai states, “I have never seen drivers in more deeper despair and crisis.” This situation runs deep, and it is highly political.