Biju Mathew, Activist and Co-Founder of New York Taxi Workers Alliance

Recorded by Deepa Ranganathan

Track 2:

:30 I’m Biju Mathew and I’m a volunteer org for the taxi workers alliance and a member of org committee for the alliance and been a member for more or less eight years since the time it started out.

1:18 The taxi industry and taxi drivers specifically have had really horrible working conditions for last several decades. The strike as it happened in my 1998 was just indicative of how far they could be pushed and no further. ******** What led up to the strike was that drivers were already making very little money and having enormous amounts of difficulty on the road in terms of the kind of harassment they were faced with from the police. But in the middle of the situation like that the taxi and limo commission the mayoral agency that regulates the industry announced that it was introducing a safety reform package age, it had 17 rules which were meant to improve taxicab safety. One look at the rules would tell you that the rules have very little to do with safety. ********* There was a rule that would triple the fine for drivers smoking in a cab. It had nothing at all to do with the moving vehicle. As a matter of fact, going to be fined even if passenger smoked in cab, and those finds were tripled. Also one of the rules was gong to be that the driver would be fined a certain amount of money if three receipts were hanging out of the meter. That is, the assumption was the driver failed to give receipt to passenger, when in most cases passenger just leaves the cab immediately, doesn’t want a receipt, would just crumple the receipt and throw it in the street. ********* So these are the kinds of rules that were part of the 17-package rule. Essentially what it was doing was trying to create an atmosphere for fear in situation that was already full of fear and tension and stress.

3:43 I still remember the meeting. The tlc announced the 17 rules package on the 29th of April or the 28th of April, and the taxi workers alliance had its first emergency meeting on it on the first of may and when all the org committee members looked at the rules, there was sheer disbelief in the room that anybody could try to mask a bunch of rules as issues of safety, when the only things that were clearly part of the intent was one, to increase the level of harassment and produce a reign of terror and fear around the drivers, and two to extract more money out of the industry, the drivers. **********

4:40 taxi drivers are unique in the kinds of work they have to do to earn a living. Standard, industry practice is called leasing and drivers are supposed to be independent contractors. What that means is that driver is not an employee for a garage, gets no benefits, absolutely nothing called wages. Driver walks into garage at 4:309 in evening for a night shift, puts down 120 dollars on the table as a lease, and then puts in twenty-five or 30 dollars worth of gas in the cab. So driver starts as minus 150 dollars approx. And then has to drive, and then after he has earned that 150 which he’s at a deficit of, then he starts making money to put food on the table. *************

5:38 That is unique because you can have a driver working 12 hours and then going home with a negative amount in his pocket. It creates conditions which are unbelievably more worse than what could be described as a minimum wage condition. ********* I’m not making the argument that the driver always makes less than minimum wages. On a good night a driver may net 6, 7, 8 dollars and hour at the end of the shift. But on a bad night, you might end up going home with nothing in your pocket or even negative. It’s one of the few professions in the world where not only are you not assured of an income, you may also lose money after putting in 12 hours of grueling work. ********
6:38 you must realize this is four and a half years down into Giuliani’s regime. Giu came into power in New York riding on a wave of get tough on anybody and everybody claim. He increased the police force; he came out during his election campaign inn really sold support of the police force saying they need to be empowered. So right from the time giu came into office, the amount of harassment on the street for drivers went up. The taxi workers alliance origins lie in a project that was called lease drivers coalition, which was essentially about dealing this cases of police harassment for drivers created in the wake of that giu created situation where drivers used to face lot of harassment on streets.

7:34 even in 923, 94, harassment could vary from being stopped in street for no good reason, every single thing on your cab being checked, an entire hour, hour and a half o your time being destroyed. Or it could mean you get pilled out and asked a bunch of questions, searched, or it means you get six tickets, get handed a bunch of tickets after beings topped for something very small. So harassment could take a range of forms, and a lot of this was happening. S o it was already in the conditions where economically drivers were facing a lot of strain, and also in conditions where there were in racial and social terms, facing a lot of harassment. In the wake of which these 17 new so called safety reforms made absolutely no sense.

9:00 simply put, some of the rules were simply going to make life a lot more difficult for the driver on a daily basis on the street. But there were other parts of the rules which were essentially meant to put the fear of god in a driver in terms of a driver losing his license. We must realize that for a driver, a hack license, license that empowers him to drive a taxicab in NYC, is his livelihood. He cannot afford ************* to take any risks with it. And what this new set of rules did was attempted to bring in two different programs, one called the critical driver program, the other called the persistent violators program. It brought in these two, which were basically a set of points that would be attached to your dmv license and to your hack license, if you got six points on either of those two license, you license was suspended. And if you got nine, your license was revoked. Now this is, for instance, if you take the dmv license, in comparison to an average motorist, he has to get minimum of 11 points before come anywhere close to suspension. Couple of things are very important to notice here. An average motorist various studies show, average motorists who works in city like new york spends at the outside two to three hours behind the wheel of his car. A taxi driver spends 10-12 hours behind wheel of car. If average motorist is going to be judged by 11 point suspension limit, a driver who’s spending 10-12 hours behind the wheel should be having a greater leeway, because you stay on the road long enough, you’ll get tickets, for a taxi driver getting tickets on the street is equivalent of a factory worker getting grease on his hands. *************

11:06 it’s working conditions. So if an average motorist is going to get 11 points before suspended, a driver should get some leeway even if you hold the driver to higher standards, it should be around the same point level. Not six points. A six point situation is all you’re doing is hanging a sword over drivers neck and saying you make two mistakes in a row – and it could be mistakes that hasn’t really made, let’s say, blocking an intersection, it may happen because driver is trying to make a turn and some other car comes up in front of him, you don’t have full control all the time. It’s hanging a sword over your head and saying you make two mistakes and you’re dead. **************

11:56 any moving violation has a minimum of two and then it only goes up, so something like blocking an intersection or even minor levels of speeding, any of those could knock you out. Initially when this rule was framed there were no safeguards at all. A driver, once stopped by a cop could get five six seven, I’ve seen a driver walk into the taxi alliance office after having been given 12 tickets. ******** in one incident. And it’s easy to multiply tickets. So you could get 6 tickets in your hand and that could amount to 14 points, and you could get knocked out. So even after strike had to do a lot of mobilization to ensure those things didn’t’ happen.

12:58 one does not gain much by trying to read the mind of a man like Giuliani. He is at some level a person who came into the mayoral office with specific interests and specific political connections and reasons, but another level, I mean, Giuliani is a mayor known throughout NY as the bully. He was just a regular bully he used to like to pick on people. This is a well-known fact. He did this with people after people after people. He went after the squeegee boys first. Kids who would run up and clean you car. Went after taxi drivers, went after street vendors. There was a particular way he just did that, particular understanding people have of Giuliani as a bully. Even now if you go, that contrast drawn up about Bloomberg is that he’s not a bully like Giuliani. But I think behind the bullying there’s something else. My own understanding is that, see giu comes into nyc in the early 90s. He comes in at the end of mayor Dinkins, mayor Dinkins’ term, first time in several years that the city is beg to quote unquote grow again, onset of period of globalization, new york is being reinvented in a particular way ******** as a kind of a fire city, financial institutions and real estate, kind of a global neo city where global capital is going to flow in and out as a network city. It’s kind of reimagining itself, coming out in a new form, in a period where NY was going through a rec, it was really down in the dumps. Anybody who lives in urban America knows that when there are periods of recession crime goes up. So Dinkins was battling soft on crime, soft on people of color kind of image. So it was a racially coded election giu won. He was playing to a lot of white middle class insecurities. ********* There was a particular white middle class insecurity that Giuliani was playing off on. And also trying to reinvent city as city safe for a new kind of business exec to come in and work and create the city. One of the things giu will be remembered for very favorably buy a group I call the yuppies, the middle class execs, the people who come in from Hoboken by bus and work in NY and leave, or people who don’t know what lies above 96th St. in Manhattan, that kind of executive of new finance, insurance, banking industry, he’ll be remembered very favorably by them and extremely unfavorably by the working poor and people of color who were marginalized. He recreated the city in the image of the white middle class, upwardly mobile exec, made city quote unquote safe, introduced the quality of life program.

17:02 I have seen – when I came into city in 93 94, I used to watch police sweeping down and just knocking over second hand bookseller, throwing them around. Giu was part of the administration that made parks more inacc to protests and made it a safe haven for people who wanted to enjoy the park as opposed to place for public protest.

18:13 the question is, are we interested in image or in reality? I can go into the reason why some of this image may exist. The profile of a driver, the average driver on the street of new york transformed dramatically in the 1980’s, in 1980’s through 50’s 60’s 70’s, you had a parituclar kind of driver. A driving population was white. 90 percent was american born, naturalized folks. When the industry turned don its head and made working conditions more and more difficult, whole driver profile changed, now you have an industry with 90 percent immigrants from the third world. Now maybe it was a reputation that was gained at another time by another set of people I don’t even want to go there. It would take a serious investigation to see how true that reputation was even in the fifties or sixties. But I can say something for the nineties. Giu’s safety reform package came in despite already available statistics that said that the number of accidents in nyc caused by yellow cabs had gone down in the previous two or three years. ********* (I HAVE CHECKED THIS, IT’S TRUE)

19:48 it came in the face of fact that drivers over past few years, in public polls, in systematically gathered data, as amongst the safest drivers on the streets of new york as compared to an ordinary motorists. Drivers have a lower average rate of accidents. That’s why I said, take your pick, do you want image or do you want reality? Giu and his admin either refused to look at stats or obfuscated statistics by creating image that things were unsafe. *********

20:23 through the mid 80s and early 90s, until late 70s and early 80s, you had primarily American born population. Through late 80s it changed. Industry structure now is around 95 to 97 percent third world immigrants, who’s migrated to this country at the outside in the last 15 years, ********60 percent south Asian, and other ethnicities that are there in large numbers include Haitian, Arab American, west and east African drivers, this is other ethnicities – when I say west and east Africa, Ghana, cote d’ivoire, range of folks in there.

21:42 – before the strike started at any one point in time, number of active drivers easy to estimate. There are 14,000 medallions, and when the strikes happened, 14, 187 officially. If all the taxis are out there are 14,000 drivers on the street. Total number of licensed driver is 40,000, but at any point, approx. 20,000 are on the street because of the day and nights shift. So 25-27,000 are on the street are on the street at any one point. (CORRECTION) At any one point in time, given there are 12,187 medallions, double that is the number of drivers on the street with the day and the night shift, so around 24, 25,000 drivers. *********

23:00 if you’ve seen a Hollywood film with a yellow cab zipping down street of NY, a four character string on top, 3g42 or hh57, that’s a four character string. It’s basically a permit number, the permit is called medallion, it corresponds in [physical terms with a sheet metal piece embossed with city’s seal and is on the hood of the cab. ********** Now the medallion has its own interesting history. Started out in 1937, first issued at the rate of 5 dollars a medallion under mayor LaGuardia. … By the time we come to the strike, medallion was worth 300,000 dollars. On literally the week before the strike, unofficial market rate was 300,000.

24:19 to put one yellow taxi on the street of new york, you need one medallion, so a week before the strike would have cost 300,000 to put one cab on the street. Now the last auction price is over 350,000. ************ In as much as you don’t have a freely issued medallion, not simple demand and supply. Shortage of medallions is created. You have to think about rate of return on an investment like that. Even if you take the maximum lease levels out there owners extract from drivers, you still can’t see a good enough rate of return to justify a 350,000 investment, which means there are a lot of other deals that structure industry at the bottom: how you leverage insurance, car buying arrangements. Lot of other things lie at the bottom of industry and create the possibility of a medallion being sold at 350,000.

25:41 what that invariably means is it’s out of reach for most ordinary people which means large majority of drivers can never ever even think about the possibility of having their own medallion. You always have to depend on brokers and garages. **********

26:11 – on may 2nd, 1998, the organizing committee of the taw, which was made up of 14 of us who make up the organizing committee, bhairavi and me were the only two non drivers, all the others were active drivers, and everybody’s a volunteer. So we met around 6:30 in the evening and by the time the meeting was over it was around 3 in the morning, it was 8 or 9 hour meeting where we took apart the rules, tried to understand its consequences, and once we understood its consequences, we felt we needed to respond very strongly. And we had a round of discussion on what that meant and finally settled on the idea of a strike and made a very conscious, rational decision.

27:15 the taxi workers alliance was at that time just a few months old. All we knew at that point is that we had recognition among the driver community for being an org that had been around for some time and was interested in doing work with drivers. We did not have a large mass base at that time. Right now its 5000 members, at that time less than 600. All we knew is we had some good will in the industry among the drivers, and whether or not strike was successful or not or drivers came out in large numbers or not, as long as rules being put in place without the bare minimum of consultation that was required with the working population, who knows more about safety on the streets than a driver? Let’s just face it. Person drivers 12 hours. Coming back out to work the next day is very important because that’s the only way he can put bread on the bloody table the next day. *********So who knows more about safety? Who’s more interested in safety than a driver himself? Yes, you put more and more pressure on him; he may end up doing unsafe things. But who most logically and rationally is interested in ensuring a safe ride from point a to point b than a driver? He’s risking his family’s livelihood. ***********
28:52 so I mean it’s under conditions that you’re talking about creating these kinds of rules, that’s where the drivers were, that’s where org comm was. Whatever be the consequence of this, we need to respond. ********Giu has gotten away with bullying all sorts of people for far too long, and there are all sorts of interests behind this. There was a theory at that point that giu was trying to create a crisis within industry so as to consolidate medallions under some large ownership. We had no way of confirming it, all we knew was this was a sign of attack on the drivers.

29:48 If you’re a worker, the language of withholding one’s labor is a language of self-respect. All you have to sell out on the street there is your labor, your capacity to labor, your capacity to work and if somebody is not going to respect that capacity? What do you do? Only language truly respectful of yourself is to withhold your labor. To say I may go hungry but I won’t take this from so and so. ******* So the act of striking is for the working class, for somebody who labors 10, 12, 14 hours a day, the most important part of his life, because that’s the only thing he can withhold.

30:53 our demand was very straightforward. An immediate suspension on going forward with these rules, and an opening of a negotiation and a conversation on what these rules mean. That was our simple demand. There was a public hearing scheduled, tlc announces the rules and then there’s a public hearing quote unquote, where the rules are debated quote unquote, among the nine members of the taxi and limousine commission. So the hearing is set for a month from the date when rules announced hearing was at end of may. Our thing was, before you go out for public hearing, have to have broad range of consultation with people in industry including drivers, then you can bring forward rules that make sense, and then we can go forward with a public hearing.

31:51 As I said, the industry is largely made up of lease drivers, who go in and lease on a daily or weekly basis. But around 80 percent of drivers lease their cab, and 10-15 percent own their own medallion, their own cab. So the taxi alliance right from the word go, from the moment of origin, positioned itself as an organization for lease drivers. We said lease drivers are the majority of the industry, are the people who have absolutely nothing in this industry. That was our constituency that was the people trying to mass organize. There were other interest groups in the industry. Pak brothers very difficult to describe, small coterie of folks whose only interest was to try and find ways of getting some kind of – number of paks in industry very high, using that ethnic id without making further distinctions as to who’s who and what’s what, trying to curry favor with the tlc and they had a bunch of lawyers, they would use to give services to drivers. It was a small service group that was trying to position itself as some kind of leverage power within the tlc without much success. So the pak brothers are a very small group, almost insignificant. The group with some significance in this whole issue was united yellow cab. Taxi alliance started in 1996 under the lease driver coalition name. As we came out and began to create a lease drivers or, the ownership, the garage owners, began to feel threatened. Now the taxi industry has a history right from – if you go back to the 1910;s, 1920’s – every time there’s a unionizing effort, the garage owners get together and front unions. In house unions are extremely popular in the taxi industry. Here we are, and the exact same thing began to happen. The moment the taxi alliance became a little popular, began to get out there, a bunch of garage owners got together and floated a union. What is interesting is the garage owners could utilize a particular kind of division within the drivers to run that. That was essentially – there are 10 percent, 15 percent owner-drivers who are interested in medallion value going up. If they brought together a bunch of owner-drivers and brought them together as united yellow cab. It had some backing, especially because large number of owner-drivers at that point was either Haitian or Sikh. So there was some backing within those communities. That was the other group. We really didn’t work with them. We put out a call of solidarity with them right up front, we were taking these initiatives and they should back us. *********** That didn’t work well, giu used them against us.

36:30 room ambience.

Track 4:

:30 it’s an interesting mix. What is important to realize is that even when you talk about south Asian drivers, is that it’s actually false to talk of them as south Asian. They come from two districts in Pakistan, Punjab, one district in Indian Punjab and two distracts in Pakistan Punjab, and one district in Bangladesh. So in a large subcontinent with more than a few thousand districts, you’re talking about 5 districts that all of these people are coming from. *************There is a specific reason for history; specific reason of the kind of impact colonialism and a lot of politics has had that has produced this. One story I like to say to explain that, just after we had started organizing work, there was a meting, one of the initial meetings, very few drivers, two pak drivers and one bangla drier. We were all sitting and talking and the pak drivers kept insisting that whatever you do please put out your pamphlets in Gurumukhi, Punjabi script used in Indian Punjab, whereas in Pakistan they use the nasthilic script, the Urdu script even to write Punjabi. Our reaction immediately was of course we’d put it out in Urdu, Punjabi; we’ll put it out

3:00 so we are having one of our initial meetings way back in 1996, and a couple of pak drivers, a bang drivers, a few others the pak drivers keep insisting we must have all our handbills in Gurumukhi, script used in Indian Punjab. Our first reaction was sure, we’ll do it in Urdu, gurmuk, bangla, french, Arabic, lot of different languages. They said doesn’t matter if you do it in Urdu or blangla, you have to do it in Gurumukhi. And they kept insisting. My first reaction was this is some form of nationalism, Indian Sikh drivers don’t know how to read English while pak drivers do. I put it away. As weeks went by, there was some truth in what they were saying, there was a particular relation pak drivers have with English very different than Sikh drivers have. Much of drivers are people coming out of rural Punjab. Displaced of the land in terms of either people who had some land who had to move off or people landless who couldn’t find anymore work on the land, forced onto urban economics and then outward. This trend, fi you look at policies of green revolution, the green revolution arrives in Punjab and pak way back in 50s and 60s, Pakistan is already kind of a client state of us, green revolution starts up, the capitalization of agriculture, labor intensive agriculture is replace mechanized ag, pushed out a lot of people who had marginal land holdings. Once the land got mechanized they were all pushed out. This is the same period in pak when Bhutto becomes a phenomenon, he promises socializing, all these unemployed rural youth who are his bulwark, his main support. Bhutto never brought socialism, but he opened up a whole lot of passport offi9cies. It was a liberalizaion of passports. Immediate connection with opening economies of the gulf. So a lot of pak drivers you would find, now people in imd 30s early 40s, are people who bounced through he middle east, part of mideast economics in 70s and 80s, and as those ecnomics cloesed up, bounced into europe and the us. *******

6:45 indian drivers a little different. India resists imf policies, green revolution comes into india only in late 70s, early 80s. Same pressures. Landholdings a little different, large landholdings don’t exist in punjab. That happesn only in the 80s, migration begins only in 80s. so in case of Indian punjab, lot of drivers coming straight out of rural Punjab to new york city. Don’t have experience with another urban economy, lke a lot of pak drivers have. *********** to answer broader question of demographics, significant diversity over the social backgrounds of drivers from south Asian subcontinent. Both a middle class small landholding rural background people, who come here – the rule in Indian Punjab is one male member of the family needs to be out, because that’s the only way you can sustain agriculture back at home, especially givein new neo liberal environment where subsidies for agricutlure are being removed. So I always say that taxi drivers subsidize agriculture back in the Punjab. ************* in pakistan punjab, significant number of landless people. So there’s a class diversity. Some middle class folks who attempted to follow formula of putting one male member out.

8:55 taxi driving, again, you must realize that for an immigrant, especially in the context of third world immigration – migration from the ex colonial countries, the relationship with the metropolis, countries like the united states, was very different because of the difference of this wave of migration and cultural capital they have, and migration of europeans even though they became taxi drivers. Standard thing you hear when you talk about taxi driving in new york city, they say it’s always been an immigrant industry, the italians did it, then the irish were in it, etc etc etc. Its’ true, italians, the irish, post wwII there was a large jewish population. Surely. But there is sa very great difference between cultural capital that european immigrant has and cultural capital that an ex colonial third world migrant has. And what I mean by cultural capital is, you’ll find a driver that’s an engineer out there very few italian or irish enginner drivers out here. But you’ll find a Bangladeshii engineer or accountant out there driving a taxi, but never able to break into this economy because he may be an engineer but may be from slightly more rural or small town engineering college. There is the standard story of the indian migrant, the 60’s kennedy wave migrant, did his ms or phd out of american universities, moved on to some really high tech sectords of american inddustyr. ******** but you must realize that population came out of really elite national institutions, the its, the regional engineering colleges. which are really elite institutions. You look at the class a caste profile, it speaks for itself it’s primarily middle class, primarily upper caste who moved into, who came via that mechanism. Whereas there is a late 80’s wave of immigration connected to this rural eocnomy, middle caste, lower class, in terms of economic scale, much further down in the hierarchy. *********** And many of them are just not able to break in. it’s a particular kind of racism, it’s a particular kind of inability to negotiate a whole bunch of cultural material that only the elite educated in english medium schools in India or Bangladesh or the word. And it all becomes a relative question of where do you place their origin? Take the Pakistani can negotiate. ****************

12:35 there is some truth to the idea that taxi drivers coming into a space like nyc are not poor in some abjectly poor sense of the word. And it all becomes a relative question of where do you plce their origin? Take the Pakistani drivers a lot of them migrated through the middle east, a lot of them came from poor backgrounds, but 10 years in the middle east gives them a certain amount of capital that’s required to negoiate this further move. So in the immediate sense you’re right, unless you have the equivalent of a few 1000 dollars, difficult to make this migration unless you’re coming with assured income or a really good social network. S o you do see that class diversity in terms of who gets here. In the case of Bangladeshi drivers, there is this very significant class diversity because a lot of them come on what are called dv1 visas, the lottery visa. ************ yes even if you do get a dv1 visa, takes a certain amount of capital to just get your body out from there to here. But then, you know, as long as you have certain connections that you can raise small loans through, even if you’re pretty poor, you can make that out. But then of course if you are somewhat better off, you make that trip easily.

14:26 so there is that diversity. There is this whole question of cultural capital that doesn’t allow them to break into larger economy. So what is a migrant to do? Standard entry point is places like bodegas, but they are min wage or worse and no possibility of getting extremely else. Really no way of getting extremely sel. So taxi driving becomes an attractive prop for one single reason, unlike a bodega or a rest where you’ll get minimum wage or below, your income structure is completely fixed you will make only a thousand five hundred a month. When it comes to taxi driving, the difference is you might end up with 1500 or 200 dollars in a month, but there is always a chance that you can make more. *********** It is a cash business, you can work 10 12 14, hours at a stretch. Industry structured perfectly for extreme levels of self-exploitation. I’ve seen so many people do that. Some emergency back at home. You need to send 1000 dollars back home in next work. What do you do? You work 18-hour days on the taxi and you might be able to pull that off in a week. Beautifully structured for extreme levels of self-exploitation.

16:27 – The strikes you must realize happened in a ten day period in the sense of we make Dec on may 2, first strike is may 13. In ten days we execute the first strike, 11 days to be precise. Now, drivers live day to day. Their incomes are day to day and so we knew even going in that unless we had had a much longer-term preparation for the strikes that we couldn’t necessarily do a long stretch of a strike. So start we knew we were going for maybe 2, 3 strikes separated by a few days in the middle. ********** That was very clear going in. Second we were committed to a politics of talking our way through with drivers. If more and more driers felt we needed to go for a weeklong strike, we would.

18:00 around 600, little less than 600, very small membership compared to total number of drivers. Extremely small, extremely marginal, significant enough groups of people but it’s very small. Our primary mode of mobilization was – there were two things we were working on, was we had already some committed people … there was also the organizing comm which was 100 percent committed to this task. So we had a small but defined cadre (pronounces it “cadre”) that was going to go out and do its work. The second was that we had by then done a year and a half or two of work in the industry. More imp, exactly a year ago, Aug. 1997, we had called for a rally, a taxi cab based procession starting on 14th street and going down Broadway to city hall it was an extremely successful mobilization, more than 3000 taxis showed up for it. Fdr, the entire space below fdr, avenues a, b, c, were all blocked up. So we knew we had develop[ed a certain kind of relationship with a significant number of drivers. So that was the second part. We knew we had a cadre, knew we had an org committee, knew we had some relationship with a large number of drivers. The third was, we couldn’t have had a better org than mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was a bully, enacting most unfavorable policies for drivers, who was willing to talk about drivers in the most disparaging terms. ******** So any self-respecting person would respond to that. In a way of wanting to defend themselves we knew we had these three things going for us. Beyond that we had – what is the fear of the average immigrant? The fear is retaliation. You step on to the street, things will happen. We already knew from experience in 1997 that a lot more people would part in a sit at home strike than come out and shout. Because as an immigrant, that’s the thing you feel most ************* insecure about, being able to stand in front of let’s say an elite white inst and voice your claim. That’s far more threatening. Second, given the structure of the industry, the driver competes with derived. So no driver would feel good about fact that he is going on strike but another person is going to make money because of strike. We knew only way to make strike successful was if drivers organized each other. If they gave confidence to each other ********* that they were going to go on strike in solidarity with the other person’s expression that we were going on strike. As we did outreach, we told drivers, it doesn’t matter if you tell me or the taxi alliance that you’re going to go on strike. Talk to the others. ********

21:54 talk to each other. Do not spend da moment without talking to other drivers to tell them you were going on strike. We saw it lit change in front of our eyes. There are so many drivers that tell us today that the period of prep for strike and period afterward was the period when drivers started to talk to each other. Really. Otherwise it was such an isolated job, people would stay in cabs, if you drove up o a red light at an intersection and there was a yellow cab next to you you wouldn’t turn and look at the other guy. ****** Whereas during the strike it began to happen, I saw so many instances on the 10th, 11th, wherein I’d be riding pillion with another driver, handing out flyers, cab after cab would come up at intersection, we’d hand a flyer and get a thumbs up back. ********* So people were beg to talk to each other comm with each other, that really was the key.

23:25 the levels of comm changed, never a point where no comm at all. What does comm really mean in end? Ack, understanding they all exist together, a show of solidarity. But number of conversation happening across were much lesser. For instance on day of strike, we had our strike headquarters on 8th ave and 39th street, and now this is may 13, a week after Indian nuclear explosion test, a week or 12 days before pak equivalent, we were caught right between two nuclear test, every reporter who walked in tried to ask Indian and Pakistani drivers why they were standing together. When their nations are nearly at war. And for the first time I heard articulation come out. It’s not that drivers ************ did not know this before. For the first time I heard it vcomgin out of mouth of people how does it really matter, there’s a fight going on there, but here we are treated the same, so why would we behave in any other way? There was this ack that you are occupying a common condition, and common condition is the basis for a particular type of conversation. And what I want to say is that once a few of those kinds of breaks happen within part environment, you see galloping effect of people really talking to each other. The people who feel it the most – think about it – they have a large comm in this industry. So if they don’t speak to, if Indian Sikh does not speak to pak Punjabi, they don’t feel the effect because they have other people to talk to. But the people who really feel the impact are actually not Indian pak or Bangladesh drivers, but the drivers with very small communities in the taxi industry, you know? East African and West African drivers, they started to notice how they could have certain conversations with south Asian drivers. That is critical. Conversation has only improved every since then, there’s a clear ack that we may have diff along questions of nationalism but that shouldn’t effect us here. Taxi alliance is not right place for that.

26:28 and they discuss nationalist politics openly. It’s not that – we will not bury this politics; we will find ways of opening ip and talking bout it openly. Worst thing is these things are not dealt with, spoken about. Then somebody, admin, uses that to divide drivers. We’ve been extremely clear that all these questions are spoken about constantly, within context of org.

27:01 you must realize that by the 11th, that is 2 days before strike, we were pretty conk we had a really goo strike on our hands. Anybody and everybody we spoke to were really really mobilized. 14th org committee members, few other people really working on it in first few days. By 11th 10th, the office was abuzz, there were at any point 30 50 100 people in there *********** walking in and out, people making their own photocopies of the flyers, people doing every self initiated and coming in and saying tell us what to do. Really high levels of mob, so we were very confident there was a strike on our hands, so was New York because the press got really active. Only people who seemed to b******** believe it wasn’t going to happen were Giuliani and Diane m-m, they were the only two people in denial.

28:45 that was what administration was relying on, the fact that we’ve been extremely impossible to organize, this org is making such a loud claim, but its’ not going happen because drivers are of so many diff ethnicities, never going to come together. That was the assumption, and even within press assumption held, but press much better at picking up the buzz on the street. ************** So difference between the press was they would say in their reports, taxi drivers have traditionally been difficult to organize, etc. etc., but then they would cover the possibility of a strike because they were pricing the buzz off the street as against giu and mckech who had no clue as to what was happening out there. So we were very conf, if you imagine12th night, kind of discussion we were having on night of the 12th, the oc had its final meeting on the 12th night before the strike and the kind of discussions we were having was not about whether strike going to be successful or not, but what do we do about the few drivers, the marginal driver who comes out? There was imm a sense of anger against someone who would break a strike like that. So it was people on org committee talking its way through that and saying we have a to make attempt to understand why someone is coming out, maybe he’s desperate, maybe there’s some emergency. And how there may be some who haven’t’ got the message properly. How do we deal with this? Also knew the place would be chock full of cops, crawling with cops, especially plain clothesman. *********

30:36 so anybody does anything, they’ll use it, let’s say driver out driving a taxi, make a living. On a day like that, if two passengers get into an altercation in a cab, the driver would be the person taking the hit because of the cops around. ******* So we knew potential for lot of unsavory incidents. Those were discussions we were having on the last day, not about the success or failure of the strike; we knew we had a strike one our hands. So only thing we did was break up org comm into various entry points into the city: Brooklyn, tillery avenue, queensboro bridge **********, different parts of city, to talk to drivers at the last traffic light or light before that to say you may be making a big mistake, you may get hit by the cops, good idea to stand in solidarity with rest of drivers, turn back. ************* I myself was at home because I live uptown, I was actually monitoring the radio stations early morning at 6 a.m., I knew as soon as switched on first radio station had strike on our hands. I remember driving down, friend of mine picked dme up from home and drove me to 39th St. and 8th ave, driving down from uptown all the way down I saw one taxi. So I knew there was a strike. *********** I knew there was a strike on our hands well before I knew, when I switched on first radio station in morning and stepped out on street.

32:30 our estimate was surround 96-98 percent of drivers struck work that day. If one assumes every cab out that day, talking bout 22-24,000 drivers struck work that day. Lowest I’ve seen is 90 percent. ********** which some newspapers reported. Difference between newspaper reporter and our estimate would be how one wants to read this, and second and I would say newspaper reporter wouldn’t know difference between undercover cops yellow taxi and a regular yellow taxi. There were a lot of undercover yellow taxis out that day. ******** Police runs bunch of yellow taxis. Don’t have a meter or anything, but they look like a yellow taxi, behave like a yellow taxi. ********* Etc. I mean for instance the 6-year medallion series are all nypd yellow taxis. Its’ one of the ways they send around patrol, undercover.

34:00 the decision to move on to another strike happened after next few days, not on very same day, but feeling at end of that days’ strike was we would need to study in some detail the response of admin and then plan our next move. We were very clear that if admin did not budge we would go on second strike. That was logic. We had a meeting the same night, a really long meeting, drew in some of other drivers that had gotten mobilized. Everybody felt that what we had pulled off was something quite amazing, nobody ************ had anticipated something like this could be pulled off. And we need to build from that strength. But we were also very clear that the attack would really begin. I still remember somebody, one of the drivers saying, you caught giu off guard once, you won’t catch him off guard a second time, he’ll come down on you like a ton of bricks. Which is true enough. And we were ready for it at that level that he was going to do that. ********Giu the bully that he is, all bluster, saying we don’t mind if taxis stay off the road. Taxi free Tuesday, etc. etc. He used all of those kinds of things. At the same time, by around when we announced the second strike, we got word back from a lot of people that the buzz on wall St. was to find a way to get giu to stop the second strike, either through coming to negotiations or some other means.

36:30 the owner’s group, united yellow cab ass was primarily owner drivers group, but beyond that, it was also set up by the garage owners, not just individual medallion owners. T heir office was inside a garage called mystic garage, run by guy called Gus. Never a moment of doubt that united was ownership’s garage. It was in house union built up by owners. As we were going from strike one to strike two, united really got into the act. I can only guess why they got into ct because wanted a piece of pie? Or did they get into the mix because the ownership really didn’t want second strike to happen? Or because giu had a way of through the owners mobilizing them? I would say it’s a good mixture of all three. We tried negotiating with them. When we announced a second strike, they announced cab-based procession out of Queensboro Bridge. ********** And our first reaction was, we’ve got giu completely on the back foot, he’s got back to the wall and don’t give him a chance, he’ll come down like a ton of bricks, create a whole envoy as if taxi drivers are doing something nasty, create a bunch of violence. And after that we’ll be fighting a PR battle rather than an actual labor struggle. Let’s do it again – let’s do another work stoppage, hold whole city down and go out on 21st. week in the middle would have given drivers time to recover. *********** Financially. So everything was – the logic at our end was absolutely clear but for some reason group was completely unwilling to negotiate. ********* We walked into their office and guess who was sitting there, chairman of met board of taxi trade, so how do you have this conversation? How do you have a neg with the pres of the garage owners association sitting there and taxi drivers wanting to call a strike? Can’t tell them what we plan to do because they stand to lose? Garage owners stand to lose thousands and thousands of dollars ********** (THIS EXPLAINS RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN GARAGE OWNERS AND TAXI DRIVERS) in a strike in a day. That was situation, completely unwilling to negotiate. That created a lot of confusion, enormous amounts. That was the reason for second strike not being as successful ********* but in my opinion second strike was def a success.

40:04 third strike was the one that really came under fire for me, and there you saw the entire machination happen. The second strike you still had some people reported 60 percent some reporter 80 percent, 80 percent is an excellent strike. But the third strike, see that was a strike that kind of caved in at some level. ******** had part as low as 50 percent. There the strategy was very clear. United once again mobilized and di everything in its might to delay our decision. The third strike didn’t go as well. Possibly not a success, possibly a minimal success.

41:07 second strike, united was saying procession, we were saying strike. That did cause some confusion but not that much, there was no full contradiction between going on a procession and going on a strike. Those who wanted to could show up at Queensboro Bridge. ********* Those who wanted to go on strike could stay at home. So there wasn’t that complete contradiction. Only thing was 3,000 drivers show up for procession. What do they do at end of procession, go to work? So those were the only confusions left. Wasn’t that much of confusion. But the third strike, united was saying no strike, whereas we were saying yes, we’re going on a third strike. ****** This time we were very sure that with untied taking a no strike position, we would be in a really really good positions to move forward. Okay, one group saying let’s not strike, their base may not strike. But we were confident that our outreach was of much greater significance than theirs. Except. They really – that’s where I’m saying Giuliani, garage owners; all began to talk to each other. At point united came to us and told us we’ll get you a deal, a backroom deal with giu. We said no we’re not interested, def not interested. ***********

43:04 anything that happens has to be a publicly announced decision.


Biju – So they were offering back room deals and we were saying no … It’s okay for instance, what I mean by a back room deal is … it’s almost like a bunch of people sitting in the room and saying we’ll get you a deal, don’t use this part, we’ll get you a deal … nothing public about this.

Our demand was that mayor sit and negotiate. But mayor’s office has to take the position, not someone sitting in garage office in Brooklyn saying yeah yeah I’ve got an inside loop and the mayor will do it for us. That’s not a public commitment. What if we say yes and the mayor says who told you tis? Everything has to be conducted in a public fashion. That’s what was not coming through. And we were constantly offering this. And they were saying no we want everything to be conducted in public. We were perfectly willing to go the third strike on our own. We had this press conference at city hall, three days before the third strike, and there were a lot of people supposed to come for press conference – people like ruth messenger, stood against Giuliani, lot of people supposed to come. Press conference at 3:30. at 3 our phone starts ringing. We are asked by a bunch of reporters, why has the strike been canceled? What are you talking about? What united did was call for another press conference at 3 pm, same place, got an AP wire out, very unusual for a small little group, conducted press conference. They canceled our strike. *********** They were operating under their own allegiances and dalliances. They were clearly not doing anything for the drivers and that’s indicated by what happened to them after the strike season. They just vanished; they just fell apart because no body was willing to trust them anymore. Within three months after the strike they didn’t exist. ******* they had struck deals with ownership. Ownership interested in ensuring strike didn’t happen. I don’t even have an interest in guessing what was offered. If they were really truly committed to divers, they wouldn’t have behaved like that. Even if they strategically disagreed, they wouldn’t behave in this fashion. There would be negotiation. When we showed up at 3:30 it was very very hairy to say the least. There was an enormous amount of intimidation against bhairavi and me. *******

4:22 they had just finished their press conference, they were willing to go to a significant degree to intimidate us.

4:48 to look at – for us what was most important was even on may 2 when we had first discussion about going on strike., were were very clear that it doesn’t really matter. Of course if you’re able to stop the rules from going into effect, that’s great. ****** That’s the objective of the strike. But were very clearly aware that given the level of org, given this kind of a mayor that we may not get that far. But we definitely wanted to ensure that a public position emerges which is in direct and complete opportunity to Giuliani, that that as a position is recognized. That is what really interested in. And that we completely successfully managed. So in that sense we were successful, in sense of stopping 17 rules, we were not. In sense of creating public discourse, and taking position against him, and really public position with mass support, able to establish that pos.

6:11 there was a sham hearing. ********* In the sense that – I presented at the hearing. Lots of us presented at that hearing. But if they didn’t listen to three strikes, not going to listen to us at a public hearing. So it was a sham hearing, it was a controlled – and they voted for 16 out of 17 rules. One rule they took off was an insurance/bond requirement rule, which would have hit the ownership, not us. In terms of the success, success is something to be measured by what happened after the strikes, what relationship between drivers and us became. **********. Transformed the relationship completely. If before the strike the taxi workers alliance was struggling, mobilizing, doing work to establish itself as the taxi drivers org, after the strike we were the org. Immediately after the strike, united just got booted out, large chunks of membership started speaking to us and getting involve din alliance. Second, – this is what I meant by creating a public discourse is, if there are a lot of new Yorkers saying something’s wrong, you better take it seriously. ********* And if the mayor’s not willing to take it seriously, someone else is going to. That discourse made very visible by how city council came into convo with us – and what happened 7 months over strike. We negotiated legislation through city council which undercut the worst aspects of giu’s laws. For instance the cdp and pvp, the 6-point rules, we curtailed their impact. By passing city council legislation that put whole bunch of restrictions on how those points could be counted. For instance, the TLC rules said you could count over 18-month period; we brought that down to 15 months. Second, also go into legis, if bunch of tickets given in a single incident, not all the points from all the tickets can be counted only one ticket can be counted. ********** So various things like that, we completely undercut that. It’s not that it wasn’t a threat; it was still a significant threat. But the most kind of – the sword just falling on your neck in a matter of a few days situation was eliminated. Gave drivers breathing room, to make sure don’t get six points on license. **********

9:55 I think it remains in a very very significant way. In the sense that obviously the level of open camaraderie and open conversation will happen only when there’s a crisis, every time something happening in industry you can see drivers going back to that level of conversation. This is a very isolated profession, profession that is – I always call taxi driving a profession in which you are thoroughly isolated while being surrounded by people in conversations. ************* GOOD TAPE ********** because most of the time you have many people in your back seat, and most of the time those people are talking to you, want some conversation or another, mostly inane conversation. You’re constantly talking to people but you’re completely isolated. So what does a break mean for a driver in the middle of a day like that? Can you think about it? If you empathize with that, you’ll see a lot of drivers, when they get into airport and standing in holding lots, all they’ll do is come out, buy themselves a cup of coffee, and if it’s a sunny day, sit outside on their cab, or spread out newspaper on cab and read. It’s time for themselves in very diff sense of the word, away from chatter. So you’ll find all sort so interesting behavior in terms of how drivers socialize with each other. Lot of solidarity in terms of small conversations that happen all the time. That level of camaraderie and solidarity still exists. And fact that org has built itself to level it has is indic of that in some way. We are at this point a completely multi ethnic org. I really feel that if you take a nationalism kind of problem, Indian and Pakistani drivers, both within the context of the taxi alliance and outside, really really do have a solid relationship that’s been built up between that. ******** That’s not to say all problems of nationalism are gone.

13:02 I would agree when it comes to food. There’s not the same socialization that one would think. If we want to look at socialization, we must look at communities that are not large enough to build insularity about themselves. You must look at what happens in between them. One thing I can see is that at least in my observation that has begun to change. There are south Asian restaurants, may originally have been Pakistani place, but that definition has begun to fall apart. ********* More and more banglas, more and more sudars going to that place. There’s a place called haandi on 28th and lex, started by a Pakistani. But especially among day drivers, large bangla, significant number of Sikhs who eat there. ******** All starting to change quite dramatically. Airport is the place, after all in the end, if the comparison is between pak and Indian food. Comparison is between West African foods versus south Asian food. Everyone has comfort foods, at end of day, when I go back home I don’t want elaborate meal, I want dal and shadam. Restaurants not best place to look. In context of work, what are interactions that happen? I also think the give and take, the conversational give and take most important in context of talking a bout work, because that’s what we share. When any of us go to airport to do outreach, on e standard way would be one on one conversation. Another way would be to create group conversations. So there are three drivers standing. Walk up to them and start talking to them. ********* And the moment there’s more than one driver, other’s feel it’s okay to come and join conversation. So suddenly you find within 5 minutes there are 10, 15 people standing around talking to you. It’s important to look at the composition of that group.

15:53 earlier the Indian Sikhs would gather together, the Pakistani Punjabis would gather together, but now when we create the conversations it’s quite diverse, quite an interesting group. So those are for me far far more important than where people eat their food.

16:57: it’s a complicated question because what I say is the only way, not so much how people see drivers but I almost want to say that if there is an average new Yorker, let’s say white middle aged or youngish executive, what are the ways in which he is a allowed to see a driver, is more important. He lives within a system, works within a system, operates and completely accepts logic of particular system. From within that system what does it mean to recognize the humanity of the driver? Almost impossible. ********* How many of them can ask the question saying why does somebody who is completely embedded in a cultural context and has a completely meaningful life, choose to pick himself out from that, travel 10,000 and do this shitty job? Why would somebody do that? And ********8 the only honest answers to that are ones that point to everything form the role of the us in global politics to the role of development agencies in global politics to what’s happened through colonialism. It’s a huge answer. The only way this guy can actually deal with this driver is by trying to forget all of that. Not recognizing any of that. The only way that an average new Yorker will deal with a driver in the need is by completely dehistoricizing the person, completely making him ********* this atomized individual. With no cultural context, no real history. It’s just a worker and he’s here for a better life, kind of a simple romance. **********And in the end, sometimes, oh he’ s here for a better life, romance, is fine for a lot of drivers. Here for a better life, fine. Don’t get racist. Definitely not true for a lot of passengers, but there are def a handful who are racist, esp. post Sept. 11. In a sense for the driver that’s the only demand, don’t go that step, treat me as this atomized, meaningless here for a better life simple answer person and I’m fine with that, but don’t get into my cab and look at my hack license displayed on the back and say my name 25 times during the course of the ride. ********* Ah Mohammed, ah! So what are you Mohammed, ah! Can you imagine having to deal with a passenger saying that 20 times post Sept. 11? Is that a racist attack? *********** Yes, it is. But you can never pin that down because all you’re doing is reading the name of a hack license, which the TLC has said by rule you have to put it up. You need to keep that up.

20:41. But let’s face it, it’s harassment of a really really significant variety, when you get into a cab and emphasize that you’re a Muslim, by reading name 25 times, by making small jokes about it. Nothing too offensive, but always. That’s what they face. The harassment is like low intensity warfare. That’s the stuff they face.

21:35 I really think in the end the only way – if you’re not going to put the effort in to look at larger picture, why these situations created, the only thing you can do is actually look at a person and respect the labor that he or she puts in. The least Americans can do in this context when you have around 70, 80 percent of the jobs in the lower end of the service sector so to speak, everything from janitorial service to gas station attendants to parking lot … this entire bottom rung of the service sector being handled by immigrants or people of color more generally, **********I think the least you can do is actually develop respect for something called a worker. Large number of people have demonized the worker in one way or another, anyone who’s militant, saying these are my rights, I have a right to a living, a right to a fair wage, a right to a living wage, to certain protections. The fastest … whom is it actually benefiting? It is benefiting a large e number of people who driver round in taxis. The mid level exec, etc. So what have you done when you have created a system that places a driver in a position where he has no [power] at all? You’re fundamentally disrespecting labor. You’re fund disrespecting people’s work and I think if there’s anything they need to do it’s what it is to labor 12 hours behind wheel or 10 hours at construction site and not get protection for rit. **********