September 18, 2015
By Steven Wishnia
More than 500 cab drivers, angry that an unregulated Uber is undermining their income, protested outside Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Midtown offices Sept. 16, packing a block-long pen on Third Avenue. “There is a fire in progress,” Bhairavi Desai of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance told the crowd, as sirens sounded in the street. “What’s burning up is our profession, our livelihoods, and our future.”
Specifically, they are trying to forestall the governor—who has said he wants to enable Uber to operate all over the state—from pushing though a law that would define Uber and similar cab-hailing application businesses as “transportation network companies” exempt from the standard regulations for taxi service. Cuomo has been talking to Uber about such a bill, Desai told LaborPress after the rally.
“We want to make sure we’re heard,” she says. “He should not be negotiating without us.”
No specific state legislation is on the table yet, Desai says, but California’s law lets app-based companies dispatch private cars to pick up fares and exempts them from having to register cars as commercial vehicles, carry commercial insurance, and perform background checks on drivers. “That’s the blueprint [Uber is] trying to get around the globe,” she added.
In San Francisco, she told the crowd, there are now 30,000 Uber vehicles competing with the city’s less than 3,000 cabs—so “on a Friday or Saturday night, you are lucky if you make $50.”
More generally, the drivers were angry at the “Ubernomics” business model, in which what driver Jazz Singh called “a $40 billion mafia company” is trying to convert cabdriving into a part-time gig.
“Their business model is to have as many drivers out there as possible, because they get a cut of every ride,” said Tanveer Mohammad of Brooklyn, a driver for ten years. “They want to make anybody who can download the app a cabdriver. It’s unfair to the people who are working full-time.”
He said his income has fallen by 25 to 30 percent in the last two years, and “it’s dropping every day.”
“The yellow-cab industry is drowning,” said Jaspreet Singh of Long Island, a recent immigrant from India who has been driving for four years. “Drivers are suffering very badly.” Last year, he bought a medallion directly from the city Taxi and Limousine Commission for $855,000—while “at the same time, TLC was letting Uber come on the street and pick people up, the same as yellow cabs.”
“In 15 years, I saved $250,000. I bought the medallion for my retirement,” said Verdi Singh of Queens. “The banks keep pushing for payments.” Also an Indian immigrant, he’s been driving for 18 years, and bought one medallion in 2001 and a second for $1 million last year.
In the month or so since Mayor Bill de Blasio “made a U-turn” and dropped plans to cap the number of Uber vehicles, Verdi Singh added, the company has put 3,700 more cars on the street here.
“This is our legal right to pick people up on the street,” says Nancy Soria of the Bronx, vice-president of Green Taxis of New York. A driver for five years, she bought one of the first “street hail livery” permits for $3,500 two years ago, enabling her to pick up passengers in upper Manhattan and the outer boroughs.
Ubernomics, she says, “is a big fat lie that attracts drivers with promises of lots of money.” An Uber driver named Abishek confirmed that. Working part-time is good for him because he’s in college, he told the crowd, but after fees and expenses, “there is no way I could drive for Uber and support a family.”
One solution, drivers say, is limiting app-based hails to yellow or green cabs. Electronic hails “should be given to the legitimate cabs,” says Tanveer Mohammed. “It’s not the app, it’s the business model,” says Desai.
“I want to send a message to the politricksters of New York City: We’re ready,” 41-year driver Beresford Simmons told the crowd, heart-monitor wires protruding from under his T-shirt. He also denounced “civil-wrongs leaders” who shill for Uber and create racial division by saying yellow cabs “won’t go uptown.”
“We have been failed by Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio giving in to Ubernomics,” Soria said, speaking in English and Spanish.
Desai praised the crowd for bringing together yellow-cab owners and livery, black-cab, green-cab, and yellow-cab lease drivers. They are mobilizing for a long struggle, she says, and trying to build a broad coalition. Some goals include a second attempt to enact a city law capping the number of Uber vehicles, reforms to help yellow cabs, and rules holding Uber accountable as an employer, instead of letting it classify drivers as independent contractors.