‘I lost everything’: Desperate N.Y.C. taxi drivers begin hunger strike for debt relief

·5 min read

Dozens of New York City taxi drivers started a hunger strike Wednesday to protest the crushing debt brought on by the failed medallion program.

Drivers in the taxi workers union, of which 40 percent are South Asians, have been demonstrating outside City Hall for more than a month. They say they are now willing to go hungry in their fight for meaningful debt relief and protection for vulnerable drivers.

“I lost everything,” medallion driver Mohamadou Aliyu, 49, told NBC Asian America.

When Aliyu first purchased his $100,000 medallion at a New York City auction in 2004, he said, it felt like he had achieved his dream. “Life was beautiful,” he said of the first few years after he bought it. By making money with his own cab, he was coming out of poverty, and the high price tag of the medallion seemed worth it. But that bliss was short-lived.

As Uber and Lyft grew in popularity, Aliyu began to lose business. At the same time, bankers, brokers and investors in the city artificially drove up the taxi medallion prices, creating a bubble that peaked at over $1 million. He said he didn't realize at the time that the loan he had signed was risky and loosely regulated, and his dream became a nightmare. He now owes $630,000 to lenders.

Now, he said, he’s desperate. After camping outside City Hall in a tent for 32 days, Aliyu said the hunger strike is “the only thing left.”

Purchasing medallions, or certificates to own and operate an independent cab, was once what drivers like Aliyu saw as a ticket into middle-class life in America. But the inflated loan amounts proved devastating, and drivers who bought medallions from the city were buried in debt.

The average driver with the program owes $500,000 to lenders, and many say their circumstances are dire. They’ve gone without health insurance or retirement plans and have even been pushed to the brink of homelessness, they say. And despite working extreme hours for below minimum wage, the debt has left many with no option.

In 2018, a string of drivers died by suicide. Aliyu has lost nine colleagues and said he was even pushed to the brink himself. “God knows how many times I think about committing suicide,” he said.

It’s a situation that grows more desperate by the day, said Bhairavi Desai, president of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, the union representing more than 15,000 drivers. And she hopes the hunger strike will put it into perspective for officials like Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“We need to shock the consciousness of City Hall,” she said.

De Blasio proposed a debt relief package in March, offering $65 million to banks with the possibility of forgiving a portion of the debt. But drivers say this is a half-measure. Under the mayor’s plan, Aliyu said, his $630,000 debt would only be reduced to $520,000.

“I’m going to be enslaved for the rest of my life,” he said. “Not only that I will never be able to pay it off — my kids will never be able to pay it off.”

The union’s proposal calls for a city-backed guarantee on the loans that would bring lenders to the table to negotiate debt forgiveness. At the end of the program, Desai said, no loan should be left higher than $145,000 and monthly payments would be reduced to $800.

De Blasio’s proposal is a drop in the bucket, she said. It wouldn’t allow medallion drivers, who barely have enough for rent and groceries as it is, to escape poverty in their lifetimes. They’ve been protesting for the past month, urging de Blasio to approve the alliance’s plan, which she says would give drivers a way out.

“Without this debt relief for thousands of our families, tomorrow is indentured servitude,” she said.

New York City put out a press release last week touting the effectiveness of the mayor’s medallion relief plan. “Surpassing 100 deals — and keeping $16 million in the pockets of taxi medallion owners — is a major victory for working people across this city,” de Blasio said. “We will have more successes to celebrate in the weeks and months to come.”

But the mayor hasn’t acknowledged the pleas of medallion drivers who say his plan is not enough. And he’s becoming increasingly isolated in this fight.

So far, the union’s proposal has been endorsed by prominent Democrats and Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, New York’s entire congressional delegation, New York Attorney General Letitia James and New York City Chief Financial Officer Scott Stringer, among others.

“We’re talking about people from across the ideological spectrum,” said Zohran Mamdani, a Democratic state assembly member representing Astoria, Ditmars Steinway and Astoria Heights. He co-authored the letter sent to the mayor urging a city-backed guarantee.

Mamdani said this protest brings together several issues: workers' justice, immigrant justice and language justice. He is participating in the hunger strike alongside taxi drivers.

“I will be on hunger strike until the end of this fight,” he said.

For Aliyu, the next decisions to come out of City Hall could make or break not only his future, but also that of his children. He can’t sleep, he says, and he worries every day.

“There is no word to describe how painful, how stressful, how hard it is,” he said. “I’ve been robbed of my American dream.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

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