The medallion system regulates the yellow taxis serving New York City: since 1937, each vehicle has needed a medallion in order to legally operate. Few taxi drivers own theirs; most lease them, paying around $100 for one 12-hour shift. The limited number of medallions issued by the city made each one highly valuable; individual medallion sale prices went from $50,000 in the late 1970s to over $1m by 2014. For many taxi drivers, owning a medallion meant success. Homes would be purchased. Children would be sent to universities. Then Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing apps arrived. Ride-hail cars saturated the market, and an exodus of drivers from yellow taxis made medallion values drop precipitously.
Today, there are more than 13,000 yellow medallion taxis in New York, split among about 40,000 drivers – some own their own medallions and cars, but most do not; many drivers work for a fleet, like the characters from Taxi, and pay to rent each car on a daily or weekly basis. The job is not easy: the standard shift is 12 hours, and with the cost of leasing a car and filling the gas tank, a bad day means taking a loss. For every moment spent without a paying passenger, the driver loses money. Occasionally, passengers are abusive or violent; nationwide, taxi drivers are over 20 times more likely to be murdered on the job than anyone else.
Uber officially arrived in New York in 2011; by 2015, Uber cars outnumbered taxis – and took away millions of rides. Taxi drivers, noticing the drop in passengers, began to leave the business behind: many transitioned towards driving for Uber, for other ride-hailing services like Lyft, Juno or Via – or for all of them at once. Now, fleets struggle to find enough drivers, and empty yellow taxis sit dormant in garages throughout the city. Uber are exploiting the drivers,” he said. When a passenger lodged a complaint against him, Uber suspended his account – and Qurashi was unable to defend himself against the passenger’s claims.“I didn’t have power or anything. It was customers’ rights, not workers’ rights.”
Taxi drivers who want to organize can join the New York Taxi Workers’ Alliance (NYTWA), an organization that claims 18,000 members and is affiliated with the AFL-CIO. But taxi drivers are independent contractors and are not protected under the National Labor Relations Act. The NYTWA can coordinate protests and strikes but has no collective bargaining rights.
“I wish we were more united, and able to fight. There’s no union for us.”