Under misty clouds that obscured the tops of buildings and in a spitting rain, a bullhorn blared at the front of a low brick building reading Midtown Operating Corp.
Break the silence! Break the isolation!
The man on the microphone was Victor Salazar, a taxi driver and member of the National Taxi Workers Alliance (NTWA), and he was calling to a line of drivers in yellow cabs. Forty members of the NTWA and taxi workers from San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia cheered, chanted and waved signs with messages like “Lower the Lease!” and “Stop the Greed!”
In the midst of the drivers was AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. Next to him was NTWA Executive Director Bhairavi Desai, who hollered into the bullhorn, “We’re your union! Taxi drivers unite!”
Drivers nodded. Some honked horns. Then two drivers, who had been standing in line to lease a car for the evening, walked across the driveway and past the tense-looking owners of Midtown to join the picket line. In an industry where drivers can be blacklisted for activism, it was a moment of tremendous courage. The men joined the ranks of drivers and labor leaders and took turns making short speeches. Every now and then the drivers would break into chants, saying, “Shame! Shame!” and “Dri-ver pow-er! Un-ion pow-er!”
The NTWA has held 50 such marches in the past four months to protest crippling credit card fees, high car lease rates and other charges that guarantee generous profits for owners of taxicabs and medallions and a tough existence for drivers. A medallion is a license required for a driver to pick up street hails in New York City.
“I’m here to tell you that you’re not alone,” shouted Trumka into the bullhorn. “Every single worker in the AFL-CIO stands with you, because you’re organizing for the same thing that all workers want—dignity, respect and a decent deal for the work you do!”
Last year, the NTWA became the latest affiliate union of the AFL-CIO and highlighted new organizing efforts by so-called nontraditional workers. The taxi drivers are not employees, but independent contractors. The NTWA is negotiating a change in law to enable it to develop a process for providing health care to taxi workers.