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NYC Taxi Drivers Shut Down Brooklyn Bridge in Demand for Debt Forgiveness

"We shut down the Brooklyn Bridge because only direct action will get us what we need: medallion debt forgiveness now!"

Taxi drivers block the Brooklyn Bridge on Wednesday, February 10, 2021.

Taxi drivers block the Brooklyn Bridge on Wednesday, February 10, 2021. (Photo: New York Taxi Workers Alliance)

Taxi workers in New York City shut down traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge Wednesday, reviving a tactic they've used since the coronavirus pandemic emerged to sustain their demand for debt forgiveness for medallion loans.

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) shared video of the action on social media:

 

A press statement from the 25,000-member union says that dozens of yellow cab owner-drivers were involved in the action.

Book-ending the afternoon direct action on the iconic bridge was testimony earlier in the day at a city council hearing on taxi driver debt and a later rally outside Sen. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's Brooklyn home.

The union said they were pleased Schumer "heeded our call" after he issued a statement in favor of debt forgiveness. In a statement shared by the union, Schumer said, "I stand with the New York Taxi Workers Alliance in their urgent mission to forge a financial lifeline for their hard-pressed members to restructure medallion debt, salvage their future retirement, and have a fair chance at earning a living wage for all of their many hours behind the wheel."

Now, they say, pressure must be focused on New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio to confront what drivers and their advocates describe as an economic crisis.

Drivers have seen between an 80-90% drop in ridership since March of 2020. As CNN reported last month:

Traditionally, taxis in big cities require medallions—official licenses that allow yellow cabs exclusivity to pick up street hails. New medallions are either sold by the city or, more commonly, bought through auctions.

In 2018, nine for-hire drivers in New York died by suicide, crushed under the financial pressure of debts owed on their medallions. Three of them were yellow cab owner-drivers.

The local Sunnyside Post on Tuesday pointed to key reporting from the New York Times in 2019, saying that it "uncovered that much of the devastation was caused by a handful of taxi company owners—in concert with unscrupulous lenders and city officials—who artificially drove up the price of the medallions year after year."

New York State Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou on Wednesday also amplified the Times reporting in the context of the drivers' action, tweeting: "The predatory lending that was condoned by the city and the state used to help some folks and hurt others was designed to trap people into a cycle of debt."

Hedge funds are also now scooping up the medallions.

"Hardworking taxi medallion individual and owner-drivers entered this industry believing the city would run a fair system," New York Attorney General Letitia James said in November. "Instead, many of these workers and small business owners were sent down a rabbit hole of financial ruin."

The union is demanding that outstanding medallion loans be capped at $125,000 and refinanced "for no more than 20 years at $757 per month (4% interest rate.)"

"Drivers took direct action today and sent an SOS to Congress, and Senator Schumer heeded our call," NYTWA executive director Bhairavi Desai said in a statement Wednesday. But the mayor, said Desai, "has no more excuses."

"De Blasio said he was waiting for federal funds before taking action. Now, we have a commitment of support from the official that the mayor relies on to deliver that federal aid to the city. It's time to act now and put an end to this crisis of poverty and debt," said Desai.

Among the casualties of the crisis is the father of Felicia Singh, a Queens resident running for a City Council seat. In a twitter thread Tuesday, she noted that "more than 950 medallion owners have had to file for bankruptcy."

"Due to our inability to pay our taxi medallion loan, my father had to file for bankruptcy," she tweeted. "This past Friday, the bankruptcy court put a 'For Sale' sign on our house. There is already an offer on our home, and the trustees are ready to sell."

Until the @NYCMayorgives taxi drivers debt relief," tweeted Singh, "families will continue to lose their incomes and homes."

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