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Taxi drivers in New York City demand debt relief.

New York Taxi Workers Stage Hunger Strike to Demand Medallion Debt Relief

"They are an essential industry here in New York City," said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, "and we need to make sure we're doing right by them."

Julia Conley

Local and federal progressive lawmakers expressed solidarity on Sunday with New York City taxi drivers who were five days into a hunger strike, demanding Mayor Bill DeBlasio embrace a debt relief proposal for drivers who owe hundreds of thousands of dollars for the medallions they purchased in order to work in the industry.
 
After spending a month protesting outside City Hall, members of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) began the hunger strike last Wednesday in the hopes of forcing the mayor to respond.
 
The NYTWA has proposed a debt relief program that would cap outstanding medallion debt at $145,000 and payments at $800 per month—a plan they say is far superior to the city's $65 million debt restructuring program.
 
The city's taxi drivers "shouldn’t have to be on a hunger strike," said Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), who represents parts of The Bronx. "Cancel the debt."
 
 
The medallion debt crisis has contributed to widespread despair, financial ruin, and health problems among drivers, according to the NYTWA.
 
"This is a workforce that has been so, super exploited," Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the NYTWA, said in a video produced by More Perfect Union. "There has been such a sense of despair among the drivers. And so to see drivers get past the suicides and the bankruptcies and all the heart attacks and the strokes and the utter level of despair and depression, to now being on the streets, refusing to leave until justice is won... It's workers taking back control over their lives."
 
 
Drivers in New York City save up tens of thousands of dollars for down payments on medallions, allowing them to own their cabs. The medallion market has served as a major revenue stream for the city, bringing in $850 million during the administrations of DeBlasio and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as drivers have been encouraged to take out huge loans to buy their medallions.

"To see drivers get past the suicides and the bankruptcies and all the heart attacks and the strokes and the utter level of despair and depression, to now being on the streets, refusing to leave until justice is won... It's workers taking back control over their lives."

 
The city's debt restructuring program is "nothing more than a banker bailout," the NYTWA told Al Jazeera on Friday.
 
The plan is "going to give $65 million directly to the banks and hedge funds that own medallion debt in exchange for a negligible reduction in the principal owed on them," the union said.
 
According to the NYTWA, the average owner-driver owes $550,000 on medallions that are worth only about $100,000.
 
Ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft as well as the coronavirus pandemic have driven down demand in recent years, leaving drivers earning little more than minimum wage and struggling to pay their medallion debts.
 
One driver named Richard told Al Jazeera that 15 years after making a down payment on a $410,000 medallion, he now owes $400,000 in outstanding debt, with monthly payments of $2,766.
 
New York state Assemblymembers Zohran Kwame Mamdani and Yuh-Line Niou were among the allies who joined the taxi drivers in their hunger strike.
 
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) are also among the lawmakers that have called on the city to accept the NYTWA's debt relief proposal.
 
 
"We're here standing strong with our taxi workers because we need to make a wrong, right, and we have to make sure that we reestablish hope and life for our taxi workers," said Ocasio-Cortez Friday. "They are an essential industry here in New York City...and we need to make sure we're doing right by them."

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