The woman who leads the New York City taxi workers’ union can’t drive. But that hardly matters. After fighting for cabbies’ rights for 13 years, Bhairavi Desai has achieved folk hero status among the city’s yellow cab drivers, a diverse group of 49,000 who speak 60 languages and typically pull 10- to 12-hour shifts, six days a week, for less than minimum wage. She’s probably the last person in Manhattan who would be refused a ride, even to an outer borough.
There are other contradictions as well. Desai RC’94 holds a degree in women’s studies but found success as a labor leader in an industry where 99 percent of the drivers are men. Her New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) has united drivers—who are independent contractors rather than employees—into an increasingly powerful voice, where traditional union models have failed.
Rights for taxi workers weren’t on anyone’s radar in the mid-1990s when a 5-2 spitfire wearing a traditional South Asian shalwar kameez began hanging around airports, gas stations, and ethnic restaurants to engage drivers. The effort was a slow-go at first, but within a year she’d collected a litany of gripes from 700 drivers she’d interviewed. When Rudy Giuliani, then mayor of New York City, proposed 17 new regulations for cabbies in 1998, including mandatory drug tests and higher insurance rates, drivers were incensed—and eager to return fire. “Everyone was really riled up,” Desai told the New Yorker in an article published in October. “They were like, ‘we need a strike.’”
So, the then 25-year-old cofounder and executive director of the fledgling NYTWA encouraged a 24-hour strike. Although Giuliani dismissed the threat as “a theater of the absurd,” Manhattan streets were bereft of yellow cabs on the day of the strike. Ninety percent of the city’s yellow cab drivers joined the job action, and the effort was more successful than anyone, especially the mayor’s office, had predicted. The city council eventually passed most of the 17 rules, but not before the NYTWA had made national headlines.
Desai again captured national press attention—and was invited to the White House—in October when the National Taxi Workers Alliance, of which she is the president, became the first nontraditional labor organization welcomed into the AFL-CIO since a farm workers group was chartered in the 1960s. Chapters in New York and Philadelphia are the first to launch, with initial campaigns addressing raises, health care, and bargaining rights. Chicago taxi drivers have expressed an interest in organizing next. The AFL-CIO’s move followed a 2006 decision by New York City’s Central Labor Council to allow the NYTWA to join. During an earlier visit of hers to the White House, in 2009, Desai was greeted by President Obama in the receiving line at a state dinner, who exclaimed, “I was an organizer, too!”
Desai was born in Gujarat, India. She moved with her family to the United States when she was 7, settling in Harrison, New Jersey. Politics and social justice were family matters, from her grandmother’s arrest during a fight for Indian independence to her father’s defense of the underprivileged as a lawyer back home. As newly arrived immigrants, her father bought a two-aisle grocery and her mother worked nights in a factory. “A grocery store is almost the same as a taxi,” she says. “You work 70 to 80 hours a week.”
Today, 15,000 drivers, fewer than one-third of New York’s driver pool, are alliance members. Using sports terms, Desai says she organizes her battles into two groups: offense for long-term campaigns like advocating for health care benefits, and defense for crisis-mode responses like opposing new rules for drivers. Desai has spent more time playing defense lately—which is perhaps why she also uses the term “taxi wars” to describe the ongoing battles over how the system should run. In October, she demanded a police investigation after a driver who was punched and bitten by two passengers says he was told he’d be arrested too if he filed a complaint. Drivers can expect their licenses to be suspended if they are arrested, no matter the cause, so there’s a powerful deterrent. The NYTWA also spent months fighting a proposal by mayor Michael Bloomberg to allow livery drivers to pick up street hails in upper Manhattan and the outer boroughs of the city, where yellow taxis are less common. The bill won support from the state legislature but New York governor Andrew Cuomo has been unwilling to sign it. In typical agitator fashion, Desai says Bloomberg is trying to regain political capital after being criticized for the city’s disastrous response to last winter’s snowstorms. “Mayor Bloomberg has an outer-borough problem,” she says, “and he’s trying to scapegoat the [taxi] drivers.”
— Angela Delli Santi