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Striking Against Islamophobia: A Conversation with Bhairavi Desai from the New York Taxi Workers Alliance

Thursday, February 16, 2017 By Sarah Jaffe, Speakout | Interview
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Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing "Interviews for Resistance" series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn't, what has changed, and what is still the same. Today's interview is the thirteenth in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

On January 28, as protesters rushed to airports around the country seeking to defend refugees and migrants against Trump's travel ban, taxi drivers with the New York Taxi Workers Alliance took the protest a step further and refused to pick up fares at JFK Airport. The taxi drivers' strike caught the imagination of the public and even spurred a massive campaign to #DeleteUber after the ride-hailing app lowered its fares in an apparent attempt to break the strike. (Uber has since apologized, repeatedly.) But the taxi workers have more to teach us than just this one action. We spoke with Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Worker's Alliance.

Sarah Jaffe: The first thing that probably brought the Taxi Worker's Alliance to the attention of people around the country was the strike at JFK Airport over Trump's immigration ban. Can you tell us a little bit about how that came to be?

Bhairavi Desai: We are a workforce that is largely Muslim and Sikh and almost universally immigrant. Over 94 percent of the drivers in New York City are immigrant and across the country we are a largely immigrant workforce. When the executive order came down, there was a definite sense of urgency and a lot of anger. We really were just starting to talk about all the different members we knew who would be affected and the fact that even though the majority of our Muslim members are not from one of the seven countries in the executive order, still the hysteria around Islamophobia and the fact that fear leads to hate crimes is a major concern of ours. We felt that we really needed to act.

On Saturday, the day after the executive order was signed, when we saw folks coming out to the airport and protesting, it just felt like the most natural thing to do was for us to stand in solidarity and participate in that action in the best way that we know how, which was by striking and holding down that lot.

One of the things that I found the most interesting about this is that there has been a lot of talk about the different problems with Uber's business model, but the thing that really prompted what reports say was 200,000 people to delete Uber was that they were strike-breaking.

It was amazing to see the outpouring of support. I think people were really touched that here was a workforce on the front lines of these hateful policies and also the economic margins of what we have seen is a growing sector of the economy which is piecemealing and turning a fulltime profession into part-time gigs. People out there know that taxi drivers are really hard working and that people really struggle day to day to make ends meet. The idea that they would put their incomes on the line and it would be a workforce that is so vulnerable, particularly in these times, to surveillance and deportations and further policing, that they would be the ones to stand up. It seemed to really touch people and we were so moved by their reaction. I think it was a beautiful start to solidarity with our movement.

Certainly, there are many reasons to be critical of Uber. Uber is a pretty horrible company. It is true we have been fighting for a long time to bring attention to Uber's economic practices and the race to the bottom that it has created. But, however people were meant to come and take a closer look at us, we are ready to accept and, hopefully, from this point forward, folks continue with the struggle.

The Taxi Worker's Alliance has been organizing with Uber drivers. Can you talk a little bit more about the complaints the drivers have and their connection to organizing with more the traditional taxi workers?

Sure. In New York City, it is the one Uber market in the whole country where an Uber is a licensed black car base. The drivers are all licensed. I mean, Uber in New York City, itself, does remain under-regulated, but the drivers, themselves, are licensed and regulated. Many of the Uber drivers used to drive Yellow Taxi, were our members and they switched to Uber and retained their membership. This is a company where it is really difficult for people to make ends meet. We see members who are working like sixty hours a week, retaining 4.8 star ratings, and yet, they are earning below minimum wage.

You mentioned the violence that drivers face and particularly how that escalates in times when racism and Islamophobia are on the rise. Can you talk a little bit about some of the drivers' experience with some of that?

A few years ago, people will recall, there was a lot of controversy in New York City that down the street from Ground Zero an Islamic Center had opened. Many of the well-known Islamophobes had taken up the issue as their main cause and created a lot of hysteria around it. Folks like Sarah Palin, at the time was more relevant that today, heavily weighing in. The rhetoric was quite hateful and strong. Well, in the midst of all of that, it was one of our members, Ahmed Sharif -- this is during Ramadan, he picks up a fare, a pretty young guy, started talking to him and at one point the passenger asked Ahmed, "Are you Muslim?" and when Ahmed answered, "Yes" he took out a knife and he slashed him across the neck.

We have seen through the years, right after 9/11 I remember so many neighborhoods, primarily immigrant neighborhoods where taxis would be parked and overnight the tires would be slashed. The Yellow Cab went from being kind of a cultural icon, a symbol of New York City to a symbol of Muslim workers. We would see profanities carved into the taxi with a knife. Already, drivers are twenty times more likely to be killed on the job than other workers. We are one of the most visible immigrant and Muslim workforces. Our members tend to be on the frontlines of that hate and violence.

I understand that anti-racist organizing and discussions have been part of the organizing, that the Taxi Workers Alliance has been doing since the beginning.

You can't compartmentalize peoples' reality and their humanity. I remember, after 9/11, I remember our members being subject to a lot of verbal abuse and physical assaults, and at the same time they lost so much work, because all of these streets were closed down and they still had to pay for their lease out of pocket. We did a survey and we found that one out of four drivers had received an eviction notice from their home. People were in debt by as much as $25,000 because they were paying for everything out of pocket and just borrowing money and taking out credit cards.

At the same time, they were contending with the fact that this country was beginning to discuss military action within the Middle East in the same countries where many of the members were from. You can't keep somebody whole and ignore a large part of their life and particularly one when it comes to something as deeply rooted as racism and workplace violence, which given that we represent a workforce that's in the public, the two often intersect in drivers' daily lives.

One of the things that also happened in the wake of the taxi workers' strike was the Yemeni business owners closing their businesses, the affectionately termed #BodegaStrike. I wonder if you could talk about the connection between those two things and the rise of interest in strikes as a way to resist the Trump administration.

Yes, it was so wonderful to see. It filled us with such pride and admiration. Particularly, to have Yemeni business owners, given that Yemen is one of the seven named countries. It was really a beautiful show of courage. We have seen it similarly, like in 1998 when we went out on strike against Giuliani. After we had gone out on strike, there was a strike by street vendors and the students at the City University. We boost each other. We learn from each other. We gain courage from each other. That really is the essence of solidarity.

I think that, particularly, strikes, within the labor movement we have known that you work on a campaign and there will be many months, if not years, of build-up before you go to strike vote. It is seen as the final action. It is a moment of urgency. Well, that is what millions of people are waking up to every single day under this presidency. There is a moment of urgency. This is not normal. It is not normal for us to live in the United States of America where we say to the world that refugees from war-torn countries are not welcome onto this land. A land built, in so many way, by immigrants. I think we are going to see more and more of such actions. Clearly, the White House, at the moment, seems to be regrouping and figuring out next strategies, because I think their strategy of blitzkrieging and bombarding us with one executive order after another backfired and it galvanized people rather than exhausting or intimidating us.

For people who aren't familiar with the Taxi Workers Alliance, take us back to the history of your organization and how it became one of the first non-traditional workers organizations that was accepted into the AFL-CIO.

We started organizing in 1996. Then, we formally organized the Taxi Workers Alliance in 1998. We have over 19,000 members today in New York City. A few years ago, we were given a charter by the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO to form a national Taxi Workers Alliance. We have affiliates in six different cities across the country. We are a grassroots membership-led, membership driven organization. In most of our cities, we represent drivers that are independent contractors, like in New York City with the Yellow Cab drivers. We have worked outside of the National Labor Relations Act. We have no dues check-off. Nobody has to recognize us at the table. Everything we have done, all of the progress we have made, it comes from our workers, our members, going out onto the streets and building a militant activist-oriented movement.

We are already seeing Republicans in Congress are introducing a national Right-to-Work law that Trump has said he is in favor of. As labor moves forward, what are some lessons from the taxi workers organizing and actions that the rest of labor can take?

I tell you, for twenty years we have been working under conditions that really are right of Right-to-Work. Right-to-Work will go after collective bargaining and unionization, but for us, the drivers are not even considered employees, so they don't even have minimum wage and overtime and Social Security contributions. None of the basic protections. Of course, it is the historic fight that we are up against right now with companies like Uber and Lyft and the so-called "gig economy" players that are using Wall Street investor money to cement that employment model within our industry that could do it in a way where, at least the one thing we have had over the past thirty years under independent contractorship, which is full-time work and full-time pay. That, itself, is what is being attacked right now besides employee status and misclassification by these companies.

I think that the lessons that are to be offered are, one, you don't do what, for example, the Machinists have done with Uber, which is they formed something called the Independent Drivers Guild which is a company union. They have entered into a private agreement. No one has seen the contract. We know from media announcements that it is a five-year deal. They get money from Uber and in return, they have agreed to not challenge Uber's misclassification and fight for employee status even though anybody who knows this industry knows that Uber is more of an employer than anything we have seen in thirty years because of the levels of control it exerts over the drivers. I think it is really important to remain vigilant. You have to allow your organizing to do the work for you and that you have to build democratic unionism in order to survive a Right-to-Work era. We need to fight for an end to employer intimidation and intrusion when it comes to elections so workers can choose freely even within a Right-to-Work context.

New York is, obviously, a blue city in a blue state. Talk about the importance of resistance in cities like New York when you have this right-wing administration in the White House.

I think local resistance at the city level and at the state level everywhere is going to be so critical. New York is interesting because New York and California are two states where you can have more statewide initiatives, you can expect to have more statewide initiatives, certainly around immigration and fighting against some of the hate-spewed policies that have come out already and I am sure more that are going to follow from this administration.

At the same time, there are still issues in places like New York or California. For example, when the #DeleteUber movement started, and it was in defense of our strike and all these folks who said it was important to hold the Uber CEO accountable to his relationship with Trump. Certainly, we celebrated when Travis Kalanick was forced to give up his seat at the Trump table, but at the same time, the real Trumpian connection between Uber and this administration is their economic policies. Yet, in places like California and New York, we see a lot of support for this so-called "gig economy" and a lot of buying into the notion that these companies which are destroying full-time jobs, misclassifying, lobbying actively to undo generations-old labor law and labor protections, that somehow, because they have liberal-to-progressive democratic operatives working for them as lobbyists that somehow that makes them okay. Like, they are not really Wall Street even though they are completely funded by Wall Street. I think that is really disturbing and really problematic.

I think that the challenge remains that in states like New York and California, we have to challenge not only the backwards social policies that will come out of this administration, but we also have to hold up real ideals of economic justice and protect good jobs and protect workers and not just undo labor protections that these companies are fighting for.

How can people keep up with you and the Taxi Workers Alliance?

You can find us online at www.NYTWA.org. We are also pretty active on Facebook and Twitter. We welcome people to email us. One of the most beautiful things that happened out of the defense of our strike, very single day, we are still getting postcards in the mail from across the country. It is so lovely. You see that each family member has signed their own name because you see the different handwriting on different postcards coming in. And emails. It has been amazing to see. It is such a wonderful feeling, particularly for us, because we are a workforce that is isolated by the nature of the job itself. When you consider 94 percent immigrant, mostly people of color, non-employees on the edge of the economy, we have been politically isolated for so long. It is an amazing feeling for us when the larger community opens their eyes and their hearts to our struggle.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast. Not to be reprinted without permission. 

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at The Nation Institute and has covered labor, social and economic justice and politics for Truthout, The Atlantic, The Guardian, In These Times and many other publications. She is the cohost of Belabored, a labor podcast hosted by Dissent magazine, and the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans In Revolt (Nation Books, 2016). Follow her on Twitter: @sarahljaffe.


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Striking Against Islamophobia: A Conversation with Bhairavi Desai from the New York Taxi Workers Alliance

Thursday, February 16, 2017 By Sarah Jaffe, Speakout | Interview
  • font size decrease font size decrease font size increase font size increase font size
  • Print

Media

Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing "Interviews for Resistance" series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn't, what has changed, and what is still the same. Today's interview is the thirteenth in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

On January 28, as protesters rushed to airports around the country seeking to defend refugees and migrants against Trump's travel ban, taxi drivers with the New York Taxi Workers Alliance took the protest a step further and refused to pick up fares at JFK Airport. The taxi drivers' strike caught the imagination of the public and even spurred a massive campaign to #DeleteUber after the ride-hailing app lowered its fares in an apparent attempt to break the strike. (Uber has since apologized, repeatedly.) But the taxi workers have more to teach us than just this one action. We spoke with Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Worker's Alliance.

Sarah Jaffe: The first thing that probably brought the Taxi Worker's Alliance to the attention of people around the country was the strike at JFK Airport over Trump's immigration ban. Can you tell us a little bit about how that came to be?

Bhairavi Desai: We are a workforce that is largely Muslim and Sikh and almost universally immigrant. Over 94 percent of the drivers in New York City are immigrant and across the country we are a largely immigrant workforce. When the executive order came down, there was a definite sense of urgency and a lot of anger. We really were just starting to talk about all the different members we knew who would be affected and the fact that even though the majority of our Muslim members are not from one of the seven countries in the executive order, still the hysteria around Islamophobia and the fact that fear leads to hate crimes is a major concern of ours. We felt that we really needed to act.

On Saturday, the day after the executive order was signed, when we saw folks coming out to the airport and protesting, it just felt like the most natural thing to do was for us to stand in solidarity and participate in that action in the best way that we know how, which was by striking and holding down that lot.

One of the things that I found the most interesting about this is that there has been a lot of talk about the different problems with Uber's business model, but the thing that really prompted what reports say was 200,000 people to delete Uber was that they were strike-breaking.

It was amazing to see the outpouring of support. I think people were really touched that here was a workforce on the front lines of these hateful policies and also the economic margins of what we have seen is a growing sector of the economy which is piecemealing and turning a fulltime profession into part-time gigs. People out there know that taxi drivers are really hard working and that people really struggle day to day to make ends meet. The idea that they would put their incomes on the line and it would be a workforce that is so vulnerable, particularly in these times, to surveillance and deportations and further policing, that they would be the ones to stand up. It seemed to really touch people and we were so moved by their reaction. I think it was a beautiful start to solidarity with our movement.

Certainly, there are many reasons to be critical of Uber. Uber is a pretty horrible company. It is true we have been fighting for a long time to bring attention to Uber's economic practices and the race to the bottom that it has created. But, however people were meant to come and take a closer look at us, we are ready to accept and, hopefully, from this point forward, folks continue with the struggle.

The Taxi Worker's Alliance has been organizing with Uber drivers. Can you talk a little bit more about the complaints the drivers have and their connection to organizing with more the traditional taxi workers?

Sure. In New York City, it is the one Uber market in the whole country where an Uber is a licensed black car base. The drivers are all licensed. I mean, Uber in New York City, itself, does remain under-regulated, but the drivers, themselves, are licensed and regulated. Many of the Uber drivers used to drive Yellow Taxi, were our members and they switched to Uber and retained their membership. This is a company where it is really difficult for people to make ends meet. We see members who are working like sixty hours a week, retaining 4.8 star ratings, and yet, they are earning below minimum wage.

You mentioned the violence that drivers face and particularly how that escalates in times when racism and Islamophobia are on the rise. Can you talk a little bit about some of the drivers' experience with some of that?

A few years ago, people will recall, there was a lot of controversy in New York City that down the street from Ground Zero an Islamic Center had opened. Many of the well-known Islamophobes had taken up the issue as their main cause and created a lot of hysteria around it. Folks like Sarah Palin, at the time was more relevant that today, heavily weighing in. The rhetoric was quite hateful and strong. Well, in the midst of all of that, it was one of our members, Ahmed Sharif -- this is during Ramadan, he picks up a fare, a pretty young guy, started talking to him and at one point the passenger asked Ahmed, "Are you Muslim?" and when Ahmed answered, "Yes" he took out a knife and he slashed him across the neck.

We have seen through the years, right after 9/11 I remember so many neighborhoods, primarily immigrant neighborhoods where taxis would be parked and overnight the tires would be slashed. The Yellow Cab went from being kind of a cultural icon, a symbol of New York City to a symbol of Muslim workers. We would see profanities carved into the taxi with a knife. Already, drivers are twenty times more likely to be killed on the job than other workers. We are one of the most visible immigrant and Muslim workforces. Our members tend to be on the frontlines of that hate and violence.

I understand that anti-racist organizing and discussions have been part of the organizing, that the Taxi Workers Alliance has been doing since the beginning.

You can't compartmentalize peoples' reality and their humanity. I remember, after 9/11, I remember our members being subject to a lot of verbal abuse and physical assaults, and at the same time they lost so much work, because all of these streets were closed down and they still had to pay for their lease out of pocket. We did a survey and we found that one out of four drivers had received an eviction notice from their home. People were in debt by as much as $25,000 because they were paying for everything out of pocket and just borrowing money and taking out credit cards.

At the same time, they were contending with the fact that this country was beginning to discuss military action within the Middle East in the same countries where many of the members were from. You can't keep somebody whole and ignore a large part of their life and particularly one when it comes to something as deeply rooted as racism and workplace violence, which given that we represent a workforce that's in the public, the two often intersect in drivers' daily lives.

One of the things that also happened in the wake of the taxi workers' strike was the Yemeni business owners closing their businesses, the affectionately termed #BodegaStrike. I wonder if you could talk about the connection between those two things and the rise of interest in strikes as a way to resist the Trump administration.

Yes, it was so wonderful to see. It filled us with such pride and admiration. Particularly, to have Yemeni business owners, given that Yemen is one of the seven named countries. It was really a beautiful show of courage. We have seen it similarly, like in 1998 when we went out on strike against Giuliani. After we had gone out on strike, there was a strike by street vendors and the students at the City University. We boost each other. We learn from each other. We gain courage from each other. That really is the essence of solidarity.

I think that, particularly, strikes, within the labor movement we have known that you work on a campaign and there will be many months, if not years, of build-up before you go to strike vote. It is seen as the final action. It is a moment of urgency. Well, that is what millions of people are waking up to every single day under this presidency. There is a moment of urgency. This is not normal. It is not normal for us to live in the United States of America where we say to the world that refugees from war-torn countries are not welcome onto this land. A land built, in so many way, by immigrants. I think we are going to see more and more of such actions. Clearly, the White House, at the moment, seems to be regrouping and figuring out next strategies, because I think their strategy of blitzkrieging and bombarding us with one executive order after another backfired and it galvanized people rather than exhausting or intimidating us.

For people who aren't familiar with the Taxi Workers Alliance, take us back to the history of your organization and how it became one of the first non-traditional workers organizations that was accepted into the AFL-CIO.

We started organizing in 1996. Then, we formally organized the Taxi Workers Alliance in 1998. We have over 19,000 members today in New York City. A few years ago, we were given a charter by the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO to form a national Taxi Workers Alliance. We have affiliates in six different cities across the country. We are a grassroots membership-led, membership driven organization. In most of our cities, we represent drivers that are independent contractors, like in New York City with the Yellow Cab drivers. We have worked outside of the National Labor Relations Act. We have no dues check-off. Nobody has to recognize us at the table. Everything we have done, all of the progress we have made, it comes from our workers, our members, going out onto the streets and building a militant activist-oriented movement.

We are already seeing Republicans in Congress are introducing a national Right-to-Work law that Trump has said he is in favor of. As labor moves forward, what are some lessons from the taxi workers organizing and actions that the rest of labor can take?

I tell you, for twenty years we have been working under conditions that really are right of Right-to-Work. Right-to-Work will go after collective bargaining and unionization, but for us, the drivers are not even considered employees, so they don't even have minimum wage and overtime and Social Security contributions. None of the basic protections. Of course, it is the historic fight that we are up against right now with companies like Uber and Lyft and the so-called "gig economy" players that are using Wall Street investor money to cement that employment model within our industry that could do it in a way where, at least the one thing we have had over the past thirty years under independent contractorship, which is full-time work and full-time pay. That, itself, is what is being attacked right now besides employee status and misclassification by these companies.

I think that the lessons that are to be offered are, one, you don't do what, for example, the Machinists have done with Uber, which is they formed something called the Independent Drivers Guild which is a company union. They have entered into a private agreement. No one has seen the contract. We know from media announcements that it is a five-year deal. They get money from Uber and in return, they have agreed to not challenge Uber's misclassification and fight for employee status even though anybody who knows this industry knows that Uber is more of an employer than anything we have seen in thirty years because of the levels of control it exerts over the drivers. I think it is really important to remain vigilant. You have to allow your organizing to do the work for you and that you have to build democratic unionism in order to survive a Right-to-Work era. We need to fight for an end to employer intimidation and intrusion when it comes to elections so workers can choose freely even within a Right-to-Work context.

New York is, obviously, a blue city in a blue state. Talk about the importance of resistance in cities like New York when you have this right-wing administration in the White House.

I think local resistance at the city level and at the state level everywhere is going to be so critical. New York is interesting because New York and California are two states where you can have more statewide initiatives, you can expect to have more statewide initiatives, certainly around immigration and fighting against some of the hate-spewed policies that have come out already and I am sure more that are going to follow from this administration.

At the same time, there are still issues in places like New York or California. For example, when the #DeleteUber movement started, and it was in defense of our strike and all these folks who said it was important to hold the Uber CEO accountable to his relationship with Trump. Certainly, we celebrated when Travis Kalanick was forced to give up his seat at the Trump table, but at the same time, the real Trumpian connection between Uber and this administration is their economic policies. Yet, in places like California and New York, we see a lot of support for this so-called "gig economy" and a lot of buying into the notion that these companies which are destroying full-time jobs, misclassifying, lobbying actively to undo generations-old labor law and labor protections, that somehow, because they have liberal-to-progressive democratic operatives working for them as lobbyists that somehow that makes them okay. Like, they are not really Wall Street even though they are completely funded by Wall Street. I think that is really disturbing and really problematic.

I think that the challenge remains that in states like New York and California, we have to challenge not only the backwards social policies that will come out of this administration, but we also have to hold up real ideals of economic justice and protect good jobs and protect workers and not just undo labor protections that these companies are fighting for.

How can people keep up with you and the Taxi Workers Alliance?

You can find us online at www.NYTWA.org. We are also pretty active on Facebook and Twitter. We welcome people to email us. One of the most beautiful things that happened out of the defense of our strike, very single day, we are still getting postcards in the mail from across the country. It is so lovely. You see that each family member has signed their own name because you see the different handwriting on different postcards coming in. And emails. It has been amazing to see. It is such a wonderful feeling, particularly for us, because we are a workforce that is isolated by the nature of the job itself. When you consider 94 percent immigrant, mostly people of color, non-employees on the edge of the economy, we have been politically isolated for so long. It is an amazing feeling for us when the larger community opens their eyes and their hearts to our struggle.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast. Not to be reprinted without permission. 

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at The Nation Institute and has covered labor, social and economic justice and politics for Truthout, The Atlantic, The Guardian, In These Times and many other publications. She is the cohost of Belabored, a labor podcast hosted by Dissent magazine, and the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans In Revolt (Nation Books, 2016). Follow her on Twitter: @sarahljaffe.


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