Fare Labor: A Review of <i>Taxi!</i>

Taxi! Cabs and Capitalism in New York City. By Biju Mathew. Hardcover, $24.95, 240 pages. The New Press, 2005.

Beyond the distressing television coverage of Hurricane Katrina, many Americans felt the impact most directly at the gas pump. Around the country, gas prices—which had already been on a steep incline—instantly soared passed three dollars per gallon, an indication of the far-reaching effects of the disaster.

In the days after the hurricane hit, incompetent Bush administration officials fumbled their response, and the media was initially reticent about the disproportionate impact on poor people and communities of color. By the end of the first week, however, the national narrative began to focus on the failures of federal, state, and local government to support the most vulnerable communities.

Before President Bush even made it down to New Orleans, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) was already demanding that the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission institute an emergency fuel surcharge on taxi fares to buffer the financial impact on the incomes of taxi drivers who pay for gas out of their own pockets. The soaring gas prices, NYTWA argued, was simply another illustration of how taxi drivers themselves bear all the economic risks of the taxi industry. City officials who opposed the surcharge were the local reflection of the government's neglect of those who were hit hardest.

Biju Mathew's book, Taxi!: Cabs and Capitalism in New York City, includes a critical explanation of how New York's taxi industry is structured to create low-paying, physically dangerous, and economically unstable jobs for a mostly immigrant workforce. Under the current lease system, taxi drivers pay over $100 each day to rent a cab from a taxi garage for a 12-hour shift. After paying to fill up the gas tank, drivers can keep all the cash they earn in those twelve hours. A driver can spend more than half of a shift trying to recuperate the $150 he paid for the lease and gas, and then clear less than $60 for the remainder of the shift. In this common scenario, the worker earns only five dollars an hour—less than the minimum wage—despite working a full twelve hours. Since they are technically classified as independent contractors who work for themselves, New York City cab drivers are not covered by standard labor protections. Forget about overtime pay, even though most drivers will repeat this routine every day and work over eighty hours in a week. Workers' compensation is similarly not extended to cabbies, even though driving a taxi is statistically more dangerous than being a police officer in New York City.

Since taxi drivers technically have no employer, they were thought to have no recourse to improve their working conditions—until the NYTWA changed that. Taxi! exposes the workings of the industry and tells the fascinating story of an unusually disparate and largely isolated workforce organizing for a greater voice in the policies that affect their livelihood. The book presents a firsthand account from Mathew, a lead organizer in the NYTWA, whose highly sophisticated analysis connects the micro-level regulations that govern a single industry in New York to the bigger picture of globalization and neoliberalism.

With an examination of how the global economy—administered according to the neoliberal principles that prioritize the interests of capital over labor—has driven specific sets of immigrants to New York City, Mathew details how organizers have built a strong association with thousands of drivers in a remarkably short period of time. The book spans the time period from May 1998, when nearly the entire taxi workforce mounted a strike that stunned the city, to a successful NYTWA campaign for a fare increase in May 2004 that would put more money into the pockets of drivers. At the exact midpoint of this time period, drivers also won an important victory in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. After the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) made funds available to workers and business owners who were adversely affected by the attacks, taxi drivers were initially excluded from making claims. Members of the NYTWA packed public hearings held by FEMA in New York City and, within months, forced the famously mismanaged agency to extend benefits to taxi drivers who suffered a dramatic drop in earnings in the months after September 11.

Mathew paints a vivid picture that includes incredible scenes of Pakistani and Indian drivers working collectively during the 1998 strike, just one week after their home countries tested nuclear weapons in an escalation of longstanding nationalist tensions in the subcontinent. With a firsthand perspective, Taxi! describes how drivers, unsure of how many cabbies would actually join the strike, broadcasted information about the strike in several languages over CB radios in the days before the massive mobilization. Mathew treats readers to shady negotiations with obstructionist garage-owners in dark rooms, against the backdrop of an ambitious plan by then-Mayor Rudy Guiliani to recreate New York City as a marketable playground for white middle class residents and tourists.

Taxi!makes an invaluable contribution to the literature about the economic impact of immigrant workers by forcefully refuting the dominant analysis that considers immigrant workers to be intrinsically attracted to bad jobs. The enormous supply of immigrants itself, the argument goes, explains why such jobs pay low wages and present poor working conditions. Mathew skillfully shows how industry structures that are formed to protect the interests of owners, such as the leasing system in the taxi industry, are the primary factors in creating and maintaining bad jobs in which people work long hours for low wages in dangerous conditions.

Always an organizer before a writer, Mathew ends Taxi! with a critique and self-examination of organizing models that explores the limits of identity politics, multiculturalism, and the non-profit model of community-based organizations. He plans to record the book onto CDs, translated into various languages, for the drivers to listen to while working their shifts—making this book about organizing into an organizing tool itself.

Americans enjoy weekends and the 40-hour workweek because of the labor movement, according to a common lefty bumper sticker. Perhaps it's not a coincidence, though, that cabbies never stick that one on their cars. Taxi drivers are among a large and growing segment of workers, including domestic workers and farm workers, that do not benefit from many labor laws that other workers and unions have taken for granted for decades. The standard worker protections, such as minimum wage and overtime, were won only through labor organizing, and the story in the taxi industry is the same.

It is a central tenet of neoliberal economic practices, according to Mathew, to shift "risk downward to those who have the least power in the system." Taxi! presents the possibility of moving in the opposite direction—a story of workers shifting accountability upward and demanding a greater voice through collective action.

Comments

Companies that join the FLA commit to upholding the FLA Workplace Code of Conduct, which is based on International Labour Organization standards, and to establishing internal systems for monitoring workplace conditions and maintaining code standards throughout their supply chains.-Missed Fortune
The particular e-book provides a new direct bill via Mathew, a new direct coordinator inside the NYTWA, wholesale bumper sticker printing in whose highly complex research joins this micro-level laws that will govern a single market inside Big apple to the bigger picture of globalization as well as neoliberalism.
http://www.nightvisionetc.com/Biju Mathew's book, Taxi!: Cabs and Capitalism in New York City, includes a analytical account of how New York's auto industry is structured to actualize low-paying, physically dangerous, and economically ambiguous jobs for a mostly immigrant workforce.
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