Bhairavi Desai, Executive Director, New York Taxi Workers Alliance - New York City, New York
Driving a taxi is among the most dangerous jobs in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In a report issued in 2000, the agency stated a taxi driver was 60 times more likely than other U.S. workers to be killed on the job. The New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health reports that taxi drivers face a level of on-the-job assaults second only to those directed at police and private security guards. Other challenges include a lack of health-care coverage, workweeks that average 60 to 70 hours and pay that can be less than half of the minimum wage. More than 90 percent of the drivers of New York City’s familiar yellow medallion cabs are immigrants from South Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. Most of these workers are new to the United States and many have been unaware of their rights and reluctant to speak up for themselves to improve their working conditions.
Seeds of commitment
Bhairavi Desai is the daughter of South Asian immigrants who now live in New Jersey. Her father worked in a deli and her mother in a factory. "I remember being chased down the street because of my color," Desai told Ms magazine. The hostility, she says, politicized her. Four years after graduating from Rutgers University, she co-founded New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA), the organization she now heads. Desai says the people she serves inspire and motivate her. “Through taxi drivers, I have learned the true meanings of honesty and humor, forgiveness and fairness, the maturity to handle difficulties with grace, and, at all times, the importance of dignity.” The drivers, Desai says, “reminded me of the town in which I grew up, where I learned to struggle, fight hunger and poverty, and see the dignity of the working class.”
Desai’s efforts today flow from a historic taxi drivers’ work stoppage in 1998 that she was primarily responsible for organizing. For one day, 40,000 drivers parked their taxis and refused to work in New York City. This was the first time in 30 years that taxi drivers had quit work to draw attention to unfair regulations and often-difficult working conditions. That strike was the public face of the organizing Desai had begun years earlier, and the catalyst for what is now the NYTWA, which has more than 6,000 members.
The NYTWA won an historic victory in 2004, when New York City established the first living-wage standard for taxi drivers, who receive 60 to 75 percent of the additional revenue generated by a fare increase -- the first in eight years. After the 1996 increase, before the NYTWA was founded, drivers only gained a 14 percent share.
Taxi drivers were among those hit hardest economically after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. At first, however, they were excluded from government aid and most private relief funds. The NYTWA campaigned to change that and then sought out drivers who could benefit, holding four Disaster Assistance Clinics at taxicab holding lots at LaGuardia and JFK airports, as well as meetings at restaurants and gas stations frequented by drivers. NYTWA organizers and volunteers helped more than 2,000 drivers apply for a post-9/11 Federal Emergency Management Agency Mortgage and Rental Assistance program. Eighty percent of those applications were approved.
In 2002, the NYTWA worked with Columbia University to document drivers’ health needs and experiences with the health-care system. Much of the survey work was conducted at airport taxi drivers’ holding areas, where drivers sometimes wait hours for a fare. The report that followed, demonstrating drivers’ health care needs, proved an important tool in NYTWA’s 2004 negotiations with the New York mayor’s office that meant higher fares for drivers. In July 2002, airport holding lots were also the sites of the first health-care fair for drivers. The event, organized by NYTWA, enabled more than 600 drivers to receive health screenings from 14 institutions.
As executive director, Desai leads an extraordinarily diverse membership. The taxi drivers of New York City come from more than 100 countries, each with its own language. Many immigrants come from countries that have strained relations with their neighbors. For example, Pakistan and Bangladesh fought a war 20 years ago, and deep suspicions of one another persist among immigrants. Sometimes, cab companies exploit these mutual suspicions. For example, when the mostly Pakistani drivers of a company planned a strike, the owner called in Bangladeshi reserve workers. Dealing with this ethnic mistrust while keeping the drivers’ organization intact is the type of challenge that tests Desai’s leadership. She makes certain that NYTWA members regularly confront these uncomfortable issues. For instance, she schedules regular sessions where the members discuss racism and bigotry. One measure of the organization’s success with this issue is that non-Muslim drivers worked to stop the backlash against Muslims after 9/11. Some Latino drivers, for example, refused to answer questions about their own nationality and religion. “Such things are both the power and duties of good organizing,” Desai says.
Desai faces the continuing challenge that comes from being a female leader in a male-dominated field, but a passion for justice helps her overcome this obstacle. So does her commitment to effective multi-ethnic leadership among her members. “The primary role of a leader in a mass organization is to produce a framework for the workers to engage through, in which they can meaningfully participate and build every part of the organization, from its campaign ideas to benefit plans, from its decision-making model to the organization’s shape and structure,” Desai says. NYTWA’s 12-member Organizing Committee, with its Bengali, Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi, French, Creole, Amharic, Spanish, and Arabic-speaking representatives, is a testament to her conviction.
One of Desai’s goals is for taxi drivers in New York to work under an established contract and have an industry-funded benefits and compensation fund. “We will have 10,000 members, with half of them paying dues,” Desai says. She sees a time when the NYTWA will be able to offer scholarships to its members. Desai plans for a future in which the group is a federation of taxi driver organizations spanning the country, from New Jersey to California. Desai says that “NYTWA will continue to stand tall as an independent, solid, democratic, and principled organization.”
More about Bhairavi Desai and the New York Taxi Workers Alliance
“Desai, 31, has a gentle, girl-next-door look. But once she sits down to business, she can be the toughest person across the negotiating table. Or the picket lines. One of the first Indian Americans to commit themselves full-time to an empowerment, non-profit organization, she is seen by many South Asians as a role model.”
- India Abroad, 2004
"The Port Authority has been extremely supportive of her work; they’ve distributed pamphlets for the health fairs. The TLC (Taxi and Limousine Commission) respects her. These are unlikely governmental allies. People enjoy working with her; they respect her. People want to work with her because she is committed to social change and gets things done.”
- Chaumtoli Huq, MYF Legal Services
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