Driven to death by Uber

June 13, 2018

Remembering the five New York City drivers who have taken their own lives in the past six months is at the heart of a struggle against the app-based companies responsible for the worsening conditions all drivers endure, write Julian Guerrero and Carlos Perez.

WHEN UBER began its campaign to take over New York City’s taxi industry, it promised a bright and prosperous future for tens of thousands of working-class drivers. Instead, the company has created a glut of cars, creating Depression-era conditions that were prime causes in five drivers taking their own lives since January of this year.

The suicides of Douglas Schifter, Danilo Corporan Castillo, Alfredo Perez, Nicanor Ochisor and, most recently, Yumein “Kenny” Chow have all been linked to their deteriorating working conditions as drivers. It is unknown whether more suicides have occurred as a result of the changes in the taxi industry.

The death of Kenny Chow, a yellow cab taxi owner-driver, typifies the despair of many drivers who once saw their investment in a taxi medallion — with which the city grants the exclusive right to pick up fares — as a surefire way to protect their retirement and rise above the low-wage immigrant labor pool.

But that was before Uber set out to “disrupt” their world.

New York Taxi Workers' Alliance organizer Biju Mathew (left), with Kenny Chow's brother, Richard Chow, at a press conference outside City Hall
New York Taxi Workers' Alliance organizer Biju Mathew (left), with Kenny Chow's brother, Richard Chow, at a press conference outside City Hall (Julian Guerrero | SW)

Armed with a stellar public relations campaign and false promises of prosperity for drivers, the ride-share behemoth took advantage of New York City’s low-wage economy to attract droves of new drivers. The city’s taxi-driver workforce has doubled from 90,000 in 2011 to 180,000 today, while the number of Taxi and Limousine Commission-licensed cars has grown from 50,000 to over 130,000.

But the pool of fares hasn’t grown nearly enough to keep up with this increase, creating an oversaturation of drivers, as well as massive traffic congestion. The value of a taxi medallion has plummeted from $1.3 million in 2014 to under $200,000 today, spelling ruin for thousands of working-class families.

The crisis hasn’t only affected yellow cab medallion owner-drivers. Douglas Schifter, who shot himself in front of City Hall after posting a Facebook suicide note blaming politicians and corporations who “destroyed my industry and livelihood,” was a black car driver. Castillo and Perez were Bronx Livery cab drivers.

Like many other owner-drivers, Nicanor Ochisor traded daily 12-hour shifts with his wife Helen for nearly three decades to pay off the pricey monthly costs of their investment in a medallion. But as the value of the medallion dropped, the Ochisors struggled to make their monthly payments, while spending long stretches of their shift cruising unsuccessfully for fares.

In March, the mounting debts and economic insecurity pushed Nicanor to kill himself in his garage in Maspeth, Queens.

Two months later, Kenny Chow’s body was found floating under the Brooklyn Bridge. He had been struggling to pay a $700,000 mortgage on a medallion he bought in 2011 — just prior to Uber’s aggressive entrance into the country’s largest regulated taxi market.

The families of many of these drivers have been forced to set up donation pages to help pay the enormous medallion costs still weigh on them after their loved ones are gone.

WHILE MANY drivers of yellow and green taxis (which service areas outside Manhattan’s business districts) experience economic turbulence, Uber and other app-based driving services like Lyft and Via continue to grow.

These three services accounted for nearly 600,000 average daily trips in February, with Uber contributing the biggest share at 410,000. Uber now provides more trips per day than yellow cabs.

But Uber drivers don’t get a share in the success of the corporation. Drivers have little say over the company’s policy shifts or service rates, which can rise up to 40 percent per trip.

Uber’s petty tyranny — combined with dangerously long shifts that can run as much 100 hours per week for dismal levels of take-home pay — pushes more than 90 percent of drivers to quit Uber after a year.

But there’s still no end to the deluge of new drivers. The Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) registers 3,000 new taxi licenses for drivers and 2,000 new app-based vehicles every month.

The increase in cars on city streets has had negative effects beyond the industry. According to studies done by the For-Hire Vehicle (FHV) Committee led by City Council member Ruben Diaz Sr., unprecedented levels of traffic congestion are costing city businesses nearly $20 billion dollars in losses.

The rise of app-based companies also has also diverted $10 million annually from the city’s trains and buses — yellow and green cab trips include a 50-cent fee per fare to support public transportation.

The studies also note the rise of crashes and pedestrian fatalities and the increased environmental impact and health risks to New Yorkers who live near busy streets, as a result of more cars on the road emitting pollution.

THE MOUNTING toll on many fronts from Uber’s invasion has finally pushed the City Council to try to rein in the explosive and unchecked growth of app-based services.

The FHV Committee has proposed a number of bills, most of which take up the need to provide accessible vehicles for fares with disabilities, and to set up a framework for the licensing and regulating of app-based transportation vehicles.

Most signficantly, Bill 838-A, sponsored primarily by Diaz, would force app-based driver services like Uber and Lyft to secure and renew an annual license with the TLC at a cost of $20,000, and to justify the current number of vehicles and any further additions. This would effectively set a cap on the number of new app-based vehicles and licenses for app-based drivers.

Bill 838-A would also force drivers to drive for only one app-based service, as well as pay a $400 biannual fee to maintain their TLC license with their chosen app-based employer. (Yellow and green cab drivers already pay a number of similar fees.)

While many in the taxi industry are desperate to see any legislation attempting to regulate the app-based sector, not all driver organizations are happy.

The most important critic of 838-A is the Independent Drivers Guild (IDG). The IDG, which was created with funds from both Uber and the machinists’ union (IAMAW District 15), claims to represent drivers affiliated with app-based services.

The IDG quickly responded to news of the FHV Committee’s introduction of bills by staging a mock funeral procession across the Brooklyn Bridge on April 30.

More than 15 cars crawled across the bridge, slowing down traffic, while bringing attention to the protest. Red stop signs bearing the IDG’s demand to stop Diaz’s bill were plastered on the car windows, and a mock coffin sat on top of the lead IDG car.

The IDG was protesting 838-A’s initial call for app drivers to pay a $2,000 annual fee, as well as the rule about only working for one app service, which they criticize as “one boss rule.”

The IDG claimed these bills would continue to heap fees on drivers already struggling to earn decent pay, while allowing Uber to consolidate its monopoly on the FHV sector. After the mock funeral procession, nearly 300 IDG drivers and supporters formed a picket line outside of City Hall.

IN RESPONSE to these criticisms, Diaz has since lowered the annual $2,000 fee to $400 every two years and dropped the language forcing drivers to work for only one app-driver service. But the IDG continues to oppose the bill in its entirety.

Now, the IDG’s stated reason for opposing 838-A is because it contains a provision that requires app-based driver services to ensure that their drivers are given a minimum of 10 fares per day, or are paid at least 10 fares worth of wages by the end of a shift.

The IDG claims that no app-based driver services could distribute 10 fares to each shift per day at the current rate of fares, and that the bill will therefore result in mass layoffs. The guild argues that the 10-fare minimum would, in effect, set a cap on the FHV sector.

Indeed, Diaz’s bill states that “there is no demonstrated need for new or additional service unless the average number of trips per app-based for-hire vehicle affiliated with the service exceeds 10 per day.”

As an alternative, the IDG submitted a petition to the TLC demanding rules for a minimum wage for FHV drivers, a moratorium on the number of new FHV TLC licenses (but not vehicles), and an initiative from the TLC to deal with the FHV sector’s longstanding inability to provide appropriate vehicles for disabled passengers.

What the IDG seems unable to understand is that the main problem affecting all taxi drivers is the oversaturation of FHVs on the road — which leads to lower wages and more time and gas spent cruising around for fares. That problem won’t be solved without capping the number of vehicles.

How could the IDG fail to understand such a basic issue if it represents more than 60,000 FHV drivers?

Many supporters of the bill, including Diaz, argue that the guild is really out to protect its funder, Uber, and the company’s long-range plan to overwhelm the taxi industry with Uber-affiliated vehicles, until the city has no other choice but to accept Uber as the new taxi standard.

BILL 838-A is a welcome, if long overdue, step towards regulating the massive For-Hire Vehicle sector. It is largely derived from the demands put forward by the New York Taxi Workers’ Alliance (NYTWA), a union of 18,000 taxi drivers that is organizing drivers against the deterioration of their working and living conditions.

One of the NYTWA demands that was included in the bill is a minimum rate of fare for all drivers that is no lower than the metered fare set by the TLC. This would slow the drop in take-home pay for drivers across the industry that was set in motion by the introduction of FHV companies.

However, the bill does not include many of NYTWA’s proposals that would fundamentally address working conditions, and instead leaves intact an unequal system that puts drivers in a race to the bottom, with little labor law protection and a crushing burden of fees and payments.

One of the NYTWA demands not included in the bill would combat the exploitative financial relationship between drivers and leasing companies by setting a cap on weekly leases — which is one of the ways in which FHV companies have been able to flood the streets with precarious drivers, while offloading the financial burden onto the workers.

Other demands include raising the meter fare, establishing a system to fight wage theft, creating a health and wellness fund for drivers financed out of a 6 percent surcharge per ride, and setting up a program to help owner-drivers struggling with financing their medallions.

A great source of frustration for all drivers is their status as independent contractors, a designation that came after a rank-and-file rebellion against top-down union bosses in the early 1970s was defeated amidst the wider decline of rank-and-file led activity towards the end of the decade.

The defeat of the drivers’ movement meant left drivers without an organizational defense against both the collusion of union bosses with fleet owners and attacks of the TLC, which enacted dramatic regulatory changes in 1979 establishing a leasing system and turning taxi drivers’ precarious working status into "independent contractors".

This status would leave drivers without effective collective bargaining powers once the leasing system, previously known as “horse hiring”, became dominant over the commission system which drivers shared with fleet owners.

The previous commission system — which ensured drivers received regular pay, job security and benefits — was replaced with one where drivers leased their cars daily from garage owners. Drivers without the means of purchasing their own car and medallion were forced to work for garage owners who controlled a fleet of certified cars, essentially charging drivers for access to the means of their livelihoods.

This shifted all the risk of car maintenance onto drivers and forced them to work long hours only to see the majority of their pay go into the pockets of fleet bosses, who were always looking to squeeze them even further.

The implementation of leasing also pit drivers against one another. The special status of the medallion as private property, and so a saleable commodity, ensured that medallion owners saw their material interests more in line with garage owners than their fellow tenant-drivers.

Taxi worker organizers, who had long faced the difficulties of trying to unite thousands of diffused drivers, now had to contend with the crisscrossing interests of leaseholders and owner-drivers, with the latter group often looking to make alliance with fleet bosses.

THE ENTRANCE of corporate giants such as Uber and Lyft into the industry is transforming the leasing system into a more modern neoliberal form.

But despite the self-aggrandizing fantasies of its libertarian investors, Uber couldn’t have achieved its rapid growth without the pliable workforce that the city created through the leasing system 30 years ago.

FHV companies have taken advantage of their drivers’ status as independent contractors to deny them the basic amenities afforded to virtually every other unionized profession. There is no guaranteed wage, no health and medical benefits, and no unemployment benefits in the case of decertification or termination.

Uber and Lyft have been aggressively lobbying city and state officials to maintain the precarious status of their captive workforce. The National Employment Law Project recently found that in 2016, Uber and Lyft employed more lobbyists than Microsoft, Amazon and Walmart combined.

The demands being put forward by NYTWA would establish a standard employment status for all drivers across the industry, alleviate the desperation they face, and ensure that the same labor law protections that most other workers have would apply to drivers as well.

But to make this a reality will require an unprecedented level of unity among all drivers, regardless of the kind of cab or service they drive for. It requires winning a vision for the future of the industry that goes beyond the narrow interests of this or that driver, by recognizing the common interest all drivers share in preserving their dignity as human beings.

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Finally, and most crucially, drivers will need to organize for themselves and recognize the limits of relying on even the best-intentioned lawmakers. Only the power that drivers have — as crucial labor that makes the city run — can serve as a counterweight against these corporate predators.

Honoring the lives of Douglas Schifter, Danilo Corporan Castillo, Alfredo Perez, Nicanor Ochisor and Kenny Chow means taking up the struggle against the uncaring forces that ripped them away from their friends and loved ones far too soon.

For the families of these drivers, who are at the forefront of this struggle, we need to make sure that these deaths aren’t in vain.

Further Reading

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