Driven to Hunger Strikes

What New York’s taxi drivers had to do for debt relief.
Taxi drivers outside City Hall call on Mayor Bill de Blasio to provide relief from medallion debt that has taken many drivers’ lives (SOPA Images Limited/Alamy Live News).

Richard Chow, Augustine Tang, and Basia Osowki may not end up being remembered alongside Mahatma Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, or Bobby Sands, all of whom famously undertook hunger strikes to protest injury and injustice. But maybe they should be—along with the dozen or so other New York City taxi drivers who, after years of fruitless pleading for relief from crushing debt, decided they had no choice but to starve themselves to draw attention to their plight. They were acting on behalf of thousands of others in the same straits, drivers unable to pay off the cost of the medallion required to own and operate a yellow cab in New York.

For many decades, medallions were marketed as sound investments, especially to immigrants. But in the mid-2000s, the market for medallions, like the real-estate market, became a bubble, with values rising many times over by the mid-2010s. And just like unsuspecting homebuyers, drivers were pressured by predatory lenders to take out ever bigger loans to cover the spiraling cost of purchase or to refinance, assured that the value of medallions would only continue to climb. The city, under Mayors Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio, enthusiastically encouraged this practice, because medallion sales translate into tax revenue. (Indeed, the city sets the opening bid rate on medallions, which at one point hit $1 million.) But then came Uber and Lyft, which flooded city streets with tens of thousands of unregulated cars, and medallion values plummeted. Next came the pandemic: as the city shut down and riders disappeared, values dropped still more. Many yellow-cab drivers were suddenly facing ruin, owing as much as $600,000 on a medallion worth just a fraction of that amount, with no way to make payments that typically exceeded their monthly income. At least nine despairing drivers killed themselves. One was Richard Chow’s brother, Yu Mein, who abandoned his cab outside the mayor’s residence and jumped into the nearby East River.

New York City sets the opening bid rate on medallions, which at one point hit $1 million.

In September, drivers set up a twenty-four-hour picket line outside City Hall. They were met with paltry concessions, with de Blasio insisting that New York couldn’t afford to do more. So much for America’s most progressive big city (and big-city mayor). About six weeks later, the hunger strikes began: for fifteen days, Chow and the others subsisted on water and Gatorade. Their efforts paid off in early November, when the city and lenders finally agreed to restructure driver debt, significantly reducing monthly payments and guaranteeing the loans. 

As Bhairavi Desai, leader of the Taxi Workers Alliance, later said, this is all that drivers wanted—fair terms, not a free ride. They also want to help their ride-app brethren, mainly other immigrants, who don’t earn enough to live on, don’t receive benefits, and are largely prevented by their employers from organizing. The way we think about full-time work has to change, she said, with labor at the center of our concern rather than municipalities, corporations, and banks. This will be especially important as New York and other cities welcome the return of foreign tourists. As for Chow and the rest, they were set to return to the job after a painful period of “refeeding”—adjusting to the intake of solid food. It should not have come to this, but through their actions they and their fellow drivers embodied the half-century-old example of Chavez, who on completing his own hunger strike in 1968 stated that “the truest act of courage...is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice.” 

Published in the December 2021 issue: 

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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