Taxis in the Hot Seat
Sometimes initiatives to fight climate change ignore potential allies in the working class, said Bhairavi Desai, director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, at a packed forum on labor and climate change at CUNY’s Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies.
Members of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (TWA) drive the largest cab fleet in the country, which includes 13,237 yellow cabs. Workers generally lease the vehicles and pay for their own gas. Driver income has dropped 26% over the last six years, in part, due to rising fuel prices.
So it was good news for them when, under pressure from environmentalists, New York City announced that taxi garages would have to purchase hybrids, with far higher gas mileage and lower emissions. ”The difference between a gas-guzzler, like the Crown Victoria, and a hybrid is literally about $25 to $30 per shift,” Desai told the January 17, 2013 forum. “That is significant income for a working person, especially when they’re barely making a minimum wage on many days.”
TWA members supported the change and understood the stakes for the planet as well, said Desai: many New York cabbies are from Bangladesh, a low-lying country vulnerable to rising seas.
But taxi workers weren’t included in the debate, Desai recalled: “It never occurred to [City officials] to come to the drivers that actually operate those vehicles, pay for the fuel.” Taxi workers, she said, are also “breathing the air on the streets of the city” every day.
Who Pays for Hybrids?
So workers were left out of negotiations between taxi garage owners, who opposed the change because they did not want to pay for hybrids’ added cost, and City regulators. When the owners decided the concessions they had extracted from the City were not enough, they went to court and sued against the new policy, claiming the hybrids would be too expensive.
For City officials and the media, cab drivers were not even part of the debate. If they had been, it would have strengthened the hand of both the City and the environmental movement, said Desai. “Workers could have been the face of the environmental agenda,” she said.
In the end, the City and the garage owners cut a deal that meant cab drivers themselves would have to pay more for the hybrid vehicles. The drivers, who were least able to afford it, ended up subsidizing a much larger part of the cost, a policy that Desai said was not economically, environmentally or socially rational.
If environmentalists had talked to workers, not just their bosses and City officials, said Desai, a more effective and sustainable policy could have been the result. “Don’t make us choose between a middle-class existence and the air we breathe,” she advised. Environmental activists, she said, should seek to understand workers’ lives and outlook.
Jenny Brown is a staff writer for Labor Notes. A version of this article appeared in its March 2013 issue.