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Sweatshop On Wheels

Subhash Kateel
Date Published: 
November 01, 2005

On May 13, 1998 the city of New York came to a virtual standstill, at least the portion that could afford cab fare. On that historic day a group of workers fought back against the vindictive Giuliani administration in what would end up being the largest strike in New York City history. Over 24,000 NY yellowcab drivers, an impressive 98% of the active workforce, refused to drive a cab for 24 hours anywhere in the city in protest of a series of "public safety" measures meant to punish the mostly immigrant of color workers into submission. This single event was one of the first and most significant displays of force against a Mayor who soared to popularity amongst New York's suburban transplant community by creating a "quality of life" police state against working people of color.

The taxi strikes of 1998 were neither the beginning nor the end of the story for taxi workers. The book is the story of taxi workers and their organization, the formidable Taxi Worker's Alliance. From reading Mathew's book, what makes the alliance remarkable is that its spirited base is made up of the very people that conventional wisdom tells us are among the hardest to organize effectively and direct toward social action. After all, taxi driver's are mostly immigrants of color who represent dozens of different ethnicities, races, and nationalities, some of whom are not suppose to get along (e.g. Indians and Pakistanis), let alone fight for justice together. What's more, NYC does not even recognize them as workers in the traditional sense, but as "independent contractors" using this as a basis to strip them of their rights as workers.

The state of the labor movement seems to be an everyday conversation in the left as of late. For those of us with immigrant rights and anti-prison organizing backgrounds, we openly question when the mainstream labor movement will finally get it and understand the changing demographics of urban working class communities of color that are capable of bringing about change. For those of us that wonder aloud, Taxi! is a refreshing read.

Memorable drivers

Although Taxi! does an amazing job of explaining the presumptively mundane nuances that make a taxi driver's life a sweatshop-on-wheels, it is not just an account of pain and suffering. It dances back and forth roughly, but comfortably between history, testimony, and analysis. It describes the transition of the taxi industry from one that paid workers on the basis of "horse-hiring" to a system were drivers took home a portion of the cut from each fare, back to "horse-hiring", now renamed leasing. It also identifies the players, from the mob in the 1920's to the contemporary brokers and the Taxi and Limousine Commission (the taxi police) that benefited most from worker exploitation.

Drivers' narratives in Taxi! can be riveting, inspiring, and upsetting all at the same time. For me, the two most memorable drivers in the book are Rizwan and Kevin. Rizwan is a Pakistani immigrant that expends most of his quotes in the book either cursing out disrespectful passengers (not inappropriately) or giving candid critiques of the taxi business. Kevin, an Irish American cab driver of thirty years is the book's resident historian. Their tales penetrates deep into the exploitive nature of the taxi industry, descriptively identifying the lease and medallion of the taxicab as the "noose" around a driver's neck.

For some, the end of the book may feel too weighed down with a highly theoretical analysis of globalization, race, and migration. I feel, however that whenever Mathew gets too bogged down in theory, he picks the book back up by tying it to the stories and analyses voiced by drivers themselves.

For what it is worth, I found the analysis compelling, even when I didn't agree with it. For example, the book talks in detail about the Danny Glover scandal that made public the frustration of many Black New Yorkers who have tried to hail a cab. I was pleased to see race dealt with in the book, and equally pleased to see a very sensitive issue tackled by the Taxi Workers Alliance. However, Taxi!'s race analysis does not have the same teeth as its analysis of class, migration, and globalization, and at times seems slightly oversimplified.

What I found most compelling about the book is that in describing precisely how a group of seemingly powerless immigrant workers flexed their muscles, Taxi! critiques the labor movement and the broader movement for social justice. All in all, the book is a necessary lesson in creating a viable social space for workers, expanding a universal consciousness of oppression, and utilizing mass-based organizing as the strategy for movement building.