Photo: Andrea Pineda-Salgado / Epicenter NYC

New York City taxi drivers have been protesting outside City Hall for weeks, in hopes to get real debt forgiveness from the city. You may remember that we previously reported on their plight, but since Oct. 20, cabbies have ramped-up their protest efforts by going on a hunger strike. Today marks two weeks of the hunger strike and with no end in sight, Epicenter-NYC reporter Andrea Pineda-Salgado talked to Augustine Tang, a New York City taxi driver who has been on a hunger strike for more than 12 days, to learn more about what it means and why taxi drivers resorted to such desperate measures to be heard. The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Epicenter-NYC: Why did you choose to participate in the hunger strike? 

Tang: “We knew we were not going to leave until the city does a city-back guarantee (this proposal will make lenders agree to lower all medallion loans to $145,000 in return for a guarantee from the city that it will pay for any driver who defaults on a loan.) We just shut down the bridge a week prior to starting the hunger strike and then we escalated to the hunger strike because we knew during this time there’s a budget modification. I [joined] this hunger strike because of the men and women who have sacrificed so much for this. For the people who have given so much for the city, [they paid] down payments of  fifty-, one hundred-, one fifty-, two hundred thousand of their life savings to invest in the city. And their lives are just ruined, they had their retirement stolen. Now they’re about to lose their homes and their jobs. How is that fair to these guys? We’re not here trying to ask for a bail out. We’re not here asking for crumbs, either. We’re here asking for a fair resolution to all this mess that’s caused so much grief throughout the years.”

Epicenter-NYC:How are you surviving the hunger strike? 

Tang: “It’s strictly water, coconut water and Gatorade. We have this electrolyte mix with water that we’ve been drinking as well, too, and that’s been helping us with some energy.” 

Epicenter-NYC: How are you feeling?

Tang: “Every day is just constant headaches. The first three days were pretty tough. However, the longer you go, you don’t feel the need for food, but you want food constantly and you’re continuously fatigued. You have headaches, you have blurred vision. You can’t sleep because you’re constantly thinking about food, you can’t really get up too fast. But luckily, we’ve been seeing doctors that have been coming here and that’s been providing us assurance that, you know we’re okay, checking our vitals. They make sure everything’s fine.”

Epicenter-NYC: Do you think the hunger strike is worth all that?

Tang: “Yeah, absolutely. For many of us, this isn’t a new issue. Some have been fighting for this issue for six years. For me personally, I’ve been in it for three years, ever since one of my friends died by suicide because of this issue. And so this goes beyond myself. This is more for the 6,000 medallion owners that have been affected by this. Many of these drivers are senior drivers who have lost their retirement and they’re about to lose their homes and their jobs connected to this medallion. And the city still came out and tried to tell them that they don’t deserve a better life, even though it’s a city manufactured bubble that they created.” 

Epicenter-NYC: What have been politician’s reactions to the hunger strike?

Tang: “Assemblymember [Zohran Mamdani] has been coming out here with us.He has been on a hunger strike for 13 days as well, too. He’s been sitting with us, talking with us and really becoming our friend. It’s rare that elected officials would go to that length. We have Aileen Lu who is an assembly member as well, too, doing the hunger strike for 13 days with us. These politicians, who I call friends now, actually care, they’re not just talking the talk, they’re walking the walk with us. We talk about what we would do when we win this, and how happy will these 6,000 men and women and families that have gone through so much will be, how we will finally get a life afterwards, when we don’t have that burden of losing our homes, the burden of not being able to provide for the family, and [how we won’t] be trapped into indentured servitude anymore.”

Epicenter-NYC: What motivates you when you feel like you can’t continue with the hunger strike?

Tang: “My wife is one who motivates me. The men and women out here motivate me. My big brother, Richard Chow [who is 63 and on his 13th day of the hunger strike] motivates me and I worry about his health and how he’s doing. He’s still standing strong. My union leader, Bhairavi Desai, motivates me. I see how poised she is, even though she’s on 13 days of the hunger strike. How well-spoken she still is and how passionate she still has to be because she understands that this is a fight for our lives.”

Epicenter-NYC: Are there any misconceptions about what is going on?

Tang: “Yeah, they think it’s a full bailout, but they don’t realize that it’s the city that profited $850 million off of these medallion sales. They artificially inflated the prices of the medallions and shortly after allowed Uber and Lyft to come in, unregulated. Then shortly after that, those officials that allowed this all to happen went on to work for Uber and Lyft. It’s a tale of deep corruption. I want people to know that this isn’t taxpayer money, and our proposal is actually better than what the city is giving. The city is giving a cash handout to the banks and the lenders. Our proposal will only cost the city $3 million per year over 30 years, and for a city that has a $100 billion annual budget, it’s a very doable plan and it helps all sectors.”

Epicenter-NY: How will this end?

Tang: “When the city adopts the New York Taxi Workers Alliance’s proposal. When the city becomes a city-backed guarantee, they will have enough power to tell the lenders, ‘Hey look, you get the guarantee from the city. You bring down the principal far enough for these drivers to survive.’ Things are happening and we’re going to win this.”

Epicenter-NYC: A lot of young people use apps like Uber and Lyft, what would you tell them? What should they know?

Tang: “I think you guys have to understand that right now at this point, Uber and Lyft are charging double, triple the price. Look, I’m not saying that the yellow taxi is the best service in the world because obviously we all talk about how much change we need to do after we get this. I hope people understand that the medallion owner drivers make up 2% of the driving workforce but they were the most affected by this because they invested a lot of money. A lot of these guys are professionals who keep their car clean because they own the medallion name, it’s their business, they’re safe drivers, but they were tied into this huge loan that they could never pay back. We don’t want a hug from the public. We want the city to do the right thing. And I promise you, after we win this we’re going to change the industry, we’re going to do that together.”

There are many ways to support New York City cab drivers during this time, if you have time you can join the New York Taxi Workers Alliance’s 24/7 protest at City Hall—be sure to take pictures, tweet at @NYCMayor and tag them @nytw. You can call Mayor Bill De Blasio and tell him that NYC needs real relief for drivers. The alliance has a script you can access here. You can also sign their online petition and donate to support their organizing.

Lastly, if you find yourself in an iconic yellow taxi cab be sure to leave a great tip and treat your drivers with kindness — you never know the hurdles they’ve had to overcome to transport you around NYC.

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