The year of labor disputes
In the second year of COVID-19 pandemic, the social side effects of the virus began to become more apparent. Amid continued mass protests against the lockdowns and global civil unrest, the American population has erupted in hives of union activism. Workers at giants like Amazon and Starbucks tried to form unions, with mixed results, and workers who were already unionized went on strike to demand better wages and working conditions. Employees left John Deere factories in Illinois, Kellogg grain factories in Michigan, Kaiser Permanente health care clinics in California, and Nabisco and Frito-Lay snack factories in Oregon and Kansas. (Energy even found its way to that same post, where, this summer, newly unionized workers struck a deal after two and a half years of negotiations.)
What happened? StÃ©phanie Luce, union researcher at CUNY, explained that COVID-19 seems to have struck a match under at least a decade of late-stage capitalist Tinder. “Wages have mostly stagnated since the economic crash of 2008,” said Luce, adding: “People have seen the quality of their jobs deteriorate.” Then came the virus, and suddenly a dire situation turned fatal. Health care and industrial workers were ordered to double work in unsafe conditions. Earlier this month, six people died at an Amazon warehouse in Illinois and eight other workers were killed at a candle factory in Kentucky after the facility was hit by a tornado. . (In both cases, employees say they weren’t allowed to leave their jobs until the storms hit.) Meanwhile, corporate profits continued to pour in. Luce explained the mindset of many employees this year: âThey think, this company is making millions – billions – during a pandemic. The management does not intervene, they are in their second home, while I am here risking my life. For a lot of people, that was it.
Also notable, Luce said, the outpouring of public sympathy: Everyone from President Joe Biden to Danny DeVito has expressed support for the strikers, and this has encouraged workers to hold on, while putting additional pressure on managers to bend. The money went into online “strike funds” and Redditors flooded Kellogg’s job portal with bogus applications. While this aid wasn’t entirely new either, Luce said that for many members of the public, COVID-19 sounded the alarm on the weakness of the country’s labor laws. More people were paying attention. âThe pandemic has made it clear that this is not an individual problem that people have with their employers – it is a collective problem,â Luce said. “If someone is not allowed to take paid sick leave when they have COVID, it’s not just their problem. This is also my problem.
New York City had its own versions of these battles. Although the city is no longer a place of high factory density, it is full of essential, underpaid workers. The protests began in 2020, after COVID affected, but increased in the second year of the pandemic, as employees protested months – and sometimes years – of indignities. In January 2021, after the death of six workers at the enormous Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx, COVID-19 – and after three hundred other workers contracted the virus – market workers went on strike, ultimately winning their biggest pay raise in thirty years. The city is also home to the largest active strike in the country: Last October, some of Columbia University’s more than three thousand union students marched into the classroom of university president Lee Bollinger, demanding a better salary, dental care, and job security. A few weeks ago, the hard-working students received an email from Columbia’s human resources department, threatening to replace them if they continued to strike. (The strike is underway.)
But perhaps the most intense, longest-running union drama of the year that rocked New York City this past summer and fall has been the battle fought by the city’s 20,000 yellow cab drivers. No matter how many ridesharing apps New Yorkers download, the yellow cab will always be iconic: Taxi drivers are a particularly vital strain of the city’s culture. Over ninety percent are immigrants. In total, they speak 120 different languages. And they’re yet another group whose struggles came before COVID. In recent years, a subset of taxi drivers known as owner drivers have been trapped in a sort of modern-day debt slavery, struggling to pay off loans they took out to buy cars. medallions, permits required to operate a taxi.
In 2011, I introduced Bhairavi Desai, the lawyer and union leader of New York taxi drivers, and my conversations with her opened my eyes to the complex world of taxi driver politics in the city. Drivers work under very diverse employment conditions: in addition to driver-owners, there are fleet workers who drive for a boss; black livery and car drivers; and, nowadays, carpooling drivers, who drive for apps. Their ‘union’, an organization called the Taxi Workers Alliance, which Desai co-founded in 1998, represents all of these groups, which means that it is not a traditional union at all – it is more of a loose association. of people in the company.
The taxi driver debt crisis has its roots in the Bloomberg years, when the city hatched a plan to increase its income by auctioning off medallions, the permits needed to operate a yellow cab. Because there are only a limited number of medallions, in order to restrict the number of taxis that can circulate on the street, the city has been able to market the permits as a valuable and tightly controlled asset. Brokers, bankers and speculators rushed to buy them, creating a secondary market that looked a lot like the two-thousand real estate bubble – and, ironically, included some of the same players. The price of a locket has skyrocketed from around two hundred thousand dollars to just over a million dollars, and lenders have aggressively sold the lockets to taxi drivers, many of them recent immigrants, who have took out large mortgages to acquire them, believing they were buying a piece of the American Dream. But, by 2014, Uber had arrived in the city, flooding the market with competition. The value of the locket collapsed and the taxi drivers ended up with the ticket.
In 2018, the price of a locket was less than two hundred thousand dollars. Rather than a wise investment, medallion mortgages had become unpaid debts that drivers now expected to pass on to their children. âYou could just see the panic among the drivers,â Desai told me recently. âI would get calls in the middle of the night from drivers who were feeling suicidal – adult men just crying on the phone. One of the first of many driver suicides occurred in February of that year: Douglas Schifter, a 61-year-old black car driver, parked his vehicle outside City Hall and s ‘has committed suicide. He posted a suicide note on Facebook, writing that ridesharing companies had destroyed his income and that fines imposed by the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission had left him mired in debt. Desai said the taxi drivers renewed their organizational efforts that year around their economic situation. âThe spirit of Douglas really pushed us to take action,â she said. They began to hold regular protests outside City Hall, eventually demanding that the city help refinance loans to a manageable level, guaranteeing them in the event of default.
The pandemic has plunged taxi drivers into an even deeper crisis. Under confinement, their work dried up and their income practically disappeared. Meanwhile, medallion loans required payments of up to three thousand dollars per month. At the end of 2020, yellow cab drivers closed the Brooklyn Bridge. Desai hung on the sunroof of a taxi, chanting into a megaphone: “No more suicides!” No more bankruptcies! Save the yellow cab drivers!
In March 2021, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to use the federal government COVID– Relief money to provide drivers with loans of up to twenty thousand dollars. Many drivers considered the amount to be ridiculously insufficient. On September 19, they intensified their protest by setting up a camp in front of the town hall. For more than six weeks, the area in front of the Renaissance Revival building became a miniature version of Occupy Wall Street. The drivers strategized in a cacophony of tongues and took to the picket lines, holding up signs that read: “Forgive the debt now!” Their families created a community kitchen that served five thousand meals (rice, chana masala, naan) to participants and local homeless people. The protests had drawn a number of prominent allies, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Chuck Schumer, whose stepfather drove a New York City cab. And yet de Blasio refused to budge.