Hacking Away: The Woman Behind the Stopped Taxis

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To some it may have been a strange sight on a recent Friday evening outside the Delta arrivals terminal at LaGuardia Airport. In the adjacent taxi lot, a petite young woman wearing a flowing white tunic over dark jeans could be seen slowly making her way among rows upon rows of idling taxis waiting to pick up those landing in New York.

For Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a worker’s rights group representing about one-fifth of the city’s taxi drivers, it was just a typical evening of work. Another taxi strike—the second in as many months—was fast approaching, and Desai was at LaGuardia to drum up support among drivers.

To most observers, last Monday’s strike seemed even less successful than the alliance’s previous work stoppage in mid-September. On Oct. 22, taxis seemed plentiful on most Manhattan streets, and the city Office of Emergency Management announced the number of cabs out on the streets had not dropped significantly. But Bhairavi Desai (pronounced BEAR-uvi Des-EYE) claimed a large portion of the city’s 13,000 cabs had stayed home.

This most recent strike was part of the alliance’s ongoing fight against the requirement of the city Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) that drivers install GPS systems in their cabs by Jan. 31, 2008. Desai and her colleagues argue that the equipment is prone to malfunctions and is an unnecessary, extra expense for drivers—who struggle to make a profit as it is.

The commission says the systems, which display interactive maps for passengers and provide a credit card payment option, provide better customer service. The systems are also expected to generate millions of dollars of advertising revenue for the city each year. After two work stoppages, city taxi policy remains unchanged.

On the streets last week, the latest strike drew mixed reactions from cab drivers. Muhammad Saleem, who joined the two-day strike back in September, but ignored last week’s, said he was disappointed after the first strike failed to generate any tangible benefits for drivers. “Last time we got no response from the TLC,” he said. “Bhairavi was doing a good job, but she can do much better than this.”

But two cars down from where Saleem had stopped for his evening break, another driver praised the alliance’s efforts. “They’re doing good. They are demanding health care and pensions and they are explaining these issues to the public,” said the driver, who didn’t give his name. “Bhairavi is a good leader and she is fighting a lot against this wrong decision.”

Drivers may have been split, but others in the taxi industry seemed united in their criticism of the strike.

“Striking only hurts the people that support us—our passengers. You’re not hurting City Hall or TLC,” said Vincent Sapone, managing director of the League of Mutual Taxi Owners, a longstanding drivers’ group representing 3,400 medallion owners and livery cab drivers. “Ms. Desai is very intelligent, and she’s a nice person. But this was done in the wrong manner.”

At Winners Garage in Woodside, Queens, manager Daniel Selane also thought the strike had done more harm than good: “I think all they are doing is making people angry.”

Desai, Selane added, should have worked more aggressively to keep GPS devices out of taxis back in 2004, when the idea was first introduced. “She missed the ball,” he said. “Now the drivers are on top of her, asking for results. In order to keep her job and keep the drivers happy, the only way out is to strike to show them that she is doing something for them.”

One labor expert who has closely followed the alliance’s anti-GPS campaign defended Desai’s tactics. “Numbers in the organization have increased dramatically during the GPS campaign,” said Jeanette Gabriel, a researcher at CUNY’s Murphy Center for Labor, Community and Policy Studies. “Their ability to educate and mobilize these drivers is incredible. From my point of view, that is a success, regardless of whether or not they keep GPS out of taxis.”

Gabriel also praised Desai and her colleagues at the alliance for the creative organizing methods they used to unite a diverse constituency of drivers behind their cause.

“The public sees Bhairavi all the time, but they fail to see the network of leadership that’s been built up in the organization. Representatives of many ethnic groups are sitting on the board and they are able to mobilize people within those groups,” Gabriel explained. “That’s how they overcome those ethnic divisions—they organize along ethnic lines and then unite everyone behind their cause. It’s earth-shattering for the New York City labor movement that they are able to actually organize different ethnic groups.”

Desai, 34, co-founded the New York Taxi Workers Alliance almost a decade ago, just a few years after she finished her undergraduate degree in women’s studies at Rutgers University.

After college, Desai spent two years doing community outreach for Manavi, a New Jersey-based organization that helps South Asian women escape domestic violence.

Even then, Desai showed promise as an activist. “She’s a good organizer. She did community outreach very well,” says Manavi co-founder Shamita Das Dasgupta. “She had a focus on helping people whose voices were not being heard.”

Throughout the 1990s, South Asian immigrants poured into New York City, where many found their way into the taxi industry. By 1996, it had become apparent that other labor organizations were ignoring these new immigrant workers. Desai, whose family emigrated from the state of Gujarat in India to New Jersey when she was 6 years old, wanted to help.

She left Manavi and joined the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, where she was assigned the task of organizing immigrant taxi drivers.

It was Desai’s first exposure to the New York City taxi industry, and her strategy for making her way in this new world was total immersion. “I used to spend 90 hours a week just outside on the street,” she recalls. “Some days I would come to the airport [taxi lots] from 10 in the morning until eight or nine at night, then go back to the office, and then go to the restaurants at one in the morning and stay there until four in the morning.”

Although Desai had never driven a taxi and initially knew little about the industry, she immediately felt at home among the drivers. “I had such a sense of belonging every time I’d go to a restaurant or a taxi garage or the airport,” says Desai, whose mother worked in a steel plating factory and father ran a grocery store when she was growing up in Harrison, N.J. “I felt this comfort. I grew up working-class.”

Now, despite her youthful smile, Desai is a battle-worn veteran of the New York City taxi scene. In a business with its share of sexism and inter-ethnic hostilities, Desai has had to fight to be taken seriously by drivers and taxi industry officials alike.

“Bhairvai had a really big struggle initially,” says Biju Mathew, also from India, who co-founded the alliance with Desai. “There was enormous sexism. The process of taking her seriously and trusting her was very difficult. For male drivers, this was a very unusual situation to have to think about a young woman in a predominantly male industry as the organizer.”

Even now, having won much recognition for her work with the alliance, Desai doesn’t take her position for granted. “Whatever trust exists, I feel like I still have to do my best to keep earning it,” she says. “You see somebody who’s been driving 25 or 30 years and for them to have faith in me is just so gracious.”

Desai and Mathew built the Taxi Workers Alliance from the ground up. They broke off from the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence and started the group in 1998 with 700 members. In May of that year, as a fledgling group, they made history with a series of strikes that kept more than 90 percent of the city’s taxis off the streets in protest against a spate of new taxi rules proposed by former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Now, less than a decade later, the alliance claims to represent about 10,400 of the city’s 44,000 licensed drivers. For a $75 per year membership fee, a driver receives legal help and advocacy on issues including garage relations, tickets, collisions and more. Membership fees supply funds enough for TWA projects as well as salaries for three fulltime staffers—including Desai—and allow the alliance to keep up with rent and utilities for its one-room office on East 28th Street. When money runs short or special projects require extra expenditures, they apply for grants.

“She’s a damn good organizer. She’s a natural,” Mathew says, crediting Desai’s role in the alliance’s growth. “These people work 12-hour days and usually work seven days a week. That hardly leaves any time for working with TWA. It’s Bhairavi’s capacity to bring people together and to keep them involved that helps TWA grow.”

At LaGuardia, dusk turned to night, and a cold wind whipped across the taxi lot as the cabs inched forward in line to collect their next fares. Desai was on the move, greeting drivers with a warm smile and pressing flyers into hands extended through cab windows.

“Strike on the 22nd. No taxis on the street or at airports,” she said, peering into taxi after taxi, greeting those she recognized by name. Others she called “brother,” or, if they were older, “sir.”

Spotting a GPS device already installed in one man’s cab, Desai offered her personal assurance of help: “Don’t worry, we’ll get it out of your car.”

“Good luck, Bhairavi!” several drivers called out as they rolled by. Many thanked her for her work and shouted their support for the coming strike: “Don’t worry, we are all ready!” and: “It’s on! It’s on!” or: “I’ll be there!”

One man braked just long enough to thrust two paper cups filled with steaming hot pakoras and spiced chickpeas into her hands. Another urged Desai, who was wearing open sandals and a thin cardigan sweater over her lightweight tunic, to stay warm in the chilly night air. “You need a jacket—you’re gonna catch cold!” he scolded.

At one point, several drivers who had parked their cars gathered around Desai to ask questions and share their complaints and concerns. They greeted her warmly—often as “Miss Bhairavi”—before moving swiftly into the dense jargon of shop talk about garages, industry officials, and equipment.

Rahil Mulla, a young driver from Jackson Heights, complained that one
GPS company had charged him a $65 fee and then soon after gone bankrupt. He wanted to know how to get his money back. “Who will hold them accountable?” he asked.

Desai assured him the union was aware of the situation and would press for drivers’ refunds.

Other drivers demanded that the union strike for a full week—instead of one day, as planned. Desai calmly explained that first they needed to build up a strike fund to help support drivers who would have to go a week without pay. Around her, heads nodded in silent agreement.

Bob Chu, one of the older drivers in the group, reported problems with the credit card machines he’d been practicing with at his garage in Flushing. “It takes five to six minutes to get approval and get the customer’s signature,” he said. “You’ll get a ticket for stopping in traffic that long.”

Desai listened and nodded knowingly, but before she could respond a horn beeped near the front of the line, sending Chu dashing back to his cab and off on his next fare.

It’s not just in the company of drivers that Desai rates as a local celebrity of sorts. And with good reason—over the years, she has learned to run press conferences with flair and finesse. She presents a poised and articulate public front for drivers and isn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with politicians and city officials.

But Desai, who grew up around the workaday realities of unionizing—her mother is a longtime member of the Teamsters—still feels most at home among the drivers. For her, spending a Friday evening handing out flyers at LaGuardia is utterly ordinary.

“I come occasionally just to hang out. It’s actually fun,” she says. “I used to come out here for 12 hours a day. I would just stand out here, go from car to car talking to each person.”

Desai has remained single over the years, living on her own in Jersey City. Recently she moved back home to Harrison, N.J. to be closer to her family. “I hardly get to see them,” she says.

Aside from her long days and late nights working for the alliance, Desai indulges in a few simple pleasures: time with family and friends, good books, Bollywood movies and late-night TV reruns.

She also tries to keep up with developments in some of the other social justice movements she’s been involved with over the years—for women’s rights and racial equality in South Africa, to name two.

But taxi organizing continues to exert the strongest pull in her life. Despite ups and downs over her past decade with the alliance, Desai remains deeply committed to helping drivers. Her TWA cofounder Biju Mathew says she loves people and wants to see the drivers’ lives change. “She just sees herself as a person who is working in this particular domain to try to do everything she can,” says Mathew.

Or—as Desai told more than one driver that Friday night, while marching up and down the shifting rows of yellow cabs in the LaGuardia lot: “We gotta keep up the pressure. We gotta keep fighting. You know, it takes time.”

– Anne Noyes Saini

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