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Strike Two

The historic cabbie coalition, and the woman who built it

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Bhairavi Desai may have organized the most successful taxi strike in New York history, but last Tuesday afternoon, she couldn’t get a cab to save her life. Already late for a City Hall press conference where she and co-organizer Biju Mathew would announce their plans for a second strike on Thursday, she stood on West 27th Street and laughed. When they finally got a ride, they used the opportunity to recruit the driver to the cause. “Cabbies?” asked the driver. “That’s right,” said Desai. “The only people shaking up the city.”

The cabbies’ movement took most New Yorkers by surprise, but Desai and Mathew have been laying the groundwork for two years, carefully pulling together a coalition from a workforce never before organized, and negotiating alliances with other groups. In recent days, the two went into overdrive, visiting Indian restaurants, distributing literature in front of Penn Station, and holding midnight meetings at their makeshift office in Chelsea. “We had to take the time to find out how different organizations interlock,” said Mathew.

But the most remarkable -- and valuable -- alliance of all came unexpectedly. Despite special permission from Mayor Giuliani to pick up “street hails” during the taxi strike, the city’s livery drivers announced, without prompting, that they would not undercut the cabbies’ cause. Things were going well.

Then Tuesday, everything changed. And then changed back. And then did it a few more times. First, a dissenting group of medallion owners called a press conference half an hour before the NYTWA’s, pretending to speak for all cabbies and declaring that the strike was canceled. Then Councilman Noach Dear announced he’d gotten the mayor to agree to negotiations; in response, the NYTWA really did call off the strike. While reporters rushed that news into print, however, the mayor said he had no intention of negotiating. “Nobody gets the opportunity to illegally close down the city,” said the man who, just the day before, had closed several midtown streets for the premiere of Godzilla. By 1 a.m., when 400 drivers crowded into NYTWA’s assembly space, no one seemed to know the real story. “The strike is definitely on,” Desai proclaimed. “Because they broke their agreement, we will break ours.” The crowd of drivers cheered, but one, Mohamed Najeeb, was stunned by the mayor’s intransigence. “Nothing is negotiable? Excuse me, did we murder anybody?”

Desai held the same meeting a second time, for a different crowd, and then a third, downstairs, standing on the hood of a cab. Then, at 5 a.m., she headed to a restaurant at 27th and Lexington to meet with representatives of the Bengal Cabbie Society. After an hour, they pledged to keep their cars home on Thursday.

“When I first started, drivers were skeptical of me,” the slight 25-year-old recalled. “The only way I could prove my knowledge of the industry and my instincts in a male community was my ability to physically endure the workload.” She’d been up for 36 hours -- a schedule she’d kept for fourteen days. “I’ve been to every garage,” she said with a smile, “and I’ve been kicked out of most.”

Wednesday, Giuliani dug in his heels, threatening to arrest any strikers. Desai hoped his hostility would point up the need for resistance. But all the day’s papers had erroneously announced the strike was off, and many garage owners who’d supported the first strike had since broken ranks.

As the sun rose Thursday, no one knew what was coming. Local newscasters, who’d been expecting “a sea of yellow” blocking traffic across the Queensboro Bridge -- a smaller protest by owner-drivers -- were left guessing why no cabs were visible anywhere.

Back in Chelsea, however, bolstered by a luxurious four hours’ rest, Desai already knew the day was a success. Police had blocked the bridge protest (the owner-drivers marched instead to City Hall), but as many as 80 percent of all drivers had stayed off the roads. “This strike is better than the other one,” Rashid Humayun declared. “This time, everybody is against us. Garage owners are threatening their drivers. And still we have 80 percent. Now, this is a real drivers’ strike.”

The day’s casualties included three arrests and one revoked medallion. “We have nothing to lose,” said Desai, “and if you have nothing to lose, you’re very powerful.” Taking a break from the phone bank, a volunteer added, “Today was so successful, drivers have been asking when are we striking again and how many days will it be.”

“Next time,” said cabbie Shakeel Cheema, “it will be one week. Seven days’ pay out of our own pockets. Everyone is prepared for that.”


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