Bhairavi Desai has a tendency to be swallowed up by the action. The longtime head of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (nytwa) is usually smack in the middle of whatever protest, rally, or meeting is happening, and when she speaks, people like to crowd in close.
One afternoon in March, I rolled up to the corner of East 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue, which was already abuzz with the familiar sounds of protest. That was where Desai had asked me to meet her, and when a nytwa member approached me with a handful of flyers, I asked him to point me toward her. Of course she was right there in the thick of it, leading a group of about two dozen taxi drivers in a chant of “Shame! Shame!” Above them loomed a billboard advertising a new Joseph Gordon-Levitt vehicle called Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber; it featured a cartoon of a black Uber car crushing a yellow cab.
The protesters’ ire was directed at the glinting tower that houses the offices of the lending company OSK, a subsidiary of Minnesota-based private equity firm O’Brien Staley. OSK owns about 400 taxi medallions — literal pieces of hardware that, when purchased or leased, allow a person to legally drive a cab in New York City — and had built up a nasty reputation for repossessing those medallions when drivers fell behind on payments.
The NYTWA has been at war with lenders for years, and in 2021, an escalating series of demonstrations culminated in a hunger strike that brought national attention to the drivers’ suffering. Desai fasted alongside the drivers she represents. Locals as well as politicians, national media, and other labor unions took up the cause, and after two long, desperate weeks, the strike ended in a victory. “We were able to get the city of New York to agree to guarantee the loans, and we were able to get the biggest lenders in the industry to agree to reduce the debts to $170,000 based on this city program,” Desai explained. At the time of the protest, OSK was failing to honor that hard-won deal — and the drivers were not happy.
Behind this battle with lenders and the city stood one of the most powerful labor leaders in New York City: a petite Indian woman with a cloud of gray hair and chic spectacles. She’s well-known in New York City (catch her on New York 1 explaining the latest battle over taxi regulations) and nationally recognized (she’s visited the White House a couple of times). Her organization has long straddled the line between traditional, legally recognized unions and the types of creative organization developed by precarious workers who can’t legally unionize. The NYTWA is an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, and the first one in its history to be made up entirely of independent contractors. Despite her efforts to blend in with the workers she represents, in a moment when new industries are struggling to unionize, Desai stands out.
Desai emigrated from Gujarat, India, with her family when she was six years old. She has been politically active for as long as she can remember, and a lot of her early political lessons were learned at her father’s Harrison, New Jersey, convenience store. He had been a lawyer in India but switched careers once they arrived in the States, and his shop became a community hub. He worked seven days a week, only closing the store for three reasons: funerals, taking Desai to her after-school job as a candy striper, or when family or neighbors were in need of help. “My grandmother used to tell stories about marching against the British, and both my parents were really proud of the Indian liberation movement; they were proud to have come from freedom fighters, so it was part of our consciousness,” she said. “When I would watch the news about the Sandinistas, I didn’t see a threat, I saw people that looked like me. And I just felt such a deep sense of solidarity. It put my own class experience in perspective, my own experience of poverty in the first world.”
Her personal politics have been a major driver (no pun intended) of her organizing and advocacy work. “Of course Marxism has given me an understanding of the world,” she told me. “I’ve never shied away from being left. But when you’re trying to build a union in the belly of the beast, and you’re working with people from all across the globe, who have all sorts of experiences, and their own historical biases, I have really learned to put my politics out there without using political vocabulary.” When she invokes revolution, there is nothing flippant about her delivery. A self-described internationalist, Desai rails against capitalism, racism, and classism with the fervor of a Marxist undergrad and the certainty of someone who has lived through struggle. I think about the Che Guevara pin I spied behind her desk as she explains how her college years in anti-imperialist movements against apartheid in South Africa and Palestine crystallized her worldview.
Desai attended Rutgers University, where she majored in women’s studies. Following a stint working at Manavi, a South Asian women’s organization that offers resources and support to survivors of domestic violence, she became involved in the Committee to End Anti-Asian Violence, now simply known by its acronym CAAV.
Some of her contemporaries in the organization also went on to start notable workers’ rights organizations. Ai-jen Poo founded the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which has built organizations bringing together employers and employees and worked to pass domestic workers bills of rights in several states. Saru Jayaraman founded the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, which advocated for restaurant workers and opened the restaurant Colors. These labor leaders came of age attempting to organizer workers who faced myriad challenges: sometimes undocumented; working in isolation in people’s homes; facing language, literacy, and legal barriers to organizing unions. One answer to these quandaries was to imagine new types of organizations. But during her own time there, Desai found herself chafing against CAAV’s vision.
In 1996, the group launched a project called the Lease Drivers Coalition with the goal of organizing South Asian taxi drivers. The organization’s leadership had planned to found not a union but a coalition group between consumers and drivers to raise awareness of the difficult conditions drivers faced. Desai had other plans. She began organizing drivers as part of the LDC project, but “I just always believed in class conscious unionism,” she told me. “It’s still the most powerful organizational formation for working people.” She draws a hard distinction between unions, with their emphasis on worker power, and the nonprofit world with its emphasis on raising awareness and lobbying.
Biju Mathew described the roots of that core ideological conflict in his 2005 book, Taxi!: Cabs and Capitalism in New York City, explaining how he, Desai, and fellow activist Javaid Tariq were booted from CAAV in 1998 and began working toward their shared vision of a mass organization — one that accepted all taxi workers, instead of focusing solely on South Asian drivers. By then, Desai had already been organizing drivers for two years and was a familiar face at the airport, holding lots where drivers would congregate to rest, eat, and wait for customers. “Many drivers knew her as the one person they could talk with, someone who could answer their questions,” Mathew wrote. “Bhairavi had built a powerful reputation among drivers as a fearless, effective, and committed organizer.”
When she first started trying to organize their industry, she was only 25, and the drivers quickly became protective of her. In the years before she began drawing a union salary, she lived hand to mouth, and her new family took notice of that too. “Drivers every month used to take up a collection, and everybody knew all my bills,” she remembered. “Different people used to come and bring me meals; it’s literally how I survived. And the only rule was it had to be drivers who took up the collection, because workers have got to finance their own revolution. If there wasn’t going to be a group of drivers that believed in my work enough to make sure I could keep a roof over my head and food in my belly, then I wouldn’t have been the right organizer for that job.”
Four months after NYTWA’s founding, the group faced their first big labor battle, one that would play out in a very public way in the New York City streets. In May of that year, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani had announced a new set of draconian fines targeting taxi drivers. “We took a unanimous decision to go out on strike on May 13 — I think we gave ourselves like 10 days or something to build up for it — and it was like one of the most successful strikes in the history of the industry!” she says, her eyes twinkling. “This was during Giuliani’s quality-of-life campaign, when he was going after everybody. And we were the first labor group to really go after him.” Twenty-four thousand drivers participated in that one-day strike, and while they were ultimately unsuccessful in beating back the penalties, they’d made their voices heard — and the NYTWA had made it through the first of what would become many more strikes and direct actions.
Desai has served as its leader ever since. That leadership manifests in a practical as well as a spiritual sense. Ninety percent of her members were born in another country, like her, and they speak dozens of languages. On the other hand, over 95 percent of the union is male and, it must be said, Desai doesn’t drive. NYTWA members drive for Uber, Lyft, black cars, and the iconic New York yellow cabs; a small percentage own medallions, while the rest lease. As an invisible workforce, they face sometimes overwhelming challenges, but with Desai at the helm for the last 26 years, the NYTWA has won its members’ trust and fierce devotion. “She is a very good leader, very sincere and very kindhearted and strong,” Wain Chin, a NYTWA member and driver who is originally from Myanmar, told me. “We know we stick with her. Our union is our family, so we stayed together and did a victory.”
Then as now, it was not a simple task to form a union with workers whose employment classification occupies a liminal space between employer and employee. As independent contractors, taxi drivers are considered to be self-employed (even if they drive for a company) and are thus exempt from the major labor laws that govern workers’ rights to organize and collectively bargain. It’s a sticky situation to be in, one that characterizes many laborers in today’s economy, from construction workers to freelance journalists to strippers to delivery drivers, and that is frequently exploited by employers who balk at the idea of treating (and paying) the workers they employ as actual employees. There are simply fewer options available to workers who wish to organize, so like many other excluded workers before them, Desai and her members have had to forge their own path.
Desai explains that, while NYTWA is not technically a collective bargaining agent and is structured differently from most traditional unions, she and her members have always believed that membership in the labor movement transcends legal categories. “A union is an organization where workers come together to build collective power and one voice,” she says. “When I first started organizing, someone in the labor movement said to me, ‘Oh, like a cultural group!” And I was like, ‘No, we don’t sit around dancing bhangra, we’re debating the economy and capitalism.”
It bears mentioning that, even without the dues checkoff that supports most unions, the NYTWA still counts 6,000 dues-paying members among their 25,000-strong rolls, which makes them quite a bit bigger than a number of traditional unions (including my own, the Writers Guild of America, East). Desai points to “a self-imposed elitism” within the labor movement that harms precarious workers of color like the ones she organizes, and that has been used as a cudgel to marginalize other groups of workers throughout history who were seen by various establishment labor leaders as too difficult — or undesirable — to organize. This is an issue that stretches back centuries, from racist white labor leaders’ support for segregated “Jim Crow” locals in the 1920s to the American Federation of Labor’s World War I-era refusal to organize Latino immigrant workers. As she says, this attitude “only serves capital, because it allows the labor movement to not recognize its own brothers and sisters, and the strength that comes from [building] a bigger house.”
This year’s taxi strike responded to a brutal time for NYC taxi drivers. Prior to their win, the medallion debt crisis had intensified to the point that multiple drivers, driven to despair, died by suicide. One of them, Kenny Chow, had a brother named Richard who also drives a taxi. In a viral video, Sen. Chuck Schumer rode along with Richard in his cab as the longtime driver explained the circumstances that had led to his brother’s death and the importance of winning relief. Chow is a soft-spoken, serious man, and the pain he felt at losing his brother was — is — evident. I met Richard outside of the OSK building, and at one point, he welled up with tears when the subject of his brother came up. He was angry, too, at OSK’s behavior; he told me about an incident he’d witnessed in which OSK’s repo man (a hulking figure who goes by “Tony,” Desai told me) had followed a driver all the way out to John F. Kennedy International Airport and tried to pry the medallion off their car. “Without the police, without the court order, taking it off illegally,” Chow said indignantly. “So that’s why we are protesting: Stop harassing us.”
As we spoke, another driver butted in, excited to share his own thoughts. William Ritziu is originally from Romania, where he’d worked as a university professor; he’s since spent many years driving a cab in NYC and has had his own run-ins with the medallion lenders’ repo men, who he said have tried to bully and intimidate him with bogus legal threats. Like every other driver I spoke with, he is a big fan of Desai’s. “She’s amazing,” he told me. “She’s a nice lady. Always nice, very polite and we tell her sometimes, don’t be more aggressive, we will never achieve anything. I see that she achieved more being nice.”
The deal that Desai smilingly struck with the city was life-changing for many of her members. As she told the Washington Post shortly after their victory was announced, “Now, when we shout, ‘No more suicides, no more bankruptcies,’ it’s no longer a plea — it’s a real declaration.” The three big three lenders covered by the deal hold the loans for about 3,500 drivers; there are currently about 13,500 taxi medallion holders in the city, so this new deal applies to a significant chunk of them. The debt relief program was implemented on March 17, and it not only restructures existing loans, it also provides $30,000 grants to individual drivers to put toward their loans and installs New York City as a guarantor on the drivers’ debts. “This is a city with a $96 billion annual budget,” Desai said. “If you’re gonna get a guarantee, you better get it from the city of New York — this is as rock solid as it can get!” She described the deal as a tremendous boost for workers, and a win for the lenders too, who, thanks to the city’s guarantee, are now able to pull back the resources they’ve poured into shaking down workers and reduce their risk. The workers are still in debt, but now they will be protected from the vagaries of the market and will have a decent shot at paying the debt off within their own lifetimes, instead of passing it down to the next generation. “Drivers don’t get that when they go out to work every day,” Desai tells me ruefully, reflecting on the bulletproof financial guarantee that lenders now enjoy. “Every day they go out, there’s a risk in this job, both economically and to the safety of their life. There are no guarantees for them.”
The day’s protest was a stark reminder of that. At the time that we spoke, one of those big three lenders, OSK, was still refusing to play ball. “We actually think in the long run, they will agree, but what’s most important at the moment is they’ve been foreclosing on medallions,” she explained. “So they’ve been taking the medallions off the streets, and then demanding the drivers pay them a large sum of cash, like a ransom.”
Months later, the two parties remain locked in a stalemate. Following pressure from the NYTWA (which included an 18-driver caravan to protest in front of OSK’s Minnesota headquarters) and Schumer, OSK officially signed onto the debt restructuring agreement in March but has since failed to honor its terms. By June 8, OSK had filed — and then quickly dropped — a federal lawsuit against NYTWA, alleging that the union had been engaging in “nonstop militant action unchecked by the rules that govern everyone else.” One can only assume that Desai, who called the suit “meritless,” and her members took the lenders’ whining over their “uncompromising militancy” as a compliment, but as of this writing, that struggle drags on.
There are, of course, always other battles to fight. Rideshare apps aren’t going away, and in March, Uber struck a deal to list the city’s yellow cab drivers in its app, citing a driver shortage and need to reduce passenger fares. An unimpressed NYTWA signaled its intentions to push for negotiations and sent a warning to the venture capitalists behind the app. “If Uber, Curb, Arro think they can slide in with a payment structure that’s broken for Uber drivers and piece it together on the backs of yellow cab drivers, they’re in for a sobering surprise,” NYTWA tweeted. “Neither company will grow ridership without working out terms that work for drivers.”
There’s also competition from the Independent Drivers Guild, essentially a company union (it calls itself an “advocacy group”) founded in 2015 in a deal between the Machinists Union and Uber, which provides the guild with financial support. “Look at our situation: the Machinists [Union] made a sweetheart deal with Uber to form an organization that’s funded by Uber,” she says. “They’re considered legitimate members of the labor movement, whereas we, who built our organization with our own blood, and sweat, and won’t take a dime from anybody, let alone Uber, are considered less legitimate, because we don’t have a collective bargaining agreement, even though the laws have prevented us from having it? It’s all so upside down.”
And then there’s the question of Desai herself — so closely entwined with the NYTWA it’s impossible to imagine it without her. Since she isn’t elected, it’s unclear who might succeed the 49-year-old labor leader in the future.
Yet for all the challenges facing the NYTWA, it’s clear they got fundamental things right. We’re now witnessing all kinds of precarious “self-employed” workers struggle to organize. Consider the Indie Sellers Guild, a fledgling movement born out of a recent Etsy strike, or the long legacy of sex workers’ organizing that has most recently seen workers employed at the Star Garden strip club in North Hollywood, California, go public with their bid to unionize with Strippers United. Established organizations like the Gig Workers Collective and Los Deliveristas Unidos are being joined by new coalitions like Justice for App Workers to fight for a seat at the table. In 2020, Philadelphia passed a landmark Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which codified pay rates and established a portable benefits system for the city’s 16,000 domestic workers, who are still not covered under federal labor law. This came as a direct result of efforts by the National Domestic Workers Alliance, whose own work is a callback to the 1960s, when civil rights leader and labor icon Dorothy Lee Bolden founded the National Domestic Workers Union to organize Black domestic workers in Atlanta. In an economy increasingly defined by self-employment and service work, the example they’ve set holds important lessons for the next generation of workers who see few options for themselves within the house of labor as it stands but are still hungry for justice — and in desperate need of a union.
“The reality is, we were not going to win an NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] petition, because the structure of the industry had changed, and the laws had not,” Desai explained, looking back on the union’s beginnings. “And so instead of fighting to win at the board, we chose to fight on issues and campaigns and through that build up the membership. We chose to strike, instead of file petitions, and that’s really what built TWA. It’s been a really long road, and maybe some other paths would have been shorter — but we’ve responded to the immediate needs, and we didn’t wait to seize power.”
After the OSK protest, we head to a restaurant and talk about our partners, our politics, our parents-in-law. Her passion for her work shines through even while nibbling on a lackluster grilled cheese, or giggling as I attempt to gnaw through the world’s toughest chicken fingers. We both eye the dessert menu but decide to cut our losses and head to her office instead. One might wonder, how does the taxi drivers’ champion, who can barely turn a corner without being offered a free ride from a member, get around New York City? “I usually take the subway!” she tells me with a little chuckle, leading the way toward 59th Street.
The NYTWA office is a hive of activity, stuffed to the gills with patiently waiting members and organizers bustling around trying to solve their problems. She introduced me to a parade of staffers and members before we retreated into her office, which is piled high with papers and mementos from past and current fights. Behind her desk, photos of family and friends hold pride of place, and that Che Guevara button peeks out from behind a pastel birthday card. The union office is undergoing renovations, and Desai’s office is a small oasis of calm amid the hustle and bustle. It’s a good thing that she has her little sanctuary too, because there is no such thing as a typical day for Desai, and she is always, always, on the go. “Every day I wake up with the singular thought to not let the drivers down, to not fail the drivers,” she told me. “Their struggle has given my life purpose.”
“They helped raise me, you know,” she tells me. “And honestly, I feel like, everyday I get to see bits and pieces of my mother and my father, and my brothers, the four most important people in my life, in all the drivers I’ve met through the years.”
Drivers are vulnerable, essential workers, rendered invisible to nearly everyone, but Bhairavi Desai sees them. They see her too. She and the drivers have built a strong, fighting union, one that has more than earned its place in labor history. She seeks to reclaim what “workers intended unions to be, which is a powerful movement against poverty, and for democracy in the workplace,” she explains. “There’s still no greater vehicle for worker power.”
Kim Kelly is a journalist, organizer, and author of Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor (Simon and Schuster, 2022).