NYC livery driver’s suicide underscores desperate times in vehicle-for-hire trade
by Mike Beggs
The suicide of veteran New York City livery driver Douglas Schifter shocked and saddened the driver community -- in New York, and in many cities around the world.
Fuelled by contempt for the politicians and Private Transportation Companies (PTC’s) like Uber whom he blamed for deregulation and the destruction of his livelihood, on February 5 the 61-year-old driver pulled up in front of City Hall at 7:10 a.m. in a rented black sedan, and shot and killed himself. He was at least the second New York for-hire driver to take his own life in recent months, driven by financial despair and depression.
A regular columnist for the trade publication Black Car News, Schifter left a lengthy Facebook posting before his death, stating, “I worked 100 to 120 consecutive hours almost every week for the past 14-plus years. When I started in the industry in 1981, I averaged 40 to 50 hours. I cannot survive any longer with working 120 hours! I am not a slave and I refuse to be one.”
He was forced to declare bankruptcy in 2015, was in poor physical shape and could no longer afford health insurance. His brother George told the New York Daily News, in recent years Schifter had been living out of his vehicle on weekdays, and showering at gyms and truck stops. When the engine on his 2016 Denali XL failed for a second time last October, he couldn’t work, and stopped the payments on his home.
“I hope with the public sacrifice I make now that some attention will be drawn to the plight of the drivers and something will be done to save them, and it will have not been in vain,” he continued.
He affixed the blame squarely on the shoulders of Governor Mario Cuomo, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, and ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg for bowing to the influence of “Corporate New York”, in allowing Uber to saturate the streets with cars.
“They count their money, and we are driven down into the streets we drive becoming homeless and hungry. I will not be a slave working for chump change. I would rather be dead,” he wrote.
Bhairavi Desai, the long-time executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance testified before New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission last July speaking to the desperate conditions facing the city’s 100,000-plus for-hire drivers.
“The reality is, it’s a race to the bottom,” she told Democracy Now!, in an interview shortly after Schifter’s death. “Every day, people are being driven deeper and deeper into poverty. And this is the reality of the so-called gig economy.”
She called for a cap on all for-hire vehicles including PTC’s, and for the taxi meter to be the same across all sectors, so Uber and Lyft can’t continue to undercut prices.
“There used to be only about 13,000 yellow cabs, and another 40,000 liveries and black cars combined. Now you have over 130,000 for-hire vehicles. Nobody can earn a living,” she added.
Now competing with approximately 60,000 licensed Uber X cars, and the newly arrived Lyft vehicles, Toronto taxi and limo drivers share many of the same frustrations and financial stresses which pushed Schifter to the breaking point.
“My heart goes out to his family,” says iTaxiworkers Association president Sajid Mughal.
“(But) the situation here in Toronto, I think is worse than in New York -- with 60,000 Uber cars (and a fraction of New York City’s population to draw business from). The drivers have nothing else, there are no jobs available. They can’t just leave this industry. That’s why they’re holding on to it.”
Taxi Action president Behrouz Khamseh is concerned for the state of his fellow drivers.
“You should go and see inside the families of the people who invested a lot of money in the taxi industry. They’re in big trouble,” he says.
“There’s so much stress. The government is behind it, 100 percent.”
IW general secretary Ejaz Butt fears, “It could happen here.”
“If they are not making any money, these people are going to file for bankruptcy. I’m in debt $100,000, ” he says. “But, nobody cares. The problem is politicians all over the whole world are corrupt.”
Owner/operator Aldo Marchese alleges, “(Mayor John) Tory has put the taxi industry in a hell of a position. We’re in a sinkhole where they just don’t give a damn about us.”
Peter’s Taxi owner Peter Mandronis can certainly relate to Schifter’s plight, with Standard plate values and driver incomes shriveling up since Uber came to town in 2012.
“If somebody spends his lifetime, 40 years of hard work and obeying every rule, and in the end somebody kicks you in the face, what’s the attitude?” he asks.
“I’ve worked for 60 years for this industry. But, of course, some of our politicians don’t care about that.”
The New York taxi community rallied together after Schifter’s death, holding vigils and demanding government regulation to reduce competition and boost their wages.
Drivers say they are now forced to work 18 hour days. And the value of the once prized NYC taxi medallion (which sold for a record $1.3 million in 2014) has been gutted, with many drivers unable to keep up with their monthly payments on them. The New York Times reported that since 2015, 85 medallions have been sold as part of foreclosure proceedings, selling for just $150,000 to $450,000.
“You used to be able to send your kids to college with a medallion, but not anymore,” driver Paramjit Singh told The New York Daily News.
When de Blasio failed to put a cap on Uber cars during his first term, the number of cars affiliated with app companies virtually tripled from 18,000 in 2015 to 48,000 by the end of 2016.
“Why is the government destroying people’s lives,” Schifter wrote. “The Government is supposed to help the people, not destroy them. When will everybody awaken to the dangers?
“Now the politicians have flooded the streets with unlimited cars, and some 3,000 new ones every month still coming on.”
Desai alleged that Uber and Lyft share exactly the same business model, and have used their political might to bully their way into taxi markets around the world. She noted that in 2016 Uber and Lyft spent more on lobbying than Amazon, Walmart and Microsoft combined.
She alleged that, in their lobbying efforts, these PTC’s “go straight to the State level” for approval, so they are exempt from municipal regulations Ð and then dilute the market with cars and cheaper fares.
She noted that while some New York cabbies invested upwards of $1 million for a medallion, Uber and Lyft enter into these cities with none of the expenses, “so, it’s obviously not a level playing field.”
She alleges they’ve used Wall Street money to lure drivers with high introductory bonuses, but as soon as theses bonuses dry up, “the drivers start to plummet into poverty.” The Federal Trade Commission fined Uber $25 million for false advertising over driver bonuses.
What’s more, she notes Uber and Lyft lobbied successfully to gain exemption from existing labour laws in 21 states, so it has become “a revolving door” with many PTC drivers lasting only a few months.
“The question of the gig economy is, are workers relevant? And imagine now you’re working 12 hours, barely making $50 for yourself and the entire time you’re hearing automation is right around the corner,” she told Democracy Now!
“This is really a battle between Wall Street and a workforce that is literally dying, to keep its profession alive. It should not be, they work so hard. They collectively serve 1 million people every day in the city of New York. They do it with dignity and integrity and with sweat. They should not have to shed their blood on top of it.”