Dozens of taxi drivers are waiting to be issued their cabs at a taxi-leasing garage in Queensbridge, New York, a neighborhood just across the river from Manhattan. It is raining lightly, weather that could make for a busier-than-usual Sunday-night shift. Mohamed, a Pakistani driver, begins to tell Dolores Benítez about the $650 he had paid to a private yellow-cab owner in New Jersey to lease his vehicle for a week. Mohamed did not get a receipt and before the term of his lease was up, the owner took the car back and would not return his calls.
Benítez, the only female cab driver at the garage and one of the 1 percent of women working in the industry in New York City, has been listening to the drivers’ problems and offering solutions during her half-hour wait. She migrated from Honduras in 1976 and has been driving cabs on and off since the 1980s. With her long, graying hair, black-rimmed glasses, and deep voice, she commands respect.
“First of all, don’t ever give anyone cash without getting a receipt,” she tells Mohamed. “Second, go to the Taxi Workers Alliance office and explain to them what has happened. Because of this stupid GPS thing, they can track everything. They can track how many hours you actually worked and the deposit you paid, and then they can file a claim to the TLC [the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission].”
The Taxi Workers Alliance is an organization of about 16,000 cab drivers that represents drivers’ rights against city regulatory bodies and the cab conglomerates that lease taxis. Benitez is a member of the organization, which formed in 1998, at a time when the taxi industry was changing. Taxi medallions, initially designed to regulate the industry by keeping track of the number of yellow cabs on the road, were issued at a cost of $5 each in 1937. But by the 1950s, the medallion was being treated as a commodity that could be traded in an open market. In the 1970s, powerful brokerages emerged that consolidated medallions and leased cars to drivers. In recent years, medallions have sold for more than $900,000 each.