On Monday morning, Doug Schifter, a livery cab driver in his early 60s, took his own life in front of Manhattan’s City Hall. He killed himself with a shotgun while seated in his car, but not before posting a suicide note on his Facebook account:
Due to the huge numbers of cars available with desperate drivers trying to feed their families they squeeze rates to below operating costs and force professionals like me out of business. 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.
Schifter had been a professional livery driver nearly his entire adult life. He had driven black cars, limousines, and chauffeured cars and logged, according to his own Facebook account, “4.5 million miles”; he was also “hurricane and blizzard experienced” and accustomed to ferrying celebrities to “award shows” and “movie premieres”. [The Facebook account was deleted just before I completed this essay, around 3:30 PM on February 7, Pacific Standard Time.] He was conversant enough in the business and its intricacies to command a column in the Black Car News, the industry newsletter. But all his experience had not prepared Schifter to withstand the constant tremors, far more than an occasional blizzard, that have rattled New York City since the arrival of Uber and other ride-share services. Schifter goes on to describe the transformation of the 40-hour week in the 1980s which gave him an adequate living, and more, to what in the last year had become 100-hour work weeks. Like many other drivers, Schifter had lately been returning home after a long day of work with barely pocket change for his day’s earnings. In his parting post, Schifter held New York’s politicians responsible for allowing the streets of the city to be flooded with rideshare cars, and similarly he slammed the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), an organization which has had a vise-like grip on the taxi and livery business, for not only having failed to protect its most vulnerable drivers but aggravating their misery.
Though the taxi business is almost everywhere in the United States under water, nowhere has the advent of Uber been more destructive to cab drivers than in New York City. A little more than a decade ago, Biju Mathew, a South Asian political activist who along with Bhairavi Desai and others has been a major force in the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, wrote a riveting account of the politics and political economy that have informed the taxicab business in the city. At the center of his narrative is an obscure object that had been conferred somewhat magical properties, an object that drove the business and should have attracted the attention of anthropologists. That object is called a “medallion”: it isn’t a medal, and is something more akin to objects—whether family heirlooms, sacred books, or priestly icons with which the laity are kept in a state of mystification and subjection— whose ownership is ritually passed down from one generation to another. The medallion is, in fact, a string of four numbers and letters—4D22, 5G11, 8A33, and so on—by which the cab is identified; it is also a license or permit sold by the city which allows its owner or manipulator to put a cab on city streets. Only as many yellow cabs can operate on city streets as there are medallions, and only the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) can preside over the sale of new medallions.
When I first encountered Mathew’s book in 2006, there were some 13,000 medallions in New York City, though over 50,000 drivers were licensed to drive medallion cabs. Each medallion then cost around half a million dollars. The medallion was first introduced in 1937, and in the early 1940s it sold for $100; by the mid-1950s, the price had risen to $5,000, and two decades later it was fetching three times that amount on the open market. Around the turn of the century, the medallion was being sold for $300,000. Generations of students of economics will aver that the iron-clad laws of supply and demand are sufficient to explain why the medallion, whose supply was strictly controlled, was able to attract such astronomical prices. But Mathew was on to something else, even before Uber, Lyft, and other rideshare services had come on to the scene, and he wove a much more complex narrative which draws upon such phenomena as globalization, outsourcing, the restructuring of the labor market, global flows of migration, and the corporatization of New York City and more broadly of so-called world cities to give us insights into the difficult lives of drivers.
Most medallion owners never drove their own cars; they leased them out, with brokers acting as middlemen. The rising cost of medallions made them increasingly more expensive to rent. One cab driver, Khurshid, who like most others in New York City is a Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani, Dominican, Haitian, or from some other immigrant group, told Mathew: “The medallion is what will keep me a driver and nothing more all my life” (p. 66). But the advent of Uber so fundamentally altered the landscape that the ethnography of the medallion will have to be rewritten. At its peak in early 2014, the medallion commanded a price of over $1.2 million; today it fetches one-fifth the price, a little less than $250,000, and it is clearly in free fall. There is every likelihood that the price of the medallion has not bottomed out, not unless there is a rapid reassessment of rideshare services and what they signify both about an economy and the cultural mores of a society. A few medallion owners and many brokers have been driven into despair and sometimes bankruptcy, and taxicab drivers are being plummeted into oblivion.
Mathew furnishes an interesting history of taxicab operations in New York from the 1920s onwards, even if it is his ethnography of the lives of taxi drivers that is truly gripping. Though most people, whether in New York or anywhere else, whine about high taxicab fares, Mathew shows persuasively that taxicab drivers rarely made a comfortable living and often had 12-hour days. (Schifter, as a livery and limousine driver, would have done much better in the old days.) Capitalism derives much of its mythos from the idea that risk takers are rewarded in a free market, but in fact the risk-taking is generally left to those who are most vulnerable. Brokers and certainly owners were assured of an income through the medallion before the dam burst after the introduction of Uber, but the immigrant driver often had nothing to show for his labor at the end of the day. The economic tendencies associated with globalization—outsourcing, low-income jobs, depressed and stagnant wages, the deployment of an immigrant labor force, the evisceration of labor unions, the loss of protection from arbitrary dismissal, among others—were all prefigured in New York’s taxicab business and are now to be seen in their more aggravated form in the advent of rideshare services. The popular and academic ethnographies of Uber drivers—and by “Uber” I mean, of course, all rideshare services, notwithstanding the illusion by which some have been driven that “Lyft”, to take one illustration, is a more fair and equitable employer—that will be written in the near future will show the catastrophic effects of Uberization on the lives of common people.
Six weeks before Schifter put a bullet through his head, 57-year old Danilo Corporan Castillo jumped to his death from the roof of an apartment building on West 135th Street. Castillo, a livery driver, feared that his license was about to be revoked by the Taxi and Limousine Commission owing to his failure to pay fines imposed by the TLC on him for accepting illegal street hails. I do not know whether it has been alleged that Castillo was suffering from a mental illness. This charge is, of course, how the powerful address such “tragedies”: Mayor de Blasio, full of the usual pious platitudes about how his heart goes out to the victims and their families, suggested that Schifter almost certainly was mentally ill. As he (grandiloquently) put it, “Look, let’s face it, for someone to commit suicide means there’s an underlying mental health challenge. Economic distress is real but a lot of people have faced economic distress and don’t turn to suicide.”
The honeymoon period with rideshare services will most likely end sooner rather than later. And, in case someone should remind me of the offenses that Uber has already committed and query whether it is still in the ‘honeymoon’ period, there is but no question in my mind that the appetite for these rideshare services is there and yet to peak before the hazards of the Uberization of the economy become apparent. Those hazards are not merely the ones that have already been under discussion for some time, from “surge pricing” and cheating to the risks associated with taking rides from drivers who have been cleared after inadequate security checks. Uberization is but another word for the most fundamental problem of the economy everywhere in the world, namely unchecked “greed” and the growing accumulation of immense wealth in a few hands. There are even considerations that are far from the minds of those who, like Travis Kalanick and Jeff Bezos, have scant regard for the lives of others and whose sole purpose in life is self-aggrandizement. What, for instance, are the implications for the faculty of memory when all the Uber driver has to do is to turn to GPS? In a later post, I hope to turn to some of these other, equally insidious, consequences of an Uberized economy.