ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday September 9, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 15

New York City taxi strike has an unlikely leader

By Larry McShane

New York (AP) - She is the unlikely embodiment of New York City's cabbies: A college graduate, a woman, barely 5 feet tall, soft-spoken. But as the city's two-day taxi job action headed toward its finish, Bhairavi Desai reaffirmed her prominent role in the city's labor movement and her willingness to make bold moves on behalf of her membership in the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.

New York City Taxis on strike

"She doesn't rattle easy," said Ed Ott, head of the New York City Central Labor Council. "That's the thing that's very interesting to me - she does not rattle easy. Under extraordinary pressure, she keeps an even keel.

"She never raises her voice. She never swears. She's steady as a rock." Desai, 34, is a slight woman - 5-foot-1, 110 pounds - who co-founded the alliance in 1998, the same year the city's cabbies refused to drive in a historic one-day walkout over working conditions.

This time around, she organized a 48-hour work stoppage over the city's insistence that all cabs be fitted with new technology - including global positioning systems and video screens that will allow customers to pay by credit card.

The cabbies are complaining that the GPS technology will allow Big Brother into their cabs, and that the credit card option will cut into profits by costing them a 5 percent fee on every transaction. The technology must be in place as the cabs come up for inspection starting Oct. 1.

The city has 13,000 yellow cabs and 44,000 licensed drivers. The alliance - an advocacy group, not a union - claims to represent about one-fifth of those cabbies. The success of the strike that began Wednesday morning remained in dispute. City officials said 82 percent of the taxi fleet was on the road Thursday, while the ever-passionate Desai was proclaiming triumph.

"You know, the numbers can be spun as much as the opposition wants, but the reality is, the waiting lines speak for themselves," Desai said Thursday, referring to people forced to stand in line for taxis in midtown Manhattan and at LaGuardia Airport.

Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.

It's that attitude that made her one of 17 people recognized by the Ford Foundation in its 2005 Leadership for a Changing World awards, where she was among those cited for bringing "not only concrete gains to their communities but a determination to stand for justice."

One year earlier, she was honored by another group as one of the "Top 5 Under 35" South Asians in the metropolitan area. And in 2003, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund presented her with a "Justice in Action" award. Desai was born in India, where her grandmother - as related in stories to her grandchildren - was arrested in the fight for her homeland's independence. Her father was an attorney who "fought for the rights of the underprivileged," Desai once said.

When she was 6, the family immigrated to the United States and settled in Harrison, N.J., a gritty blue-collar town near Newark. Her father wound up buying a small grocery store, while her mother worked in a factory. Desai graduated from Rutgers University in 1994 with a degree in women's studies, but instead found her niche in a business where 99 percent of the drivers are male. After winning the Ford award two years ago, Desai said she was inspired by her membership.

"Through taxi drivers, I have learned the true meanings of honesty and humour, forgiveness and fairness, the maturity to handle difficulties with grace, and, at all times, the importance of dignity," Desai said.

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