By Christine Chou, Spring 2012 Intern
What is more synonymous with New York City than the yellow taxi cab? The Big Apple is home to the country’s largest concentration of taxi drivers – about 60% of whom are of South Asian descent. Their presence in the industry is so strong that the South Asian taxi driver has now become a common figure in popular culture and an inescapable part of metropolitan life.
The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program along with the National Museum of American History’s recent acquisition of New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) artifacts for the HomeSpun Project will help showcase the working lives of Indian Americans, whose experiences and struggles form an important part of this country’s social and economic history. These items will also be used to address the broader topic of workers’ rights and labor movements in the United States.
Established in 1998 by Bhairavi Desai, NYTWA is currently the nation’s largest taxi driver union, with over 15,000 multi-ethnic members. The organization’s mission is to improve the working conditions of taxi drivers in New York City, who work 12-hour shifts with no health insurance, retirement benefits, or paid time off. According to the Department of Labor, taxi driving is the most dangerous occupation in the country. The fatality rate is 30 times higher than in any other profession, and taxi drivers are also 80 times more likely to be robbed on the job.
NYTWA provides its members with access to healthcare and legal services, and also fights to overcome harsh regulations, police discrimination, and industry exploitation through political advocacy, media campaigns, and democratic organization.
The collection of artifacts, donated by NYTWA co-founder Javaid Tariq, tells the often unseen side of life as a taxi driver. Some highlights include:
- Trip sheets, which drivers use to record every instance of where and when they have taken passengers. The sheets are a representation of how drivers work both day and night, even during times when the rest of the world is sleeping or taking a much-needed holiday. This is most vividly illustrated on one such sheet, dated January 1, 1996.
- A taxi meter, a key symbol of the economic situation facing taxi drivers, who begin each morning in debt. The red color of the meter display is a reminder of the daily debt owed to their leasers, which can average around $120 per 12-hour shift. In fact, taxi driving is one of the few jobs where one can work a full day and still lose money.
- A Citizens’ Band radio used during the successful New York taxi drivers strike on May 13, 1998 in protest of severe new regulations proposed by then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. With almost 40,000 participating drivers, the city was emptied of yellow cabs that day. Because cell phones were still uncommon, drivers would instead use CB radios to coordinate with their fellow drivers and the executive director of NYTWA during the strike.
These objects and many more may be included in the HomeSpun Project as a part of the Speaking Up! exhibition opening next year. Mr. Tariq’s generous donations have been successfully added to the National Museum of American History’s Work & Industry Collection.