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Bhairavi Desai: Champion for the Forgotten

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Bhairavi Desai

“Half my heart is just crushed. The other half is on fire.”

Bhairavi Desai uttered those words after a New York City taxi driver dramatically committed suicide last month. Desai is co-founder of the 19,000-member strong New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTA).

Born in Gujarat, India, Desai immigrated to New Jersey at six years old.  From Rutgers University with a degree in women’s studies, her first job was with a battered women’s organization. But she found her calling at a South Asian social services organization providing support to taxi drivers.

Desai decided putting salve on open wounds wasn’t enough. Hence began the fight for taxi drivers’ living wage, health care and dignity on the job.

Since 2012, she has scored victories around wages and a health and disability fund for drivers, creating a national organizing model. Now she’s being challenged by corporate giants Uber and Lyft, given a green light by state lawmakers to operate outside licensing requirements.

The volatile marketplace, exploding from 53,000 to 130,000 vehicles, has made living wages nearly impossible for the regulated taxi industry.

Douglas Schifter, the third suicide case in as many months, averaged 120 hours a week to eke out a living.  His last words in a Facebook post before a dramatic City Hall shooting: “I am not a Slave and I refuse to be one.”

In an interview with Democracy Now Desai decried a human crisis created by the political failures that gave Wall Street companies a free hand. She said her New York drivers collectively serve a million people daily. “They do it with dignity and integrity and with sweat. They should not have to shed their blood, on top of it.”