NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his series, "One On 1," with a profile of a woman who wants to change an industry that is an everyday part of New York - the Executive Director of the Taxi Workers Alliance, Bhairavi Desai.
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It's midnight, and the director of the Taxi Workers Alliance, Bhairavi Desai, is working the room. The room is a small restaurant downtown where cabbies gather for a quick break on the overnights. Desai is here to bring them up to date on issues in the taxi industry, and to hear their complaints.
"When I go out and do outreach, this is what it's always like,” she says. "When I walk into a room and it's quiet, that's when I'm pretty terrified. But if I walk into a room and it's loud and people are yelling and they’re angry and they’re emotional, that's a good sign for an organizer."
Even in a city synonymous with immigrants, Desai's story stands out. She was born in a small town in India, raised in a union household in New Jersey, always seeing life from the viewpoint of a worker and a political organizer whose idea of a good time is standing out in the cold at JFK Airport handing out leaflets to drivers.
“You walk in and all you see is a sea of taxis, and as an organizer I feel like a kid in a candy store,” she says.
The issue that's currently topping Desai's agenda is the Taxi and Limousine Commission's desire to install global positioning systems in all cabs. The drivers see it as an invasion of privacy, a charge the TLC denies.
The TLC says the system will make it easier for passengers to pay for taxis with debit and credit cards, improve communication with drivers, and help passengers recover lost property.
“As long as you're performing your duties professionally and safely, there's no reason for anyone to spy on you,” says Desai. “Taxi drivers are not even employees, they're independent contractors. But in this industry that's the great irony; they have very little independence and there is no contract.”
Desai co-founded the Taxi Workers Alliance in 1998, when it first gained prominence by staging a one-day strike over several grievances.
“Back then we had to go out just to have people notice that we were standing there breathing,” she says. “This is 10 years later. We don't need to go out on strike to get noticed in that way."
After the strike was resolved, Desai got a six-figure job offer to be a corporate spokesperson. She said no.
"They thought I was playing hardball and came back and said $150,000,” she says. “I just laughed it off. I wasn't taking it seriously. They came back to me again and said, ÎOur final offer, $200,000.’ It was so comical to me."
Desai didn't take the offer, and suffice it to say, her current salary is not exactly in the $200,000 neighborhood. But her job has its perks, like getting rides home.
When was the last time she paid for a cab?
“Oh my gosh, it's been years since I had to pay for a taxi ride," she says.
But there's nothing funny in what Desai sees as some of the injustices of the industry: 12-hour days; no health care or pension system; slights - real or imagined - from the owners, the TLC and riders; and especially the dangers of the job, the attacks on drivers resulting in injury, hospitalization and sometimes death.
“On one hand it’s really humbling. You see their spirit, you see their great ability to go on, and you see all the love that surrounds them from their colleagues and from their families and from their friends,” she says. “But on the other hand it becomes very emotionally exhausting."
She's 5’ 1”, a young woman among men, a strict vegetarian among meat eaters.
"People worry that because they think vegetarians are not strong enough, they want me to eat meat because they think I'll be physically stronger,” she says. “Mind over matter.”
Bhairavi Desai was born in India and emigrated to North Carolina with her family when she was six. That's where she learned English before moving to Harrison, New Jersey, a few years later.
“I remember sitting on the porch of our building, and saying, ÎHow y’all doing?’ [in a southern accent],” she says. “I would wave to everybody and after a while my dad had to stop me. He would say, ÎI don't think this is how they talk in the north.’”
But fitting in wasn't always so easy for a young Indian girl who wore the traditional chanlow on her forehead.
"I remember this one day in particular just running for my life down the street because there was a group of skinheads who were just chasing myself, and I was with a friend at the time. They were just chasing us and calling me a dothead, and I remember just frantically running and running," she says.
The incident politicized Desai. But she was already pretty politicized.
“I got thrown out of class, it was in eighth grade, because during current events class I had said that the U.S. had no business influencing the elections in Nicaragua,” she says. “The kids loved me. It didn't matter what my position was because they loved the fact that I took on the teacher. I think that was really the foundation of my understanding, in a way, mass-based politics. It was the idea that you can withstand any kind of opposition from people in authority if the masses of people support you.”
That resolve came into play in 1998 when Desai helped create the Taxi Workers Alliance. She immediately battled the notion that a young immigrant woman of color was not the best representative for taxi drivers.
“My response to them is still the same as it is today, which is, that's up to the drivers to decide,” she says. “I work for them. I don't work for anybody else."
One of Desai's challenges has been to unify a work force that speaks more than 100 languages. It became particularly important in the aftermath of 9/11, a time, she says, when asking a driver, "Where are you from?" took on a whole new meaning.
"That phrase basically meant, ÎAre you Muslim? Are you against America? Are you a potential terrorist?’” she says. “That is now what that phrase stands for. So a lot of our Latino members talked about their act of defiance and act of solidarity would be to not answer that question.”
Bhairavi Desai isn't doing this job for the hours, usually noon to midnight and beyond. And the pay? She lives at home with her folks.
But almost 10 years into the job, the passion for the work is unabated, whether she's in the office preparing, meeting with drivers, or going to a hospital to visit an injured cabbie, often in the middle of the night.
“I wonder all the time what it would be like to work just 9 to 5, and maybe get married and have kids and just raise a family. But I look at my friend's who do that, and they also don't have enough time,” she says. “At least the time that I spend, I'm doing it for something that I really love. And I hope that at the end of the day it's going to change many lives.”
- Budd Mishkin