Gotham Government Relations 2 and ½ Year Campaign to Rein in Uber and Get Justice for Taxi Medallion Owners:
An Anatomy of a Victory
NYC is now poised to become the first city in the United States to control the unchecked and under-regulated expansion of Uber. Immigrant medallion owners, decimated by the lack of political will are now positioned to achieve protection for their investments and a measure of regulatory fairness. Only three short years away from what appeared to be Uber’s total dominance of NYC politics, we are experiencing a real sea change. This change, as they say, is no accident. It is the result of a well-planned campaign by Gotham Government Relations (GGR) to confront Uber and its enablers.
A little over two years ago, GGR established New Yorkers for Equal Transportation Access-a coalition of immigrant individual taxi medallion owners and advocates for people with disabilities. (http://nyeta.org/) When we began, Uber and its imitators were riding high in NYC. No one-at that includes almost all of NY’s elected officials, and all of the city’s major media outlets-gave a rat’s ass about these disparaged and discriminated against groups. Uber was unblemished and unbeatable.
Mayor de Blasio, after trying to advocate for a cap on the number of for hire vehicles, had been unceremoniously bitch-slapped by a clever but disingenuous media campaign that argued that the progressive mayor was a captive of something called the “Taxi Cartel.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/07/22/uber-triumphs-as-new-york-city-officials-abandon-plans-to-limit-transportation-company/?utm_term=.ec790dd339f8) The then Speaker of the City Council-someone who claimed to be a staunch supporter of immigrants-refused to even meet with any of the immigrant medallion owners who had worked so hard and invested so much in NYC-only to be abandoned by its leaders. (https://nypost.com/2016/07/05/city-lets-uber-and-lyft-cannibalize-the-american-dream/ )
How bad was this abandonment? NYETA held a coalition rally at City Hall that was attended by close to 500 taxi medallion owners and scores of wheelchair users and their advocates. Only one council member (CM Fernando Cabrera) bothered to show up-and media attention was relatively sparse. (http://www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/transit/2017/05/3/taxi-medallion-owners-tee-off-on-mayor-at-city-hall-rally.html; https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=10&v=zv7ZK4y94ys )
What GGR and NYETA did was to upend the multi-million-dollar fairy tale of the $60 billion corporate predator-moving the individual immigrant medallion owners front and center as the face of the taxi industry. Human faces were put on the collapsing value of the taxi medallions in news stories and Op-ed like these:
“I am one of over 6,000 medallion owners who have been betrayed by New York City. I have been struggling to pay my mortgage, buy food and take care of my medical bills. I’m struggling to take care of my elderly mother whose savings allowed me to buy my medallion. I am facing a crisis unlike I have ever known. Why is this happening? It’s very simple. We have been defrauded by our own leaders.” (http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20160621/OPINION/160629967/why-taxi-medallion-owners-feel-betrayed-by-nyc
“When Nino Hervias scraped together the down payment for a coveted yellow taxi medallion in 1991, he thought he had it all figured out. Sure the hours were grueling, the city streets crime-ridden and the economy bleak — but he knew he was investing in his family’s future and believed it would afford him a comfortable retirement down the road…But 25 years after making the purchase, that dream has become a nightmare.” (https://nypost.com/2016/07/05/city-lets-uber-and-lyft-cannibalize-the-american-dream/ )
“Over the past four years, the rise of Uber and other for-hire app-based car services — and the failure of New York City to properly regulate their operations — has decimated the value of taxi medallions. As medallion owners who have played by the city’s myriad rules, we have watched as upstart competitors have been allowed to operate under their own set of rules, creating the most unlevel of playing fields.
The city’s negligence has also had some grave consequences for our common quality of life. Since regulators created very few barriers to entry for these newcomers, they of course stormed, in the tens of thousands, right into the heart of the city’s central business district, helping slow traffic to a crawl. (http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/restrict-uber-exempt-taxis-article-1.3762851 )
The current demonstration of newly found political courage, therefore, is not accidental. It is the culmination of a grass roots lobbying campaign that flipped the Uber script and elevated the immigrant medallion owners and people with disabilities to the forefront of this political battle against a hedge fund driven multi-national giant. Slowly but surely as medallion values shrunk, the plight of the medallion owners began to rise in the media depiction of the struggle. (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/10/nyregion/new-york-taxi-medallions-uber.html?_r=0 )
The strategic importance of changing the taxi cartel narrative cannot be understated. In doing so, GGR relied on the three decades of grass roots lobbying expertise that our veteran consultant Richard Lipsky brought to this issue. Richard had led the fights against Giuliani’s megastore plan, the attempts by Pathmark and Costco to build superstores and hurt the local immigrant supermarket and bodega owners, and of course helped lead the successful efforts to prevent Walmart’s entry into NYC. (http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9904E7DD1F38F932A1575AC0A961958260&pagewanted=all; http://www.gothamgazette.com/article/fea/20050808/202/1508; (http://www.nytimes.com/2000/07/16/nyregion/following-up-what-price-costco-too-high-in-manhattan.html ; http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/25/nyregion/25walmart.html?scp=2&sq=wal-mart%20on%20staten%20island&st=cse)
Slowly but surely our campaign began to get traction-aided by a slew of lawsuits that we had filed on behalf of wheelchair users and women who had been abused by Uber drivers. In each of these cases, the refusal of the company to cooperate with the NYPD bolstered the argument that Uber was no White Knight. http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/uber-driver-sued-woman-allegedly-jumped-moving-car-article-1.2820441; http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/disabled-brooklyn-woman-slams-uber-accessibilty-lawsuit-article-1.2742076; http://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/Uber-Assault-Investigation-Driver-Victim-New-York-Police–396162161.html )
Successful campaigns, however, also need outside events that help to advance the goals of its organizers. In our case, we were fortunate that new leadership took the reins at the City Council. The Council, led by Speaker Cory Johnson, and CM Ruben Diaz Sr., chair of the newly created For Hire Vehicle Committee, had the courage to take on the $60 billion corporate predator with legislation that will create a level playing field and rein in Uber’s corporate greed-catching Uber flatfooted by surprise. (http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20180727/POLITICS/180729901/uber-lyft-on-defense-as-city-council-fast-tracks-regulation)
The political leaders were also given another important issue that made the fight against Uber reflect not only a fight for justice for struggling taxi drivers and owners, but one on behalf of all New Yorkers. While NYETA was busy at the grass roots level organizing its constituencies, politicians and elites began to focus on NYC’s congestion crisis. What they soon saw was that the Uber phenomenon was at the root of the problem-costing city business around $20 billion! each and every year. As one media outlet underscored:
“One of the transportation gurus who worked on a controversial traffic study released in January 2016 has done another one, this time reaching the opposite conclusion. Bruce Schaller found that app-based vehicle trips have tripled since the earlier analysis concluded that Uber, Lyft et al had little impact on Manhattan traffic. Schaller says the new findings call for policy changes to rein in the growth of for-hire vehicles and steer New Yorkers back to mass transit. The addition of 600 million miles of driving citywide has primarily occurred in congested areas of Manhattan and western Queens and Brooklyn, the consultant found. He did the new study on his own, not for a client.” February, 27, 2017; (http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20170310/TRANSPORTATION/170319992/new-yorkers-likely-abandoning-public-transit-for-uber-lyft-gett-via)
Campaigns are fueled by injustice but are given even more impetus when the general public is also impacted. New Yorkers, gridlocked and frustrated, and peeved environmentalists upset by the traffic mess, became part of the “we’ve got to do something” chorus. They now also had skin in the game.
And then came tragedy. The declining fortunes of taxi drivers and medallion owners was a combustible situation that finally erupted in unspeakable misfortune as 6 drivers and owners committed suicide in the span of four months. What NYETA had been saying for three years now became a tragic reality. The collapse of NYC taxis was literally killing people-and the entire media and political establishment could no longer avert their eyes any longer. http://abc7ny.com/travel/taxi-drivers-hold-rally-after-5th-suicide-in-5-months/3535741/; http://pix11.com/2018/05/29/taxi-drivers-rally-outside-city-hall-after-string-of-driver-suicides/; http://www.foxnews.com/tech/2018/05/30/string-new-york-taxi-driver-suicides-raise-concerns-as-uber-lyft-proliferate.html; https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/shadow-uber-s-rise-taxi-driver-suicides-leave-cabbies-shaken-n879281
A perfect storm? While all of these factors were necessary, they would not have been sufficient without the political will to craft a legislative solution. Led by the iconoclastic, cowboy hat wearing Reverend Diaz and his counsel Christopher Lynn, legislation began to take shape-bills that would eventually gain the support of Speaker Johnson, who batted away all opposition saying that the time had come to rein in Uber. (https://www.wsj.com/articles/city-council-moves-closer-to-putting-brakes-on-uber-expansion-1533153253?tesla=y )
Yet, in spite of all the hard work in the trenches by Diaz and Lynn, the real impact of the legislation they crafted was not fully appreciated by a media fixated on the “Uber cap” bill sponsored by CM Levin. (https://www.politico.com/states/new-york/albany/story/2018/07/26/council-to-reintroduce-uber-cap-531860) While the cap bill has great cachet because of what happened three years ago, it is Diaz’s Intro 838 that will be an Uber Barium enema-forcing the company to subsume its business model to the city’s rules, and not the other way around.
The legislative victory, however, is just the first step. Even though, spending a fraction of what Uber and Lyft spent, we were able to secure this initial win, we know that our opponents are not giving up. (https://nypost.com/2018/08/04/ride-sharing-companies-spent-over-1m-lobbying-in-nyc/)
It is now up to all of us to ensure that the beleaguered Taxi and Limousine Commission crafts regulations pursuant to the huge legislative mandate it has been given. The passage of the legislation and the signing of the bills by the mayor is an important first step but much more hard work lies ahead. GGR is ready for the next phase because we will never underestimate the corporate power of our adversaries.