Labor

This Cab Driver's Suicide Should Haunt Everybody in the Gig Economy

Doug Schifter's demise lays bare the devastation wrought by "disruptors" like Uber.

Photo Credit: cla78 / Shutterstock

Doug Schifter drove a livery cab for most of his adult life. Over nearly four decades, he traveled more than five million miles, through five hurricanes and 50 snowstorms. He serviced celebrities and regular Joes alike; his cab was his livelihood.

On Monday morning, Schifter stood before City Hall, placed a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger. Prior to his suicide, he published a lengthy post on Facebook decrying the precariousness of his employment and the total failure of our politicians—specifically New York City mayors Michael R. Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio, as well as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo—to remedy it.

"I have been financially ruined because three politicians destroyed my industry and livelihood and Corporate NY stole my services at rates far below fair levels," he wrote. "I worked 100-120 consecutive hours almost every week for the past fourteen plus years. When the industry started in 1981, I averaged 40-50 hours. I cannot survive any longer with working 120 hours! I am not a Slave [sic] and I refuse to be one."

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Labor conditions like Schifter's have become chillingly common in the gig economy. According to the New York Times, the gross annual bookings for full-time yellow-cab drivers fell from $88,000 in 2013 to $69,000 in 2016. Five years ago, there were approximately 47,000 vehicles for hire across the city. Today that figure stands at 100,000, as many as two-thirds operated by Uber, increasing competition and driving down wages in a race to the bottom.

Meanwhile drivers who took out loans to purchase medallions, which grant them the right to operate a taxi in New York City, increasingly find themselves buried in debt due to the depreciating returns. As Bhairavi Desai, the executive director for the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, informs the Times, many face bankruptcies, foreclosures and eviction notices, not to mention homelessness and depression. “Half my heart is just crushed,’’ she says, “and the other half is on fire.”

Another danger looms on the horizon, which threatens to complete the economic devastation Silicon Valley has already begun. Within five to 10 years, Uber hopes to introduce driverless cars, another market "disruption" that is expected to put countless humans out of work. Lawrence Katz, a labor economist at Harvard University, estimates as many as 5 million drivers could lose their jobs.

“Our people see this as a threat, and we know it’s closer than we realize,” Desai told the American Prospect in April last year. “These are workers on the margins, with language issues and low wages. Drivers are an older workforce. It’s people who are mainly in their forties and fifties and older. It’s going to be really hard to relocate these people within the economy.”

No one understood this more acutely than Doug Schifter. 

"I hope with the public sacrifice I make now that some attention to the plight of the drivers and the people will be done to save them and it will have not have been in vain and also that we must stop what is happening to Government while we still have one we can vote out," he concluded on Facebook. "It is too late for me so who is next? Maybe you and yours? Everyone needs to fix this now." 

H/T New York Times

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Jacob Sugarman is the acting managing editor at Truthdig.