On the Hot Seat: An Interview with John Garvey of the Taxi Rank & File Coalition

Worker Control Poster, Hot Seat 30, October 1974. Taxi Rank & File Coalition.

Worker Control Poster, Hot Seat 30, October 1974. Taxi Rank & File Coalition.

John Garvey is a Brooklyn native and lifelong New York City resident. During the 1970s, he was a leading activist in the Taxi Rank & File Coalition, a group of radical cab drivers determined to fight their bosses and a union leadership they perceived as corrupt and ineffective. Later in life, John worked as an educator in New York City jails and headed the Teacher Academy and Collaborative Programs at the City University of New York, where, among other things, he was instrumental in establishing the CUNY Prep program, which offers out-of-school youth a pathway to college. He is an editor of Insurgent Notes, of Hard Crackers: Chronicles of Everyday Life, and was an editor of Race Traitor, a journal that published between 1993 and 2005 whose motto was “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.”

This interview, conducted by Gotham's Andy Battle, has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You grew up in Sunset Park. How would you describe the neighborhood at mid-century?

The neighborhood, when I grew up, had been virtually entirely Italian and Irish, Catholic and working-class, with a small residue of Scandinavian populations. The other thing is that during my childhood, there was still a relatively steady influx of immigrants from Ireland, some of whom were related to my mother or father. In the small apartment building we lived in, one man worked for the telephone company, I think another worked for Con Edison, my father worked for the subways, another man worked in a local supermarket.

My father and his brother and my grandmother and her husband, they grew up above a bar on Fourth Avenue. But during Prohibition, it was not an open bar, so when you walked in the door, there was kind of a small hallway. There was an old-fashioned peephole, where you could slide it up and they could look to see if you were a cop or not. Now sometimes you probably were a cop and you still got in [laughs]! But the neighborhood didn’t shed too much of its history as it went on.

My father worked for the subways. He worked in the Coney Island shops, which are the shops at the end of one of the lines. I remember going to work with him once, and what I mostly remember is him basically saying “do not step on the third rail” [laughs]. Until 1966, when there was a long strike, and the subway workers’ salaries rose incredibly and very quickly, we could not survive on the one income from him being a mechanic in the subway system. So he always had a second job. He would come home from the shops at four-o’clock, and then we’d eat dinner quickly. We always ate earlier than every other family on the block, because he had to go off to the next job. Just to give you an idea of what a significant change occurred in my family’s fortunes — in 1968, my father, my mother, and my younger sister went on a trip to Ireland. It was kind of inconceivable that they would have ever been able to take a vacation like that ten years earlier.

I think this was very much a cohesive community. Part of it was forged by the centrality of the parish — the church — and the fact that the kids all went to the school there. The church was the center of so many different kinds of activities. I’ve read recently some stuff about gentrification, the kind of communities that are constructed out of gentrification, where they aspire to some of that organic kind of sensibility or sensitivity. It’s not there. It’s not substantial enough, it’s not grounded enough.

Brooklyn, I think, was designed as a somewhat magical urban environment, in the sense that the scale is all right. The housing is mostly not that tall, there are lots of sidewalks, lots of places for kids to play, lots of playgrounds, lots of libraries — I grew up across the street from a library. It was a very easy world to live in. And that remains the case. At a different scale, the grand boulevards of Eastern Parkway and Ocean Parkway are really rather magnificent — they’re not overwhelming and they’re not sterile. On the other hand, if you look at Fourth Avenue in Park Slope, where they’re building one box after another after another, and downtown Brooklyn — it’s like an urban jungle of a different kind.

This is all part of a transformation of New York City from what had been a thoroughly working-class town into something very different. Now I think that New York, in comparison to what’s happened to some other cities around the country, has managed to survive—it’s not devastated like Newark, it’s not devastated like North Philadelphia, it’s not devastated like Baltimore, or Gary, or Detroit. Even though the price of it was really kind of enormous. At least the city is still standing — I don’t know.

You mentioned the significance of the Catholic Church in defining the life of the neighborhood.

The way I divided the neighborhoods up was by parish. I knew every parish boundary. An example of the way Catholicism sort of imprinted itself on you was that one of my sisters, who was younger than I, at one point talked about how there were some kids who went to public school. And she said “we can’t play with them, because they’re public kids.” As if this was really a different population [laughs]!

That was kind of extreme, but your world was constructed around the church. For a while, I was an altar boy, I would go to Mass every single day. My mother certainly went to Mass every day. It’s where you went every other Saturday to confession for no reason in the world [laughs]. It’s where people went to get married, it’s where people went to get buried, it’s where people had their First Communion, their confirmations, and on and on and on. As I grew older, my religious convictions became a little less powerful, although it was not easy to break away. It became a bit suffocating that there was a kind of deep religious orthodoxy that pervaded the neighborhood.

Do you think your experience with Catholicism shaped your political trajectory?

Yes. I think it had a profound effect. Leave aside all of the ways in which Catholicism dominated lives and told people what to do about this, that, and everything. There was a kind of deep-seated commitment — the Church defined itself as “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” The body of Christ, such as it was, was humanity. It was the whole of humanity — the mystical body of Christ. And I think those lessons remained very powerful for me.

I went to Catholic high school in the Park Slope neighborhood. And in 1963, a new teacher at our school — this was after the summer when the church had been bombed in Birmingham and the four little girls were killed — he came in and he sort of dropped his books on the desk. He said “alright, OK, everyone stand up, cross yourself, and let’s say a prayer for those four little girls.” I was just — I had never seen or heard anything like that.

When did you start to become politically active?

So I mentioned this teacher with the story about the Birmingham church bombing. He was decidedly a liberal individual, but different enough from the prevailing orthodoxy that he stood out. And he did some important things. For example, he was the faculty adviser for the high school literary magazine. And that was the first place I ever published. The thing I published was a review of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. That was clearly his suggestion.

Keep in mind that this is the moment of the civil rights movement exploding. And there was the eruption of folk music, of Bob Dylan. When I was a junior or maybe a senior in high school, Bob Dylan released this song “Like a Rolling Stone.” And this kid who played guitar, he basically spent the entire night listening to the song over and over and over again, until he had all the words down the next day. So there was this ferment of people being willing to think beyond where the acceptable had previously been.

In 1965, the year I graduated from high school and went off to college, John Lindsay ran for mayor. Lindsay presented himself and was perceived as — “finally, someone is going to challenge the iron grip of the Democratic machine on the city’s political life.” He was a pretty powerful candidate. So I worked on that campaign a bit. And then as a consequence of that, when he took office — remember, the two things he did when he took office were to force the transit workers to go on strike, which was my father’s part of the story, and the other was to announce the establishment of the Civilian Review Board. And I worked to defend the Civilian Review Board. I would travel back from the Bronx to Brooklyn to hand out flyers in Park Slope, of all neighborhoods. That was not a very popular position, to be in favor of the review board.

The civil rights movement did attract some considerable support from Catholic clergy people and nuns. And that provoked some very serious divisions inside the Catholic community. What it revealed was the white question inside the Catholic question, and that some people were perceived, in the words of our journal, as “race traitors” because they made common cause with the black folks in the South fighting for civil rights. And some people died. A woman named Viola Liuzzo from Detroit had gone down south and was murdered.

I was fortunate enough to have a scholarship to Manhattan College. I didn’t have to pay tuition. But if I was going to live there, I had to pay that and basically told my parents that I would do it — I would figure out how to take care of that. In 1965-66, I knew that it was out of the question for me to ask them to cover the cost of me living away. Keep in mind, it was much less expensive to live away then.

There was one Marxist that I knew of on the faculty at the college. And in the last semester of college I took a course with him on the Frankfurt School — on critical thought. I read Marcuse. And Marcuse just blew me away. I mean, reading One-Dimensional Man, I just felt like all of a sudden I found someone who actually understood the world I had been living in, but not quite able to understand. That was really a defining moment. Marcuse had a way of describing or capturing the relationship between the personal discontent of regular people — what consumed them in their waking or non-waking hours, their unhappiness, their dissatisfaction — with the circumstances of their lives, with the quality of their social connections, and these grand structural forces. It just simply clicked. It made sense.

After college, you made the decision to become a cab driver. What was the basic reason?

I needed a job, and I had a friend whose father was what’s called an owner-driver — he owned his own cab. He told me a little bit about it — it was relatively easy to get a job, you had to take an exam, get your photograph, a check to make sure you didn’t have a criminal record. But they had no idea how well you drove, how well you knew the city.

I was living at the time in Greenpoint — another neighborhood that is no longer what it once was. The first apartment that I lived in after college was a four-room apartment for $83 a month.[1] One thing about driving a cab is you didn’t have to work full-time in order to survive. If you worked three days a week, or especially three nights a week, and if you pushed yourself a bit, worked longer shifts, you could mostly cover your living expenses. You couldn’t live lavishly or anything like that, but it was fine. That gave me an opportunity to do all the political work that I did with the Taxi Rank & File Coalition, but also to pursue a fairly active program of self-education, becoming more intentionally knowledgeable about the history of left-wing politics and stuff like that.

The experience of driving a cab was a very, very important one for me. I got to meet an awful lot of cab drivers. The garage was enormous — it was the largest garage in the city. At any given time, there were probably a couple thousand drivers. At one point I was elected shop steward and so I got another reason to get to know them. And I got to appreciate some things about working-class sensibilities that I had perhaps half-seen before — their curious combination of cynicism, realism, hatred for the bosses, but at the same time mostly resignation.

Between 1971 and 1977, the Taxi & Rank & File Coalition published 44 issues of a newspaper they called The Hot Seat.

Between 1971 and 1977, the Taxi & Rank & File Coalition published 44 issues of a newspaper they called The Hot Seat.

What led to the formation of the Taxi Rank & File Coalition?

Soon after I started driving a cab, there was a strike, and the strike resulted in a catastrophic loss of money for cab drivers because the union committed to fighting for a significant fare increase, which decreased ridership by enormous numbers. They lowered the commission rate for new drivers from forty-nine percent, which is what I got, to forty-two percent. They also initiated a ten-cent per trip cut off the top, supposedly for cab drivers’ benefits. But keep in mind, most cab drivers didn’t get benefits because you had to work full-time, and most people were only working part-time. Another thing that happened was the bosses placed incredible pressure on drivers to keep their mileage low — their bookings high, but their mileage low. Each additional mile that you drove cost them in terms of gas, in terms of the wear and tear on the cars.

So over time, the pressures got to be quite considerable. And people responded. The name of our newspaper was called the Hot Seat. And what the “hot seat” refers to is that the owners installed these electrical contraptions in the back seats of the cabs to make sure that as soon as someone sat down the meter would automatically go on, so you couldn’t ride without the meter being on. It was called “riding the arm,” which means you wouldn’t start the meter. You would just say to people, “OK, I won’t put the meter on, you just give me the regular amount?” Especially out in the boroughs, they would all say yes. What cab drivers would do was they would go to an electrical supply store and get other electrical things to short-circuit the hot seat, so it didn’t go off. So it was a bit of a cat-and-mouse game.

The thing that precipitated the formation of the Taxi Rank & File group was this disastrous strike and the disastrous contract that was announced in 1971. The union held a general meeting in April of 1971 at Manhattan Center over on West 34th Street. And the place erupted. The union leaders were chased off the stage under a barrage of chairs. So then the group slowly coalesced. It was united initially by its opposition to this horrible contract and what was perceived as the corrupt character of the union leadership.

Taxi at the Crossroads, published during a 1974 union election campaign, outlined the problems facing cab drivers and sketched the Coalition's socialist vision for municipal transit.

Taxi at the Crossroads, published during a 1974 union election campaign, outlined the problems facing cab drivers and sketched the Coalition's socialist vision for municipal transit.

Taxi at the Crossroads, published during a 1974 union election campaign, outlined the problems facing cab drivers and sketched the Coalition's socialist vision for municipal transit.

What did the Taxi Rank & File Coalition do?

All sorts of things. Over time, the group stabilized into a core group of somewhere between thirty and forty people, almost all of whom were young people, who had almost all graduated from college, who had in some ways been affected by the ferment of the sixties, and had started driving cabs for a variety of mostly personal reasons, not because they were going to “colonize” the industry or anything like that.[2]

At first, we motivated ourselves and organized our activities around these demands of the contract being reversed, the union being democratized — “throw the bums out.” We ran in garage elections for the shop steward positions. And then the following year there was a leadership election and we contested that. We threw ourselves into the campaign very aggressively. And I think we wound up with somewhere around thirty-something, forty percent of the vote for President. Which was considered to be amazing. Van Arsdale was who we were running against—the most powerful labor leader in the city. We didn’t scare him, but we were not embarrassed.

We established study groups. In 1972, Stanley Aronowitz published False Promises.[3] I had gotten to know Stanley, maybe at a place called the Free Association, which he had been involved in. I invited him to come and speak to the group about the book. That book did not quite advocate an extra-union kind of politics but it certainly had lots of very critical things to say about the unions.

There was an array of radical publications at the time that was pretty amazing. A magazine like Radical America appeared monthly. Liberationappeared monthly. Monthly Review appeared monthly, obviously. There was a group of people we knew quite well called the Liberation News Service, which was like a wire service for the radical press. This is before computers. They would send out a news packet of twenty, thirty, forty pages, with photographs, about stories from all over the country to be picked up and used all over the country.

Each year, we would have May Day picnics in Prospect Park. At the picnics we would have a “Revolutionary Run for Fun.” At one point, Robert Scull, an owner of a particular fleet, had accumulated an enormous collection of modern art. He was selling them at an auction at one of the fancy galleries on the Upper East Side. We organized a protest where we demanded “justice for cab drivers and justice for artists.” “Scull robs the cab drivers to buy the artists, and the artists work, and then he robs from them so he can sell for more money.” We actually got into Time magazine with that one.

We were doing these health projects. We had a regular health column. There was an organization called Health PAC — the Health Policy Advisory Committee, I think — that published a very fine journal critical of the health care system. And doctors who were associated with that came to work at our health fairs. We would get a city health bus and drive it to garages and open up in front of the garage and take people’s blood pressure, test their lead levels, stuff like that. And then give out information about different health issues — about asbestos, early on. So I think we had a lot of pretty powerful connections, some of which were personal connections that morphed into political connections.

During the 1970s, taxi owners and union leaders sought to blame the industry's problems on 'gypsy' cabs, or unlicensed taxis operating mainly in African American and Latino neighborhoods. The Taxi Rank & File Coalition rejected these arguments as 'racist propaganda' and argued that drivers of all kinds should unite.

During the 1970s, taxi owners and union leaders sought to blame the industry's problems on 'gypsy' cabs, or unlicensed taxis operating mainly in African American and Latino neighborhoods. The Taxi Rank & File Coalition rejected these arguments as 'racist propaganda' and argued that drivers of all kinds should unite.

During the 1970s, taxi owners and union leaders sought to blame the industry's problems on 'gypsy' cabs, or unlicensed taxis operating mainly in African American and Latino neighborhoods. The Taxi Rank & File Coalition rejected these arguments as 'racist propaganda' and argued that drivers of all kinds should unite.

There was a conviction on the part of some of us that if you were doing this work as a cab driver because you considered yourself a socialist, and wanted in some ways to contribute to the possibility of a socialist transformation, you had to stop hiding that. You had to start saying it. I don’t think we shocked people as much as people thought we might have. Here’s a story. The way the cabs work is that at the end of the day shift, roughly from three-o’clock to six-o’clock, the day drivers come in and the cars are gassed up and then the night drivers are dispatched. And you wait there in the shape-up room. One day I got into this really serious fight with this older driver. It almost came to blows. I’m glad it didn’t — he probably would have knocked me out. We had to be pulled apart. I think it must have been about something having to do with the gypsies — defending the gypsies.[4]

Anyway, a week or so later, he’s a day driver, he drives in, and I get assigned to his cab, just by coincidence. So I get in the cab, and remember this is Long Island City, so I’m heading towards the Queensboro Bridge, and driving right into the sun. And I flipped down the visor. And inside a rubber band on the inside of the visor is all of his money from the shift. Cab drivers did that a lot — it was a convenient place to put the money instead of putting it in your pocket.

So I turned around, drove back to the garage. He was there. I said “here, you were probably worried.” And he said “no — I knew it was you.” So somehow me being willing to fight him on that other issue suggested to him that there was more to me that was worth some credit. And I think we did a lot of that. That was not unique to me. I think that we conveyed to a lot of cab drivers a sense of our integrity and our commitment to a better world.

You left taxi work in 1978. What has happened since then?

I think it’s probably the case that the current predicament of yellow cab drivers is worse by far than it was for us in the 1970s. One of the last battles our taxi rank and file group fought was against leasing, or more colloquially, “horse-hiring.” We lost. What that meant was that the basis of being paid would switch from a commission basis to a lease basis, where the driver would pay a certain amount of money in order to get the cab and to use it. And typically would have to pay for his or her own gas. So what that meant is you would have to go out and for the first four or five hours, you didn’t make a penny — you were just making back what you had already paid to get the car in the first place. You really had to work harder and longer in order to make about as much money as was made with less difficulty some time earlier.

Back then, the fleets were hampered by the fact that there was no way they could drive up the price of their medallions, because it was pretty much a closed market. They developed a practice of setting up these two-cab corporations — mini-corporations for insurance purposes. They then seized upon that fiction to sell off mini-fleets in units of two. What it meant is that more individuals could buy a medallion, and that drove the price of the medallions sky-high over a period of time — just extraordinarily high. And these people can only buy a medallion by financing — Michael Cohen, that’s a little bit of the back story for him.[5]You had to finance it, like a mortgage. It’s an incredible amount of money.

Where it gets painful — well, it was always painful, but now excruciatingly painful — is with the advent of Uber, Lyft, and the green cabs, and the relative legalization of what used to be called the gypsy cab industry, the car services in the neighborhoods, the business that’s left for the yellow cabs proper is basically Midtown Manhattan, Wall Street, the Theater District, the tourist areas. That’s all that’s left for the yellow cabs. And it’s the same number of cabs.

Once all of that other stuff emerged, the value of the medallions just collapsed. And so last year, I think there were seven or eight cab drivers who killed themselves. Back in the seventies, it was dangerous for cab drivers because of robberies or sometimes murders of cab drivers — that was not insignificant. But the everyday conditions, I think, were not as intense as they are now.

The owners pursued a strategy of, one the one hand, introducing tiered systems of pay inside the industry — reducing the percent from forty-nine percent to forty-two percent. They shifted certain kinds of benefits, like health care, from being covered by the revenue of the owner onto drivers by that dime rip-off. And then the financialization of the industry by selling off to mini-fleets, artificially driving up the value of the medallions as a way both of enriching themselves but also of becoming another weapon in their arsenal — “if you don’t go along with what we want, there’s no alternative but for us to sell more mini-fleets off and to have fewer medallions and fewer jobs.”

Now if you think about it, that’s not so far away from what a lot of industries started to do around the same time. I don’t know if they had sophisticated advisors who were giving them this advice or if they just stumbled upon it, but wow. And I think in some ways we were some of the first victims of that emerging corporate class strategy.

There’s a way in which New York looks like the land of glamor and glitz. Well it is part of New York — people who appear to have all the money they need and are busy, going here, there, and everywhere. But there’s a not-quite-visible New York, which is all of the people who don’t live in that world. For example, if you’re someone who works at Kennedy Airport, and your shift starts at six-o’clock, you have to get up at three-thirty in the morning to figure out a way to get there in time for the shift to start, and then you have another two-and-a-half-hour shift at the end to get back home. And no one knows that. No one knows when you go into banks that almost all of the people behind the counters are part-time workers.

The relative obscurity of the daily lives and the daily challenges faced by lots of ordinary people about paying their rent, taking care of their kids, worrying about their kids, is really a very, very severe one. I think the cab drivers’ story is another variant of that. If you look only on the surface, you only see the surface.

Further Reading:

The website of the Taxi Rank & File Coalition contains photographs, reflections, digitized issues of the Hot Seat newspaper, and the Taxi at the Crossroads pamphlet outlining the group’s vision for the industry.

John Garvey, “From Catholicism and the Working class to Communism and Marx,” Insurgent Notes, May 2018.

Notes

[1] Adjusted for inflation, $83 in 1970 is around $550 in 2019 dollars. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Greenpoint in January 2019 is just under $2,600. See “MNS Brooklyn Market Rental Report,” January 2019, http://www.mns.com/pdf/brooklyn_market_report_jan_19.pdf.

[2] The term “colonize” refers to the practice of political militants entering jobs with the express purpose of influencing workers’ struggles.

[3] Stanley Aronowitz, False Promises: The Shaping of American Working Class Consciousness (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973).

[4] “Gypsy” cabs were unlicensed taxis operating mainly in working-class African American and Latino neighborhoods. On the politics of gypsy cabs, see John Gordon, “In the Hot Seat: The Story of the New York Taxi Rank and File Coalition,” Radical America Vol. 17, No. 5 (September-October 1983), 27–43.

[5] Michael Cohen is former personal counsel to President Donald Trump. Beginning in the 1990s, Cohen owned hundreds of taxi medallions. In 2018, Cohen pled guilty to charges of tax fraud, bank fraud, campaign finance violations, and perjury.