NYC taxi drivers convoy to Minnesota to protest Edina investor's HQ

28 March 2022

More than a dozen New York City cabdrivers drove 1,200 miles to Minnesota to talk with an Edina-based investment firm that they say refuses to relieve loan debt for costly medallions, the permit to operate a taxi in the big city.

“Our journey has been really worth it so far,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance union. “We’re very hopeful at this point.”

Becoming a cabbie in New York usually means borrowing tens of thousands of dollars for a medallion to be a licensed cabdriver. With their business crushed by ride-hailing apps in recent years, this crippling debt resulted in cabbie suicides and a two-week hunger strike that resulted in the city’s $65 million medallion-relief program. Now the fight has made its way to Minnesota, right off the intersection of 50th and France.

The union had said O’Brien-Staley Partners, headquartered in Edina, wouldn’t participate in a new supplemental program to lower monthly payments and medallion-loan debt. Desai said that the union is in discussions with O’Brien-Staley and that the trip has been illuminating because “we realize there is a mutual interest to work things out.”

“It’s the first time we’ve had serious discussions with them over the past two years,” she said. “We want a global solution that will relieve all the drivers from this crushing debt.”

The group of 18 cabbies had planned to camp out in their cabs overnight outside O’Brien-Staley until Tuesday evening for a 24-hour picket. But en route to Edina, Desai said the two parties found “common goals to help rebuild the lives of cabdrivers and stabilize our iconic industry.” They made a decision as a group to pull over and negotiate an hour outside of Edina and not follow through with the picket in order to continue negotiations.

The union is asking O’Brien-Staley to stop seizing medallions and drivers’ assets. It also calls on the investor to join the supplemental-relief program, which includes $30,000 grants, as other lenders have agreed to restructure thousands of loans. The union said the average medallion debt of $550,000 will drop to $170,000 under New York City’s program, and monthly medallion payments will also decrease.

Desai said lenders used predatory tactics, and loans for medallions were exploitative and often targeted immigrant drivers who couldn’t afford the inflated price of medallions that skyrocketed and then crashed when New York City allowed Uber and Lyft into the market unregulated.

The union claims O’Brien-Staley sold medallions for undisclosed amounts and sued cabbies for original balances as high as $400,000. It alleges that the firm hired a “repo man” to shake down cabbies and seize medallions, meters and vehicle plates.

“These assertions are really wrong,” said O’Brien-Staley CEO E. Gerald O’Brien II in a statement to the Star Tribune.

O’Brien said he hasn’t seen the written details of the supplemental program and “It’s hard for any business to pre-commit to something that doesn’t exist yet.”

O’Brien said his company has actively participated in the relief program since its inception Sept. 25, and once the supplemental-relief program has been fully enacted, “it will be a welcome addition to OSP servicers’ hardship accommodation process.”

Of the nearly 13,600 taxi medallions in New York City, O’Brien said the company owns 2% of market share, which includes loans for 323 taxi medallions.

“We think it’s important that the ultimate plan accommodates weekly payments via auto-debit [not just monthly] and that it prioritizes borrowers who are currently driving their cabs and making some minimal payments on their loans over others who aren’t driving or are just speculating on medallion values going up,” O’Brien wrote in his statement. “Maybe the draft already includes these elements, we don’t know, we haven’t seen anything in writing.”

Medallion relief has so far assisted 263 medallion owners, with the city disbursing about $5.3 million in grant funds and reducing nearly $37 million in debt.

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