ACLS Emerging Voices Fellowships, 2022

PhD Field of Study

PhD, History, University of Rochester

Appointed As

The Davis Humanities Institute Postdoctoral Fellow


University of California, Davis

PhD Granting Institution

University of Rochester

Dissertation Abstract

"Cab Fair: Taxi Driver Activism and South Asian Immigrant Identities"

This work tells the story of working-class South Asian labor organizing. It begins with a series of labor
strikes in 1998 led by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, the largest union of cab drivers in the New York
City. “Cab Fair” analyzes the historical factors that led ninety-eight percent of the cab industry to mobilize its
workforce. It examines why South Asian migrants settled in the city, with whom they interacted, and how they
became amenable to organizing within a transient, non-traditional workforce. Studying the labor of cab drivers
reveals how South Asian solidarity in the city was a departure from traditional labor organizing. What
distinguished the NYTWA from the leadership and agendas of mainstream organizers was its driver-led labor
movement. Instead of conforming to a single American worker identity, cab drivers in New York City drew
upon their cultures and ethnicities to infuse their labor with immigrant identity politics. In doing so, they formed
an alliance that radically altered the cab industry at the end of the century and beyond.
“Cab Fair” places the 1998 strike in the context of earlier collaborative efforts among taxi drivers across
working-class industries in the city. This work contends that the seeds for a South Asian workers coalition were
sewn in the 1980s and early 1990s. The meaning of “South Asian” (referring to Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and
Indians) was negotiated and re-negotiated in ethnically dominated neighborhoods and in spaces such as
restaurants, through cultural celebrations and religious practices, and in the acts of philanthropy and the
consumption of literature. This work also considers the complexities surrounding the “model minority” myth in
America and anti-Asian violence. It argues that early efforts to mobilize in the 1990s were the first steps to
achieving a South Asian coalition, distinct from “model minorities” and distant from inter-ethnic racism.
Although a male-dominated industry, this research demonstrates that this is not necessarily a maledriven
history. Taxi drivers, initially South Asian male immigrants, followed the leadership of NYTWA
founder, Bhairavi Desai. Her success as a young woman organizer challenges assumptions about the dominance
and rigidity of South Asian patriarchal structures. Desai’s ability to organize a male-dominated industry
suggests that these cab drivers disregarded traditional South Asian gender norms to form a coalition powerful
enough to confront the city’s policymakers. Her leadership also allowed drivers to stake a claim for South Asian
workers’ inclusion in the history of modern American labor.


ACLS Leading Edge Fellowships, Summer 2021


Appointed to One Fair Wage for the project “Restaurant Workers and Sexual Harassment Under COVID.”

PhD field of study

PhD, History, University of Rochester

Position Description

One Fair Wage (OFW) is a national organization that is engaging workers, employers and consumers to raise wages and working conditions in the service sector and end all subminimum wages in the United States. One Fair Wage engages workers, employers and consumers to participate in policy advocacy, industry engagement, and narrative shift efforts to advance policy that would require all employers to pay the full minimum wage with fair, non-discriminatory tips on top, lifting millions of tipped and subminimum wage workers nationally out of poverty. In One Fair Wage’s research during the COVID-19 pandemic, workers reported harassment and increased health risk and public health responsibilities for far less income. The Leading Edge Fellow will conduct pilot research using this existing data, and lead a larger survey project, collecting information from up to 500 workers to generate policy briefs, editorial writing, and a report on the experiences of workers in 2021. With support from OFW’s staff, the Fellow will organize a convening to accompany the report, bringing together workers, advocates, and policymakers for dialogue.