We’ll say it – organizing street vendors can be isolating. Vendors are often not seen as workers, and since they have never (really) been organized until SVP came along in 2001, people don’t know what box to put them in.
That is one reason we are so lucky to be a member of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a coalition started in 2009 to do exactly what we need — make connections with other groups who are doing similar work. Here, the common theme is the food chain; FCWA organizes along the entire food system, from the farm where our food is picked to the distribution center where it is shipped to the restaurant (or food cart) where it is eventually served to us. With so many people caring about where their food is grown (but often not how the people who pick and serve it are treated) this issue seems ripe for progress.
We also need inspiration. So last weekend, two of our vendor leaders (Pauli and Mohammed Altaf) got to go to sunny Miami for the FCWA annual retreat. We took a trip to the fields, learning about how the Florida Farmworker Association organizes workers around pesticide use and other issues. We also took part in a big march against Publix Supermarkets, who are still refusing to the pay the Coalition for Immokalee Workers an extra penny a pound.
Sometimes intellectuals like to sip wine and debate whether street vendors are “workers” or “self-employed” people or “entrepreneurs.” We say yes to all of the above!
Thankfully the US labor movement is starting to realize that work is changing and these intellectual distinctions don’t make much sense. People who go to work every day, and get screwed, need to stick together. In recent years, organized labor has forged important new alliances with taxi drivers and domestic workers, for example.
And the tent is getting bigger. The Murphy Center for Labor Studies, a prestigious institute at CUNY, invited us to kick off our newest “Lift the Caps” campaign and hold a panel discussion this week entitled Taking It to the Streets! Street Vendors in the New Labor Economy. What a morning! The panel was moderated by Ed Ott, who just released New Labor in New York, an important book that includes a chapter on street vendors. The Speaker of the City Council — Melissa Mark Viverito — gave the opening remarks. And many allies in labor forged new ties to workers who happen to sell food on our streets and sidewalks.
Pictures from the event are here and (if you are really serious) you can watch the full video here.
For weeks, everyone in town has been excited — the Superbowl is coming to New York (or at least New Jersey) this year!
As part of the celebration, the city created Super Bowl Boulevard — a big street fair — along a 13-block stretch of Broadway in midtown. Pro football is big business, so it was no surprise to see huge corporate tents, football-themed games, video projection shows and even a toboggan ride! Great way to get people excited before the big game!
However, as we so often see, when big corporations come to town, they kick out the little guys. In this case, vendors who have worked for years on those blocks have now been ticketed and evicted from their locations. Instead of having a chance to share in the proceeds (estimated to be $500 to $600 million) from this big event, they are losing money! The local business group didn’t even notify the vendors, much less work with the police to find spaces for them to work in the meantime.
Out of work, a group of the evicted vendors decided to hold a press conference today to express their outrage. A lot of media are in town — we got good coverage. The vendors got to vent. And hopefully next time a mega-event comes to town, our city leaders will include not just the multinational corporations, but the neighborhood small businesses who are there every day.
We were quietly getting ready for a new Mayor last month when we heard the Parks Department was kicking hot dog vendors out of Washington Square Park! Why? Not due to “congestion” (like they bogusly claimed at Union Square) but because rich people, heiresses, and celebrities from the new Washington Square Park Conservancy thought the vendors were “unsightly.” Funny, but we’d use words like “offensive,” “elitist” and “racist” instead. Either way, we don’t have enough people to be at every Community Board meeting where decisions about public space like this are made. Thank God a local blogger activist was on the case!
Together with neighbors concerned about private control of their public park, parks advocates, and the affected vendors themselves, SVP held a rally and press conference to draw attention to the issue.
As usual, direct action gets the goods! Just after the new year, the Parks Department reversed course, announcing that the vendors could stay. A huge victory for people who care about immigrant workers and public space. And a good start to a new year, and hopefully a new era, for vendors in NYC!
Working with vendors is so unique that it can sometimes leave us isolated from other movements. But together we are all stronger, right? And lately, more than ever, we have been working in solidarity with other groups. This year, we joined the Food Chain Workers Alliance, and were proud to stand with FCWA and Brandworkers recently in their support of the workers at Amy’s Bread Company in Queens. Good food and good treatment of workers should go together!
We also recently collaborated with the NY Civil Engagement Table on an excellent NYC Council Speaker Forum, where they even asked a question about street vendors! And to top it off, this week we stood in solidarity with Chinese Staff Workers Association, who are working to organize restaurant delivery workers, a hard-working immigrant population that often overlaps (and faces similar race and class-motivated targeting) with SVP’s own members.
Of all the patches that make up the quilt that is vending in NYC, veterans are one of the most beautiful. U.S. military vets have been granted a special license under New York State Law since the 1890s, when it was discovered that vending provides a flexible means of self-employment, especially for the disabled. In other words, after serving our country, the least we can give you is the right to set up a table on the public sidewalk!
That state law remains, and as a result about 10% of vendors in NYC are military vets, including many SVP members. To recognize them, we marched today in America’s Parade up 5th Avenue, about 30 vendors and four vehicles (including an ice-cream truck!) strong. Thank you, veteran vendors, for your service to our country! May the police and politicians show their respect today and every day of the year.
Remember what we wrote a couple weeks ago about vendors and videotaping the police? Well, one brave ice cream vendor did capture his encounter this summer with an especially rude NYPD officer. It’s pretty powerful.
We wrote a blog post about it, posted it on Youtube and it went viral, getting picked up by various web sites and papers around the world and making the nightly news. Apart from raising attention about the shocking way vendors are disrespected, hopefully the video will help spur reforms at the higher levels of the NYPD.
Because vendors are often accused of peccadillos like vending from a table an inch too high, we train our members every day in how to make photos or videos of their interactions with police. That’s often the only way the tickets will get dismissed. And it’s not just us – there is a whole CopWatch movement that aims to record police actions and thereby hold them accountable.
But easier said that done! Grabbing your iphone and turning it on the police is difficult for anyone to do, especially immigrant vendors who are vulnerable to repeat abuse. Often the officers don’t like it. And sometimes they even arrest you, which is what SVP director Sean Basinski discovered last month when he recorded a vendor/police interaction. To bring attention to this issue (and one fairly easy solution — requiring the police to wear body cameras, as other cities do) we held a press conference today in front of the Midtown North Precinct where Sean was arrested. As the police looked on from across the street, vendors spoke about their experiences and gave the NYPD notice that they should expect much more filming in the future.
People still ask, “the Vendy Awards — that’s you guys?” Heck yes. Who else was promoting mobile vendors years before the Kogi truck was even a vision in Roy Choi’s head? SVP started the Vendys in 2005 to demonstrate that some of the best chefs in the world work on the street. After years of growth, the event now funds much of our yearly budget. And if that was not enough, the Vendys have become a vehicle for us to collaborate with vendor groups across the country.
Last weekend’s 3rd Annual Philly Vendys, held in beautiful and historic Penn Treaty Park in conjunction with the Food Trust, were a huge success. The main category winners were Nabil and Hined Akkeh (left), Syrian-born owners of the King of Falafel, who have been serving up delicious Middle Eastern food near Philadelphia City Hall for 25 years. Elevating the hard work of people like Nabil and Hined is what the Vendys are all about. Next up is Saturday, September 7th in Brooklyn — get your tickets here.
Recently, the NYC Department of Transportation has unveiled an exciting new “bike share” program, similar to those that have been successful in Washington DC, Paris, and other cities. This is exciting for street vendors — anything that makes the sidewalks safer and the air cleaner is good for vendors, who have to breathe car exhaust and diesel fumes all day.
Just one problem: DOT did not pay any mind to vendors who would be displaced by the bike share stations! On Liberty Street in Lower Manhattan, five carts (employing 15 families) came to work one morning to find this (photo, left) in their spots. Bikes are good, but they should not displace immigrant small business owners who have no place else to go. So far we’ve asked for meetings, held a press conference, made a video, and done a picket outside DOT headquarters. All to get a bike docking station moved five feet! We’ll keep fighting until city planners and bureaucrats think about the marginalized groups, like vendors, they are affecting with their decisions!