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.
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.
Politicians all love to wave flags and march in parades on Veterans Day, which was last week. But when it comes to supporting bills to help veteran street vendors (like Intros 434 and 435) our friends at City Hall sometimes are not so patriotic.
There are nearly 2,000 US military veterans working on the streets of New York City, all thanks to a 1894 state law recognizing that those who defend our country should at least get to put a 6-foot table on the public sidewalk. News flash: many vets are losing their livelihoods due to $1,000 tickets imposed by the Bloomberg administration. Maybe every Council Member not supporting the bills should have to tell SVP board member Bernard Haynes (pictured here, from his days in Korea) why the $1,000 tickets he got for vending on a subway grate are fair compensation for his heroic service.
There are a whole lot of urban planners, thinkers and writers who care about public space and how its used. In New York, the Department of Transportation has won rave reviews the last few years for creating people-friendly public spaces, with bike lanes and plazas. But rarely do urban planners plan for street vendors. Luckily that is changing. Columbia University’s Urban Planning program spent a whole semester, with our help, studying vendors and preparing an in-depth report (downloadable here) about how the vending rules could be reformed to benefit the public. And last week, as part of Urban Design Week, we co-sponsored a public-space picnic (with Columbia and the Design Trust for Public Space) to demonstrate how legalizing vendors could enliven many desolate plazas, if only there were allowed to work there. Imagine that. Pictures here.