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.
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.
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!
Victory does not come easy. But perseverance pays off. After years of fighting against Mayor Bloomberg and his $1,000 fines on hard-working street vendors, we won. By a final City Council vote of 44-3, the maximum vendor fine for minor offenses was reduced to $500. Lesser fines will also decrease, since the city will now penalize as repeat offenders only those who repeat the same offense.
As Hugh Hogan from the North Star Fund recognized, this was a historic victory for working people and immigrants in New York City. Though we did not get everything we wanted, we won great respect for our unity, advocacy, and tenaciousness. We move toward the future. For now, thanks to everyone who worked so hard to help make this campaign a success.
More than 90% of NYC street vendors are immigrants, so our community has a huge stake in the immigration reform debate currently brewing in Washington. While we may not be in the room with the unions, the chambers of commerce, and the “gang of 8,” we can still have a big presence in the streets. So we have. We marched on Washington last month and rallied at the May Day festivities in NYC with many of our friends and allies. We’ve also talked to many of our members about how not to get scammed by “immigration lawyers” during this hopeful time.
We’ve also been throwing our support behind the exciting bill, introduced by Council Member Danny Dromm, that would give all NYC residents (citizen, green card holder, or nothing at all) the right to vote in municipal elections. This bill would remake the political map in NYC and give a voice to millions (?) of those currently voiceless. Let’s do it!
Good news! While the war continues, we have won a small battle. SVP settled a lawsuit last week that will put $228,000 back in the pockets of hard-working NYC street vendors. Due to a pesky “computer error” that the city apparently didn’t know about (otherwise they would have fixed it on their own, right?) the city was over-charging vendors on tickets for years. We found them out, and checks to vendors (like Mohammed Ali, left, who will be getting $971) are in the mail. Read about it in the NY Post if you like. But don’t think we have won the war — our campaign to permanently Lower the Fines is very much alive. And hopefully it will get a boost with this big victory.
Photo: Robert Miller.