Street Vendors and the Struggle for the Streets

ACORN International International Organizing
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New Orleans     Some years ago, when I could still get a visa to India, I was standing on a corner in Bengaluru with Suresh Kasidan, our head organizer in that area, talking to more than a dozen of our members.  Their wares were laid out on the sidewalks around us and they gathered to talk about the ACORN union.  One question, more animated than others, was straightforward.  “Were there a lot of street vendors in the United States, and what was it like for them doing this work?”  I answered, “Yes, there are some in the cities, especially places like New York, but nowhere near the number in India.”

A recent directive from the Indian Supreme Court giving the government thirty days to finally register street vendors after continual delays in implementing a 2009 decision of the court forced a count.  Given the pandemic, it is likely not accurate, but so far more than five million have been registered, including thousands facilitated by ACORN India organizers and leaders, since they represent the vast majority of our members there.

All of which made an article about a New York City crackdown on street vendors jump to my attention.  The number of permits for vendors is roughly 2900, but in the pandemic, as precarious workers struggled to survive with their jobs closed down, an estimated more than 10,000 worked the streets.  Small businesses are complaining that vendors are hurting their enterprises by camping on the sidewalks and in some cases selling some of the same goods on the cheap.  The municipal Department of Consumer and Worker Protection has taken over enforcement from the police and is issuing fines right and left adding up to thousands of dollars for work without a food permit or being too close to existing businesses.

The reporter, callously, refers to vending as a “hustle,” which is not only inaccurate but also insulting and demeans the work.  Years ago, I can also remember an organizing committee meeting with our union of French Quarter carriage drivers in New Orleans, where briefly an argument broke out on whether the work was “a hustle or a job.”  There the issue was about the outsized impact of tips for the drivers versus the wage.  In street vending, there’s no hustle when you are fighting for survival and clutching onto whatever precarious work is available.

Still, New York’s vendor issue is nothing compared to India, but this struggle for the streets and survival of precarious workers is global.  In India, our hawkers and vendors union worked hard to protect and legalize the “right to livelihood” for such workers which was embodied in the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act of 2014.  After seven years, there are still major issues.  Many cities, resisting the Act, drug their feet in creating the broadly representative local vending committees that would regulate and license.  Some big-city mayors and municipal corporations continued to harass vendors and the battle for the streets continue.

Nonetheless, there are many lessons for New York and other cities, and one of them is to establish “protected” areas for vendors – and their customers – to do their work, as we have seen in Bengaluru.  In Delhi, ACORN’s affiliate just led a series of marches and protests to force the reopening of night markets that don’t compete with others but allow vendors and their customers a freer rein.  Janaphal / ACORN also is able to offer food safety courses and there as well as in Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Chennai we are able to help our members get licenses through the union.

A New York Street Vendor project applauded the move from police to other inspectors, but for a vendor that is small comfort when they are racking up huge fines and having to still do whatever they can to support their families.  There’s a better way, and India may be able to teach the USA and other countries a way to bend without breaking by allowing all the people a right to the streets as well as a right to livelihood.