Popular Union of Street Vendors - Barcelona
"Almost the entire length of the kilometer-long (RAMBLAS) mall is lined by about a hundred street vendors. In an attempt to appease local merchants, they leave a bit of distance between the blankets they display their merchandise on and the space taken up by “formal” businesses. West-African men stand behind knockoff Barça jerseys and D&G handbags, Bangladeshis next to umbrellas covered in shiny earrings. A handful of Senegalese women sell colorful jewelry to tourists, homemade food and cold, sugary hibiscus tea to the vendors. Accompanying each worker is a local with a sign or banner. The most common slogan reads Sobrevivir no es delito. It is not a crime to survive.
The Popular Union of Street Vendors began as an attempt by the vendors to negotiate with local authorities and confront the pervasive rumors and racist stereotypes that are frequently repeated in discussions about their work. But as police pressure has made their jobs increasingly difficult, they’ve teamed up with the Espacio del Inmigrante, a Zapatista-inspired migrants’ rights group, and Tras la Manta, a network of local activists who support their cause, to organize what they are calling “rebel flea markets”.
The logic behind these actions is similar to the civil disobedience campaign that made the former housing rights activist and Mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau a household name. By accompanying the vendors in their activity, they make police intervention far more costly, both economically and politically. It is, in many ways, a form of social unionism. And what is particularly interesting about the Popular Union’s actions and discourse is how they expand the vocabulary of local movements to encompass a broader dynamic of globalized antagonism against the Western habit of putting property rights over human dignity.
“They say our work is illegal,” cries union spokesperson Lamine Sarr over the loudspeaker. “We consider it disobedience. We are disobeying hunger. We are disobeying unemployment. We are disobeying borders. The very idea that some people can go and work wherever they want while others can’t. The very idea that some people have human rights while others don’t.”
The Popular Union is a major nuisance for Ada Colau’s city government. The moment her left-wing municipal platform Barcelona En Comú took office, the mainstream press brought local business leaders’ calls for social cleansing out from their usual place in the Letters to the Editors section and put them on the cover. Meanwhile, local police unions began putting out a constant stream of press releases criticizing city hall for not applying a firm hand to what they consider a threat to public safety.
It’s not the first time this has happened. Every time the left has come into power here, the mainstream press, security forces and the local business community have used informal workers as a pressure point to destabilize the government. When a coalition between the Socialist Party, the Catalan Greens and the Republican Left took office in 2004, for instance, they were bullied by the press, police and merchants into passing the civic bylaws that eventually became the model for Spain’s Gag Law.
It also happened when the left won Barcelona’s municipal elections in 1931, forcing King Alfonso XIII out and inaugurating the Second Spanish Republic. As historian Chris Ealham describes in Anarchism and the City: Revolution and Counter-revolution in Barcelona, 1898-1937, the local press frequently published stories in which prominent local business associations called on the city to eradicate street trade using “all means necessary”, threatening that they “were ready to take the law into their own hands if ‘unlicensed traders’ remained on the street.”
The Colau government has responded to this conflict by shifting blame upwards while working to please all sides. They began by recognizing the Popular Union and trying to sit them down at a table with local police, NGOs and local business leaders to discuss the situation. Unsurprisingly, this was sabotaged by the police and the business community, who refused to recognize the union. Then they began to emphasize the social integration of the mostly undocumented street vendors through a job-training program run by the city’s social services. But because the penal code considers their work a criminal activity, it is all but impossible for the street vendors to receive favorable reviews when they apply for residency, making their participation in the formal labor market all the more difficult.
Meanwhile, rather than confronting higher levels of public administration like the Catalan government or the Spanish state, the city has opted for a legalistic defense of intellectual and industrial property, collaborating with the Catalan Mossos d’Esquadra to crack down on the informal economy generally and the street vendors specifically. This can only increase the number of street vendors with criminal records, further complicating any attempt to successfully regularize their documentation status or participate in the formal labor market. And where it does succeed in halting the street vendors’ activity, it effectively dismantles the material infrastructure of their system of mutual aid, making it impossible for them to pay rent, and pushing them closer to either living on the street or working in the criminal underground.
The Popular Union, on the other hand, overcame their lack of access to commercial space by occupying public space. There, through the sale of bootlegged goods, they re-appropriate a portion of the market value associated with large clothing brands and feed it into a system of mutual support that provides food and shelter for people who are denied those by the legal order. Of course, this work has been criminalized. But at the end of the day, it is the Popular Union’s syndicalism that seems more like “sharing” and Uber that seems more like a mafia.
The question of how informality is organized is not going away anytime soon. Long-term unemployment is becoming an increasingly dominant feature of the global economy and systems are being forced to adapt to one model or the other. If we are to confront a regime that has been built around private interests and property, the street syndicalism of the Popular Union is a vital example of how to put human dignity over property rights." (https://roarmag.org/magazine/the-street-syndicate-re-organizing-informal-work/)