Philly retail workers build solidarity union - Jon Bekken

An article by Jon Bekken about the South Street Workers Union, an effort to organize food & retail workers in Philadelphia. Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (April 2005).

Submitted by Juan Conatz on June 24, 2016

The IWW-affiliated South Street Workers Union is organizing retail and food service workers along Philadelphia's South Street corridor, implementing a model of solidarity unionism focused on helping workers create their own shop floor and district-wide organizations to confront low wages, poor working conditions, and the lack of workplace rights.

Since the union began organizing in August 2003, the South Street Workers Union has organized health, tax and workers' rights clinics; social events; a district-wide grievance committee that has helped workers claim unpaid wages and develop strategies to improve working conditions; and organized a campaign against proposed mass transit fare increases and service cutbacks.
Seventy union members and supporters marched down South Street February 27, demanding support for mass transportation funding -- culminating a two-week campaign in which they approached business owners along the strip asking them to sign a letter to the legislature demanding adequate transit funding.

The SEPTA system faced a $49 million budget shortfall, which it planned to meet by raising cash fares from $2 to $2.50 (on the way to $3), and slashing night and weekend service.

The cuts and fare hikes were averted the next day when the governor diverted highway funds to cover operating expenses through June.

Marchers stopped at five of the seven South Street businesses that had refused to sign the letter, gaining two more signatures to bring the total to 99. The march ended with a short rally where the letters were delivered to State Rep. Babette Josephs, who told the crowd that as the only member of the legislature who didnÕt own a car, she recognized the importance of mass transit.

"If we saw this kind of protest in every shopping district," she added, "the legislature would find a way to solve the transit crisis."

South Street workers depend on mass transit, delegate Andrew Rothman noted, adding that proposed fare increases "would be devastating to people who are living at or below the poverty line." Marchers echoed that sentiment, chanting "Raise our wages, not the fares."

The march was covered by three television stations and in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The South Street Workers Union's next event is a tax clinic, where accountants will be on hand to help workers prepare tax returns and claim the earned income credit many are entitled to because of their low earnings.

Most South Street workers earn little more than minimum wage (and some not even that). Although the corridor -- which includes a mix of chain stores and locally owned businesses ranging from small boutiques to large, multi-level stores -- is one of Philadelphia's busiest shopping district, its wages are sometimes lower than those paid in other parts of the city.

One owner monitors workers from her home with surveillance cameras. Another operates a 2,000-square-foot store with just one worker per shift. What these businesses have in common is low wages, benefits that run the gamut from inadequate to non-existent, and high turnover as workers jump from one crappy job to another.

The union was formed to help change these conditions, and currently has members at eight stores along the corridor. It has helped workers at a national franchise outlet end management's practice of demanding unpaid clean-up time, and defended workers threatened with losing their jobs. Several members also traveled to Brooklyn to build relations with workers involved in a similar campaign among immigrant workers there.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (April 2005)

Originally posted: May 11, 2005 at