Strip in Soho is still a project for fair-wages labor activists



The stretch of Broadway in Soho is best known for its retail. But for a group of labor activists, it is also a hotbed of union organizing. 

“Amsterdam, Scoop, Shoemania. None of these shops are union shops, which is why they can exploit their workers,” said Peter Montalbano, an organizer at the Retail Action Project, or RAP, a coalition of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union along with the community group Good Old Lower East Side, or GOLES. 

At the Feb. 3 rally on Broadway, participants marched past Amsterdam, Scoop and Shoemania, and outside each store, fired workers aired their grievances and touted the virtues of labor organizing. 

“Immigrant workers feel broke, and often don’t know about the law,” said Carolina Ferreyra, 22, a former Amsterdam employee. “I used to work as much as 66 hours a week, without overtime pay. When I started getting an attitude about this, they fired me.” 

A year ago, RAP was holding a rally across the street at Yellow Rat Bastard. The coalition succeeded in winning a settlement, in which the urban wear retailer paid $1.4 million in unpaid wages and overtime to more than 1,000 then-current and former employees. Yellow Rat Bastard is now a union shop. 

“I heard of the rally, but I did not want to get involved because I was working,” said Ferreyra, who now freelances as a photographer and graphic designer. “After I got fired, I got involved in this.” 

Just then, Bill Talen, a.k.a. performance artist/activist Reverend Billy, railed on the bullhorn against the printed shirts in the window displays, decrying them as “yuppie artifacts.” 

The same window displays advertised deep discounts of up to 80 percent, but Talen said that the hardships claimed by store managers are no excuse when it comes to paying overtime and back wages.

“If they can’t treat their people fairly, they should not be in business,” Talen said.

While the rally was comprised largely of labor activists, former Scoop stock worker Romuald Ilboudo, 46, represented the growing number of African immigrants in the sector.

“I worked for more than 60 hours a week, without overtime pay,” said Ilboudo. “We built this company from the ground up.” 

“We slept in rat-infested stockrooms,” said his colleague Hassami Cissi, 32, who also hails from Burkina Faso. “All of a sudden, the company said we did not have proper ID, and we were fired.” 

Ilboudo and Cissi learned of RAP through organizer Sadatu Mamah-Trawill, an immigrant from Mali, who eased the fears of Scoop’s largely African immigrant workforce.

“I was like, ‘This is your money,’ but they were afraid of Immigration,” said Mamah-Trawill. “I started talking to them, reaching out to African community groups.”

The rally concluded at Shoemania, which has a lawsuit pending against it for more than $3 million in unpaid wages for 150 former employees.

“There are hundreds of workers just like me,” said former employee Ahmed Dalhatu. “I don’t want anyone to feel trapped like I did.”