John C. Antush
Posted March 15, 2016
ON MARCH 13 a euphoric crowd of 600 celebrated a victory for the workers and community of Chinatown, New York The thirty-six waiters and dim-sum cart-pushers, members of the independent 318 Restaurant Workers’ Union and of the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association (CSWA), who had been locked out of the Silver Palace Restaurant for seven months, defeated management’s concessionary demands and would be going back to work Speakers from groups ranging from the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence to the Gay and Lesbian Freedom Project congratulated the workers on their victory. The speakers also voiced their support for the workers’ demands that the government enforce labor laws and that slave-like conditions be ended in Chinatown.
How did this small group of immigrants, in a community where labor laws are commonly ignored and mainstream unions seem toothless, win? Why did Chinatown workers feel the need to organize a workers’ center and an independent union?
This victory is part of the growth and development of the CSWA, whose members and staff have been advancing mutual aid strategies for Chinese workers organizing in the garment, restaurant, construction and other trades for fourteen years. CSWA’s workers’ center approach offers one model for building a new, politicized workers’ movement that is based on the development of grassroots power and leadership through struggle.
The dynamics of the U.S. economy, in the absence of working-class pressure, have dictated the spread of deregulation and the cheapening of labor. Immigrants in New York’s Chinatown suffer disproportionately due to the divisions among workers caused by racism and business unionism, pro-business government policies, anti-immigrant legislation and, especially, the unwillingness of the state to enforce its own labor laws.
In June 1993, most New Yorkers were shocked when the Golden Venture, a ship carrying 300 Chinese indentured servants, went aground off the coast of Queens. Virtual slaves like those on board the Golden Venture are forced, on pain of torture and death, to work off their debts to the gangs that smuggled them into the United States. This underground has created a gravitational pull in the Chinatown labor market, as wages have plummeted, working conditions have worsened, competition between businesses and between workers has grown, and racism against Chinese immigrants, documented and undocumented, has increased.
For employers there are many advantages to turning away documented workers and hiring the undocumented instead. The undocumented are paid off the books and their wages are twenty-to-thirty percent below that of legal residents and citizens. Employers of the undocumented save on payroll taxes, including Social Security taxes and statutory insurance payments. Desperate, sometimes unaware of their rights, and often too scared to demand them, undocumented workers tend to be more submissive. The threat of a call to the INS is a powerful weapon in the bosses’ favor.
The government plays a major role in encouraging the growth of the lawless slave economy. While the State Department of Labor is underfunded and understaffed, it also tends to be unusually unresponsive to the concerns of immigrant workers. Regressive legislation, such as the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (known as the Simpson Mazzoli bill), has increased the power of gangs and the more ruthless employers.
The Employer Sanction Provision of the Act requires employers to verify that their employees are legally allowed to work in the United States and includes fines for those who break the law. Far from curbing the growth of the slave underground, this law has made undocumented workers dependent on the goodwill of whoever will hire them. If workers object to not being paid, to long hours, to unsafe working conditions, their employer asks to see their work authorization papers.
The repeal of this law continues to, be a major goal for immigrant and civil rights organizations. Incredibly, the SEIU was the only AFL-CIO union to oppose the introduction of this bill. Other AFL-CIO unions, particularly those with large immigrant memberships, such as the ILGWU, only officially changed their positions later, after years of lobbying for its passage and then supporting it.
Top-down business unionism and racism have prevented mainstream unions from acting in the interests of Chinese immigrant workers. If regressive laws are going to be changed, pro-worker laws introduced and enforced, and slave labor stamped out, immigrants, both documented and undocumented, must organize. A movement—that goes beyond individual shops and separate trades, from the workplace to the community and from the economic to the political plane—is necessary.
The CSWA has been working to develop such a movement from the bottom up, with a membership of approximately 700 workers concentrated in the garment, construction and restaurant trades. The grassroots organizing and community consciousness-raising that helped win the victory at Silver Palace is an example of how a workers’ center can bring people together to build workers’ power.
Chinese Garment Workers Organize
More than 25,000 Chinese workers in Manhattan work in garment factories. Many work twelve hours a day in the sweatshops, earning $20-30. To make up for this meager pay, workers are forced to put in more hours. Bosses often force workers, mostly women, to work overnight in order to meet deadlines. It is also increasingly common for the children of immigrant families to work in garment factories, at ages as young as 13-16.
In addition to wage and hour law violations, safety regulations are ignored. Health problems such as back pains, swollen hands and feet, eye strain and respiratory problems due to dust and fiber particles plague garment workers. Factory owners often withhold wages for months, telling workers, “You’ll get paid next week” Many groups of workers go to work one day to find that their boss has closed shop, still owing them back wages. Workers who have tried going to the police or the Department of Labor have generally found them unresponsive.
Most Chinatown garment factories agreed to unionization in the 1970s, after working out a deal in which the established unions would help provide Chinese factories with a steady supply of orders from large manufacturers. In many cases the unions have little contact with their members. Often there are no shop representatives on the floor, in spite of a provision in the union contracts that makes the union responsible for appointing one in every shop. Union officials generally do not insist on a “strict” reading of the contracts in Chinatown The result: In many unionized shops the piece-rate that workers get paid not only amounts to less than minimum wage, but is actually lower than it is in some non-unionized shops.
CSWA members in garment, mostly women, organized the Garment Industry Working Group to address these and other problems. Since 1991 the Non-Payment of Wages Campaign has helped workers win back thousands of dollars in withheld wages. Workers have used tactics ranging from demonstrating in front of manufacturers’ showrooms to petitioning in the community for the State Department of Labor to respond to their cases. Inspired by their successes, workers in the construction and restaurant trades are also organizing and winning back wages.
The CSWA has worked with over 300 workers in non-payment cases. Non-payment of wages is so common that it is serving as a unifying issue for garment workers to share information about conditions in all the factories.
Last year the CSWA held a public forum where garment workers confronted labor-law enforcement officials. Currently the CSWA Women’s Project is petitioning the ILGWU to demand better contract terms, including health benefits. Also the Garment Working Group is organizing a Garment Workers’ Network through which garment workers around the city will be able to talk about their working conditions and concerns.
Through the CSWA, garment workers also got involved in the Silver Palace struggle. “When they won this battle [at Silver Palace],” explains Pauline Tsaung, CSWA president and a former garment worker, “it gave other bosses a good example. It said, ‘Don’t take away workers’ benefits.’ Especially because this year the [regional garment] contract is coming up.”
Susan Chan, CSWA member in the garment industry, has not been working since August due to a twisted spine developed from working long hours. She explains:
“We hope that someday the garment workers will have an eight-hour day. The Silver Palace workers are our ideal. We just hope for minimum wage. Why do all the benefits just go to the manufacturers? Before 1982 the garment workers worked an eight-hour day. Why, ten years later, do we need to work so many hours, more than twelve?”
Garment workers in CS WA’s Women’s Project leafletted for the Silver Palace rally on the street during International Women’s Day. They encouraged workers to bring their non-payment of wages cases to the CSWA to present to the governor along with the rally’s demands. They also invited the manager-secretary of ILGWU Local 23-25 to attend the rally, after presenting him with petitions supporting the union but also outlining their concerns. Unfortunately, he declined.
Since the rally, several groups of garment workers have come to the CSWA to find out how to fight for their withheld wages. One group of 100 workers from Elmhurst, Queens is owed more than $300,000.
Chinese Construction Workers
Chinese construction workers are rarely hired and are systematically excluded from the building trades’ unions. Immigrants are often given the least desirable and most dangerous jobs, such as asbestos abatement without the legally required protective gear. The CSWA helped form the Chinese Construction Workers’ Association (CCWA) in 1991.
Through the CCWA, Chinese construction workers organize to get hired, to win safe working conditions, and to fight non-payment of wages and other labor-law violations. Tactics range from sit-down discussions with government officials and developers to visits at construction sites to interrupt work (until the contractor agrees to give Chinese workers jobs). The CCWA participates in the Coalition to End Racism in Construction, a coalition of Lath-to, African-American and Asian-American organizations that fights the exclusion of workers of color in the construction industry.
In the Spring of 1991 the CSWA and the CCWA organized the Campaign for Economic Justice at Foley Square to protest the exclusion of Chinese Americans from two multimillion-dollar federal projects being developed in the Chinatown area. At Foley Square the federal government is building a U.S. Courthouse and a Federal Office Building.
Although these two projects are generating more than 2,000 jobs, less than one percent have gone to Chinatown workers. Only after a rigorous campaign, including two August 1992 demonstrations drawing 3,000 people each, were over eighty jobs awarded to Chinese construction workers.
The campaign is continuing with a lawsuit filed by CCWA members against the projects’ developers for discrimination in their hiring practices.
In 1992, CSWA members who worked at the Silver Palace took off their lunch hour to demonstrate against racism and for access to jobs at Foley Square. Last year CSWA members went to the workers’ picket line at the East River Restaurant. Construction workers also attended CSWA membership meetings to discuss the significance of the Silver Palace struggle and joined the picket, telling their friends to support the boycott.
“What happened to the Silver Palace workers is similar to what’s happening in the construction industry,” explains CCWA organizer Peter Lin. “Wages are going down to $40 a day in the Chinatown construction industry…. The campaigns that we put together are campaigns that bring people together.”
Silver Palace: Tip of the Iceberg
Not far from where the Golden Venture crashed, in Flushing, Queens, Chinese restaurant workers who had been fired from the East River Restaurant for trying to unionize were picketing to get their jobs back They had been working for seventy cents an hour. They had been told if they did not stop their efforts, the restaurant would have them killed.
One worker was knocked down a flight of stairs by a pro-management employee claiming affiliation with the “Ghost Shadows” gang. These kinds of conditions are common in the restaurant trade.
In 1978, a group of Chinese restaurant workers attempted to organize a union where they worked (Uncle Tai’s on 63rd Street in Manhattan). They approached Local 69 (which later merged into Local 100) of the AFL-CIO-affiliated Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE).
After a walkout, these workers won the first union contract for Chinese restaurant workers in New York City. As Local 69 went on to organize other restaurants, the workers began to realize that many of the bad conditions they hoped to improve with unionization still existed. They did not have medical benefits or vacations, they were subject to unfair fines for incidents on the job, and they could still be fired or laid off at any time.
The HERE local was run from the top down, and was not responsive to the concerns of its members. The workers started to hold meetings, eventually forming the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association.
In 1981, one year after it was founded, the CSWA helped to organize the first successful restaurant union in Chinatown, at the Silver Palace. Before unionization, the Silver Palace stole waiters’ tips and fired workers arbitrarily. The contract won by the new independent 318 Restaurant Workers’ Union included a forty-hour work week, above-minimum wages, overtime pay, health benefits, paid holidays, collective bargaining and job security. These terms of employment—unheard of in the slave-subsidized Chinese restaurant trade—were a hopeful example for workers.
The independent union inspired a wave of militancy throughout Chinatown, with workers in four other restaurants organizing and joining the union. At the height of this activity, the CSWA’s office was mysteriously burned to the ground.
Undeterred, the CSWA continued its work, organizing the women’s committee, which forced the ILGWU to set up the first union daycare center in Chinatown. In 1982 Chinese garment workers organized sitdown strikes to protect their benefits and wages. Most were members of the ILGWU, which consistently refused to back their efforts and did not protect them from bosses’ illegal harassment. Consequently, the garment workers did not get the wages they struck for, and working conditions have since deteriorated.
The CSWA was also battling the gentrification of Chinatown and won a landmark decision for New York state against a developer who refused to include the displacement of people in an environmental impact statement Even though a twenty-one story tower was stopped with this case, gentrification continued and led to the closing down of many Chinatown restaurants—including the unionized ones—except for the Silver Palace.
The betrayal by the union bureaucracy, the frontal attacks on the CSWA, the intense growth of the slave economy after the passage of the 1986 immigration act—all discouraged worker militancy and set the stage for the Silver Palace management’s decision last fall to try and bust the union.
Drive for Concessions
When the contract came up for negotiation, the Silver Palace demanded a series of illegal concessions. Management canceled the workers’ health insurance and cut the number of paid vacation days, holidays and sick days.
They threatened to fire two dim-sum cartpushers, saying that they wanted “younger,” “prettier” women to serve customers. Finally, they drew up a contract stipulating that, in violation of labor law, part of the waiters’ tips would go to management and other employees. Dim-sum workers’ salaries would fall from $8.42 to $2.90 an hour. (The minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.90 an hour, but dim-sum workers are not tip recipients.)
According to this new contract, management would also have the right to arbitrarily replace full-time with part-time workers, who would share tips and work with no benefits. Workers were told that they had to sign the contract by August 20, 1993.
On August 20, the union workers of Silver Palace gathered at the CSWA office. After hearing advice from CSWA staffers, discussing and voting, the workers went to the Silver Palace, where management refused to talk to them or pay them their wages. Management had two workers who refused to leave arrested.
Immediately the workers organized daily picket shifts during the restaurant’s busiest hours: 11 am-2 pm and 5-8 pm. With little more than their bodies and voices, and the possibility of favorable NLRB decisions, they embarked on what would be a grueling and transformative seven-month campaign.
During the lockout, workers, not paid unionists or CSWA staffers, were the heart of the campaign leadership. The 318 members discussed and voted on how to react to the gang threats they received, chose members to carry out tasks, and made decisions on various aspects of their demands when negotiations resumed.
The workers decorated a coffin with the slogan, “No More Slavery, Justice for Workers,” and carried it on the picket line. They said they would not bury it until the Silver Palace ceased its promotion of slave-like working conditions. Sonny Wong, Silver Palace worker and shop steward, summed up the struggle by saying, “We are fighting for the community, not just ourselves. We are the pioneers.”
The Silver Palace management used the illegal conditions that exist throughout the restaurant industry as justification for its actions. In an ad placed in a Chinatown paper, the Silver Palace openly defended some of its illegal terms, complaining that it had to compete with restaurants in which workers labored under much more severe conditions.
In order to lure customers across the picket line, the Silver Palace reduced restaurant prices by thirty percent. In fact, the restaurant is a multimillion dollar operation and one of the Chinatown’s largest restaurants. When called on its claims about its dubious viability during negotiations, management refused to open its books to the union.
With the picketers outside during the lunch and dinner hours and coverage in both the Chinese- and English-language media, the Silver Palace conflict became a symbol for all of Chinatown. The CSWA conducted an outreach program so that every Sunday morning members of a wide range of groups—including, but not limited to, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, the Women’s Action Coalition, the Gay and Lesbian Freedom Project, the Lower East Side Workers’ Center as well as other students, activists and workers—joined the picket to chant and help leaflet.
Eventually these supporters came together with 318 members and CSWA staff members to plan a rally. The coalition attempted to broaden the public focus of the campaign to expose the slave economy and the government’s failure to enforce labor law.
For over three months, the coalition planned the rally, conducted outreach, created press releases and flyers, wheat-pasted ads and helped organize teach-ins. Fundraising events such as a book party for Robert Fitch’s The Assassination of New York and a Valentine’s Day party thrown by the Lesbian Avengers were also organized. CSWA volunteers and members made a video documenting the Silver Palace struggle for use as an educational tool. These activities brought 318 members into contact with Asian students all over New York state as well as with diverse progressives and socialists, and allowed supporters to get to know and work with some Chinese workers.
Through a CSWA membership meeting that gathered seventy or eighty workers, a series of demands synthesizing the most urgent needs of the workers in the garment, construction and restaurant trades was developed. These were articulated at the rally, where the Restaurant Workers’ Union, the CSWA and their supporters declared Chinatown a disaster zone and demanded an end to slave labor and that Governor Mario Cuomo:
1. Commit more resources to the State Department of Labor to enforce labor law;
2. Establish a task force to investigate and prosecute labor-law violations in Chinatown;
3. Exert leadership to pass proposed bills that strengthen laws governing nonpayment of wages and garment manufacturer accountability for the wage-law violations of contractors;
4. Create jobs that are stable and pay decent wages.
Rather than serve simply as the goals of a traditional lobbying campaign, the CSWA feels that these demands will heighten the consciousness of immigrant workers regarding their legal rights and will inspire them to organize. By focusing on workers’ legal rights and government accountability, rather than on individual bosses, the CSWA advanced from specific economic demands (for a contract at the Silver Palace) to a set of political demands in the interests of all Chinatown workers.
During the week prior to the rally, concerned about its tarnished image in the press and its reputation in the community, the Silver Palace management agreed to bargain with the union. On the day of the rally, it was announced that a contract had been agreed upon and that the Silver Palace’s 318 members would be going back to work.
Among the speakers who addressed the crowd were Eileen Clancy from the Gay and Lesbian Freedom Project, members of the Lower East Side Workers’ Center, Sonny Wong as a representative of the Silver Palace workers, Jim Haughton of Harlem Fightback, and Tim Schermerhorn from New Directions in Transit. The rally organizers invited everyone to come to a victory banquet and meeting to discuss what should be done next to build a movement that could eliminate slave labor.
Building A Workers’ Movement
Chinatown workers face immense obstacles, including gangs, a union bureaucracy that is unable to respond to theft needs either as workers or as Chinese immigrants, and a government that refuses to enforce labor laws. Whether in discussions about NAFTA or about immigration, stereotypes—that portray immigrants and workers of color as always willing to work for less—continue to divide workers.
The organization of the CSWA, in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, proves that these workers want to organize. If the rest of the labor movement continues to exclude them, it will lose strong allies, and will continue having to compete with slave labor. In view of the inaction of the government and the trade unions, obviously Chinese immigrants need to organize independently.
The CSWA also used the opportunity presented by the Silver Palace struggle to clarify the similar concerns of its members across the trades.
Through this struggle the leadership of 318 was also strengthened. Significantly, ten dim-sum women became union representatives, responsible for maintaining the picket line, organizing women to speak at teach-ins or with the media and in meetings with management. Over the course of the campaign, workers moved from their immediate demands for a fair contract to issue political demands in the name of all Chinatown workers.
These advances were made possible by the type of organization that CSWA is, a workers’ center. Chinatown workers are not the only workers suffering due to a failing trade union movement and a worsening economy. We need a new labor movement, one that uses new methods of organizing. Workers’ centers, now most commonly set up by immigrants and low-income workers, are a form that offers hope for building such a movement Workers’ centers bring workers together across trades, allowing them to form their own grassroots organizations, bridging the gap between communities and workplaces.
This encourages workers to look beyond economistic trade unionism and to advance their interests collectively and politically. Grassroots, worker-led forms of struggle also allow women and workers of color to organize around their distinct concerns.
Left radicals often talk of the need for a party of workers. How should we build such a political movement or party? Should it be built around the trade unions as they currently exist? Should we begin with a program and candidates? Or should we start gathering an active base? Perhaps community/labor formations, such as Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association and the Lower East Side Workers’ Center, are a step toward posing this question more clearly.
July-August 1994, ATC 51