Volume 19 • Issue 4 | June 9 - 15, 2006

Downtown Express photos by Corky Lee

Jian Wei Feng, center and Fung Yee Chen, right reported to work at Chinatown’s Golden Bridge restaurant Tuesday after 18 months on the picket line in a labor dispute that the National Labor Relations Board helped settle.

Restaurant workers return after long, tense dispute

By Mary Reinholz

Wearing black trousers and a crisp white shirt, Fung Yee Chen prepared for her first day of work on June 6 as a $10-an-hour dim sum seller at the Golden Bridge, one of Chinatown’s largest eateries. She and 14 other members of the 318 Restaurant Workers Union had picketed outside for 18 months, claiming the giant food emporium had turned them down for jobs because of their union affiliation.

Wing Lam, leader of the Chinese Staff & Workers Association, with Jian Wei Feng.
After other bitterly worded charges, counter charges and legal fisticuffs, the 15 were accepted as new hires by the Bowery restaurant in a negotiated settlement reached early last month with the union and later approved by an administrative law judge for the National Labor Relations Board. The financial details have yet to be worked out, but the settlement is a clear win for the union that may resonate at other Chinatown restaurants where workers have complained of minimum wage violations and docked tips. It requires that the Golden Bridge not only hire the 15, but also compensate them for pay lost when the restaurant allegedly refused their applications for employment beginning in 2004 when the restaurant opened.

Chen, 47, an immigrant from Hong Kong who now lives in Brooklyn, admitted she was a little “nervous” as she sat in the offices of the Chinese Staff & Workers Association, the militant Chinatown labor rights group around 9 a.m., a half an hour before her shift began. But with a mischievous smile she noted through an interpreter that if anyone from management gave her a hostile stare, “I stare at him right back.” Chen was unemployed when she walked the picket, noting she “could have gotten another job, but wanted to fight for a better job.”

Jian Wei Feng, 42, who had worked at the Golden Bridge’s predecessor restaurants, the old and new Silver Palace, for 13 years up until 2002, said he also wanted to fight for a “similar” job he had at those restaurants as a service waiter, making more than $2,000 a month, mostly in tips after the union won a contract in the early 1980s. He said through a translator that he applied at the Golden Bridge in September of 2004, but “there was no response.” He said he searched for other jobs, “But they were low wages. I wanted a similar job that I had at the Silver Palace.”

Feng, a Chinese immigrant from Canton province who said he helped organize some of the protests outside the Golden Bridge, lives on E. 12 St. with his wife and two children. During his unemployment, he said he survived economically in part “because my wife works.” He also held a part-time job as a mover and borrowed money, noting he would probably use some of the settlement money “paying back debts.”

Around 9:15 a.m., Feng and Chen walked a few blocks to the Golden Bridge, flashing victory signs as they posed for pictures with other union members and then  headed up a flight of stairs to the eatery’s cavernous dining hall. A manager in a dark suit, sometimes called a “black jacket” by labor activists, summoned the two workers gravely, and they followed him though the crowded hall where people were having a late breakfast and sipping tea.

Philip Wu, one of the restaurant’s owners, was not available for comment, but a manager who identified himself as Tong Mak said before noon that “Everything is okay. More are coming,” he said of the union hires, adding he couldn’t say anything else “because I’m a worker too.”

As the auspicious day of 6/6/06 went on, five other union members began working as waiters on other shifts, earning an hourly base pay of $4.35 because most of their earnings are from tips, said Wing Lam, executive director of the Chinese Staff who acted as an advisor to the union. He said another eight union members should begin working by June 15. Lam claimed it was possible the new hires would be awarded a total of $500,000 “minimum” in back pay and tips, representing what they could have earned had the restaurant hired them 18 months ago for about $2,000 a month, or about $30,000 a year.

Chinese Staff members joined the union’s picket line outside the Golden Bridge, often on weekends during the busy dim sum brunch hours, sometimes carrying the group’s signature cardboard coffin bearing such slogans as “bury slave labor” and urging customers to boycott the restaurant. Lam said the union, his group and the 15 workers successfully beat back two attempts by the restaurant to obtain state and federal injunctions to stop the picketing.

One of the complaints by the restaurant centered on the cardboard coffin, which lawyers for the Golden Bridge contended “represented symbolic violence” on the picket line. But defense lawyers countered the “First Amendment protected the demonstrations. They were completely peaceful,” said Robert Penchina, one of the lawyers representing the workers, the Union and the Chinese Staff pro bono.

Lam believes the settlement will send a message to Chinatown employers that it “makes sense for them to talk to their employees and address their concerns instead of fighting and wasting money” while there’s a picket line outside. “They need to hire people and do it right.”    

Marie Koo, vice president of the union, said that the Golden Bridge had initially refused “even to consider” the 15 union members for employment “even though all of them had close to 15-20 years experience.” She claimed they rejected applications including ones sent by certified mail. Others were hand-delivered, Lam said.

The union subsequently filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging unfair labor practices and the N.R.L.B., after an investigation, found there was “reasonable cause” that the restaurant may have violated provisions of the amended National Labor Relations Act, said Karen Fernbach, the agency’s regional attorney. “All sides” agreed to a written settlement on May 4, which was approved by Judge Howard Edelman on May 10. Mattina, she noted, is still calculating what the restaurant owes the workers in back pay, but said the N.L.R.B. is “pleased” with the agreement.

The settlement does not constitute an acknowledgment by the Golden Bridge of any wrongdoing, said Patrick J. Boyd, the restaurant’s lawyer.

But Boyd, who noted that the union has not been designated as a collective bargaining agent for the restaurant’s employees, insisted the Golden Bridge’s current ownership and direction is “completely separate” from that of the now departed old and New Silver Palace restaurants. (The latter folded in a labor dispute while the former declared bankruptcy after reaching a $500,000 settlement with the union .)

“They are separate entities,” he said. “It’s the same real estate but that’s all.” June 6, the day when the the first group of union members came to work, was “exciting for us as well,” said Boyd.

By 4:30 p.m. on that day, Fung Yee Chen had completed her first day on the job and said, “It went okay,” People who used to work with her at the old Silver Palace, “said hello.”


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