Volume 19 Issue 45 | March 23 - 29, 2007

Downtown Express photos by Corky Lee

Above, Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association leader Wing Lam with State Sen. Martin Conner at the group’s 28th year anniversary March 11. Below, A Chinese Staff protest in 1995.

Chinatown labor warriors reflect on battles

By Chris Bragg

A dozen years ago, owners of the Jing Fong restaurant in Chinatown hung two 25-foot banners on the restaurant’s facade bearing the face of Wing Lam.

“Oppose the labor tyrant stirring up trouble,” the banners read. Lam, the leader of the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, was denounced as “the devil” in posters around Chinatown. One night 10 years ago, threats against his safety may have turned to violence. Someone broke into an apartment above Lam’s office, igniting a fire that damaged the Chinese Staff headquarters, forcing it to close for several months.

On a recent Sunday, young children hung their own posters — of colorful flowers and Chinese Dragons — in the auditorium of P.S. 2 on Henry and Pike Sts. A score of people came to the auditorium’s stage to praise the work of Wing Lam and his group, including State Senator Martin Conner. Conner raised his fist in the air in a show of support while a crowd of 500 packed the auditorium’s balloon-strewn aisles, engulfed in dance and the banging of drums.

In the past, as today, the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, a militant workers’ rights organization, has elicited strong reactions: usually either adoration or acrimony.

Jimmy Ong, 80, is one of the group’s founders. He’s watched countless ceremonies like this one and he still shares the attitude of C.S.W.A. members that has invigorated — and vexed — many in the community since its founding in 1980. “We have to keep fighting,” he says in broken English.

Throughout its history, Chinese Staff has nearly always been in one kind of a fight or another. For many workers, it has been the lone voice for the exploited immigrant underclass of Chinatown. Its staffers estimate the organization has helped recover some $50 million for workers.

To others, especially business leaders, Chinese Staff’s constant campaigning has been destructive. “It serves no other purpose than to embarrass everyone in the neighborhood,” says Jan Lee, who owns a small Chinatown furniture store and is a long-time neighborhood resident. “It shows the culture in a bad light. In this day and age they could go to the bargaining table. They have an immature way of going about it.”

In the beginning

The offices of Chinese Staff are located on the second floor of a small commercial building along Chrystie St. next to Sara D. Roosevelt Park. On a Monday afternoon, 25 members surge in and out of the big, bustling room. Young and old, they drink hot tea and share a lunch of lo mien. In the back of the room, Wing Lam consults in Chinese with two youthful, striking delivery workers.

The history of the C.S.W.A. coincides with changes in Chinatown. In the 1970s, while New York’s economy as a whole was foundering, Chinatown was experiencing significant growth. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished some long-standing limits on how many Chinese could come to the United States, created an influx of new workers – particularly female workers who came to Chinatown’s garment factories. The growth of the garment industry, in turn, created capital for new businesses and spawned large-scale banquet halls in the late 1970s. It was with these mega-restaurants that Chinese Staff has staged its most prominent battles.

Wing Lam was born in a rural area of southern China. His parents, both in food service, moved to Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1960. In 1966, at the age of 17, Lam moved to New York and looked for work wherever he could find it, including in restaurants, construction, the garment industry, welding and shipping. A friendly man with a wide, toothy smile, Lam is reluctant to disclose much more about himself. Just as critics are quick to disparage his organization as a one-man show, Lam is eager to deflect attention to others.

In the late 1970s, Chinese restaurant workers were often paid low wages and worked long hours. A pay rate of $300 per month for over 70 hours of work per week was typical, according to Ong. At that time, the workers at a handful of Chinese restaurants in midtown, including Ong, began to organize. They joined a large restaurant worker union. They were soon disappointed, however, saying the union allowed violations of their contracts and was unresponsive to their needs.

Chinese Staff formed in 1980 with only a few members. It had no full-time staff, but the group soon made a name for itself.

In Feb. 1980 a fight broke out with Silver Palace, Chinatown’s largest restaurant at the time. The dispute was triggered when management asked waiters to give them additional shares of their tips. While paying less than the minimum wage is legal if a worker is receiving tips, taking a share of their tips is illegal. The waiters protested; they were quickly replaced with new workers.

The waiters contacted Chinese Staff and the group organized protests with hundreds of workers from other restaurants. As a result of the picket, business at Silver Palace went down severely. Eventually, management was forced to rehire the workers and withdraw their demands for greater tip shares. The workers at Silver Palace then formed Chinatown’s first independent restaurant union and gained unprecedented benefits: overtime, a forty-hour workweek and health care. At that point Lam, who had worked for a large labor union — and been fired twice — began to realize he no longer needed help from traditional unions.

“There needed to be a worker organization, not just an employee organization,” he said. “The union is yourself, because if you rely on someone else they’re not going to do [crap] for you.” Unions, Lam says, were too cozy with employers and too focused on their own bottom line. “The unions just want to collect their dues,” said Ong.

Chinese Staff is less a union than a service organization. Direction comes from the bottom up, not the top down, Lam said. The workers organize their own pickets and lawsuits; the C.S.W.A. provides expertise. The tactics also differ: Instead of negotiating with employers, Chinese Staff stages large-scale protests in hopes of effecting the management of all Chinatown restaurants.

Peter Kwong, professor of Asian-American studies and Urban Affairs at Hunter College, said while the power and membership of traditional labor unions has decreased, Chinese Staff’s approach has worked. “He [Lam] really represents a different perspective...Their main job is not as a union, it’s to respond to the problems of the workers,” he said in an interview at the P.S. 2 celebration. “This is the kind of work that labor unions should be doing.”

“They’ve done a phenomenal job in places where other unions have failed to find a way in,” said Senator Conner, who first learned about the group when he met Wing Lam one day on a Silver Palace picket line. Lam convinced Conner not to enter the restaurant.

Downtown Express photos by Corky Lee

Above left, Lam, with waiter Jian Wei Feng last June when the National Labor Relations Board allowed him to go back to work at Silver Palace. Below, Jimmy Ong, one of Chinese Staff’s founders, at the anniversary.

Jing Fong fight
Chinese Staff continued to grow throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s. They expanded to other issues such as land use, fighting the city to prevent the building of high-end condominiums in Chinatown. They expanded efforts to end what they called the “slave labor” performed by women in Chinatown’s garment industry, forming the group the National Mobilization Against Sweat Shops in 1996. In addition, new struggles with Silver Palace over tips emerged. Waiters eventually won $1.1 million in back pay from the National Labor Relations Board in 1996.

But it was the battle with Jing Fong that caused the greatest rift in the community.

Jing Fong, at Canal at Elizabeth Sts., can hold 1,000 patrons and is the largest restaurant in Chinatown. Through the hot summer of 1995, a makeshift shantytown formed in front of Jing Fong with hundreds of protesters gathering each day. Protesters slept on cots in front of the restaurant. It was so hot, some were hospitalized for dehydration.

The dispute started in Jan. 1995, when a waiter named Sheng Gang Deng confronted his bosses for taking extra money from his tips. He was fired. He was the only waiter to come forward, however, because other employees were afraid of also losing their jobs and being blacklisted from other restaurants, according to Lam. “From the outside everyone thought there was just one,” he said. “But from the inside there were at least 20 more.” With the help of the C.S.W.A., Deng filed a lawsuit against the restaurant.

The protesters would parade a mock coffin in front of the restaurant, stage mock funerals and bang loud drums, disturbing the restaurant’s customers. Hugh Mo, Jing Fong’s attorney at the time, says it went over the line. “Is it inappropriate? It’s intimidating,” said Mo. “In Chinese culture, a coffin brings bad luck and bad fortune.” 

“If there are labor problems in the restaurant, then let the government handle it,” George Hui of Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, an organization which represents Chinatown businesses, told the New York Times in 1995. “There is no need for Mr. Lam to haul out the coffin and hurt the Chinatown economy.”

Tensions with C.C.B.A. have apparently mellowed with time as the group declined to comment for this article.

Lee, the store owner, said recently that the coffin and mock funerals were over the top. And while Chinese Staff touts that it draws its large crowd of picketers from restaurants all over the city, Lee doubts that was true at Jing Fong. “They paid rabble rousers to picket,” he said. “You could take one look at them, you could tell that they’re not suffering.”

The situation at Jing Fong escalated. In response to the protests, 1,500 business leaders and community members met for a banquet at Jing Fong in a show of solidarity. They stood in a crowd chanting, “Beat down Wing Lam.” The owners of Jing Fong hung the infamous banners deriding Lam.  Further, Lam says he and his family were threatened with violence.  He remembers being scared. “You drive home carefully,” he said. “I would go home and people would keep me company [until he got home safely].”

Lam felt powerful interests in the community ganging up against him, from the prominent newspaper Sing Tao, to the Fifth Precinct captain at the time.

In 1997, State Attorney General Dennis Vacco announced his office would file a lawsuit against Jing Fong for cheating 58 employees out of $1.5 million in tips. Eventually, the owners of Jing Fong agreed to pay $1.1 million to settle the lawsuit. The victory against Jing Fong was hailed as a precedent for the rest of the restaurants in Chinatown. “There was an overnight change, because a lot of restaurants realized they didn’t want the Attorney General on their back,” said Nelson Mar, president of the 318 Restaurant Workers Union, which has close ties with Chinese Staff.

With the powerful Attorney General’s office involved, Mo said it was the smart choice for the restaurant to settle. But the experience left him with deep reservations about the C.S.W.A. “We live in a society where we do not delegate certain practices such as labor law,” Mo said. “I’m totally in favor of advocacy groups and the rights of individuals. But I believe in a level playing field and I hate to say it, but C.S.W.A. has a vigilante nature.  It’s a prop for him so he [Lam] can operate under a banner which allows him immunity from laws on picketing, demonstrating and harassing. It’s a very troublesome organization. They need more oversight by the government.”

But Kwong, the Hunter professor, said Chinese Staff has been forced to be aggressive because the government has ignored labor in Chinatown. “These sweatshops exist in part because the authorities don’t care,” he said. “The state Attorney General’s office is the only office in the past decade-and-a-half to try and deal with these issues and that’s only been one or two cases. We’re not talking about a community that operates in the general legal framework.”

Chinese Staff said Chinatown labor conditions have gotten better, but last weekend they were protesting in front of Jing Fong, accusing the restaurant of tip-stealing again. Staff members say the challenges for the organization have changed though. The focus has gone beyond waiters at Chinatown restaurants, towards delivery workers like those at Saigon Grill in Union Square. Chinese Staff is also targeting restaurants in New Jersey and Chinese neighborhoods in other boroughs.

In addition, 9/11 had a profound impact both on Chinatown and Chinese Staff. After the attacks, about 10,000 garment workers north of Canal St., where many garment factories were located, lost their jobs. Canal St. was shut down after 9/11 and clothing couldn’t get in or out, forcing many factories to close. But the Chinese Staff says FEMA then discriminated against low-income residents when it handed out money to rebuild the area.

“It’s clearly not part of their vision [the government] to have factories here,” said Stan Mark, a lawyer with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which works closely with Chinese Staff. “People who lived and worked here aren’t getting the benefits. They’re not doing much to maintain this immigrant community, which has always been vibrant and transient.”

Chinese Staff has joined the criticism of government agencies’ reaction to 9/11 health issues. In May 2003, 14 injured 9/11 workers and survivors held a week-long hunger strike in front of former Gov. George Pataki’s Midtown office. 

Lam estimates the group now has 1,500 members. In large part, the group’s growth is a result of Lam’s perseverance. “There are people who attack him left and right, but he sticks by it,” Louis Vanegas, from the U.S. Labor Department, told Mother Jones in 2001. “He’s persistent...People get burned out in that kind of work very fast. But Wing maintained his stamina.”

Ong remembers when he started organizing restaurant workers in 1979. Back then, waiters in Chinatown worked 70 or 80-hour weeks. Now, most of the medium-sized and larger restaurants have 40 hour weeks. “Owners realized they have to conform to some minimum standards to avoid pickets,” said Kwong. “There’s been some margin of improvement.” Kwong said the group has disproved the stereotype that Chinese workers will accept abuse in the workplace. “They’re always blamed for not being militant, for being passive. It’s not true.”

Some community members say that militant attitude is the exact problem with Chinese Staff. “They’ve been at this 20 years,” said Lee, noting that the divisive protests are still occurring after all that time. “It hasn’t gotten them very far.”

Nelson Mar, who joined the group as a student in 1994 and organized a week-long hunger strike at Jing Fong, says the group’s results have justified some of its more extreme means. “It’s really at the vanguard of a new labor movement. Without them, worker conditions would be 10 or 100 times worse.”

Downtown Express is published by Community Media LLC. 145 Sixth Avenue, New York, NY 10013
Phone: (212) 229-1890 | Fax: (212) 229-2790 | Advertising: 646-452-2465 | © 2007 Community Media, LLC

Written permission of the publisher must be obtainedbefore any of the contents of this newspaper, in whole or in part, can be reproduced or redistributed.