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Chinatown workers organize.

New York City

New York's Chinatown is one of the worst places to work in the United States. Nearly all employment opportunities are in the underground economy, where workers have no benefits, no security, and no rights. Many earn only seventy cents an hour, putting in eighty hours a week, and they have little recourse when owners close up shop to avoid paying wages, and then reopen elsewhere.

Finding established trade unions unresponsive to their needs, Chinatown workers established the Chinese Staff and Workers' Association (CSWA) in 1980. Literally translated from the Chinese as "workers' social club," CSWA had Ping-Pong and pool tables in its first office.

"We decided it was better to form a social club, where workers can come together without fear of retaliation," says executive director Wing Lam.

Within six months, the workers' association unionized the employees of several Chinatown restaurants. The union successfully negotiated a benefits package that includes health insurance, paid vacations, sick days, and forty-hour workweeks--still unheard of in the rest of Chinatown. Membership grew to 200.

In 1982, the union faced its first major setback when a suspicious fire burned down its office. In rebuilding after the fire, the Chinese Staff and Workers' Association stayed on the picket lines, protesting union lockouts, nonpayment of wages, and other abuses.

Leaders of the group are proud of taking a different approach from traditional labor organizing. It's not enough for workers to resolve their specific problems, says project director Joanne Lum. It's equally important that they recognize how their problems are connected to other issues. As a result, the workers' association has ventured into areas usually considered outside the scope of labor.

During the housing crisis of the late 1980s, the group began a homesteading project. As more women joined the group, they formed the Women's Empowerment Project, which helped establish child-care centers and a women's health-care center in Chinatown. Other CSWA projects include English classes for immigrants, and the annual Chinatown Labor Fair, which features street theater and activities for children.

"We don't just organize workers," says Lum, "but their families--the community, too."

Membership has now reached 600 workers and fifty volunteers, and some of the CSWA's recent successes include court victories in nonpayment-of-wage cases. According to CSWA organizer Peter Lin, these successes grow out of the sense of workers' rights slowly built over the last ten years. "There has to be a sense of outrage for people to do something," he says.
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Title Annotation:New York City
Author:Macawili, Wesley
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Feb 1, 1994
Words:408
Previous Article:Political football.
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