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Under the bright lights and grand facade of Chinatown's second-largest dim sum palace, Yan Ou is on a picket line with about 20 people, while inside tourists nosh on shrimp dumplings. She is one of a group of workers and supporters usually in front of the New Silver Palace Restaurant, a/k/a Dong Khanh on 50-52 Bowery, carrying on what has become a long-term battle with the restaurant's management.
A week before this past Christmas, the dim sum cart server was fired and then arrested when she demanded reasons for her discharge. Although she was not expecting a holiday bonus from this restaurant's managers, notorious for stealing servers' tips, Ou was not entirely surprised by her arrest. According to Ou, restaurant managers called the cops and fabricated a criminal charge in order to get rid of one of the 318 Restaurant Workers Union's most active members. Years of management labor abuse, indiscriminate discharges, and even a day in jail did not dissuade the Chinese woman in her mid forties from returning to the picket line in front of New Silver Palace two days after her arrest. The restaurant's managers refused repeated Voiceattempts to get comments.
Ou's firing and arrest came at a time when New Silver Palace managers sent a wave of verbal and written threats to union members right after September 11. Although there has been an escalation in harassment since 9-11, the battle with this restaurant and its owners has been going on for 20 years. Union vice president Marie Koo says the aftermath of the disaster has simply created conditions ripe for employers to further exploit workers.
"Employers feel like this might be a good time to shit on people, to threaten workers with loss of jobs, because everyone is saying the economy is no good," says Koo. "That is one of the things we are facing in this community, because the employers will use the high unemployment rate to justify this."
This is the latest of several lawsuits filed by union members during their struggle. The long list of labor abuses includes: federal and state tip violations, minimum wage violations, breaches of union contract, and acts of racketeering. Court injunctions have ordered the restaurant to correct and compensate for these practices, but the restaurant has yet to comply with these orders. The protesters are now demanding that the courts take action after all these years of noncompliance and would like this management group to be punished.
"We've been picketing the restaurant for over four years, long before September 11. We've been picketing the restaurant for something we deserve. They still haven't paid workers back," says Ou.
Ou had worked for four years at New Silver Palace when in 1997 the restaurant attempted to avoid compensating workers more than a million dollars in back pay and appropriated tips by filing for bankruptcy. What was known as the Silver Palace became the New Silver Palace, and ownership nominally changed hands from CEO Richard Chan to Jonathan Chiu. Management refused to hire union workers back, forcing them to undergo a phony application process and then giving them an ultimatumleave the union and pay management $5000, or forfeit the job. Silver Palace workers took to the streets and started picketing. When the bankruptcy case came up, the court saw through the name-change ruse and forced the restaurant to rehire them.
When Ou returned to her job, she realized conditions weren't going to change. The harassment resumed, and so did the picket line. "I was working for three months, and I think that the management knew that I was part of the 318 union, so they fired me after three months. I knew that I had to fight for what I believed in and for what I deserved and that I had a right to be in the union. I knew I had to join the picket line in order to get my job back," says Ou.
Ou and other workers went on the picket line during work breaks, along with other 318 members. After work, they were at the picket line, where they faced the threat of violence. The protesters now keep a video camera on hand after several picketers were beaten by managers.
Ou says the events leading up to her firing began in October 2001 when she was first confronted by a manager trying to instigate trouble for the union member. "She tried to pick a fight with me, and then said I tried to stab her," says Ou. The police came and dismissed the incident, but returned two months later to arrest her on the October charge. On December 16, Ou was given a letter of discharge while eating lunch. Having received no explanation for her dismissal, Ou came back to work the next day.
Before noon she noticed two plainclothes police officers talking to the bosses. Without any explanation or evidence, they asked her to collect her things and go with them. Not knowing any English, Ou repeatedly pointed to the notice of court injunction, trying to make the police aware of her rights.
"The cops didn't look at the notice and demanded that I leave. But before that when the cops were still at the restaurant, they were saying the manager accused me of trying to stab her with the scissors," says Ou. "She [the manager] had gone down to the precinct with the scissors to show them that I tried to stab her, which was absurd, because she was the one that tried to harm me back in October." Ou helplessly watched as one of the managers translated her defense. "The manager was saying that I was making a big fuss. But the translator was one of their people." Ou found herself locked up at the Fifth Precinct.
"I was just thinking over and over, 'I'm innocent, I did nothing wrong.' " says Ou. "The lawyer said the only thing to do now was to appeal it, but I was upset because I didn't want to appeal something I didn't even do."
The government's failure to enforce the court rulings has created the New Silver Palace picket line. In 1980 Silver Palace restaurant workers created the 318 unionso called to commemorate March 18 as the date they say a new labor movement was born, not only in Chinatown, but across the city, according to union adviser Wing Lam. In this city where most union workers are organized from the top down, 318 is organized from the bottom up, led by and consisting of the workers themselves.
Koo compares the restaurant industry in the city with the garment industry, in which approximately 90 percent of the shops are unionized by UNITE. Whereas base wages have decreased to even below minimum wage for garment workers in the past 20 years, the New Silver Palace campaign has fought to raise base wages for restaurant servers. In 1997 New Silver Palace workers and supporters went to Albany to force Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to raise base wages for servers from $2.90 to $3.30.
Lam declares that New Silver Palace picketers are turning the system around. "New Silver Palace is setting a precedent for workers and leading Chinatown to fight in a greater labor struggle."
Despite the uphill battle workers must face in this city, which has put its labor struggle on the back burner for the war against terrorism, the 318 union and its supporters continue to escalate their fight and see to it that this city tackles these issues.
Koo says, "Silver Palace in this community represents the fighting spirit. When people first got fired, they were like, 'Look, this is what happens to you [when you picket].' But then they got their court injunction, and people went back to work. A lot of people in this community, when they see New Silver Palace, they see a fighting chance." By the picket line outside the restaurant, workers light incense near a cardboard coffin that reads, "Bury Slave Labor."