This afternoon, former workers from the now-closed 39th Street and 86th Street branches of Wu Liang Ye picketed in front of the 48th Street restaurant of the same name, which the workers say is owned by their former employers, an assertion the restaurant denies. The dispute is over a lawsuit brought by workers at the 39th Street and 86th Street restaurants, alleging that the restaurants were stealing workers’ tips, not paying minimum wage, and breaking overtime laws. On October 8, judge Denny Chin handed down a default judgment against the restaurants, because the defendants, restaurant owners Susan and Jian Li, kept requesting temporary adjournments (delays in trial); the final request was denied, and because the Lis had not shown up for court, the judge ruled that the workers would win damages. By that time, however, the Lis had closed the two locations, putting all the employees there out of work, allegedly as retaliation for the lawsuit.
One of the workers involved in the trial, Jin Ming Cao, said that he had been hired as a waiter by the 39th Street Wu Liang Ye in April 2006. He said that the job paid $300 a month, plus tips, but that credit card tips were docked 10 percent, and that he was forced to work at least 66 hours a week without overtime pay. He says that when the workers started to organize, the restaurant began firing them one by one.
“The wages were too low, it was ridiculous,” he said today. So in 2008, employees from both the 39th and 86th Street restaurants went to the Chinese Staff and Workers Association for help, which aided the workers in finding a lawyer and suing the company for back wages.
“They continued to fire us,” says Cao, charging that anyone who participated in the lawsuit and organizing was a target as the suit dragged on. It is, of course, illegal to retaliate against workers for unionizing or filing a labor dispute. He also says that the Lis told him they would never hire Fujianese workers again–referring to the Chinese state that most of the Wu Liang Ye workers (and many of the newest Chinese immigrants to New York) are from. “We will win,” said Cao. “We will stay here everyday until they come out to sort out this problem.”
The Lis still owe back wages and compensation to the workers as a result of the suit: In his ruling on October 8th, Judge Chin wrote: “Defendants, on the eve of the trial, have closed both restaurants that are the subject of this action….The Court will enter a default judgment against defendants. The Court will conduct as inquest to set damages, attorney’s fees, and costs.”
Here’s where things get sticky–the three Wu Liang Ye restaurants in New York were all opened by Liang Zhang, who was an employee of the Chinese-government backed company Wu Liang Ye China. According to documents from Zhang’s lawyer, Wu Liang Ye China sent Zhang to the United States for the express purpose of opening restaurants. The restaurants were then held by a new corporation called Wu Liang Ye U.S.A, a subsidiary of Wu Liang Ye China. But in 2001, the 48th Street location sold its business and lease to a company called Sunshine U.S.A. Inc.
The 48th Street location, therefore, claims that it is totally unrelated to this labor dispute, as it is no longer affiliated with Wu Liang Ye U.S.A or Wu Liang Ye China. Cao disputed that, saying that in his experience, the three restaurants had operated as one entity, and Mika Nagasaki, a representative from Justice Will Be Served, a campaign supporting the workers, countered by saying, “it doesn’t matter who they say they are on paper.”
But none of the employees at the 48th Street location were party to the suit. Cao says it’s because they were too intimidated, afraid of losing their jobs.
Meanwhile, inside Wu Liang Ye, the dining room was completely full. When asked to comment on the situation outside, manager Herman Tang brought down a permit from the wall, which listed Sunshine U.S.A. as the operator of the restaurant. “It’s nothing to do with us,” he said, pointing at the company name. “It’s not the same restaurant. We pay minimum wages. We are not union. No one out there has ever worked here.”