The battle to unionize restaurants in New York's sprawling Chinatown is being viewed as crucial to the survival of the low-paid immigrants that make up much of the workforce.
The outcome of the union fight at the well-known New Silver Palace, says Peter Kwong of Hunter College's Asian-American studies program, will determine how far immigrant workers go toward demanding a fair wage and respectable treatment, in New York and elsewhere.
For years, activists say, owners had prevented any union organization whatsoever at the establishment.
"After all the attacks suffered by this union, if they lose, the message to every worker here is 'what's the point of organizing if you're just going to lose,'" Mr. Kwong says.
Historically, Chinatown's restaurants have always faced high employee turnover which has in turn made union organizing almost impossible.
For that reason, Chinese activists are hopeful a recent complaint by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will result in the reinstatement of the only union at a Chinatown restaurant. The NLRB's final decision on the New Silver Palace Restaurant promises to be the climactic battle in a nearly 20-year effort to improve conditions at one of the best known eateries in the area.
"To lose the union at the Silver Palace would be a huge step backward for Chinatown workers," says Marie Koo, an organizer with the Chinese Staff and Restaurant Workers Association.
"If the bosses win there, other bosses are sure to follow their example."
Ken Kimerling, a lawyer with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said workers at Chinatown restaurants work under conditions similar to those in city garment factories.
"The exploitation of workers, in the garment trades or restaurants, is something ... endemic to Chinatown establishments," says Mr. Kimerling. "Because the Silver Palace is the only unionized restaurant makes it significant."
But the owners of the 900-seat New Silver Palace Restaurant, Chinatown's second largest, say they merely expect workers to be dedicated to their jobs.
Jonathan Chiu, a local businessman who bought the restaurant last summer, says the 318 Restaurant Workers Union was responsible for forcing the formerly-named Silver Palace Restaurant to close in May 1997, two years after declared bankruptcy. Ms. Koo counters that the Silver Palace filed for bankruptcy in 1995 precisely to kill off the union. For two years, while the restaurant was held in a trusteeship, Chinatown bosses organized a secret campaign to drive the Silver Palace into failure, says the Hong Kong-born organizer. "They wanted it to do badly so they could say that unions are bad for businesses," says Koo.
Mr. Chiu scoffs at those accusations. He says the workers, acting out of a grudge against the restaurant's previous owner Richard Chan, offered bad service that turned away loyal customers. The union asserts that Chiu is acting as a front for Chan, currently the restaurant's "honorary chairman."
Regardless of what caused the bankruptcy, the Silver Palace Restaurant reopened in August with the word "New" added to its name and the union nowhere to be found. After weeks of picket lines and protests, the 318 workers were given a boost earlier this month when the NLRB, following a lengthy investigation, charged the New Silver Palace with anti-union hiring practices.
The NLRB report confirmed that former workers were asked "to pay money to gain employment."
"They wanted to keep out people who support the union, so they told us we had to buy our job back," says May Fung, a Chinese immigrant.
"No one has that kind of money."
Not surprisingly it was money that sparked the workers to unionize in 1980 after a group of waiters refused to kick in an additional share of their tips for the restaurant's managers, a common practice in Chinatown. Refusing the orders, the waiters were fired.