Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 25, 2007; Page A01
An immigrant restaurant delivery worker in New York protests pay that is well below the minimum wage. (Shiho Fukada – Ap/special To The Washington Post)
NEW YORK — The deliverymen of Saigon Grill labored for years at the bottom of Manhattan‘s food chain. Biking swiftly down the avenues in biting cold and searing heat, they schlepped up high-rises and walk-ups with bags of steaming noodles and shrimp fried rice.
Then they surprised their bosses — and others in this seen-it-all town — by serving up something unexpected: a revolt.
The 30 men — all immigrants, including undocumented workers frustrated with the poor conditions and low wages that are often a fact of life in America’s underground economy — banded together in an effort to unionize. They demanded an end to what they say were salaries less than half the minimum wage, and to penalties that included $20 fines for late deliveries and $50 for shutting the restaurant’s glass doors with a bang.
Saigon Grill’s owner fired them. It might have ended there, but as the immigrant labor movement gains steam in a number of major U.S. cities, the men opted to fight back. With the help of local groups aiming to organize documented and undocumented immigrants in New York, the men filed a lawsuit against the owner. Then, in March, they began daily picket lines at the restaurant’s two Manhattan locations.
So far, hundreds of deliverymen, waiters, cooks and busboys from across New York have joined their picket lines in shows of solidarity. Angry deliverymen have slapped at least five other restaurants here with similar lawsuits. Immigrants laboring in other types of restaurant jobs have filed several more, targeting small takeout operations and upscale establishments such as Devi, the critically acclaimed Manhattan eatery.
“We have been going under the assumption that because we have no papers, we were powerless — but we were wrong,” Ke, a 35-year-old Chinese immigrant and former Saigon Grill deliveryman, said through an interpreter during a protest last week at the restaurant’s fashionable Union Square branch. As with others here, Ke requested that his surname be withheld because he is undocumented. “We have discovered that we have the power to act.”
The New York deliverymen’s revolt, observers say, is happening as a number of immigrants are mobilizing into an increasingly organized labor movement with the help of unions and a fast-growing assortment of local activist groups.
Legal actions and demonstrations on behalf of undocumented immigrants by groups such as Justice for Janitors have been going on for years. But in the wake of the grass-roots mobilizations surrounding the immigration reform debate in Washington, experts have noted an increase in lawsuits, picket lines and work stoppages by immigrants who had long shied away from more visible forms of protest.
Immigrants have also emerged as the cavalry in the United States’ flagging labor movement, which is embracing a group of people long assailed by union members for driving down wages. The percentage of the American workforce represented by unions has fallen to 13.1 percent, down from 16.2 percent a decade ago.
But the number of immigrants, documented and undocumented, represented by unions surged to 2 million last year, up from 1.6 million in 1996, according to a study by the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute that is scheduled for release next week. By comparison, the number of union-represented U.S.-born citizens dropped to 14.8 million last year, down from 16.5 million in 1996, the study said.
The majority of undocumented immigrants in the United States, observers say, remain too fearful to participate in such public actions. But a growing assertiveness in some pockets of the country’s illegal immigrant community of 12 million people is beginning to answer at least one of the hot questions in the immigration debate: What would happen if exploited undocumented workers decided one day that enough is enough?
If New York — a city whose key service and construction sectors are highly dependent on cheap immigrant labor — is any example, it will mean higher costs for businesses and their customers. Fearing they could be the next target, dozens of restaurateurs in Manhattan have boosted wages for deliverymen, according to union officials, lawyers and workers.
Saigon Grill itself, meanwhile, has suspended food delivery — which reportedly accounted for as much as 25 percent of the chain’s revenue. A management official at the company who asked not to be named said it has been forced to raise prices to cover some of those losses.
“It sort of makes you sit up and take notice, doesn’t it?” said Kenneth Kimerling, legal director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF).
The challenges facing the immigrant labor movement remain formidable. Tougher immigration enforcement and increased raids, observers say, have had a chilling effect on organization efforts in some parts of the country.
But activists say that in big urban areas such as New York and Los Angeles — where local policies prohibit city officials from asking about immigration status in labor or other disputes — immigrant groups have become strikingly bolder in demanding rights.
Observers say that is a direct result of increased efforts to organize them. In May, for instance, dozens of unions in Los Angeles dispatched liaisons to help organize the largely Hispanic, immigrant truck drivers serving the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The result was an organized work stoppage in which hundreds of immigrant workers demanding better pay joined in a caravan protest that left port officials scurrying to find replacements, said Maria Elena Durazo, board member of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.
Similar organizational efforts, she said, are underway at ports in Miami and New Jersey. In New York, unions and activist groups are also moving to organize immigrant construction, supermarket and nail salon workers. Over the past decade, the number of “worker centers” — or associations for immigrant day laborers that strive to set standardized wages — has jumped from a few dozen to more than 200 nationwide, according to the National Employment Law Project.
The courts are often on their side. Though a noted 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling made it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to seek damages for being unlawfully fired, it did not preclude them from going after back wages — the primary goal of the majority of immigrant labor lawsuits. Over the past three years, AALDEF — one of the largest immigrant activist groups in New York — has won about $4 million in claims for 87 clients.
“It’s the American story: immigrants trying to assert their rights,” said John Wilhelm, co-president of Unite Here, an immigrant-based labor group of 450,000 that bills itself as the fastest-growing union in North America. “Italian and Irish Americans did it 100 years ago; now new groups of immigrants are trying to do the same.”
For the deliverymen at Saigon Grill — mostly Chinese immigrants — the move to organize came after word spread around town of a similar case last year at another Manhattan restaurant, Our Place Cuisines of China. After a deliveryman there was allegedly fired for talking back to his boss, he organized workers at the restaurant with the help of the Chinese Staff and Workers Association (CSWA) and the 318 Restaurant Workers Union, both labor groups that have succeeded in upping wages for many Asian immigrants in New York’s Chinatown.
“We began to sense that maybe we were not helpless, that maybe even people like us could fight for our rights,” said Ke, an immigrant from Fujian province who illegally arrived in the United States in 1995.
After contacting CSWA and the 318 union in February, Ke said that he helped lead a secret movement to unionize Saigon Grill’s deliverymen and demand fair wages. When the restaurant’s owner, Simon Nget, an ethnic Chinese Cambodian who had fled the Khmer Rouge and came to New York in the 1980s, discovered their plan, the deliverymen say he offered to increase wages from $1.60 to $4 an hour. But only if they dropped their unionization bid. When they refused, they said, he fired them.
Nget did not return phone calls requesting comment. In a personal letter to his customers, he alleged, however, that the men were trying to “extort” him and called their demonstrations “outrageous.”
Given the fairly high success rate of immigrant labor suits, employers — especially restaurants — frequently settle out of court to avoid unwanted publicity. For now, the deliverymen of Saigon Grill insist they will keep up their protest for as long as it takes.
“We feel strong now,” Ke said. “And that feels good.”