April 29, 2015
* This article originally appeared in SF Magazine on March 30, 2015. Photo by Michael Cho.
The journey to restitution for Li and her coworkers began two years ago, when Li discovered that she wasn’t alone in feeling abused and underpaid. Her official work hours were 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., but often, she says, her bosses forced her to stay, unpaid, an hour or two longer to prepare food and take care of her station. Unbeknownst to Li, a few coworkers had been meeting with the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA)—a scrappy and strategic advocacy group that’s been organizing low-income laborers for decades—in an effort to bring change to Yank Sing. One of her coworkers approached her, saying, “We need your help.” When Li discussed the idea with her husband, he tried to stop her from joining the nascent campaign. “What if you don’t win? What if you lose your job?” he asked. “Your employer is so wealthy, so powerful.”
Despite his resistance, Li persisted. “I was pretty scared. It was just a few of us going to meetings,” she tells me, speaking in Cantonese through a translator. “But with all the support and encouragement, I started to have more courage.” Before long, she would prove her mettle, becoming one of the insurgent group’s most stalwart leaders.
Born in the years after the Communist Party took over China, Li is no stranger to social and political turmoil. As a child, she worked in the fields, planting seeds and pulling weeds in Taishan, a county west of Hong Kong. In middle school, she donned an armband and a red-star military cap and served as a Red Guard in the Cultural Revolution, the cataclysmic movement that followed Chairman Mao’s call for class struggle against intellectuals and capitalists. Although countless victims of the Red Guard were beaten, sent to labor camps, and killed, Li maintains that she was never involved in violence—when clashes erupted in the streets, she says, her parents kept her home. A fervent believer nevertheless, she sang songs praising the revolution’s leaders and shared the writings of Mao.
After graduating from high school and getting married, Li turned to domestic pursuits, devoting herself to her son and daughter and taking work wherever she could find it—in garment and glass factories, at restaurants, and in construction, mostly in the county capital, Taishan City. The people of Taishan have been coming to America— and to San Francisco, in particular—since the mid-19th century, working on railroads and sugar plantations or opening shops and restaurants to support their families left behind. In 2000, Li, her husband, and their children joined the exodus, arriving on an immigration visa sponsored by her sister.
The family moved into a cramped apartment in Glen Park, and Li worked at a vegetable market and then a garment factory. Back in Taishan, her friends and family marveled at her earnings: $1,000 a month. When the factory moved to Daly City, Li sought work in Chinatown dives and found employment in the kitchen of King Tin, a restaurant that stiffed its workers on wages and forced some of them to toil as long as 17 hours a day. In 2004, with the help of the CPA, Li and some of the cooks, waiters, dishwashers, and janitors began complaining to labor agencies. Shortly thereafter, the restaurant closed and filed for bankruptcy, a crisis that drove the workers to further action—they realized that if they didn’t press their case, they’d miss the chance to recover any wages. A year later, City Attorney Dennis Herrera sued the owners of King Tin for violating the city law setting the minimum wage at $8.50 an hour. Eventually, Li and six workers recovered $85,000 in back pay.
In 2008, two years after the lawsuit was settled, Li landed a job as a fryer at Yank Sing in the Rincon Center. She was elated. “It was so beautiful,” she remembers. “I thought the benefits would be better and that I would be treated better.”
With its etched-glass partitions, black and cream carpets, and white tablecloths, Yank Sing is an elegant if not trendy restaurant, charging premium prices that reflect a level of customer service and quality of ingredients generally unmatched in Chinatown. Between its two locations, Yank Sing generates $10 million annually on sales of flaky onion pancakes, shrimp mousse croquettes with a delicate golden crumb, and crunchy spring rolls—all the handiwork of kitchen staffers like Li. “I worked really hard,” she says, “because the standards were so high.” She explains her approach to making the prized fried snacks: “See that the oil is clear and control the flame just right, and when you fry, it will be nice.”
Yank Sing’s lofty standards were set by the restaurant’s revered founder, Alice Chan, whose misty portrait hangs in both locations with the inscription “From whose love of life and food all else flowed.” After emigrating from Hong Kong in the early 1950s, Chan found work making dim sum in Chinatown. Her young son, Henry, helped out after school and on weekends, and in 1958, she opened her own restaurant in Chinatown, quickly attracting a following.
In time, Henry Chan persuaded his mother to move Yank Sing to Stevenson Street in downtown San Francisco. There, he told the San Francisco Chronicle, they could leave behind Chinatown’s cutthroat competition and attract a middle-class American clientele. A second location on Battery Street followed in 1981. Not long after, Alice Chan passed away, and Henry and his wife took the reins. In 1999, Yank Sing opened in the Rincon Center on Spear Street, and in 2001, the Battery Street location closed. Currently, the Chans run their restaurants alongside their only child, Vera, and her husband, Nathan Waller.
The Yank Sing one enters today has a bustling vibe, but without the frenzied, teetering-into-chaos commotion of other dim sum palaces, where curt hostesses squawk out numbers and long lines form for dodgy bathrooms. At the Rincon Center Yank Sing, the atrium is flooded with light that illuminates tables encircling a dramatic waterfall. High above, murals in pastel blue and dusky pink, added during an expansion of the complex in the ’80s, feature scientists in a lab, grapes on the vine, a BART train, and other wonders of the California economy. On a Sunday afternoon, an overflow crowd spills into the atrium, while the to-go counter is jammed with dim sum aficionados. An Asian man murmurs to a friend that he takes all his clients to Yank Sing. “They say that the price is high and that we should go to Chinatown,” he says. “But I like the food here better.”
Yet even as Yank Sing stockpiled accolades— including a 2009 James Beard Award that named it an American classic—discontent was growing among its workers. In the spring of 2013, Dixon Law, a boyish former driver at Yank Sing, was convinced to contact the CPA by his wife, Sandy, who had picked up a booklet about workers’ rights and labor laws (the cover asked, “Is getting mistreated making you unhappy?”). The Laws and others shared with CPA organizers stories of alleged abuse at the hands of supervisors: Some bosses, they said, screamed at employees so viciously that they were forced to retreat to the walk-in freezer to cry. If they suffered cuts, burns, or other injuries, they were ordered back to work without being given medical care. Workers in the high-pressure kitchen weren’t given breaks. In the front of the house, managers snatched tips. Employees occasionally complained to management, says Shaw San Liu, the CPA’s lead organizer, but the problems didn’t abate.
“When we first started, we didn’t know if we could get back wages, but we thought we needed to fight for worker rights,” recalls Sandy Law, a janitor on the night shift. After being convinced to join the cause, Li answered her husband’s doubts by reminding him of the earlier suit against King Tin: “It worked before. We can do it again.” That victory, and a second one at the Golden Dragon, another Chinatown minimum wage violator, bolstered the workers’ confidence in the legal process. In secret, the rebels contacted other workers by phone and met at their homes. “We talked about it hush-hush if we ran into them on the street,” says Li. They began to sell others on joining the campaign—telling them that they weren’t alone in coming forward, that the discussions were confidential, and that organizers wouldn’t do anything without their permission. The new recruits contacted still more workers, who shared their frustrations over tea and sweet rice cakes.
Their numbers swelled rapidly, from 10 to 40 to 96 workers, all willing to file claims with state and local labor agencies. “These workers were starting from scratch, and the campaign grew so quickly and so big,” says Winnie Kao, litigation director of the Asian Law Caucus, a legal aid organization that joined the fight at the request of the CPA. “I’ve never been a part of anything like this, of this size and strength. The courage that the workers showed was inspiring.”
That courage had to overcome the workers’ fears of retaliation and getting fired—fears that Shuang Li (no relation to Zhen) understood. Before becoming an organizer at the CPA, she had worked at restaurants too, and, like the Yank Sing workers, had faced intense pressure from her family to keep her head down. Her parents used to ask, “Why are you making trouble? Why do you have free time to cause trouble?” Her husband told her, “We might get investigated, and the triads might try to kidnap the children.”
Bubbly, with a smoky voice, her long hair worn loose and flowing, Li tried to put the Yank Sing workers—and their families—at ease. “Some of the relatives were so anxious at first,” she says, “that they would pretend they weren’t related, even though they were living together.” Zhen Li hid her involvement from her adult children, who were mystified by her sudden habit of coming home late to their shared apartment. At the time that I interviewed him, Dixon Law still hadn’t told his parents about his work on the campaign. “I don’t want them to worry,” the 31-year-old said. “They would ask so many questions.”
That May and June, labor inspectors from the state and city began an investigation in secret, interviewing workers and conducting surveillance inside and outside the restaurant. As the investigation moved into the open, the inspectors made surprise visits to management and subpoenaed payroll records. Ultimately, they found that 280 Yank Sing employees had not been paid for all hours worked, that most had been paid the state’s minimum wage of $8 per hour instead of San Francisco’s higher rate (which had risen to $10.55 by 2013), and that management had kept or misdirected $1 million in tips.
The legal process was far from over, however— now the workers had to keep up the fight while management knew what they were up to. “Imagine if you just filed a claim against your employer and went back to work,” says the CPA’s Liu. “That’s scary.” She encouraged the workers to stick together, to stay motivated, and not to lose hope as the battle ground on. They had to keep the pressure up, to let their employer know that they were serious. It was time, they decided, to march on Yank Sing.
The problem of wage theft is not confined to any one industry, ethnicity, size of business, or corporate structure, says Labor Commissioner Julie Su. Each year, California loses approximately $8 billion in tax revenues to wage theft, and Su’s office has investigated millions of dollars’ worth of violations committed by, among others, a hospital, assisted living providers, and a construction project. But restaurants in Chinatown are particularly egregious offenders: A 2010 report by the CPA found that half of Chinatown restaurant workers have had their wages undercut, payments withheld, or tips stolen. A survey of low-wage workers in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, performed by the National Employment Labor Project, reveals that close to 85 percent of foreign-born Asians, 78.8 percent of women, and nearly 85 percent of undocumented workers have experienced overtime violations.
Among the most likely victims of wage theft are nonunion workers, people who don’t speak English, and immigrants who lack an understanding of their rights. Not all of the workers involved in the Yank Sing campaign fell into these categories, but many still felt vulnerable. If they went public too soon, if they picketed the sidewalk or stormed the dining room or publicized their story in the media, they risked turning management against them and losing their livelihood— and many of them wanted to keep working for Yank Sing. Their situation was unusual: According to Kao of the Asian Law Caucus, three-quarters of the wage claims received by the organization’s free legal clinic in San Francisco are filed by workers who have already left their job. People who are still employed, notes Victor Narro, project director at the UCLA Labor Center, typically don’t risk such actions without the protection of a union contract. The Yank Sing workers, however, were inclined to stand pat in part because finding a comparable job wouldn’t be easy. They knew that similarly bad conditions were rampant in the restaurant industry. There was simply no guarantee that they’d find a better situation.
One day in June 2013—after lunch, when no customers were around— workers presented a letter to management with their complaints. In August, a contingent of 80 workers and supporters marched on the restaurant—again after hours and out of sight of customers. The following month, alternating groups of workers walked out through the back door of the kitchen at noon, at the height of the weekend lunch rush, for 10-minute breaks.
Realizing that it had a serious problem on its hands, management began scheduling rest periods, raised some workers’ wages, revised tipping practices, and retrained managers to prevent abuses from continuing. But the workers had many more demands. Along with back wages, they wanted better working conditions: time and a half if they worked on a holiday; a progressive discipline policy with verbal and written warnings; paid healthcare; additional paid vacation time; protected unpaid leave; and training for a variety of kitchen duties to prevent repetitive stress injuries.
In October 2013, faced with a prolonged insurrection, Yank Sing hired Jonathan Glick, a lawyer by training and a political consultant by trade, as director of operations and spokesman. For years, Glick had had two dreams: to work in a Republican White House and to run his own boutique hotel and restaurant. After serving as an operative on several political campaigns, he was ready for a career change; his father, an attorney, suggested that he meet with the Chans, who were longtime family friends. Initially, Glick claims, the Yank Sing owners were “in shock and totally unaware that they had issues. It’s a family business that was doing things the same way for years, and it grew up too fast.”
Workers began meeting with management at the offices of the CPA or at the Asian Law Caucus. Often, they chanted together before entering. Glick had dealt with hundreds of grassroots organizations while in politics, but the solidarity of the Yank Sing workers startled and impressed him. Generally speaking, attorneys handle negotiations between employers and labor, but the Yank Sing workers pushed to be included in the meetings, sometimes listening via headset to translations in Cantonese.
The more often that the workers met with management, the more confident they became. “They’re proud of the work they do, of the food they painstakingly make,” says Kao. “They made it clear that they had common goals with their employer, which was reassuring for the employer to hear.” In March of last year, the meetings culminated in mediation. In a conference room at Two Embarcadero Center, backed by a stunning view of the bay, the rebels unfurled a bright-red, 12-foot-long banner, signed by each worker, that proclaimed, “Yank Sing Workers United to Defend Our Rights!”
Li was both excited and afraid to sit across from her bosses, who had studied the banner—and the signatures: “My name was right in the center,” she says, “under ‘Workers’!” At times, the discussions were tense, with people growing frustrated and upset, says Kao, though she declines to disclose details. The marathon session lasted 16 hours, but by 1 a.m., a tentative agreement had been reached, including the total amount owed to the workers: a whopping $4 million.
Yank Sing agreed to begin offering fully paid health and dental care to its 90 full-time employees. (Another 60, who work part-time, participate in the city’s universal healthcare program.) Workers would soon check in with their thumbs on a biometric time clock before donning their uniform and after changing into their street clothes, reclaiming those lost minutes at the beginning and end of each shift. Yank Sing would dismiss some managers and retrain those who remained, transfer its payroll from a mom-and-pop shop to outsourcing giant Paychex, and hire Vine Solutions, a financial accounting and operations consultant. After years of skirting the rules, Yank Sing would become an exemplar of good behavior in the industry.
One day in December, I walk with Glick to the back of Yank Sing, the kitchens fragrant with ginger and garlic. A cook hacks apart a chicken, his cleaver flashing, while a woman slices scallions. Moments before, they had returned from their meal break—another right that they can now exercise. A month later, Li and I meet at the offices of the CPA—students are making signs for a rally, and the air is pungent with the odor of Sharpies. I ask Li if her activism at Yank Sing reminds her at all of her life as a revolutionary Red Guard in China decades ago. “It’s totally different,” she answers. “Back then, it was a historical moment. We were really happy that society relied on young people to carry out work, to bring information to peasants. You can’t compare it to a workplace campaign.” But when she tells me that she was selected to lead and organize her unit of rural peasants, I can see the young revolutionary still glinting in her. “I’ve always had an interest in participating in things for society and spreading the word,” she says.
Today, Glick reports, turnover among Yank Sing staff remains low. The workers seem happier and more productive than they once were. Every quarter, management meets with Li and other workers on a compliance committee, and, so far, Yank Sing seems to be living up to its end of the bargain. Total redress to each of the 280 workers ranges from several hundred to tens of thousands of dollars. The first checks were mailed in November.
– See more at: http://www.modernluxury.com/san-francisco/story/the-dim-sum-revolution#sthash.TKx2Tgd4.dpuf