PARADOX AT WEST 90TH STREET
labor's ugly past and hopeful future face off at the Saigon Grill
On Saturday, March 26, 2011, one of a series of labor rallies was held at the Saigon Grill, an Asian fusion restaurant on the Upper West Side of New York City's Borough of Manhattan. This restaurant, like most of the businesses in that industry in this town, has a long shameful history of labor abuses, with subminimum wages paid to immigrant workers being the most common.
However, unlike most of the city's eating establishments, the workers here have actually been organizing, and have heroically fought for the last several years, under the leadership of a Chinese immigrant led independent labor organization, the 318 Restaurant Union.
Unfortunately, the bosses of the Saigon Grill have brought in a tiny AFL-CIO union that is acting as a barrier to these restaurant workers having their labor union recognized.
The rally they held Saturday showed the crossroads that American labor faces at the moment - the possible road to justice and power for American workers, and the possible road to total defeat.
On the positive side, there were close to 200 people at the demonstration. About a quarter of the crowd were the Chinese, Vietnamese and Mexican immigrant workers who are employed at the establishment and other low wage non union restaurants in the area.
Remarkably, about 3/4th of the protesters were White American white collar workers and professional people who live in the Upper West Side, a relatively affluent neighborhood. Some of these folks were union members (mostly public workers in the United Federation of Teachers, AFSCME District Council 37 and health care professionals in SEIU local 1199). However, most of the protesters at this rally were non union white collar workers (obviously, the old labor concept of "an injury to one is the concern of all" is not dead).
Not all the passersby were sympathetic (some even went into the restaurant despite the picketing).
There was also a tiny counterdemonstration - just 5 people, two of whom were apparently part of Saigon Grill's management team. The other three were representatives of a dubious labor union that has been scabbing on the 318 Union (more on that below)
However, those sentiments were a distinct minority in the otherwise overwhelmingly pro labor crowd.
This impressively multiracial rally was organized by a coalition of local community groups, Democratic Party activists, liberal churches and synagogues which is led by the 318 Restaurant Union.
The 318 Union itself has a quite remarkable history. It is closely allied to the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, a Chinese immigrant workers group founded over 40 years ago by Maoist activist turned labor rights crusader Wing Lam.
CSWA's greatest achievement was its role, along with a loose knit group of 60 Black and Latino construction workers organizations collectively known as "the coalition" in integrating the building trades unions in New York City through a massive wave of very aggressive protests at all White jobsites.
These protests typically involved Black, Latino and Chinese workers invading and occupying jobsites and refusing to leave until contractors racially integrated their work crews and represented an unsung but very real victory of the civil rights movement that stands to this day.
In more recent times, CSWA's main focus has been on organizing workers at Chinese and other Asian restaurants in the city - with Saigon Grill being but one of many campaigns they've carried out.
The backbone of the CSWA/318 Union's campaigns is a large force of volunteers. Obviously, some of these folks are Latino and Asian immigrant restaurant workers. However, a large contingent are young college students and white collar workers, of all races, who devote their time and effort to helping these superexploited workers.
The efforts of those volunteers made this event happen - and inspired so many non union folks from the surrounding community to come out for this labor rally.
The only downside of this labor rally was the presence of a large contingent of Democratic Party politicians.
Sadly, this is to be expected at labor rallies, because that party, despite its allegiance to the liberal wing of the corporate ruling class of this country, has long cultivated an image of being a "party of the people" - unfortunately, since the mid 1930's, a majority of American workers (and an overwhelming 4/5th majority of New York City workers) have come to have illusions in that party.
To be fair, the overreliance on the promises of Democratic politicians is not unique to the 318 Union - it's actually common to almost the entire labor movement - so we can be a bit forgiving about that shortcoming, especially in light of the far greater error of the other labor organization at the event.
That would be the Restaurant Division of Local 713 International Brotherhood of Trade Unions of the International Union of Journeyman Horseshoers, AFL-CIO .
Yes, reader, you read right, the HORSESHOERS union is claiming jurisdiction over restaurant workers!
The Horseshoers Union is a very old labor organization, organized way back in 1874 and a founding affiliate of the American Federation of Labor in 1881.
For obvious technological reasons, the Horseshoers Union fell on hard times with the widespread introduction of cars and trucks in the 1920's - for over 70 years, it only had a few hundred members who worked on the horses at racetracks.
In that corrupt environment, the Horseshoers Union degenerated into a company union for the racehorse stable owners (the union represents them as well as their employees!) and fell under control of the gangsters that are so prominent in that world.
In the early 2000's, Horseshoers Local 713 fell under the control of a cabal of labor racketeers - the Scalza brothers, Richard, Robert and Perry, and Peter Hasho.
Their time in the union coincided with a rapid expansion of the tiny dying craft union, from a small dying racetrack craft union into a 50,000 member organization, most of whose members work for low wages and minimal to nonexistent benefits under sweetheart contracts far below the prevailing union wages in their industries.
Low wage employers in a number of industries (construction, garment manufacturing, toy factories, food processing plants, warehouses, trucking companies and, of course, restaurants) rely on Local 713 of the Horseshoers to provide them with sweatshop union contracts so they can keep their workers from getting a union that might actually fight for them.
Selling out workers is nothing new for the brothers Scalza and their associate Hashto - betraying labor has been a life's work for these men.
The Scalzas looted and misruled Local 819 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a Maspeth, Queens-based warehouse workers local, for over 40 years, until their 1994 expulsion from that union for health insurance fraud.
They and 500 other labor racketeers were kicked out of the Teamsters and banned for life from any involvement with any Teamsters local anywhere in the country by federal court order, as part of a long term anti racketeering monitorship of that union by the government.
Hashto, also a longtime labor racketeer, had spent nearly 50 years inflicting himself on the Fulton Fish Market workers represented by United Seafood Workers Local 359, of the United Food & Commercial Workers and toy factory workers represented by Local 148, Novelty and Production Workers Union.
Hashto was expelled from UFCW Local 359 by court order when the City of New York cleaned the Genovese Crime Family out of the Fulton Fish Market - he was kicked out of Novelty Workers local 148 by another court order for looting $ 350,000 from the workers' health insurance fund.
Unfortunately, as a rule, the government only punishes labor racketeers when their crimes inflict higher costs on major corporations. As long as they confine their abuses of workers to signing low wage sweetheart contracts to small businesses like the Saigon Grill who desire to keep out legit unions, the feds let them do as they will.
That's why these traitors to the labor movement are able to inflict their company union on the Saigon Grill's employees, with the full collaboration of the owners and managers of that low wage restaurant
That may explain why the government hasn't come in and cleaned out the Horseshoers Union.
Apparently having learned from hard experience, Hashto and the Scalza brothers have become like the shoes on a racehorse - they stay deep in the muck and manure at the bottom of the economy and steer clear of anything that might hurt Corporate America's bottom line.
That does NOT explain why the AFL-CIO allows a scabby abomination like the Horseshoers Union to keep it's AFL-CIO charter (do they need the per capita tax money on 50,000 members that badly?)
Even more pathetically, the AFL-CIO union which, at least on paper, has jurisdiction over the New York City restaurant industry - Local 100, UNITE-HERE - is all but nonexistent. Other than a few workers in office building cafeterias and bars and food service kitchens at Kennedy and La Guardia airports, that union is all but nonexistent in the city's huge hospitality industry.
That's why the CSWA had to organize the 318 Restaurant Union in the first place!
Even though 318 isn't an AFL-CIO union, it's still wrong for an affiliate of the federation to be raiding it, even if it's technically permissible under the AFL-CIO constitution.
Bottom line, this rally at the Saigon Grill showed two possible futures for labor - on the one hand, uniting all workers, under the leadership of the most exploited to fight the abuses of the system, or the alternative, craven corrupt company unionism that blatantly betrays the interest of the poorest and most vulnerable members of our class.
- commentary by GREGORY A. BUTLER, local 157 carpenter,
for GANGBOX: CONSTRUCTION WORKERS NEWS SERVICE
"UNION NOW, UNION FOREVER"
Originally published on Sunday, March 27, 2011