Today's long read comes from San Francisco Magazine, a story about how even in arguably the most liberal large city in America, there's problems with wage theft for service workers. The good news is that these workers banded together and fought back to the tune of $4 million.
Even after Zhen Li leads a rousing chant—“Workers organize, everybody wins!”—no one else wants to step up to the microphone. Tiny and bespectacled, her hair in a jet-black bob, Li has the look of a Chinatown matron, one of those tenacious hagglers who elbows her way through the crowds on Stockton Street to purchase jade-green gai lan and silvery carp. Wearing jeans, sturdy black shoes, and a puffy striped jacket, she exhorts her fellow proletariats to join her up front and holds out the mic to a nearby woman. The woman tries to beg off, pleading, “I’m sick—my throat hurts,” but cheers draw her to her feet, and she sheepishly echoes Li’s rallying cry.
On this rainy evening in early December at the Chinese Cultural Center, Li and dozens of workers—mostly women, mostly middle-aged and older— are celebrating with greasy takeout, cake, a slideshow, and speeches. While some are clearly shy about speaking in public, they are no longer scared. They’ve already achieved the impossible: Their solidarity has won them an astonishing sum—$4 million—from a powerful employer that had systematically undercut their wages, pocketed their tips, and forced them to work under brutal conditions. And it wasn’t just any business that Li and her comrades had taken on: It was Yank Sing, San Francisco’s most lucrative and popular purveyor of dim sum, those small plates of har gow, siu mai, and other doll-size delicacies that the restaurant serves to more than 1,200 customers a day (and that’s a slow day).
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.
While you read Zhen Li's story, think about how the vast majority of America views organized labor in 2015: as an economic disease that must be eradicated, and that poor working conditions, low wages, and wage theft are 100% the fault of the people who choose to work these service jobs. If you wanted a better job, a better life, you would be a good enough person to earn a better job. The fact you're working for minimum wage in a kitchen, the argument goes, is proof you are unskilled, lazy, stupid, uneducated, and most of all, undeserving of dignity.
Organized labor upsets this natural balance of the Invisible Hand of the Free Market. It gives these "undeserving" people hope that they matter, that they are worth something more than the wage they get per hour where in America your sole measure of worth is your paycheck. These people, the story goes, get more than they deserve by stealing from the rest of us when they form those evil unions. Most of all they force our most precious resource, Business Owners, to spend money on greedy union workers when they could be hiring more of us for cheaper wages instead. Unions cost jobs, you see.
Never mind that the mythical American middle class doesn't get paid enough these days to be able to afford to buy products we make or sell, and business owners are sitting on billions in profits in cash used to prop up share prices through stock repurchase plans and trillions in offshore profits that never get taxed in the US.
Funny how businesses are making the greatest profits in American history, but somehow can't afford to pay taxes or raise wages.
Surely that's the fault of kitchen workers in San Francisco.