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Asian Workers Flex Their Union Muscles

Labor: Employees are organizing, despite the stance of some Asian business owners, who urge them to show ethnic solidarity.


When the Chinese Daily News threatened pay cuts in what it called salary reconstruction, employees' frustration erupted into the unexpected: the formation of a union.

The move pleased the AFL-CIO. And to the union federation it was evidence that its efforts to lure Asian Americans are paying off.

Even more surprising are recent efforts by Asian American workers to organize in defiance of Asian bosses.

In Los Angeles and Orange counties, there are at least six union campaigns led by Asian American workers--two of them involving Asian-owned businesses.

"With Asian labor organizing, we're definitely on a major upswing," said Quynh Nguyen, organizing director of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance. "L.A. is a sign of what's to come. L.A. is considered on the cutting edge of organizing."

Since organizing under the AFL-CIO a decade ago, the alliance's training efforts have increased the number of Asian American organizers within the AFL-CIO from fewer than 10 to more than 100 nationwide. The organization has also been bolstered by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney's calls on the union to reach out to immigrant workers.

The alliance "doesn't have the same resources and capacity as other organizations, but it has been extremely effective at training and recruiting," said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education and the alliance's first president.

"It has been a huge breakthrough for Asian American workers," Wong said.

About 12% of Asian American workers belong to unions nationwide, a figure that has remained fairly steady in the last decade. Overall, 13.5% of American workers belong to unions, down from about 20% in the early 1980s, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor.

The formation last year of an Asian Pacific Islander Caucus in the state Assembly has brought more visibility to the Asian American labor movement.

In May, Assemblywoman Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) joined by members of the Labor Committee and the Asian Pacific Islander Caucus, heard testimony from mostly Asian immigrant employees about exploitation in the workplace. The hearing produced a report by the UCLA labor center and the alliance and could result in legislation next year, said Denise Ng, a field representative for Chu's office.

"This was the first of its kind," Ng said of the meeting. "People came from all over the state to testify, and they waited for hours to speak." Chu and her team are planning a similar hearing in the Bay Area by the end of the year.

Last month, the alliance organized a town hall meeting of Asian Pacific Islander working families, which featured workers' testimonies and pledges by Chu and Assemblywomen Carol Liu (D-La Canada Flintridge) and Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles) to support the Asian American labor efforts, partly through better enforcement of labor laws.

Although there's a history of Asian American unionizing, including that of Chinese railroad workers and Japanese and Filipino farm workers, such efforts historically have not been as consistent or as widely known as those by blacks and Latinos.

And they rarely emerged within Asian-owned business, primarily because of the loyalty many Asian Americans have felt to friends and relatives who hired them, but also because racial discrimination has prevented workers from finding work elsewhere, said L. Ling-chi Wang, a professor of Asian American studies at UC Berkeley.

But Asian American employers have also used this loyalty to manipulate workers, urging employees not to fight with bosses to show ethnic solidarity, said Katie Quan, a former seamstress who served nine years as the Pacific Northwest head of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. "But when push comes to shove, workers really understand that they have rights and that the boss is trying to exploit them."

Recent local struggles by Asian American workers have been fierce.

The Chinese Daily News, the largest Chinese-language paper in the Los Angeles area, with a circulation of more than 100,000, refuses to recognize its union. The management called last year's 78-63 vote illegal and challenged the result with the National Labor Relations Board in September after losing a regional decision. The paper said vote results should be overturned because some supervisors supported the union before the election.

Lynne Wang, a Chinese Daily News reporter who has been the paper's most vocal union supporter, said the opposite had occurred: A supervisor had urged employees to vote against the union.

NLRB guidelines say that the board should rule by Sept. 17, a year after the case was appealed, but Bruce Meachum, a representative of the Newspaper Guild, doesn't expect a decision soon.

"It's a little strange and very unfair," Meachum said. "The company uses this time to intimidate a lot of employees."

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