History

CSWA was originally founded in 1979 in NYC’s Chinatown by a group of Chinese restaurant workers, who felt they needed an organization that would go beyond the limitations of traditional union organizing. Initially established as a voluntary membership group with mostly male, restaurant workers, CSWA today has grown into a direct membership organization of over 2,000 members working in diverse trades, documented and undocumented, and from all backgrounds and ages. Our leadership is composed primarily of women. We have two centers, one in Manhattan’s Chinatown the other in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park Chinatown. CSWA is the first workers’ center in the country, bringing together workers across all trades to fight for our basic legal and human rights in the workplace as well as in the community-at-large.

A few of our many accomplishments in the past 35 years include:

  • Assisting workers to recover over $50 million in awarded backwages
  • Establishing the first independent restaurant union in Chinatown
  • Preserving the environment and cultural integrity of the community by winning a landmark legal victory that stopped luxury development and displacement in Chinatown and reframed people as part of environmental rights struggles
  • Securing the first wage increase in ten years for New York State’s tipped employees; and more recently, winning a precedent-setting legal decision prohibiting employers from stealing tips
  • Being the first to successfully hold a garment manufacturer accountable for sweatshop conditions and brought nationwide attention to sweatshops, receiving recognition at the 1997 Philadelphia Presidential Volunteer Summit for our work in promoting a teaching example for fighting against sweatshops
  • Being one of the first organizations to raise awareness, document and advocate for the needs of low–income workers affected by the disaster and directly assisted over 2,000 families North of Canal in accessing more than $2 million in relief assistance
  • Wing Lam, Executive Director, on behalf of CSWA, being among the first group in 2001 to be recognized by the Ford Foundation’s program, Leadership for a Changing World, for developing a new model of organizing
  • Partners with Bellevue Hospital in our 9/11 health network to establish the only treatment and screening program for residents and workers affected by the 9/11 toxic air and leveraged critical support
  • United documented and undocumented workers to organize together, particularly in the Chinatown restaurant industry where conditions have improved dramatically and many restaurants now have a 40-hour workweek.

Timeline of Major Accomplishments

  • 1980 – Helped Silver Palace dining room employees form independent union, the first ever in any Chinatown. Later, several restaurants joined in and formed the 318 Restaurant Workers Union, named after the day Silver Palace workers were fired.
  • 1986 – Won a landmark legal victory that stopped construction of luxury condominiums. In a precedent-setting case, the court ruled that people – like water, land and air – are part of the environment; thus displacement of people destroys the environment.
  • 1988 – Chinese construction workers launched successful 6 year campaign to hold City government accountable for paying prevailing wage after they were exploited in a federally-funded program run by the Chinese American Planning Council (CPC).
  • 1991 – Wai Chang Fashions garment workers organized an unprecedented rally in Chinatown, kicking off the Campaign against Nonpayment of Wages. The workers threw their boss in jail and inspired other garment workers to speak out. Nineties Fashions and 318 Fashion workers also set a precedent by using collective action to force manufacturers like Ann Taylor and C.E.T. to pay wages owed by their contractors.
  • 1992 – Initiated Campaign for Economic Justice at Foley Square to put a stop to the discriminatory hiring and contracting policies at two federal construction projects in the Chinatown area, over 100 Chinese workers were hired.
  • 1995 – Held public hearing with the Federal Labor Department at PS 124 in Chinatown. A month later, on the steps of City Hall, the Department of Labor announced creation of The Apparel Restaurant Guidance and Enforcement Team (TARGET) to investigate labor violations in garment and restaurant industry.
  • 1995 – Jing Fong, Chinatown’s largest restaurant stole workers tips. Workers and students picketed the restaurant and held a week long hunger strike. Later, the NY State Attorney General’s office found the restaurant violated the law and settled $1.13 million in back wages.
  • 1997 – Presidential Summit on America’s Future, held in Philadelphia, selected CSWA as one of 50 “learning examples” of volunteerism; in particular it recognized CSWA for fighting sweatshop conditions. State Senate represented by Senator David Paterson honored CSWA.
  • 1998 – Launched the Justice Will Be Served! (JWBS!) Campaign with NMASS and the 318 Restaurant Workers Union to organize in the service industry. Through legislative changes, JWBS! secured first minimum wage increase in 10 years for tipped employees.
  • 1999-2003 – Two groups of garment workers organized by AIW filed a lawsuit against DKNY and its contractors. In October 2003, DKNY settled out of court, compensating workers an estimated $1 million.
  • 2002 – Established the Beyond Ground Zero Network (BGZ), organized town hall meetings, demonstrations, and other mass actions in a successful campaign to fight discrimination by FEMA and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation against low-income workers and residents.
  • After September 11th, CSWA partnered with Catholic Charities to assist over 2,200 garment workers north of Canal Street in accessing more than $2 million in relief assistance.
  • 2003 – 14 injured workers and 9-11 victims engaged in a Hunger Strike for seven days in front of Governor Pataki Midtown office. Called for overhaul of New York State’s Worker’s Compensation system, expansion of Family Health Plus so that all New Yorkers could access health care, a long-term health study and treatment program for those affected by the 9/11 toxic air, and workers’ right to decline overtime hours if they choose to.
  • 2004 – Helped launch BGZ Community Health Initiative with Bellevue Hospital, the first clinic addressing health problems affecting those living or working beyond ground zero area, especially Chinatown and Lower East Side. 2005 – Inspired by DKNY workers, two groups of Chinese and Latina garment workers who worked for Jenna Lane, Zeke n Zoe, and Necessary Objects file lawsuits. One group settled for $300,000 in back wages. Another settled for $160,000 through State Attorney General office, the first time “Joint-Employer Liability” law was used.
  • 2006 – The 88 Palace/Triple 8 Palace case set a precedent – employers can no longer use “service charge” to steal workers tips.
  • 2006-2010 – Workers at many midtown and New Jersey restaurants stood up at their workplaces and won. These workers were from Our Place, Saigon Grill, Cottage, Ollies, Tomo, Café Swish, Kawa Sushi, Zen Palate, Republic, Rainbow Buffet, King Chef, Majestic Buffet, and other restaurants
  • 2006 – Organized Chinese workers to march across the Brooklyn Bridge to stop the passage of HR 4437 and called for the repeal of the Employer Sanction Provision, which creates an underclass of labor.
  • 2007 – Organized citizen and immigrant workers to fight against sweatshop conditions they both face, successfully linked up JWBS! Campaign to the national campaign, Break the Chains Alliance.
  • 2008-2009 – Organized thousands of workers and residents to participate, demonstrate, and speak up against the City’s racist rezoning plan. Forced the City government to open up the planning process to include Chinatown and Lower East Side.
  • 2009 – After nearly 10 years of fighting and organizing, Liberty Apparel workers won a landmark decision. 2nd Circuit Court found that even if a manufacturer has no direct control over their subcontracted factories, they still could be held responsible for their subcontractors’ wage violations.
  • 2011-Honored by the National Organization of Women for our work organizing women garment workers against sweatshop conditions.
  • 2011-Honored with an Activist Award by the Urban Justice Center for our service workers’ organizing work.
  • 2011-Worked with the NYS Department of Labor to win for the first time a decision stating car service drivers are employees and not independent contractors.
  • 2012- Helped to form the Flushing Workers Center to address the rampant wage theft in Flushing, known as a “labor disaster zone”
  • 2013- Helped to form the Coalition for a Real Minimum Wage Increase and the SWEAT Coalition to demand an increase in minimum wage but more importantly, to highlight enforcement so that the increase is real and to introduce legislation to address the wage collection crisis.
  • 2014- CSWA worked with the Coalition to Protect Chinatown/LES along with members of the Chinatown Working Group successfully got the CWG to endorse the main principles of the People First Plan
  • 2014- CSWA organized the home attendants to file a class action lawsuit against Chinese American Planning Council (CPC) and brought mandatory overtime to the forefront
  • 2015- Tipped workers receive a wage increase after many months of picketing in front of the Department of Labor and calling for increase in minimum wage for tipped employees and enforcement of the labor law
  • 2015- Governor Cuomo admitted there was a problem with enforcement of the labor law, so he formed a task force to address nail salon wage theft and health issues. We continue to organize to push him to support the SWEAT bill to help the enforcement against wage theft.