San Francisco Chinatown Restaurant Workers Fight for Fair Employment

Li Shuang Li, 42, had worked at a restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown for seven years before she discovered that her boss was stealing her tips. At the time, Li was barely making $900 a month to support her 13- and 11-year-old children and was afraid of confronting her boss for fear of losing her job.

So, Li allied with her colleagues and they collectively raised the issue with their employer, whose ill-tempered response was: “If you want to complain, I’ll just fire you!” But the employees threatened to quit en masse if he did not pay them back the tips he owed and he eventually came to a verbal agreement.

Li says she was fortunate to receive her back pay relatively quickly, unlike some other waitresses who were given the run around by the boss until some brought their relatives in to coerce him. Rather than continue working for that employer, Li decided to quit and has been unemployed for three years now.

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Farmworkers—The Basis and Bottom of the Food Chain

Events in Wisconsin in 2011 triggered a reawakening across the United States of a movement that acknowledges the importance of worker rights and of protecting the livelihoods of this country’s working class. Historically, however, one group of workers has routinely been excluded from the gains made by the larger labor movement, i.e. farmworkers—the people who weed, pick, harvest, and pack, often in 100 degree weather, while routinely being exposed to hazardous chemicals.

Approximately 700,000 farmworkers reside in California at any given time. Farm employment is unstable and the average farmworker is employed for only seven months of the year (nine months in California). For female workers the employment season is even shorter. Jobs are scarce, even during high season. In California, about 350,000 jobs are available from April to October and 275,000 from November to March. Historically, migrant workers returned home during the winter months. However, with the increased militarization of the border, this practice has become harder and many migrants remain in the U.S. out of fear even in the rainy season when they have little or no income. And although a majority of farmworkers are male, women and children are increasingly crossing the border and entering the workforce, as men can no longer maintain a seasonal migration.

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Combating Nail Salon Toxics

Oakland-based Alisha Tran remembers the first time she suffered strange symptoms while working as a manicurist. “One day I was working with my client, and I feel my face numb. I feel a numbness on my finger... I cannot close [my hand] and I cannot open it... I sweat too, [I] sweat a lot… And I was talking with client and I said, ‘call ambulance.’”

The doctor at the emergency room told her she was anemic and sent her home. Two weeks later, Tran had another episode on the job. She was taken to the emergency room again and was seen by the same doctor.

“And then he asked me, ‘What kind of job you working?’ And I said, ‘I am working for nail salon.’ And then he said, ‘I think you should quit your job.’”
The nail salon industry is booming nationwide. The number of salons in California has more than tripled in the past two decades, according to the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, whose report also notes that an overwhelming majority of the manicurists are women of color—59 to 80 percent are Vietnamese—and of reproductive age.[1]

Every nail salon carries products loaded with chemical compounds with hard-to-pronounce names, including the commonly occurring “toxic trio”—dibutyl phthalate, toluene, and formaldehyde. Animal studies of dibutyl phthalate have shown reproductive and developmental effects.[2] Formaldehyde is classified as a known carcinogen.[3] And toluene has been shown to depress the nervous system.[4]

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Class, Race, and the Attacks on Public Employees

When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the state’s Republican-dominated legislature tried to steal collective bargaining rights from public sector workers—using a phony “budget crisis” as a pretext—they triggered a national uproar. Labor and community activists around the country understood that these attacks not only shred union rights, but threaten to widen the chasm of economic and racial inequality as well.

Several other states, including Michigan, Ohio, and Florida have faced similar legislative battles.  After Michigan passed a comparable law on March 16, 2011, Governor Rick Snyder used his newly expanded powers not only to attack unions but to disenfranchise the entire population of Benton Harbor—10,235 people, 85.5 percent of them Black. Workers in Ohio are organizing a referendum to overturn Senate Bill 5, their state’s version of the Wisconsin legislation.

Republican legislators in Florida are trying to ram through a bill to prohibit public employees from having payroll deductions for union dues. In response, police and firefighters’ unions have pulled money from banks that support the Chamber of Commerce, which is pushing the bill.

Workers in all these states are facing a larger trend that has been weakening their power for decades. Relentless corporate pressure and ineffectual labor laws have steadily eroded union membership since 1955. As the percentage of workers in unions has shrunk, income inequality has grown. The result has been an economic gulf, separating the rich from everyone else.

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The Fire Last Time

Worker Safety Laws After the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

A century ago, on March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers, most of them Jewish and Italian immigrant girls in their teens and twenties, perished after a fire broke out at the Triangle Waist Company in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Even after the fire, the city’s businesses continued to insist they could regulate themselves, but the deaths clearly demonstrated that companies like Triangle, if left to their own devices, would not concern themselves with their workers’ safety. Despite this business opposition, the public’s response to the fire and to the 146 deaths led to landmark state regulations.

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The San Francisco PUC: Working for the Community

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) provides water, sewage services, and municipal power to San Francisco and surrounding areas. It is also a huge job generator. When I joined the Commission in 2008, I identified three priorities: (i) achieving stronger local hire outcomes; (ii) adopting an environmental justice policy; and (iii) creating an agency-wide Community Benefits Program.

In 2002—following a bond measure approved by San Francisco voters that November—the SFPUC embarked on one of the largest water infrastructure projects at a cost of $4.6 billion dollars. The Water System Improvement Project (WSIP), which includes more than 80 projects, is working to repair, replace, and seismically upgrade deteriorating pipelines, tunnels, reservoirs, pump stations, storage tanks, and dams from San Francisco to the Central Valley by the end of 2015.

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Right Wing Ballot Strategies Hit Cities

San Diego has become ground zero for the newly energized right wing attack on progressive policies. Right wing politicians and far right industry associations mounted several anti-union ballot measures this year and have pledged to continue the fight in the 2012 elections. Their goal is to make San Diego the first city in the country to repeal a Living Wage Ordinance and outlaw Project Labor Agreements (PLA), as well as effective local hire programs.

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