OAKLAND, Calif. - Among important themes at the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance convention here July 21-24 were the importance of labor's united fight for low-wage workers' rights and the struggle for a fair immigration policy.
In opening remarks, APALA President Luisa Blue set the stage: "It will take all of us to change things in corporate America," where unions are under attack and the right is blaming workers for the current crisis, she said.
Panels featured gripping accounts of low-wage workers' problems.
Speaking in Chinese, former restaurant worker Eun Yan detailed her experiences. "We had no minimum wage, no overtime, no breaks, no benefits," she said. Kitchen prep was "difficult, dirty work," the hours were long and managers constantly yelled at the workers.
Yan highlighted the Chinese Progressive Association's report, Check Please, issued last October, which details the violations of labor rights experienced by many Chinese restaurant workers in San Francisco.
"This doesn't just happen to Chinese restaurant workers," Yan said. "It's widespread among all groups, and also affects domestic and construction workers. It hurts families, consumers and overall economic development."
Yan ended up with a workplace injury that she said makes it hard to write or to hold a glass of water.
Che Wong, now a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 6, told another wage theft story. When he came to the U.S., he said, his English was limited. He worked for NBC Contractors, a now-defunct firm that was engaged in construction projects around the San Francisco Bay Area, many of them publicly funded.
Injured on the job, he was ordered by owner Monica Ung not to report the incident. She promised to pay all of Wong's expenses. But he was fired three weeks later.
Upon joining the IBEW, Wong learned Ung had cheated the largely immigrant NBC workforce of most of their wages.
After a campaign led by the IBEW, the Alameda Labor and Building Trades Councils and APALA, Ung was convicted on two felony counts earlier this year, and sentenced to pay millions of dollars in restitution to the workers and to the State of California.
Nor is wage theft just a Bay Area issue. In an interview, APALA Fresno chapter member Bella Barela said large companies in California's Central Valley are also stealing wages, including not paying workers for time on the job beyond eight hours. Deportations are also a problem there. "We are working to share our culture, and to help people understand that these are not just Mexican-American issues," she said.
In Los Angeles, building owners are increasingly hiring workers through the underground economy, paying substandard wages, making illegal deductions from their pay, and violating federal health and safety standards, IBEW Local 11 and APALA member Tommy Faadvae said. "We're fighting against this; we want building owners to be fully accountable."
Other panels focused on the urgency of immigration reform, including stopping the deportation of immigrants and passing the DREAM Act, to open a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants who graduate from a four-year college or serve in the military.
In impassioned remarks, Kent Wong, APALA National Executive Board member and director of the Center for Labor Research at the University of California, Los Angeles, called the U.S. Senate's blockage of the DREAM Act "an act of racism" that has "completely shut down the aspirations and hopes for the future" of large numbers of students.
"We are here today to tell members of Congress to pass the DREAM Act, to pass immigration reform, and to call on President Obama to stop the deportations," Wong said.
Photo: Marilyn Bechtel/PW