30 Immigrants On Bikes Deliver A Labor Revolt

An immigrant restaurant delivery worker in New York protests pay that is well below the minimum wage.
An immigrant restaurant delivery worker in New York protests pay that is well below the minimum wage. (Shiho Fukada - AP/Special To The Washington Post)
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 25, 2007

NEW YORK -- The deliverymen of Saigon Grill labored for years at the bottom of Manhattan's food chain. Biking swiftly down the avenues in biting cold and searing heat, they schlepped up high-rises and walk-ups with bags of steaming noodles and shrimp fried rice.

Then they surprised their bosses -- and others in this seen-it-all town -- by serving up something unexpected: a revolt.

The 30 men -- all immigrants, including undocumented workers frustrated with the poor conditions and low wages that are often a fact of life in America's underground economy -- banded together in an effort to unionize. They demanded an end to what they say were salaries less than half the minimum wage, and to penalties that included $20 fines for late deliveries and $50 for shutting the restaurant's glass doors with a bang.

Saigon Grill's owner fired them. It might have ended there, but as the immigrant labor movement gains steam in a number of major U.S. cities, the men opted to fight back. With the help of local groups aiming to organize documented and undocumented immigrants in New York, the men filed a lawsuit against the owner. Then, in March, they began daily picket lines at the restaurant's two Manhattan locations.

So far, hundreds of deliverymen, waiters, cooks and busboys from across New York have joined their picket lines in shows of solidarity. Angry deliverymen have slapped at least five other restaurants here with similar lawsuits. Immigrants laboring in other types of restaurant jobs have filed several more, targeting small takeout operations and upscale establishments such as Devi, the critically acclaimed Manhattan eatery.

"We have been going under the assumption that because we have no papers, we were powerless -- but we were wrong," Ke, a 35-year-old Chinese immigrant and former Saigon Grill deliveryman, said through an interpreter during a protest last week at the restaurant's fashionable Union Square branch. As with others here, Ke requested that his surname be withheld because he is undocumented. "We have discovered that we have the power to act."

The New York deliverymen's revolt, observers say, is happening as a number of immigrants are mobilizing into an increasingly organized labor movement with the help of unions and a fast-growing assortment of local activist groups.

Legal actions and demonstrations on behalf of undocumented immigrants by groups such as Justice for Janitors have been going on for years. But in the wake of the grass-roots mobilizations surrounding the immigration reform debate in Washington, experts have noted an increase in lawsuits, picket lines and work stoppages by immigrants who had long shied away from more visible forms of protest.

Immigrants have also emerged as the cavalry in the United States' flagging labor movement, which is embracing a group of people long assailed by union members for driving down wages. The percentage of the American workforce represented by unions has fallen to 13.1 percent, down from 16.2 percent a decade ago.

But the number of immigrants, documented and undocumented, represented by unions surged to 2 million last year, up from 1.6 million in 1996, according to a study by the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute that is scheduled for release next week. By comparison, the number of union-represented U.S.-born citizens dropped to 14.8 million last year, down from 16.5 million in 1996, the study said.

The majority of undocumented immigrants in the United States, observers say, remain too fearful to participate in such public actions. But a growing assertiveness in some pockets of the country's illegal immigrant community of 12 million people is beginning to answer at least one of the hot questions in the immigration debate: What would happen if exploited undocumented workers decided one day that enough is enough?

If New York -- a city whose key service and construction sectors are highly dependent on cheap immigrant labor -- is any example, it will mean higher costs for businesses and their customers. Fearing they could be the next target, dozens of restaurateurs in Manhattan have boosted wages for deliverymen, according to union officials, lawyers and workers.

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