Inside Chinatown’s Workers’ Centers

Wing has strong opinions on many subjects. Unionists? They do nothing for workers. Activists? Don’t really care about workers; all that interests them is a good union job. Progressive politicians? Come on, they are all reactionaries. The left? Give me a break, there is no left in the US. Developers? Mafia. Lawyers? Same mafia. What about worker’s centres, then? That is something we can talk about.

I met with Wing Lam, because I wanted him to tell me about the workers’ centre in New York’s Chinatown. Wing is 67. He has greyish hair and more than three decades of experience in organizing Chinese workers in New York. Born in Tianjin, China, he came to the United States at the age of 17. In the early 1980s he worked in sweatshops in the garment industry. At that time he tried to organize an independent union, but it turned out less effective than he hoped. So, he started looking for another way of organizing sweatshop workers.

The Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association (CSWA) came into being in 1979 as the first workers’ centre in the US. It was established by a group of Chinese immigrants working in restaurants, but after a while workers from other industries joined them, Wing Lam among them.

Today CSWA is one of several hundred workers’ centres around the US. The centres do not constitute a common structure and it is hard to say if there is an idea that connects them all. When I spoke with Wing on the phone before our meeting, he told me that if I want to talk about a “workers’ centres movement”, there is nothing to talk about, because there is no movement. There are just workers’ centres, that’s all.

To read the full article as it appeared on Political Critique on February 17, 2016 click here.

Research was made possible by the Transatlantic Media Fellowship Program.  

Please note that the views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich Boell Foundation.