Yank Sing isn’t just any San Francisco dim sum joint. The vaunted family-run restaurant has garnered awards and Zagat’s raves for having the “best damn dumplings around,” and, despite “upscale” prices, ensuring customers “get what you pay for.” And now the staff, known for their “wicked fast” service, are finally getting paid what they’re worth, too.
Approximately 280 workers, many of them monolingual Chinese immigrants, are savoring a sweet labor victory with a landmark $4 million settlement, which also includes new rules for labor standards and benefits. The settlement is remarkable for its size, but also the recipe behind it: a coalition of legal advocates and community organizers who were committed to upscaling the working conditions in an increasingly unequal city.
According to the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) and the Asian Law Caucus, in addition to the $4 million award—which is unusually comprehensive, in that it includes all income workers lost through wage and overtime violations—the agreement provides “model-employer changes in the workplace that include base wage increases, holiday and vacation pay, fully paid health care for full-time employees,” and the establishment of a “workers compliance committee” to hold management accountable.
The aggrieved workers could have complained individually to win some back wages and moved on. But instead, alongside a legal claim of wage violations, both current and former workers banded together in a long-term campaign to win lasting changes. Through negotiations, coupled with direct actions, they secured not just better wages but also health benefits and guaranteed rest time. A “progressive discipline” policy will ensure due process by restricting the boss from abruptly terminating a worker without first providing warnings and a chance to correct the issue.
Organizers say what sets Yank Sing apart is that workers pressured the management, which had an incentive to avoid tarnishing its respected brand with a “bad boss” reputation, to lay down a new standard. And they ultimately demonstrated what a disciplined workplace-justice campaign with uncompromising demands can win for this hard-to-organize sector.
Organizer Shaw San Liu says the months-long campaign “took real direct organizing of workers, talking to workers, imagining something better, doing a lot of education…and then together taking steps where they had to face their biggest fears, which was risking their jobs to take on workplace actions.” The compliance committee will play a critical role, by providing a worker-led monitoring system, Liu says. Though the restaurant doesn’t have a formal union, this measure at least guarantees that “there’s actually a mechanism to ensure that things never go back to the way they were, and that they actually continue moving forward.”