In an attempt to remind myself where my favorite dim sum restaurant is, I inadvertently discovered that it is a terrible employer. Its only mentions in the NYTimes archives are for failures to abide by good labor practices, ranging from a 1995 battle over unionization (though this being Chinatown, the neighborhood came out in support of the restaurant because they felt the union's street theater tactics drove away business) to a two-year investigation and lawsuit by the NY AG that resulted in a settlement of $1.1 million to 58 workers who said they had been cheated out of tips and wages. In April of this year, the Urban Justice Center and Weil, Gotshal & Manges filed another suit, with plaintiffs organized by the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, saying the restaurant illegally siphoned off tips from the more than 50 members of the service staff.
I feel like I might have a moral obligation not to patronize a business that seems habitually to mistreat its workers. Crossing union picket lines doesn't bother me as much; having lived in right-to-work states before I came to New York, I am a little skeptical of unions due to their tendency to redistribute power from employer management to the union hierarchy, rather than the workers. To some extent, I agree with the sentiments expressed by those who supported Jing Fong in 1995:
Unions are a sensitive topic among Chinatown workers, who fear that they would lose financially under union contracts. Waiters, for example, say they fear losing salary and tips because owners would hire second shifts to avoid paying overtime. People at the dinner acknowledged that restaurant workers are often underpaid and overworked. But they said it is up to the government, not unions, to enforce labor laws.("Haul out the coffin" is literal, not metaphorical, because the union was staging mock funerals complete with mourning dancers outside the restaurant.) Because government enforcement often is slow and incomplete, unions make sense as a way for employees to empower themselves and employers to avoid the transaction cost of hammering out the relationship through a lawsuit. But employers aren't obligated to be union-friendly, whereas they are obligated to obey the law. As far as I know, however, none of the parties associated with the current suit are encouraging their allies to stop eating at Jing Fong, so I guess I'll continue with my Sunday brunch plans and just hope the waiter hangs onto his tip.
"If there are labor problems in the restaurant, then let the government handle it," said George Hui, president of the influential Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, an umbrella organization representing more than 70 family, business and area associations in Chinatown. "There is no need for Mr. Lam to haul out the coffin and hurt the Chinatown economy."