Coalition Building: An Interview with Wing Lam

Chinese Staff and Workers Association (CSWA) was founded in 1979 by Chinese restaurant workers and workers from other industries. Today, CSWA has a membership of over 2,000 workers from various trades and ages, and is the first contemporary workers’ center to bring together workers across trades to fight for change in the workplace as well as in the community-at-large. They emphasize developing leadership among working people in NYC’s Chinatowns and to bridge the divides within the Chinese community and beyond, and hold working people as the creators of society and the agents for change.

CSWA is led by Wing Lam, perhaps the most idealistic person we’ve ever met, and we suspect he thinks the same. Lam has committed  over 40 years of his working life towards creating and sustaining solidarity between working people, which he does without carrying the type of bitterness, exhaustion, or cynicism one might expect from someone who has been waging battles against what many might consider immovable foes. The following interview looks back at the organizing principles of CSWA and how these came to influence the work that helped the Two Bridges plaintiffs build their case against the city.

The interview was conducted by Margaret Lee on March 31, 2019 at CSWA’s office at 345 Grand Street, and has been edited for clarity.

Q. Before we discuss the 1986 Chinese Staff v. City of NY case, which you won, I wanted to ask you about the evolution of your organization. CSWA is not a top-down organization but rather prioritizes workers’ needs. In this regard, CSWA’s model differed from that of more traditional service providers or advocacy groups. When workers came in for help, they were not treated like victims or clients, but were encouraged to take an active role to solve their problems. I understand this to be a difficult system to sustain, yet CSWA will celebrate 40 years this year. Can you talk about how your personal experiences shaped your organizing principles and how this helped expand your notion of solidarity and community?

A. Before coming to New York, I first lived in Brazil and then studied electrical engineering in Wisconsin. So by the time I got to America, I already experienced being an immigrant. I was in the midwest in the 1960s and there was a lot of political activity going on, which I saw and experienced in Chicago’s Chinatown. When I was in NY, I was involved in fighting for equality within the construction industry, as Chinese people were not being hired on the Confucius Plaza project in 1974. I was also involved in protesting against police brutality in 1975. Almost 20,000 people attended the rally to protest the beating of Peter Yew, and not just Chinese folks. Many minority groups came together to stand against oppression. All types of people from all different professions and industries.*  

Q. I’m inspired by CSWA’s commitment to “common grounds” as part of your organizing strategy. I can see how those experiences shaped CSWA’s rejection of conventional categories, such as race, gender, trade, and employed/unemployed. So it makes sense that CSWA worked to redefine Chinatown as a community for working people rather than a homogeneous ethnic community. What do you say to people who think it is a losing battle to protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side neighborhoods for working people and that gentrification is inevitable?

A. How do you define working people? A working person is more than simply an employee. We think most people hear working person and think low-wage worker. Our definition of working people is much bigger and includes high-wage workers and those who work in caring for their families or doing housework. Even if some are not paid for their labor, their work should be recognized and they should identify as a working person. If we broaden the notion of what it means to be a working person, then it doesn’t sound so crazy to want to fight to keep neighborhoods livable and affordable for them—since a broadened definition means the majority of a community is made up of working people. Gentrification is not inevitable and communities all over the city have come together in the past and in the present to identify the root cause. We encourage people to think about the systemic rather than the symptom. For us, we see how our city government has allowed private developers to act and build in ways that prioritize profit over the well-being of communities. We don’t accept this quietly.

Q. That brings us to Chinese Staff v. The City of New York, 1986, when CSWA sued the city for approving Henry Street Tower, a high-rise luxury condominium. The case was won on the basis that the Environmental Impact Study (EIS) was arbitrary and capricious because it failed to recognize the displacement of neighborhoods residents and businesses caused by luxury development as an environmental impact. This win set a really important precedent in that residents and small businesses were now seen as part of the environment and thus an EIS must study the impacts of primary and secondary displacement of both for consideration before building approval. Can you talk about the difference between that case and the current Two Bridges Lawsuit?

A. One thing that has changed is the ways in which politicians speak. Many elected officials now use activist and grassroots language when they speak to the public. So it sounds good, they say all the “right” things, but their actions don’t match. We were able to stop luxury development in the 1980s and we can be successful again today if the community comes together and lets the city administration know they are violating the zoning laws meant to protect our community. CSWA avoided depending on elected officials from the beginning, and have sustained ourselves through our membership. This allowed us more freedom to call out elected officials. If we took money from people with interests outside of our community we would be told “don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”

Q. Given the longevity and success of CSWA, do you have any advice for others who are working to protect their communities?

A. We’ve seen many people burnout because they think they have to give in order to participate. We can think differently about the idea of “empowering” communities and instead see communities as already having power. When we started CSWA we mostly listened to workers’ concerns and we learned from them. So really, we weren’t giving, but actually receiving. This makes sustainability easier because you see the situation differently and that the work benefits all without anyone having to deplete themselves, but rather look at it as what we gain from doing the work. Community is more than housing, it’s more than the people who live together in an area. It is all the people who come to work in the area, all the small businesses and the residents that make a community. It’s great that there are grassroots organizations, but coalition building is really important. We’ve seen the city pit grassroots organizations against each other. It happens all the time but again, if we look at the systemic and how we can all work together in addressing the root cause of displacement or exploitation of labor, change does happen. We saw this with the Henry Street Towers fight, and in our campaigns against wage theft to helping the residents of 83-85 Bowery safely return to their homes. We will work to make sure the city upholds its own zoning laws in regard to Two Bridges and support National Mobilization Against Sweatshops (NMASS) in their campaign to fight against the state legalizing the 24-hour work day.  

Q. Speaking of coalitions, let’s end our interview with the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side and the Chinatown Working Group Rezoning Plan. It’s a real accomplishment to have been involved in both projects. I’m curious to hear more about the importance of coalition building.

A. In the past, we experimented with a community land trust and a credit union. We thought a land trust was a good solution but once we established it, we realized we worked only to protect a very small footprint of our community. What was the point of preserving only a small section while the surrounding area would be destroyed? We learned from this experience. When the East Village was rezoned to protect it from overdevelopment, the LES and Chinatown were excluded from receiving the same protections. We saw this as racist policy. Protection was only being given to an affluent majority White neighborhood. We believe fighting against racism and racist policy is a great way to build the Coalition. For example: some of politicians and organizations tried to divide us by pushing a Chinatown Only Rezoning Plan. This promotes racism and pits people against people, it undermines the coalition building to unite all people. This is why we called on the Mayor to approve the community-led Chinatown Working Group rezoning plan in its entirety, to protect us all as unified neighbors. But the Mayor dismissed our plan as being too ambitious, but we should be ambitious in our vision and hold onto our ideals of how we grow and build communities.

*Christine Choy’s documentary, From Spikes to Spindles, traces Chinatown’s rising political consciousness in response to police brutality and economic discrimination.

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