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Chinese Staff and Workers' Association Fights to Keep Neighborhoods Livable

New York’s Lower East Side Chinatown is known for its concentration of Chinese eateries and shops, with bustling sidewalk markets and popular dim sum halls. Although Lower Manhattan is the most visible center of Chinese life in the city, longtime residents and new immigrants alike find themselves more and more far-flung, as high rises and art galleries compete with markets and community centers for space in the neighborhood. 

In an action last month, the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association (CSWA) gathered residents from all over the city in Chinatown to protest displacement due to gentrification. For some members, generations of family have lived on the Lower East Side. Others live in Brooklyn and Queens, but, organizer Mika Nagasaki said, all were welcome. “With other organizations, if you don’t live in the neighborhood then you’re not part of the campaign, but we involve workers and residents from all over the city.”

In order to protect Chinatown’s status as a livable neighborhood for middle class families, new immigrants, and others, CSWA is advocating for a rezoning plan to limit the height allowance for buildings in the area. This would help to halt speculation and skyrocketing property taxes, which drive up rent not only for tenants but for small businesses that provide and also rely on groceries, services, and goods that have made up the neighborhood’s ecosystem for decades.

“We really don’t want what has happened in other cities, where you have a cosmetic Chinatown that used to be thriving, but now it’s just a McDonald’s with a sign in Chinese characters or something,” said Mika.

In 1979, a group of Chinese restaurant workers and  workers from other industries came together to form CSWA. Today the organization has a membership of over 2,000 workers from various trades and of varying ages, injured and non-injured, documented and undocumented. It is the first contemporary workers’ center bringing workers together across trades to fight for change in the workplace as well as in their communities. CSWA’s work prioritizes connecting workers’ individual struggles into a collective force to challenge the root causes of these problems in all aspects of workers’ lives.

With $20,000 from our Immigrant Rights Fund Sustained Response Grants program, CSWA will continue its efforts to fight wage theft and displacement, problems that have been exacerbated by anti-immigrant sentiment in recent months.

CSWA is effective in part because it brings workers together who would otherwise be isolated. Especially in the home care industry, where workers are often in patients homes for several 24 hour shifts in a row, workers find themselves without support or redress when employers pay them as little as half of their wages.

“Isolation is a huge problem when it comes to organizing and it’s being used to keep people apart and afraid,” said Mika. “Being able to have people come to our center and provide a space for them to meet each other and talk and strategize is encouraging to a lot of our members.”

CSWA helped to create the S.W.E.A.T (Securing Wages Earned Against Theft) Bill, which would change state laws so that courts would be able to freeze the assets of employers found to be stealing wages. The bill would be a solution to the current climate of lax enforcement surrounding wage theft, and CSWA is continuing to organize to pass it in New York.

Although CSWA is based in Manhattan, about a third of its members live and work in Brooklyn, and the organization continues to work to improve living and working conditions particularly in Sunset Park and Bensonhurst.

Mika says that the organization hopes to encourage supporters to think beyond the framework of sanctuary cities to consider the many factors that make a city livable for immigrants.

“If you can’t afford to live here, if you don't have a home or you're not getting paid, then the idea of a sanctuary is kind of meaningless because you can’t even survive and make it to the next day,” she said. “So we’re trying to build on the work we’ve been doing and move it forward.”

 
“If you can’t afford to live here, if you don't have a home or you're not getting paid, then the idea of a sanctuary is kind of meaningless because you can’t even survive and make it to the next day,” said organizer Mika Nagasaki. “So we’re trying to build on the work we’ve been doing and move it forward.”