When waiter Jerry Weng was fired after two days on the job at Saigon Grill, he knew that the new ownership would be no better than the last, he said.
“The new owner is following the old labor practices. He tried to go back to the old ways to make money by cutting hours and wages,” Weng said.
Saigon Grill has been the object of protest from workers groups since 2007, when employees at the Vietnamese restaurant on 90th Street and Amsterdam Avenue claimed that former owner Simon Nget was stealing tips from delivery workers, discriminating against workers, and failing to pay workers minimum wage. After gaining local support, workers won a lawsuit that eventually led to Nget’s arrest this past January.
Now, after new owners took over last October, some employees and protesters say the cycle has started over again.
Josephine Lee, an organizer with the Justice Will be Served campaign, spoke at a meeting Thursday night about her coalition’s efforts to end what she described as sweatshop conditions on the Upper West Side.
“The owner made a pledge to be a sweatshop-free business, that is how he was able to get a lease, get a liquor license,” Lee said. “But since he took over, he’s done differently.”
Weng agreed. He says he was fired along with about 10 other workers after speaking up for older colleagues who were being discriminated against. Other workers were fired after trying to form a union, he said.
“The past three years, workers have improved working conditions, but now he’s trying to undermine what we’ve done,” Weng said of the new ownership.
In response, workers and neighborhood supporters have been picketing in front of the restaurant since late November to encourage locals to boycott Saigon Grill. But Lee said the protests are meant to be part of a greater battle.
“We want to use this as a starting point to build a larger movement in the Upper West Side,” she said. “Because if it’s just about seven measly jobs, it’s not really worth it to picket five days a week, mornings and evenings, in the cold.”
Saigon Grill’s new owners tell a different story. An assistant manager, who would identify himself only as Rui, said that the protestors have a problem with the old management and don’t realize that things have changed.
Rui admitted that employees had been underpaid years ago. “That situation was true with the old man,” he said.
But he said that the restaurant’s staff hasn’t changed at all since October, so any workers protesting are just bitter from not being hired back.
“They’re bringing up lies—since they can’t be hired here, they’re making up stories so customers won’t come,” Rui said.
The protestors believe that the restaurant’s record of discrimination hasn’t changed. And though the picket line has been endorsed by the local Democratic Party, workers groups, and students, those picketing said that some locals have met the protest with confusion.
Sarah Ahn, a JWBS volunteer who has been picketing for two months, said the skepticism has been widespread.
“People say, ‘What’s the sweatshop campaign? That’s more in the garment district,’ or, ‘That’s a thing in China or Mexico. What do you mean Saigon is a sweatshop?’ But sweatshops are rampant here,” she said.
“That’s a big one, like ‘Oh, again?’” Lee said. “It seems like a lot of people still don’t know or think it’s already been resolved.”
Even Columbia students have gotten involved.
LUCHA, a Latino activist student group that staged a sit-in at Saigon before the current ownership took over, has been working with the Asian American Alliance and Students for Economic and Environmental Justice to get the word out.
“We’re looking to have as much student involvement as possible, not necessarily just student groups,” Johanna Ocana, CC ’10 and former LUCHA member, said.
Resident Orin Kotula said that because she used to work in restaurants earning $10 a shift, she understood the difficulties restaurant workers face—but that many in her 95th Street building do not.
“The public is, I think, very naive about how much workers make and work practices in restaurants where people depend on what they make every week,” she said. “A lot of the people in my building on 95th order delivery from Saigon. They don’t know the reality of restaurant workers.”
She agreed with the protesters’ tactics of scaring away business.
“That’s the worst way to hurt them, is in their pockets,” she said. “The pocketbook—that’s powerful.”
Weng said most locals have been supportive by not crossing the picket line, but he is still struggling to convince current Saigon workers to join the protest.
“They say, ‘Oh, I just want to protect my job,’” Weng said. “But at this point, I don’t care if you’re union or non-union. We’re all working class. We should unite.”
Katie Bentivoglio contributed reporting.