Workers Organize

NYU’s Chinese Construction Workers

By Lee Siu Hin/Tom Stinnett


At the New York University (NYU) main building in downtown Manhattan—the building where, in 1911, a sweatshop garment factory fire killed 146 young immigrant workers—a handful of immigrant Chinese construction workers has fought for the last 9 months against the racist hiring polices of construction companies contracted by NYU.

On March 26, groups of NYU students, labor activists, and Chinese workers held a New York City-style People’s Court “trial” on the busy street next to NYU’s main building, with Chinese workers as the “plaintiff,” NYU as the “defendant,” the audience as the “jury,” and Jim Horton, a local African-American labor activist from the community labor group Harlem Fight Back and the first African American construction worker to fight against local contractors 50 years ago, as “judge.” In the opening statement Chinese worker Lok Siu-Kun testified: “We are speaking out against NYU’s hiring discrimination and demand a 40-hour work week with decent wages.”

Lok explained that traditionally New York construction companies have systematically discriminated against ethnic minorities such as Chinese, Latinos, and African-Americans. The dispute began when NYU contractors repeatedly refused to hire Lok and his fellow Chinese construction workers for the new NYU student dormitory project on East 14th Street. Lok said they tried to apply for jobs on the project, but every time they went to the construction site the contractors always told them, “It’s not your turn.” Although many white construction workers were hired for this project over a period of several weeks, Lok and other Chinese workers who applied during the same period were never hired.

At the beginning of the dispute NYU didn’t deny its responsibility to investigate the contractors’ hiring discrimination, arguing in their defense that nobody should hire non-union workers for the project. When some of NYU’s subcontractors later decided to hire some Chinese non-union workers, NYU exercised its authority as owner of the site and made sure they were not hired again, arguing that they were not union members. But Chan Kan-Shing, another Chinese construction worker, argued: “The contractors and NYU knew that historically few Chinese workers have been union members. If we cannot join the union then we cannot get jobs, and if we cannot get jobs we will never be able to join the union. We know that many non-union white workers have been hired for this project, so the bottom line is: they just don’t want to hire Chinese.”

Despite this criticism, the NYU authority claims inability to control or even to discipline its contractors and subcontractors in matters of job discrimination. Although the Chinese workers repeatedly requested to talk with NYU to solve the problem, the school refused. This infuriated Ho, another Chinese worker: “We can’t speak good English and they (NYU) can pick on us, so we need to find an ally to help us.”

The Chinese construction workers have received support from NYU students—especially fellow Chinese. One Chinese student explains: “NYU has a large Chinese student community, yet we don’t get any representation. The school is happy to take our money (NYU is a private university), but can’t be bothered to listen to our grievances.” Unlike the stereotypical conservative, politically apathetic Chinese, the NYU Chinese students work side-by-side with other ethnic groups and organizations to help the Chinese workers. “Only when NYU students start to help us will we finally be able to get a response from the university,” says Chan.

Sigmund Shen, a graduate student from NYU who has been helping the Chinese workers deal with the school, says he tried several times to talk with representatives of the school, but they consistently refused to consider his request. On December 3, 1997 Shen went to the NYU-sponsored reception for students in its Asian American Studies Program. At the reception, he confronted NYU vice president Deborah James. “Of course she was pissed-off and didn’t answer me directly concerning the discrimination issue.” A few weeks later he received two letters from the school calling his action at the reception “unreasonable” and “disruptive,” and demanding that he sign a letter agreeing to be on probation until his graduation, or face expulsion from NYU. Shen refused to sign the letter and after public pressure the school quietly dropped the charges against him on February 16. Shen demanded the school hold a public hearing to investigate NYU job discrimination and the school’s threats against him. When NYU refused, the activists decided to put it “on trial”—publicly.

The “trial” was organized by local unions, anti-sweatshop activists, and NYU students. John Antush from National Mobilization Against Sweat Shops (NMASS) explains: “Community organizing is the only way to get the movement rolling, because the racist exclusion of Chinese workers at NYU is just one example of the economic racism ravaging communities around the city.”


During the three-hour “trial,” more than a dozen witnesses, including Lok, Chen, Shen, Ho, and former New York Chinese sweatshop workers testified about their working conditions. In a unanimous decision, the 133-member jury found NYU guilty of hiring discrimination against minorities, and Judge Jim Horton ordered the university to establish a “Community Hiring Hall” to ensure openness in hiring. NYU declined comment.