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Labor of Love: A Conversation with Tomie Arai, May Ying Chen, and Bhairavi Desai

Organizer: A/P/A Institute at NYU
Venue: NYU Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South, 10th Floor
New York , NY 10003 United States
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Add to Calendar 02/13/2018 04:30 PM 02/13/2018 06:30 PM America/New_York Labor of Love: A Conversation with Tomie Arai, May Ying Chen, and Bhairavi Desai More detail: https://apa.nyu.edu/event/labor-of-love-a-conversation-with-tomie-arai-may-ying-chen-and-bhairavi-desai/ NYU Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York , NY, 10003

Co-presented by the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU and the Frederic Ewen Center. Co-sponsored by the NYU Fales Library & Special Collections and Labor Arts. Curated by Minju Bae.

This roundtable will bring longtime Asian American women activists and organizers together to approach labor studies in multidisciplinary ways. Tomie Arai (public artist and member, Chinatown Art Brigade), May Ying Chen (professor and former manager, Local 23-25), and Bhairavi Desai (founding member, New York City Taxi Workers Alliance) will share their experiences as labor organizers and movement builders dedicated to establishing a more just, equitable city for workers, immigrants, women, and people of color.

Moderated by Minju Bae (Agnese N. Haury Dissertaton Fellow, NYU’s Center for the United States and the Cold War and PhD candidate, Temple University), this discussion will also highlight the Asian/Pacific American labor archives that were donated to NYU Libraries via the Asian/Pacific American Archives Survey Project. All three panelists have donated personal and/or organizational records to NYU libraries to support continued research and scholarship on labor movements in New York City.


Tomie Arai is a public artist who collaborates with writers, architects, historians, curators, and local communities to create visual narratives that give meaning to the spaces we live in. Arai uses the specificity of her experience as an Asian American as a personal space in which to locate broader issues of race and gender; a space through which a glimpse of common ground is made possible. Arai has been exhibited nationally and is in the collections of the Library of Congress, New York Public Library, Williams College Museum of Art, Japanese American National Museum, and Whitney Museum of American Art. She is the recipient of a number of fellowships and grants, including New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowships in Printmaking. As a co-founder of the cultural collective, the Chinatown Art Brigade, she is a recipient of a 2016 Blade of Grass Fellowship, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Creative Engagement Grant, and 2017 Asian Women’s Giving Circle grant. The Tomie Arai Papers are located at NYU Fales Library & Special Collections. 

May Ying Chen is a retired union officer and advocate for Asian Pacific Americans, immigrants, and women. Chen devoted a career of more than twenty-five years to the garment workers’ union in New York City (Local 23-25 Workers United/SEIU). Until her retirement in 2009, she was the Manager of Local 23-25 and Vice President of the International Union—bargaining union contracts and managing workers’ benefits, coordinating the union’s worker education programs, and encouraging stronger worker participation in US political activities. In the union, she taught classes on worker grievances, benefits, contract negotiations, and health and safety. From 2009-2015, Chen was an adjunct professor at CUNY’s Joseph S. Murphy Institute and helped coordinate the US-China Exchange Program – Advancing the Field of Labor Relations. The May Chen Papers are located at the NYU Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives.

Bhairavi Desai, New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) co-founder and executive director, has been organizing taxi workers since 1996. In 1998, she organized with a committee of taxi workers to form the NYTWA. The 19,000-member-strong union fights for justice, rights, respect, and dignity for New York City’s 50,000+ yellow cab, green car, and black car drivers, including drivers for Uber and Lyft. Members come from every community, garage, and neighborhood, and represent over ninety countries. NYTWA has won back close to $100 million in stolen wages, established the first-ever livable income standard for drivers in the country, provided free health screenings to over 10,000 drivers, and annually serves 15,000 drivers and families through a robust social services and advocacy program. On the forefront of organizing workers stripped of employee rights, NYTWA’s federal litigation against Uber’s misclassification of drivers as independent contractors led to the company paying back $86 million in stolen wages. NYTWA, working with Brooklyn Legal Services, recently won the first ruling of employee status of Uber drivers by the New York State Department of Labor. On January 28, 2017 NYTWA was the first union to take collective action against a Trump policy, striking at JFK Airport in protest of the White House’s hateful Muslim ban. In 2011, NY and Philadelphia TWA formed the National Taxi Workers Alliance, the 57th affiliate of the AFL-CIO and its first one of independent contractors. Since 2013, Desai has served on the AFL-CIO Executive Council, the first Asian American voted onto the body. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance Records are located at the  NYU Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives.

Minju Bae is the Agnese N. Haury Dissertation Fellow at NYU’s Center for the United States and the Cold War and a PhD Candidate in the History Department at Temple University. Her dissertation examines labor activism among Asian American workers in New York since the mid-1970s. In the context of the fiscal crisis and the Asian American movement, New York’s Asian American labor organizers mobilized immigrant and refugee workers for collective action, recognizing the problems of a growing labor surplus and tightening economy. Bae’s archival ambitions are to investigate the history of Asian/American activism in many industries, such as in the building and restaurant trades, as well as to conduct oral histories with workers in New York.

The Asian/Pacific American Archives Survey Project was established in 2008 by the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU and the NYU Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. It was the first systematic attempt to map existing and potential Asian/Pacific American (A/PA) archival collections in the New York metropolitan area. The project seeks to address the underrepresentation of East Coast Asian America in historic scholarship and archives by surveying the collections of community-based organizations and individuals. From 2008 to 2011, the Project surveyed over 90 archival collections and helped transfer some of them into the Fales Library & Special Collections and the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University. Today, the Asian/Pacific/American Institute remains involved in bringing in A/PA archival collections to New York University’s archival repositories.


Image credit: Illustration by Tomie Arai (1979).
Asian Women United Records and Photographs, Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.