Organizing Women on the Job: The Lifework of Karen Wing
Interview by Pam Tau Lee. Posted December 13, 2022
Introduction: Karen Wing is a longtime workplace organizer who started in restaurant work and then went to work in the post office and became Vice President of the San Francisco local of the American Postal Workers Union. She was also active in the Coalition of Labor Union Women and a founding member of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance. She is retired and lives in San Francisco.
Pam Tau Lee: I notice that you zoned in on issues facing women. You’ve always uplifted women’s voices and women’s participation, especially working women.
Karen Wing: Ever since I can remember, I’ve always been interested in and felt more comfortable talking to women. I grew up in the 50s and 60s, when women were supposed to be at home and not talk or go out and work. I saw that men were only interested in talking about themselves and wouldn’t want to pay attention or listen to what I had to say, let alone other women. Women always have a story, but they have nobody to tell the story to. I really was interested in hearing about what kind of life they had so I could understand them better. I became good at drawing things out of people. [She laughs]
Pam Tau Lee: How did you find your way to San Francisco and activism?
Karen Wing: When I came out to San Francisco, I was looking to understand my Asian roots. I had a friend who went out to San Francisco and she said, “Come on, come join me.” [She laughs] That’s where the student strikes and the hippies and everything else was happening. So I said, “Okay.” And then I learned about the Cultural Revolution in China and was especially interested in learning about the Barefoot Doctors. I’d also heard of I Wor Kuen (IWK). So when I went to Chinatown, I happened to walk down the stairs to the red doors of the IWK storefront and met members Ben, Carolyn, and Wilma.
Pam Tau Lee: You mentioned understanding your Asian roots.
Karen Wing: Because I was born in Baltimore in a mainly white area, and very few Asian were there. I went to SF from Madison, Wisconsin, where I went to college during the antiwar movement and the Black student strike. Whether you were political or not, you had to become political. That’s the kind of turmoil that was on campus. There were very few Asian American students enrolled but many more foreign students. I took Chinese language to learn Chinese and get closer to my culture. After I graduated, I wanted to find out more about my roots, because I didn’t know anything about Asian Americans. You don’t learn that in school.
Pam Tau Lee: So, you go through the red door, which was the storefront of IWK. How did that influence your lifelong activism to follow?
Karen Wing: I was influenced by the Barefoot Doctors in China and that women were Holding Up Half the Sky. I worked with members of IWK, and we formed the Women’s Health Clinic.
We met with the Los Siete women in the Mission district. They had a health clinic over on 24th Street. They taught us how to draw blood, and we learned about women’s health. We wanted to translate that for the Chinese community, but most of us weren’t bilingual!
Pam Tau Lee: This was all volunteer, since there were not nonprofits back in the 1970s. How did you pay the bills?
Karen Wing: I got a part-time job as a waitress at the Fujiya restaurant that had just opened in the Financial District. There were all these Japanese women who were the waitresses, and they were tough women. I got to know some of them. This was my first experience with the Hotel Restaurant union. Joe Belardi was the president. The union came in to try and organize the restaurant. It was like a Benihana-style restaurant, where the food is prepared in front of you by cooks. But the managers classified the cook position as a server. That wasn’t right. Servers make a lot less than cooks. The union also reached out to the hostesses and the waitresses. My friend and I decided that we were going to join the union. Once we joined the union, the boss fired us!
Pam Tau Lee: What did you do then?
Karen Wing: We went down to the union hall and the staff found us another job at the Engineers Club. The Engineers Club paid a little bit more, but we really wanted to get our old jobs back. We would have to wait for Joe Belardi, the union president, to return from vacation and talk with the Fujiya management. I didn’t like the clientele that much at the Engineers Club; they were mostly white engineers, kind of arrogant and rude. All the waitresses were older Chinese women. They adopted me and they became my aunties and taught me the tricks of the trade. They would help me learn the procedures: how to engage with the different staff and clients, how to do this and how to do that. Some were bold and livened up our days by messing with the engineers’ food orders. The engineers didn’t notice because they were usually drunk. [laughter].
I needed a full-time job, so I applied at the post office and at BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit). I passed the civil service test and got hired at the post office in 1973. In 1970, the post office had gone through a general strike that started out of New York and then spread across the country. The conditions were so terrible, and the pay was really bad. I was hired as a part-time flexible employee. That means you were guaranteed a minimum of four hours of work.
In 1970, most of the workforce had been hired prior to World War II and were mainly white men. Before 1943, noncitizens couldn’t be in the federal workplace. But during World War II, the post office needed people to work, because the men were being drafted into the military. They hired women as indefinite war service employees; they were temporary replacements. Many Black women and Chinese women became post office workers but temporary war employees. After the war ended, the men started coming back to work. The Post Office Administration then told the women to go home. The response was “No, we want a permanent position,” and they fought for permanent employment. The women lobbied Congress, and in the ’60s, the government opened up the civil service test, and more women took it. They’d also have to take a required post office test. This included Chinese women whose English was not their first language. One Chinese woman told me how she was able to pass the test. You had to know the names of the streets, had to sort out the mail by street to the correct carrier, right? The carrier was identified by his specific number. She couldn’t read English that well. So, she had somebody read the name of the street and break it down into syllables. Then she would put a Chinese character that closely matched the sound, by syllable. This was how she was able to learn the street names and pass the test.
I lived in San Francisco and started work at Rincon Annex, the main post office. Because it had mainly been a male workforce, there were very few women’s bathrooms. A number of bathrooms had to be converted to women’s bathrooms. When I got hired, we were mainly young people and were assigned to the graveyard shift, of course. That’s 10:30 pm to 7 am, the least desirable shift.
After work, we would hang out with each other. Being part-time flexible workers, management could send you home at any time. Some of us young ones didn’t want to work a full shift, so around four o’clock in the morning, we’d volunteer to leave early. We’d go out for breakfast, play basketball, go bowling, and things like that. Back then, there were a lot more workers in the city working graveyard, so you could always find a diner or bowling alley open.
We had a pretty good network of young people who were all part-time but wanted to become full time permanent workers. We went to the union, but they didn’t really want to help us.
Pam Tau Lee: Why?
Karen Wing: Well, this is my take. At that time, Executive Committee positions like the president, vice president, craft directors, etc., were held mainly by older men. We thought they were too pro-management and we were pro-union. We said, “We want to become full-time; isn’t that your job to help protect us and to help us become permanent?” So, finally, they agreed to help us.
With the many new hires, the post office had a more multiracial workforce. We grouped together to be badass to help the union members. [She laughs] I think it was in 1980 when we decided we were going to run against these management types. And at that time there were a lot of young radicals in the post office, people like myself who were “politicized” or “radicalized” by the movement struggles of the 1970s.
Pam Tau Lee: You began working in the post office in 1973, so it was eight or so years later when you and others decided the status quo in the post office and union needed to be challenged.
Karen Wing: What else could we do? In the election in 1980, I won as vice president. There were four slates. I was on one of the slates, and somehow I won. I ended up being elected to the Executive Committee of the Executive Board and I became the only woman and Asian there.
Pam Tau Lee: Wow!
Karen Wing: So, there’s a story about that. Just after I was elected, the Executive Committee all had to go to a regional union conference in San Diego. Because I was the vice president, I had to go. Oh, that’s when I found out that all the men brought their girlfriends, not their wives. When people saw me, they assumed that I was the president’s girlfriend! None of them had their wives accompanying them.
Pam Tau Lee: Oh my goodness!
Karen Wing: I decided the only way I could deal with this situation was to get more women active in the union and change how things functioned. There were some women on the Executive Board, but unfortunately, they were not top executive officers, and they were not eligible to attend these regional meetings.
I met Maryann who had started at the post office in 1968. After the Image Lawsuit ruled that the post office had to hire more Latinos, she became an instructor training Latinos on how to pass the post office test. She eventually became my partner in crime, and we became close friends and still are to this day.
One concern we had to address was that most women didn’t want to become shop stewards. They didn’t want to deal with arguing with management, and they didn’t want to deal with having confrontation. We needed another way to involve women. What were the issues that women were concerned with, and how could they be the ones deciding on what actions to take?
Pam Tau Lee: What did you do?
Karen Wing: I wasn’t a full-time officer. I worked on the shop floor, which helped a lot because I wasn’t isolated in the union office. Working on graveyard shift, there were a lot of women who had kids and other families who were expecting. Childcare was a real issue. In the city, there wasn’t any overnight or evening care. We started to discuss onsite childcare, but the women didn’t want to go to the union hall. So, what did we do? We hosted picnics and we went to each other’s houses and had tea. In other words, we did things in a particular way that worked for them.
I transferred out of Rincon Annex to the San Francisco General Mail Facility (GMF) and helped organize the GMF Childcare Committee. We were pushing for onsite childcare, overnight onsite childcare open 24 hours. It took a while, but we were able to get more women to recognize the union and feel more comfortable about being involved. I was a shop steward too and wanted more women to feel comfortable in knowing the contract and feeling comfortable about talking to management. If they had a problem talking to management, I’d say, “Okay, come with me. You don’t have to say anything, just listen. You can hear what I’m saying and make sure what I’m saying is correct. Right? If you want to say something, you’re welcome to speak up.”
I had to show the women by example that they could talk to the supervisors. They realized that the supervisors weren’t any better or more powerful than them. For example, one Chinese woman was pregnant, and she got upset because the supervisor had yelled at her. So, I said, “Okay, let’s go talk to the supervisor and find out why she yelled at you.” “Oh, no, I don’t want to go.” “No, just come with me,” I said, “so you can hear what I’m saying and make sure that I’m saying the right thing. Then if you want to say something, that’s fine too. But also, you can hear what the supervisor has to say.” That’s still a big step. She was with me when I asked the supervisor, “Why did you do this and why did you do that?” Finally, in the end, the supervisor said, “Okay, I apologize.” The worker then replied, “No, you have to apologize to baby too!” So, the supervisor looks at the worker’s tummy and says, “I’m sorry, baby.” The worker won her respect back and felt good. After she gave birth and the kid grew up a little bit, she wanted to be a shop steward, and she did it for a little while.
Pam Tau Lee: Oh, I love it. I mean, to get the supervisor to say, ‘I’m sorry, baby.” What the supervisor did to her could have affected the baby. She was upset and probably had sleepless nights, which isn’t healthy.
I’d like you to talk about two achievements that I feel were groundbreaking. The first was how you addressed the safety and justice issues for the hearing impaired. This could be one of the earliest examples of disability justice on the job. The second was how you uplifted the importance of workplace health and safety and how that helped launch the science workplace ergonomics.
Karen Wing: The post office had hired a lot of deaf and hearing-impaired people, because the post office didn’t have to make as many accommodations for their exposure to loud machines. But the issue was that the post office wouldn’t bring in certified interpreters for the safety talks or the daily service talks. These were important meetings. Sometimes if a supervisor is nice, they’ll write down what was being said. But unfortunately, the deaf workers would never have the opportunity to ask questions or make comments. We organized with the deaf and hearing-impaired workers and did a whole campaign calling for closed caption and certified interpreters.
Pam Tau Lee: I remember you actually learned sign language yourself.
Karen Wing: Two of the women who were active in bringing together the deaf people said, “You have to learn to sign.” The national APWU leadership took the issue up too, and so they had their first deaf conference in DC. I went with these two women. One could speak a little bit, and the other one was totally deaf. So, we had to figure out how to communicate when I was in one hotel room and they were in another. One woman tried putting the phone on her chest to see if she could feel the vibrations. No, that didn’t work. We couldn’t flash the lights. So, to get their attention, we agreed that I would write my message on a piece of paper and slide it under the door and wave it back and forth.
It was very interesting, because I’d never been to a deaf conference, and so there were maybe about 40 or 50 deaf attendees, and they would talk to each other in a circle. They would sign, and there are no secrets or side bars, because you could always see each other. They put on a play, and one of the themes was, How many ways can you sign the word, for example, the color gray? There must have been lots of different ways, because they each had their own dialect. In the south, they would say it one way, and in New York they would say it another. There were about five or six ways of saying the word gray in sign language. I asked my friend Nancy, I said, “Well, how am I going to learn to sign if there’s so many different ways of signing something?” She said, “Don’t worry about it. Just learn San Francisco sign.” So that was nice, creative, and fun.
The national APWU leadership committed to putting into the national contract an agreement that certified interpreters would be brought in for any service talks, meetings, or when there was a problem that needed to be discussed with the management. On the TV screen, they had to put closed captions and have flashing lights for emergencies.
Pam Tau Lee: How long did it take you to learn, and how did you practice signing?
Karen Wing: It was hard. My friend gave me this book on the ABCs of sign language.
I learned a few words, like “How are you?” but it was mainly spelling, and it was really hard for me to look in the air and watch them spell. So, what we did was we communicated with each other by writing.
Pam Tau Lee: Can you talk a little bit more about the high rate of injuries and about ergonomics and the changes that resulted from the repetitive motions of the work? I remember one of the injuries was carpal tunnel. What changes were made?
Karen Wing: People working on certain machines were complaining of pain. They couldn’t move their wrists. When they tried to apply for workman’s compensation their claims kept getting rejected. We couldn’t find a doctor who would verify that it was job-related. One day, I read this flyer that was distributed in my neighborhood by UCSF Medical Center. I said, “Oh, this is interesting.” I went to the address on the flyer and met Dr. Harrison. I’d never heard of ergonomics. We had this long discussion, and he says, “Oh yeah, I’d really like to come and see the conditions in these facilities.” Somehow, I got him into one, but it wasn’t with management’s consent.
Pam Tau Lee: Good job! It’s hard to get anyone into the PO to inspect conditions.
Karen Wing: Dr. Harrison came with his team, and they were able to figure out how to get people to prove that their pain was job-related. There were new machines that were speeding up the work. It was not just the letter-sorting machine but also optical scanners where you had to keep lifting and pushing trays of mail. He was able to describe how the work resulted in injuries. Because of this, their worker’s comp claims were accepted!
Pam Tau Lee: Incredible! Anyone who has had to deal with worker’s comp knows what a nightmare it is.
Karen Wing: Yeah. We got the post office to provide injured workers with limited-duty positions.
Pam Tau Lee: What kind of limited duties?
Karen Wing: You could be assigned short time slots sorting the mail and moving mail trays from one station to another. Workers had to get paid if they couldn’t work or if they were on rehab. That was a pretty good accomplishment and we got them to slow down some of the machines.
Pam Tau Lee: What?
Karen Wing: People became aware of it, and so then if the supervisor tried to speed up the machine, they would just work at their regular speed. In extreme cases, workers would push the “stop” button.
Pam Tau Lee: That’s a really huge accomplishment when a worker can stop production!
Karen Wing: I don’t know if that’s happening now, but once people became more aware–and we had pamphlets and things to get people educated with suggestions on what to do–the union trained a whole crew of shop stewards with skills and knowledge about worker compensation. We were very fortunate that the workers could go see Dr. Harrison. When he conducted his examinations, he would write a note, which they brought to their supervisor. The supervisor would then call in a shop steward, who would help them fill out the forms.
Pam Tau Lee: How do you sum up your experience as a worker at the post office?
Karen Wing: It was really a great experience, because I got to meet people that I would never meet and become friends with otherwise. I especially got to learn from the stories of Black women who had left the south. For example, there was one woman, Ollie Hawkins. She was active in the union and trying to get the women permanent positions in the post office.
She had moved from Arkansas to California to work in the Richmond shipyards as a welder. She worked on the Liberty Ship, the Jeremiah O’Brian. We became friends, so when the ship came to San Francisco and was docked at the port, a group of us went on a tour with her. Oh, she was so excited to show us around, saying, “Come on, come on” and then pointing to the different welds to proudly proclaim, “I did that one. I did that one and I did that one.” At the Rosie the Riveter National Historic Park in Richmond, California, her picture and story are part of a display. It was a wonderful visit.
Going back to the childcare situation, the actions of our small group took hold in locals across the country. We took our campaign to the national conventions and educated and mobilized others to get involved. This forced the national leadership to take up the issue and figure something out.
Pam Tau Lee: What did they do?
Karen Wing: They put the issue into the contract and in memorandums of understanding that efforts regarding childcare must be addressed.
Pam Tau Lee: That’s huge. So, then what happened?
Karen Wing: The SF post office refused to give us child care space at the GMF, citing liability issues. I learned that the Whitney Young Child Development Center in the Bayview was a child care facility, and it was in the vicinity of the GMF. I met with the director to learn how to set up child care. She was interested in our story and said, “Why do you want to reinvent the wheel? Why don’t you just bring the kids up to my center, and we’ll expand the hours of our daycare and become 24 hrs.” We took her up on her offer. It was an amazing resolution to our problem.
Pam Tau Lee: Do you remember when you spoke to the students at a class at City College? There was a young woman who raised her hand and said she was one of the children who stayed at the center when her father worked graveyard shift.
Karen Wing: Yeah, her father had to leave her in the GMF parking lot overnight. When the Whitney Young Center welcomed the children, he was so happy to have a safe place for his daughter to sleep. He and a lot of other parents too.
Pam Tau Lee: I mean that must have made you feel proud. I know I was blown away when she recounted her story. Actually, I think I teared up.
Karen Wing: Yeah, it did, it made me feel very proud.
Addendum: Today, Karen Wing is retired and enjoys drawing, painting, and baking, as well as going for long walks in the morning with her husband. She remains active with the Retirees of the American Postal Workers Union and is still a member of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance and the Chinese Progressive Association. She is also currently a docent at the California Academy of Science.