Creating A Written Record – A Review of Asian American Workers Rising: APALA’s Struggle to Transform the Labor Movement

By Casey Lee Sweeney. Posted March 26, 2022

Asian American Workers Rising: APALA’s Struggle to Transform the Labor Movement, tells the story of the first 30 years of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) by highlighting the voices of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) leaders who have shaped the organization over time. Primarily through interviews with the editors, dozens of AAPI leaders share their stories, reflect on their contributions to the labor movement and on the role that APALA has played in their own lives. The book is a compelling history of the organization that centers the humanity of the Asian American workers who shaped it over the last three decades.

Texas chapter members march in support of Culinary Workers Union Local 226, while attending the 15th Biennial APALA Convention in Las Vegas. Aug 9, 2019. Photo from APALA website.

APALA was founded on May 1,1992 and became the first national AAPI worker organization within the US labor movement. The book first pays homage to AAPI Labor Pioneers, Philip Vera Cruz (1904-1994), Art Takei (1924-1997), and Sue Kunitomi Embrey (1923-2006) honoring the historic contributions they each made, and also reminding us that AAPI workers have always played a pivotal role in labor’s history in the United States. The chapters are then broken down to cover APALA’s founding – “The Birth of APALA”, the influence on Union Organizing, Immigrant Rights, Political Action, Diversity and Inclusion, International Labor Solidarity, and the Next Generation of leadership in the organization.

I had my first experience with APALA at the Biennial Convention in 2011 in Oakland, participating in the Young Workers’ Caucus as a college student organizer with United Students Against Sweatshops. Later, I helped to refound the APALA Illinois chapter in 2017 in the wake of Trump’s election. I am lucky to have met and learned from so many of the leaders featured in the book, both through APALA Conventions and organizing, and through my work with the Chicago Teachers Union.

Reading the book, I was struck by how deeply rooted APALA’s history is in other historic struggles against racism, imperialism, and dictatorship. The leaders who founded the organization were politicized in various ways. They were workers who rose up into leadership in their unions as rank-and-file activists, organizers who worked in fields, factories, and canneries, who were radicalized during the antiwar and civil rights movements, Third World Liberation struggles and resisting the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines.

Phlip Vera Cruz, Cesar Chavez, Larry Itliong on mural at Unidad Park, Los Angeles Filipinotown. Photo: Flickr/Kenny Chang

The editors – Kent Wong, Matthew Finucane, Tracy Lai, Kim Geron, Emmelle Israel, and Julie Monroe – each have a deeply-rooted, personal connection to APALA and the labor movement. Both Kent Wong and Matthew Finucane are featured in the book, serving together as the first APALA National President and Executive Director after the initial founding. Their relationships create a familiar and intimate feel to the storytelling in each chapter, as if we are sitting in the living room with each of the leaders featured, reminiscing on their time and contributions, and the lasting impact of that work.

Some key events appear throughout the personal narratives and across the different chapters of the book. A number of APALA members remembered the moment when they first convened together in-person to plan the founding APALA convention, when someone remarked on the significance of a group of AAPI labor leaders in 1990 sitting in the Samuel Gompers conference room–named for the founder of the American Federation of Labor who pushed for the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. The APALA Organizing Institutes were also referred to by a number of different activists. These Organizing Institutes made a real, material difference in union organizing campaigns. On numerous occasions, APALA was able to connect unions and campaigns to organizers with the language skills needed to work with immigrant workers. By training in community with other Asian American workers, attendees of these institutes got the skills to go out and organize and formed relationships with one another, which created a pipeline of organizers.

So many people described APALA as a family. I was especially moved by the women featured throughout the book–women like Marian Thom, Luisa Blue, Josie Camacho, Johanna Puno Hester, Gloria T. Caoile, Arlene Inouye–and the ways that family and community played such a pivotal role in their political lives. This all was often true for the men featured in the book as well, but I remain in awe of the roles that these women played not only as political leaders, but also as mothers, daughters, aunties, and mentors. For Marian, it was through her children that she first became a paraprofessional at their school and was part of the effort to unionize the position with the United Federation of Teachers in 1972. Already an activist in her housing cooperative in New York’s Chinatown, she was a natural leader in both her union and APALA’s New York chapter. Luisa and Josie were both rank-and-file union members who moved through their respective unions into leadership positions, full-time organizer positions, and seasoned campaigners – leading organizing drives at sites like the San Francisco Airport and at Asian Health Services in the Bay Area that unionized significant numbers of AAPI workers in home health care – while still managing to be working mothers and mentors to the next generation of AAPI organizers.

Two organizing tenets ring clear to me after reading Asian American Workers Rising, and through my own personal participation in APALA. The first is the dedication to building a truly diverse and representative organization. Leaders take great care in ensuring there is leadership in APALA across different unions, ethnicities, genders, immigration status, languages spoken, age, and regions in the US. This principle is what drove APALA to call for immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship at a time when the US labor establishment was on the sidelines in the battle for immigrant rights.

The other is the commitment to mentorship and leadership development in the organization. The multigenerational relationships are apparent throughout the book, as members spoke to the guidance, love, care and support they received from their elders, and where those elders remarked on the inspiration they drew from the next generation of leaders. That nurturing and empowerment across generations is key to APALA’s mission to continue to push the labor movement forward and win collective liberation for all workers. I finished the book feeling inspired toward the fights ahead. The book is available for purchase at the UCLA Labor Center website.



Author’s Bio:  Casey Lee Sweeney is a union organizer in Chicago and founding member of APALA’s Illinois chapter.

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