Reclaiming Our Radical Working-Class History During APAHM
by Eddie Wong. Posted May 24, 2023
I get it – Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM) is a time to celebrate Asian Pacific American Pride, which takes many forms from corporate sponsorship of events (a not-so-subtle way of virtue signaling via product placement but still an improvement over ignoring us entirely) to community-based festivals and art exhibitions. Many folks are still basking in the glow of our “Everything Everywhere All At Once” moment of Oscar glory (note: Latinx achievements in motion pictures were ignored AGAIN), rejoicing at superstar pitcher/hitter Shohei Ohtani achievements, and celebrating breakthroughs in politics – shout out to Helen Gym, who made a valiant run for mayor of Philadelphia, and all the APA groups who did kick ass voter turnout in 2022.
National Dollar Store garment workers on strike in San Francisco, 1937.
But there is another aspect of APAHM that is pushed to the background and that is our radical working-class history. I may sound like the frumpy, old radicals in John Sayles’ short story collection “The Anarchists’ Convention,” but I must say, “Don’t forget that our Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean and South Asian immigrant ancestors were super-exploited laborers brought here to work Hawaiian sugar plantations, build the railroads, reclaim land for others to reap riches, plant and harvest crops, labor in manufacturing plants, and perform low-pay or no-pay domestic work.” It really wasn’t until after WWII and the mighty push of the African American-led Civil Rights Movement that broke the doors open for Asian Americans and other minorities in public and private sector employment. It took active resistance to discrimination to lay the groundwork for today’s Asian American middle class. It is a debt that should be acknowledged by fighting for Black reparations.
The fact that May 1st aka International Workers’ Day kicks off the start of APAHM must be noted. Today’s diverse population of APAs, most of whom are foreign born, may not understand that the hatred we face is as much rooted in class as it is racial animus. U.S. history from the late 1800s through the 1930s is riven by the ferocious battle of wealthy oligarchs (Carnegie, Rockefeller, Morgan, and others) against the rights of workers to organize for a safe working conditions and fair wages. Asian working people in Hawai’i and the mainland have fought for their rights, often by themselves as the white labor movement opposed them. Racism was a huge wedge against class solidarity, except in the case of the International Workers of the World, the Wobblies.
Today’s anti-Asian violence has historical roots in the driving out of Asian workers based on their status as competitors taking away white jobs combined with being labeled unassimilable heathens. Many APAs don’t identify with this legacy and see themselves a middle class and “near rich/white adjacent,” but when the shit hits the fan as it did during “Kung Flu,” hoary images of Asians as diseased threats led to beatings and murder. Whether you are a working-class, middle class, or rich Asian, you are reduced to “the other,” one to be cursed and cast out. In order combat the hostility we face, we must stand with others (Blacks, Latinx, Native Americans, Jewish people, GLBTQ) against white supremacy and anti-Semitism.
Stop Asian Hate rally, SF Portsmouth Square. 2021. Photo by Eddie Wong.
So, what is the history of Asian working people in America? The following examples can’t begin to cover the deep and rich history rooted in fighting oppression here and fighting colonization and imperialism in home countries. I hope that you’ll follow up on the links and discover this rich history of resistance and perseverance. We’re certainly going to need those qualities as we march into a future where anti-China hysteria (see: Florida to ban Chinese and other foreigners from owning property in strategic zones.) and ongoing anti-immigrant rhetoric fanned up by the extreme right and Republican Party create dangers for all of us.
#1 – Chinese railroad workers strike halts the Transcontinental Railroad – 1867.
The fact that Chinese laborers built the Transcontinental Railroad, an astonishing feat at the time linking the nation from coast to coast, is perhaps the single fact taught about Asian Americans in public schools. Chinese workers were credited as hardworking, skilled workers doing dangerous, back-breaking work, and hundreds of Chinese workers died on the Iron Road. What’s not highlighted is the fact that Chinese workers faced blatant discrimination; they were paid less than white workers, had to provide their own living quarters, worked 11 hours a day, and were often beaten by overseers. Thus, it is not surprising that Chinese workers, many of whom were from Guangdong Province and its rich tradition of resisting Manchu rulers, would go on strike to protest discrimination.
Gordon H. Chang’s book Ghosts of Gold Mountain describes the onset of the strike: “On June 24, at the height of the construction season, precisely when the company most hoped to make rapid progress, three thousand Railroad Chinese, in a full y coordinated and informed effort, put down their tools and refused to work. From Cisco to Truckee, almost thirty miles, Chinese at scores of sites and in hundreds of teams stopped working in unison. One news report called it “the greatest strike ever known in the country.”
Chinese laborers working on the Central Pacific Railroad. (Painting by Jake Lee/Chinese Historical Society of America)
The Chinese workers’ demands for $40/week to place them in parity with white workers and a 10-hour work week, were rejected by the railroad barons. The owners retaliated by cutting off supplies of food and brought in armed guards. They promised that workers would not be docked wages for going on strike. All these factors led to an end of the strike after one week. Although the workers did not win their demands, their unity and collective action sent a clear message that they were not a docile work force but rather one which could organize to advance their rights for fair treatment.
For more analysis, check out this 16 min lecture by Gordon H. Chang on San Francisco and the Chinese Railroad Workers.
#2 – Japanese and Mexican sugar beet workers unite and strike in Oxnard, California in 1903. Everybody likes a story with a happy ending, and they are often hard to come by as workers faced monumental odds against an alliance of factory owners, politicians, and the police. But on Feb. 11, 1903, the Japanese Mexican Labor Association led 1,200 workers on strike to protest the suppression of wages. In response to Japanese and Mexican labor contractors starting work stoppages to garner higher wages and thus higher kick-backs for themselves, the owners of the sugar beet refinery created the Western Agricultural Contracting Company, which cut wages in half. The 500 Japanese workers and 200 Mexican workers who formed the JMLA demanded the abolition of the WACC and the end of company stores which sold goods at inflated prices to the workers. The JMLA won the strike on March 30, 1903, but not after a violent confrontation between strikers and scabs where the police wounded 25 Japanese workers and 2 Mexican workers. The police killed 20-year old striker Luis Vasquez on March 23 during the melee.
Japanese farmworkers circa 1900s.
After the strike ended, the American Federation of Labor accepted the newly named Sugar Beet and Farm Laborers’ Union, but only if the Japanese were excluded. This move was denounced by the Mexican leaders in the union.
To learn more about organizing among Issei workers, see Interethnic Organizing , a short article by Karl Yoneda, legendary activist and author of Gambatte: Sixty Year Struggle of a Kibei Worker. I was amazed and impressed that handfuls of trained organizers could rally hundreds and thousands of workers under extremely harsh conditions where company thugs and police singled out labor agitators and organizers for beatings and imprisonment.
Karl Yoneda (indicated with arrow in first picture) beaten by LA Police Dept. Red Squad at Unemployment Rally, Feb. 1931. Photos from LA Times.
#3 – Hawai’i Sugar Plantation Strikes of 1920, 1924 and 1946.
Chinese laborers came to the sugar plantations in Hawai’i starting in 1852 with several hundred workers. By 1884, there were 18,259 Chinese workers on the plantations. The owners, who feared increasing demands for higher wages by Chinese, sought to replace them with lower-paid Japanese workers. Thus, Chinese contract labor was banned by 1892.
Between 1885 and 1894, 29,000 Japanese workers were brought to the sugar plantations. They were in turn replaced by 100,000 Filipino laborers between 1906 and 1948. By 1932, Filipinos were 70% of the workforce.
Filipino and Japanese workers joined together in 1920 to protest harsh working conditions, a 10 hour workday, and low wages. Workers earned 77 cents per day and had to carry 75-pound bundles of sugar cane on their backs, which resulted in severe wounds. The strike began on January 18, 1920 as Filipinos walked out on Oahu sugar plantations. News accounts state that 5,000 Japanese workers and 3,000 Filipino workers alongside hundreds of Portuguese, Chinese, Puerto Rican, Spanish, Mexican and Korean workers who joined the six-month strike. In retaliation, the owners evicted 12,000 workers and their families from plantation housing. Housing was found at local churches and other unionists’ homes. Japanese workers led a march of 3,000 supporters in downtown Honolulu on April 2, 1920.
Japanese women sugar cane workers on strike in Oahu, 1920. Photo from JCCH.
At the same time, the Spanish Flu hit, and 160 strikers died. The flu sickened thousands. Rumors that the Japanese strike leader was secretly helping the Japanese government to colonize the Hawaiian islands led Filipinos to break off the strike. By July, the Japanese workers also abandoned the strike.
Organizing continued in the 1922 High Wages Movement as workers petitioned owners to raise wages to $2/day, institute overtime pay, increase pay for skilled workers, give women equal pay to men, and recognize the right to collective bargaining. Workers participated in three petition drives on Oahu, Hawaii, Maui, and Kauai, but the owners refused the workers’ demands.
Conditions continued to worsen to the point that workers struck from April to September 1924 with 4,000 workers walking off on Oahu, Hawaii, Maui, and Kauai. This strike fell apart after Sept. 9, 1924 when police killed 16 Filipinos in Hanapepe, Kauai in an altercation between Visayan speaking Filipinos strikers and Illocano speaking Filipino non-strikers. Many participants in the “riot” were deported.
Victory for sugar workers came decades later in 1946 when the International Longshore and Warehouse Workers Union led a 79-day strike that began on September 1, 1946. Strikers shut down 33 out of 34 sugar plantations in Hawai’i. The strike involved 25,000 workers and up to 76,000 people when entire families were included. A massive strike support system provided food, housing, medical treatment, and social services for striking families. On Nov. 17, 1946, the owners granted a 19 cents an hour increase (a 20-40% wage increase) and a 46 hour work week.
1946 Hawaii Sugar Workers Strike. March in downtown Honolulu.
During the course of the strike, the union helped elect 35 union supporters to local office, overturning decades of Republican domination in local politics and the ushering in a new era of Democratic leadership that continues to this day in Hawai’i.
#4 – Chinese workers organize on East Coast and West Coast during the Great Depression
In 1937, Chinese women garment workers won union recognition at the National Dollar Store factory in San Francisco Chinatown. Organized by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the Chinatown local was named the Chinese Ladies Garment Workers Union, Local 341. Even before they could negotiate a contract, Joe Shoong, owner of the National Dollar Store sundries chain, sold his garment factory to Golden Gate Manufacturing, which was headed by the former National Dollar Store factory manager. The workers went on strike for 15 weeks and picketed three of the National Dollar Store outlets, garnering much publicity and public support. The workers demanded $20 per week with a 35-hour work week. They won a 5% pay raise, a 40 hour week, enforcement of health, fire and sanitary regulations at the factory, and guaranty of 11 months of work. This was a first successful unionization effort at Chinatown garment factories, but the victory was short-lived because Golden Gate Manufacturing went out of business after one year. The ILWGU helped Chinese workers find work outside of Chinatown, thereby breaking the racial barrier against Chinese garment workers.
For a personal look at the National Dollar Store strike, check out this short video about Sue Ko Lee, one of the strikers who later became a business agent for the ILGWU.
In 1933, New York Chinese laundry workers and small business owners banded together to fight racist ordinances imposed by city authorities. The following brief history of the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance is taken from the website “A History of Domestic Work and Worker Organizing.” (See additional stories at www.dwherstories.com)
Racismdenied Chinese men the opportunity to work in other sectors, and so they turned to laundry work to survive. Between 7,000 and 8,000 Chinese laundrymen worked in New York City from the late 1880s to 1930s. They lived and worked alone in their laundries because the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882)had banned the entry of Chinese families. One man, who inherited his father’s laundry in the 1950s, described the difficult conditions: “The old generation worked very hard. They often had to work fifteen to eighteen hours a day. They were so busy that they did not even find time to eat…. A lot of them suffered leg pains.”
In March 1933, the City of New York attacked the livelihoods of Chinese laundrymen. It proposed an ordinance to charge a license fee of $25 per year on all public laundries, plus a $1,000 bond and proof of U.S. citizenship. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) called a meeting among laundrymen. For decades, the CCBA had been the main group to represent Chinese immigrants to outside groups. It charged a membership fee, held no elections, and prohibited members from making decisions.
Disillusioned with the CCBA, laundrymen held their own meeting. Despite threats from the CCBA, more than 1,000 Chinese laundrymen gathered. They declared: “If the ordinance unfortunately passes and becomes effective on July 1, tens of thousands of Chinese laundrymen would be stranded in this country, and our wives and children back home would starve to death…. That’s why we have to fight against it with every effort.”
Participants voted to form the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance, an openly left-wing organization. Their goal was “to unite ourselves to fight the City government collectively so as to abolish the discriminatory ordinance, but also [to] prevent such discrimination from occurring again in the future.” Laundrymen elected seventeen people to a temporary executive committee to draft an organizational constitution, rent office space, and recruit members. The first president was Lei Zhuofeng, a bilingual individual and son of a U.S. citizen.
Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance Rally for China Relief Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance Collection
The constitution outlined their goals: to “maintain friendly relations [among the members], concentrate our strength, intentionally keep unity and defend the interests of the members, outwardly resist and try to abolish any discriminatory acts against the Chinese hand laundries.” Any “Chinese engaging in hand laundry trade, regardless of political persuasion and sex,” was allowed to join.
Within a month, the Alliance recruited more than 2,000 members. It organized its membership according to districts. The boroughs of Manhattan, Bronx, and Brooklyn were divided into 300 districts. Each district had 6-10 laundries in the same neighborhood. Each district had a leader who attended the yearly convention.
Their first battle was against the city ordinance. On May 23, the Alliance sent two representatives and a lawyer to oppose the laundry ordinance at a public hearing. They successfully pressured city officials who reduced the license fee to ten dollars and the security bond to $100. City officials kept the U.S. citizenship clause but exempted Chinese immigrants.
The Alliance also provided legal assistance to its members, many of whom did not speak English. The English Language Secretary and legal advisor helped members handle some 6,000 cases between 1933-1938. Members paid an annual membership fee of $3 to receive support. When a member needed legal assistance, they only paid $.25 cents to cover transportation for the lawyer and English secretary. The Alliance also helped non-members. Many members resented this because non-members received support without contributing to the Alliance. The active membership peaked at 3,200 laundrymen in 1934.
Sources: Renqiu Yu, To Save China, To Save Ourselves: The Chinese Hand Laundry Association of New York, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992).
Filmmaker Betty Yu discovered that her grandfather, Siu Woo, was a founder of the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance and produced “Discovering My Grandfather Through Mao,”18 minute film about his life.
#5 – Leftists Organize in the Chinese and Japanese communities from the 1920s to 1950s.
The rising tide of workers’ organizing throughout the U.S. in the turbulent 20s and 30s also attracted Asian immigrant workers, students and intellectuals to socialism. Two scholars, Him Mark Lai and Josephine Fowler, both no longer with us, left behind scholarly research on this little-known aspect of Asian American history. Fowler’s book “Japanese and Chinese Immigrant Activists Organizing in American and International Communist Movements 1919-1933 (Rutgers University Press 2007) uncovers a rich history of Issei radicals who formed the Rodo Kyokai (Japanese Workers Association), Okinawan activists who united as Reimekai (New Dawn Society), and Chinese students in the U.S. who embraced Marxism. A pdf of her book can be found here: https://library.oapen.org/viewer/web/viewer.html?file=/bitstream/handle/20.500.12657/30790/642712.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
Him Mark Lai’s essay A Historical Survey of the Left Among Chinese in America by H.M. Lai (pub. 1972 full article: https://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/leftchineseamerica.html) reveals a longstanding radical tradition among Chinese in America. Although small in number, these leftists created an alternative pole to conservative power bases in the community and reached out beyond Chinatown to join in solidarity with workers of all nationalities. Here’s a short excerpt: “By 1914, a small group of socialists had formed a Chinese Socialist Club in San Francisco. With the coming of the post-World War I depression and the steady deterioration of the Chinese worker’s economic position, anarcho-syndicalists became increasingly active among the workers and in 1919 the Sanfanshi Gongyi Tongmeng Zonghui (Workers’ League of San Francisco) was formed.
The League aimed its first action at Chinese shirt manufacturing factories in San Francisco and Oakland. On May 18, 1919, the new workers’ organization presented nine demands to factory owners. After strike threats and several negotiating sessions at the Young Wo Association in San Francisco, they finally signed agreements with 32 factories.
Following this initial success, the League soon created two additional departments: one for agriculture and one for miscellaneous occupations. In September 1919 a branch was established among Chinese agricultural workers in Suisun, California. The League then changed its name to Meizhou Gongyi Tongmeng Zonghui(Unionist Guild of America, UGA) to suit the new situation. In the meantime, the owners had organized to counterattack. During the next few years, by presenting a united front against the workers. the employers defeated several strikes led by the UGA. The WLA’s fortunes declined as they were unable to rally worker support and it disappeared from the Chinatown scene around 1927.
At its height the UGA claimed a nominal membership of about a thousand. It was the high point of anarcho-syndicalist activity among Chinese workers in America. This peak was never to be approached again. The demise of the UGA, however, demonstrated the difficulty Chinese workers would have in achieving lasting gains in a situation where they were going it alone without much fraternal support from workers in the larger society. “
H.M. Lai also writes about the formation of a leading workers organization, the Chinese Workers Mutual Aid Association: “Chinese left elements worked with American labor to attack the notorious Chinese contract system existing in the Alaskan salmon canneries and to demand collective bargaining rights. In 1936, picket lines were set up at the docks to halt loading of ships of Alaskan Packers Association. (However, because of intimidation and threats by the Chinese contractors, the Chinese only worked behind the scene and did not appear on the picket lines.) The association capitulated and the workers, which included many racial groups, gained the right to unionize, and the contract system was finally abolished. As an aftermath of the victory, a group of Chinese workers on a ship returning from a canning season in Alaska developed the idea of forming a Chinese workers’ association. The Chinese Workers’ Mutual Aid Association (CWMAA, Huagong Hezuohui) was officially established in September 1937. Its aim was to unite Chinese workers and through the cooperation and exchange of experiences, raise the status of Chinese workers in the labor unions and improve their working conditions. Its formation was a manifestation of a more mature stage in the development of the Chinese left movement as it profited from experience.
Chinese cannery workers in Alaska. Photo by Elmer Ogawa. 1952 Univ of Washington Special Collections.
Starting as a center for channeling information on employment in the canneries and as a gathering place for returned cannery workers, the CWMAA went on to broaden the scope of its functions to encourage Chinese workers to join the trade unions and to recognize the value of working collectively to better the working man’s condition. The CWMAA filled a need in the community, for soon after its formation there were 400 to 500 members on its membership rolls.
The CWMAA was the first Chinese workers’ organization to work actively with people in the American labor movement to achieve a common goal. Their many links with CIO and AF of L unions such as the International Longshoremen’s Union, the Cannery Workers’ Union and Miscellaneous Workers Union, etc., were extremely useful in introducing Chinese to employment in the larger society. However, it was true that contacts of the CWMAA with the larger community were hampered somewhat by the fact that many members lacked facility in the use of English. But the basic philosophy of identity of interests among the members of the working class regardless of ethnic background was accepted. Much of the association’s strength and success was based on the demonstration of this concept.”
# 6 – The heroic role of Filipino grape pickers in forming the United Farm Workers Union and mounting the 1965-1970 Grape Strike and Boycott. I was able to find this first-person account of Filipino organizing on the UFW website.
Andy Imutan is one of the original strikers from the 1965 walkouts who started it all. He was a leader of AWOC and later a vice president of the United Farm Workers, formed by the merger of the largely Filipino AWOC and the mostly Latino NFWA. Imutan was also in charge of the Baltimore and New York boycotts, and was UFW director in Stockton and Delano.
Here is his story: From: 40th anniversary of Delano Grape Strike two-day reunion in Delano, September 2005, posted UFW.org
My name is Andy Imutan and I am one of the original Filipino workers who went on strike in 1965. I am now only one of two living Filipino workers from that era as most of my brothers have passed away. The one thing that does remain is their legacy and their fight for a just cause.
The whole movement began in Coachella that same summer [of 1965]. That’s when a group of Filipino workers went on strike demanding that their wages be increased from $1.10 an hour as well as better living conditions. Finally, after 10 days of picketing we finally accomplished what we had set out to do-we increased our wages by 30 cents an hour. The victory was more grandiose, not so much for the wage increase but for its significance at defeating the growers. We knew then that we could accomplish a lot more.
As I look back, I don’t think we could have accomplished such victory in Coachella had it not been for the leadership of our brothers Ben Gines, Pete Manuel and Larry Itliong, who were all instrumental in that victory.
After a successful first strike we did it again, this time in Delano where wages were also starting out at $1.10 an hour. However, the struggle became a lot harder when Mexican workers started crossing our picketlines. There was no unity between the Mexicans and the Filipinos. The growers were very successful in dividing us and creating conflict between the two races. Although we tried to discourage and reason with the Mexicans that this was just hurting everyone, we weren’t able to convince them.
So, Larry Itliong and I decided to take action by seeing Cesar Chavez, the leader of the National Farm Workers Association. We met to come up with a plan that would be beneficial for everyone, including the Mexican workers. However, Chavez said his organization wasn’t ready to go on a strike. It took several discussions and a lot of faith, but finally the Filipinos and Mexicans joined as one on September 16, to picket the Delano growers. On March 17,1966 we set out on a march from Delano to Sacramento that initially only had 70 farm workers and volunteers. But by April 11, as we climbed the steps of the state Capitol, there were 10,000 supporters who had joined us in the cause.
A few months later our union, AWOC, and the NFWA joined as a single union. Out of this union the United Farm Workers was born. It was a very exciting time as we knew the potential when we joined together not as competitors, but as true brothers joined in a very legitimate cause.
#7 – I’ll end by referencing some resources that address contemporary organizing among Asian Pacific American and South Asian workers. To keep abreast of current developments, check out Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA).
An insightful and passionate account of organizing among Asian workers in Los Angeles was produced by Visual Communications in 2005. Stories about workers organizing and tenants resisting displacement are slowly coming to the fore in today’s flourishing of Asian American filmmaking. Director Robert C. Winn’s documentary “Grassroots Rising” is a prime example of using media on behalf of social justice. Here is a description of the documentary from IMDb.
A tribute to the working-class roots of the Asian American experience, focusing on the resurgence of grassroots political activism among the City of Angels’ Asian, Latino, and other working-class families. Juxtaposes poetry by spoken word artist Alison de la Cruz with the stories of immigrant workers, slave laborers, and activists alike. Koreatown restaurant workers arbitrarily fired despite being too ill to work, Pilipino home health care workers exploited for their cheap labor, and Thai women held captive in a virtual prison sweatshop share their stories along with supermarket workers picketing for better wages and working conditions. Profiles how the sharp reality of life for working class immigrants in Los Angeles is being redirected into grassroots activism through innovative organizations such as the Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates, Garment Worker Center, Pilipino Worker Center, Thai Community Development Center, and the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance.
Scene from “Grassroots Rising.” Photo from Visual Communications.