Historian David Roediger has argued that “the assumption remains, even as the issue of race is raised, that the [worker of color] enters the story of American labor as an actor in a subplot which can be left on the cutting room floor, probably without vitiating the main story. What if race is instead part of the very lens through which labor’s story must be filmed?” Taken one step further, how would the scenes change if labor were the lens though which the Asian American and Pacific Islander experience was viewed? Indeed, the Asian Pacific American story is a worker’s epic, and despite the stereotype of the Asian American “model minority,” we are still a community of laborers—toiling and struggling in the fields, behind cash registers, on assembly lines, and on shop floors to make a better life for ourselves and our families.
A milestone for the American labor movement in the Northwest was the Seattle General Strike of 1919. For five days in February, 65,000 workers participated in a general strike in support of the city’s wartime shipyard workers. For Chinese and Japanese Americans, however, these days were much darker. For decades, Asian workers had been exploited by company owners to undercut white workers’ wages and break strikes. At the same time they were scapegoated and ghettoized by white workers who felt economically threatened by immigrant and non-white laborers. Throughout the 1880’s, Seattle’s Knights of Labor were dedicated to cleansing the region of the Chinese American laborers who settled in the Northwest following completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.
In 1885 and 1886 some of the most violent Anti-Chinese Riots in the country were organized in the Puget Sound by mobs of white workers who evicted Chinese from their homes, burned Chinatowns to the ground, and marched the immigrants to the waterfront to load them pre-paid on to steam ships headed to San Francisco. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act barring Chinese immigration was initiated, fought for, and “won” by organized white workers.
On Labor Day in 1907, South Asian mill laborers from the Whatcom Falls mill company were purged from Bellingham by a mob of white workers. The Bellingham newspaper’s headline announced that “labor trouble and insolence” led to a “crowd numbering 500 [dragging] dusky Orientals from their homes” and the story reported that “many of the Hindus were beaten: Some escaped from their quarters in their night clothes and sought refuge on the tide flats where they were afterward found and escorted wither to the city limits or to the police.”The Bellingham Reveille reported that the crowd proceeded to the B.B.L. Company and then the E.K. Wood Company to “drive out the cheap labor.”
The Trade Union Label was invented by white San Francisco cigar-makers to denote that the product had been made by white hands rather than Chinese. This movement spread quickly and by 1905 Seattle’s Central Labor Council formed a Women’s Card and Label League with the singular mission of maintaining white unionists’ militancy in “looking for the union label.” Since American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions denied membership to Asian workers, any manufacturer or restaurant employing Chinese or Japanese workers was, by definition, “unfair” and promptly boycotted.
The culinary unions were the most virulently anti-Asian, fighting constantly against employers who hired Chinese and Japanese American workers. Labor historian Dana Frank writes that “the waiters reported to the Central Labor Council that two delicatessens were ‘unfair’ (i.e. non-union) ‘because of Jap cooks.’”
Frank continues, “the culinary unions hoped to use boycotts to force employers to fire Asian American workers and then hire whites in their places. In 1926, for example, they put Joe’s Dizard Card Room and Joe Wood’s Lunch Counter on the Central Labor Council’s unfair list after trying ‘time after time to induce the proprietors to place white help in the kitchen, without avail.’” According to Frank, the waitresses’ union even threatened to photograph workers seen eating in “unfair” restaurants.
This same year, middle-class whites threatened by the growth of Japanese American owned businesses such as hotels, apartment houses, grocery stores, and laundries formed the Anti-Japanese League in Seattle. Within months the Anti-Japanese League had successfully lobbied the City of Seattle to refuse granting licenses to Japanese Americans to operate pawnshops, dance halls, and detective agencies.
Frank writes that in December, the Anti-Japanese League obtained a ban on the immigration of “picture brides” and in March 1921, Washington state enacted the Alien Land Law to prohibit non-citizens from owning land. Given that Asians were legally restricted from becoming naturalized citizens, this law clearly targeted Asian workers.
The January 18, 1921 edition of the Seattle Union Record reported that “Japs” were “replacing” white railroad workers in Centralia. Road Master Jack Chambers was quoted as saying, “[Japanese] do more work and don’t stand around when out on the works.” Many workers, however, were keen to the ways employers used immigrant and minority laborers to break strikes and weaken the power of organized labor.
In response to this tactic, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) vigilantly organized Asian workers into their ranks. In 1919, the Seattle IWW issued an “Appeal to Japanese Workers in America” and one rank-and-file worker wrote to a news publication, “teaching race hatred has been the foundation rock on which the capitalists have been able to induce the workers to sanction and enlist in war. If we would allow every [Japanese worker] in our unions that would solve the question.” He signed the letter, “yours for one big union, with nobody that works barred no matter what his or her color, race, or creed.”
Historians show us that despite the AFL’s racism, the early Asian immigrant workers did align themselves with the goals and principles of organized labor. By 1906, Japanese immigrant workers had constructed an entire network of independent trade unions and small business associations. There were over 600 members of the Nihonjin Rodo Kumiai (Japanese Labor Union), and although Japanese were excluded from AFL affiliated unions, Japanese workers were able to leverage enough power to set prices and wages with the white unions.
Frank writes that Japanese American shoemakers and barbers formed associations in 1907 and, “by 1918 new locals included a day workers association, organizations of butchers, gardeners, and shoe repairers, and regional unions of timber workers and railroad laborers.” Soon, they were also joined by a “range of Japanese American small businessmen’s organizations established by owners of laundries, hotels, restaurants, and dye works.” In February, 1919, Seattle workers shut the city down in one of the nation’s only general strikes, and the Japanese Labor Union formally endorsed and honored the strike despite white organized labor’s racist exclusionary policies.
In his memoir, “On the Battle Lines, 1919-1939,” labor activist Art Shields recalled, “The general strike was the first mass demonstration of interracial unity I had seen. The Black migration from the Deep South had not yet reached Seattle. But the Japanese colony went on strike with us. Seattle had 10,000 Japanese immigrants… any restaurants and hotels depended on them. The strike would have been weakened without their support.”
In fact, the Japanese Labor Union sent a pledge of solidarity to the Central Labor Council that received applause when read to workers in the Labor Temple auditorium. It read:
In the 1920s and ‘30s, Filipino American immigrants played a major role in the Seattle labor movement. By this time, the majority of cannery workers were Filipino, and immigrant Filipino workers were at the forefront of efforts to organize the cannery union that is known today as Region 37 of the ILWU.
Filipino American cannery laborers have spilt blood to bring racial justice and equality to the workers. In 1936, cannery union founders Virgil Duyungan and Aurelio Simon were murdered. Although the circumstances have never been clear, it was widely believed that the nephew of a crooked contractor carried out the murder in violent response to Duyungan’s and Simon’s efforts to replace the contract system with one less profitable for the contractors and more equitable for the cannery workers themselves.
In the 1980s, cannery union reformers Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes spearheaded an anti-Marcos movement within the international labor movement and were ultimately assassinated by thugs hired by the union president as directed by Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos.
Over the last couple of decades, Asian American and Pacific Islander labor activists in Seattle have kept the spotlight on injustices in the food processing, garment, electronics assembly and manufacturing industries. South Asian cab drivers have organized protests—bringing downtown traffic to a standstill—to demand fairness, and South East Asian and Filipino immigrant workers continue to organize for better wages and working conditions in the health care and hotel industries. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders know firsthand the fallacy of the “model minority” myth because they continue to suffer higher levels of poverty than any other race or ethic group.
Three out of four APIs have immigrated from places like Laos, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, China, Palau, Samoa, the Marshall Islands, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Korea. Today, the Puget Sound Asian American and Pacific Islander communities are as much a community of immigrant laborers as they were at the turn of the Twentieth Century.
For Asian Pacific American workers, the journey for justice continues…