May 1: The Untold Story of AAPI and the Labour Movement | #APAHM2015 #ReappropriateRevisited

Larry Itliong stands alongside Cesary Chavez in front of NFWA headquarters in July 28, 1967. (Photo credit: AP Photo/ Harold Filan)
Larry Itliong stands alongside Cesary Chavez in front of NFWA headquarters in July 28, 1967. (Photo credit: AP Photo/ Harold Filan)

For this year’s AAPI Heritage Month, I will take each day to pull one of my favourite posts or pieces from the archives highlighting some aspect of AAPI history and heritage, and add to it a short commentary and reflection. I invite you to check back every day for this #ReappropriateRevisited month-long feature!

Today is May 1st, the first day of AAPI History and Heritage Month. Today is also May Day or International Workers’ Day, an unofficial day for celebration of the working class and labourers.

For the inaugural post of this month’s #ReappropriateRevisited celebration of AAPI Heritage Month, I am revisiting this post I wrote last September — Remembering Two Historic Moments for AAPI & the Labour Movement | #LaborDay — highlighting the important and historic intersection between the AAPI community and the labour movement.

One of my earliest formative memories in my journey towards identifying as an AAPI activist was my AAPI history course at Cornell where I read Ron Takaki’s Strangers From a Different Shore. Later, in another class, I read Carlos Bulosan’s America Is In The Heart. I was particularly struck by how both books rooted the AAPI struggle in America within the growing national labour movement of the early twentieth century. Contrary to the stereotypes (of the hard-working and long-suffering labourer who would rather display a strong work ethic than walk off the job), we were not silent bystanders in this struggle; we were in many ways defined by our widespread belief in improved workers’ rights. Whether on the sugar plantations of Hawaii or the sweatshops of New York City Chinatowns, we organized and stood up for our rights as labourers. Photographs of Asian American women taking to the streets by the thousands to strike against the owners of garment factories is forever inscribed into my mind as a quintessential symbol of what it means to not just be an empowered Asian American activist, but an Asian American feminist.

Nearly a century later, I’m also surprised that these momentous marches are almost entirely lost to history, and rarely taught in our classrooms. Why do we not remember the 1867 Chinese American Railroad Workers’ Strike that involved 2000 labourers walking off the worksite? Why do we not remember the 1982 New York City Garment Worker Strike which involved 20,000 garment workers — most of them Chinese American women? Why don’t we remember the names Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz?

For last September’s Labour Day, I wrote a post remembering two historic moments for AAPI and the Labour Movement; check out an excerpt after the jump.

Members of Local 23-25 march through Chinatown during the rally (June 24, 1982 or July 15, 1982).  Images Unlimited
Members of Local 23-25 march through Chinatown during the rally (June 24, 1982 or July 15, 1982). Images Unlimited

Remembering Two Historic Moments for AAPI & the Labour Movement | #LaborDay

Today is Labour Day, a national day to commemorate the role of the American labour movement in shaping contemporary US political and personal life. For AAPIs, our history is closely linked with and can often be told through the fight for labour rights; yet, as Professor Glenn Omatsu points out in this AAPI labour studies class syllabus, our contributions to the labour movement are often overlooked.

Like other immigrant groups in America, the history of Asian Americans is essentially a labor history and part of the history of working people in America fighting for justice, equality, and the expansion of democracy. Yet, in contrast to the labor histories of European immigrants, the labor struggles of Asian immigrants and Pacific Islanders are often excluded from traditional accounts of American labor history.

While you are out celebrating Labour Day today, please take a minute to remember these  two historic moments for AAPIs in the labour movement.

Larry Itliong stands alongside Cesary Chavez in front of NFWA headquarters in July 28, 1967. (Photo credit: AP Photo/ Harold Filan)
Larry Itliong stands alongside Cesary Chavez in front of NFWA headquarters in July 28, 1967. (Photo credit: AP Photo/ Harold Filan)

1. Filipino American farm workers who lead the charge for workers’ rights in California and other parts of the West Coast.

The work of Mexican American labour organizer Cesar Chavez is well-known, and the subject of an eponymous big-budget biopic released in theatres this year and on DVD earlier last month. Yet, the movie was also a source of controversy for its papering over of the contributions of Filipino American labour activists contemporary to Chavez and who allied with Mexican American workers throughout parts of the West Coast to organize strikes in the struggle for migratory labour rights. In this year’s Cesar Chavez, Filipino Americans are either invisible or bystanders; yet in reality, Filipino American unions were powerful partners with Chavez’s National Farm Workers Association (NFWA).

Throughout the early twentieth century, Filpino American migrant workers arrived on the shores of America to meet the demands for cheap agricultural labour. Emigrating from the Phillipines (which had recently been claimed as an American territory), their immigration was less restricted than that of Chinese, Japanese, or Koreans whose entry had been in essence halted by racist exclusionary laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act. Thus, between 1920 and 1930, the Filipino American population rose in America by 1900%, andby 1930, over 100,000 Filipino workers were living in America — most as part of the agricultural sector’s migratory labour force — to meet the sudden demand for cheap labour. In so doing, Filipino Americans became positioned at the forefront of America’s growing fight over labour rights.

Throughout the West Coast and Hawaii during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, agricultural workers worked under deplorable conditions: long grueling hours were compensated with low (and often racially unequal) pay. In contrast to the stereotype of the meek and apolitical Asian American (a stereotype that, to be fair, was only popularized in America in the post-1980’s), Asian American low-skilled labourers of all ethnicities — including Filipino Americans as well as Chinese, Japanese and Korean workers before them (please see the linked post to learn more about turn-of-the-century Hawaiian Chinese and Japanese labour unions) — organized into some of the nation’s first and most powerful labour unions.

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