The History of Asian American Labor Activism Is Essential for Today’s Students

Despite centuries of racially discriminatory laws, Asian immigrants and Asian Americans have consistently engaged in labor resistance.

Asian women work in a Chinatown garment factory, in New York City, on Sept. 6, 1981. (Bettmann Archive / Getty Images)

While Labor Day was signed into law by President Grover Cleveland in 1894 to recognize the contributions of American workers, the contributions of workers of color and women are often left out of textbooks and media representations. Asian immigrants and Asian Americans have been part of the U.S. workforce since the mid-19th century and have engaged in organizing and resistance. As legislation to teach Asian American history in schools increases, teaching Asian American labor activism is essential to prepare the next generation of leaders and civic actors concerned with solidarity and coalition building. 

As an Asian American woman, throughout my K-12 education, I was always stereotyped as a quiet, compliant and hard worker. It wasn’t until I was sitting in an Asian American studies class in college that I learned that Asian immigrants and Asian Americans were a part of labor history and were far from silent and compliant in the face of work-related injustices. 

One of the best-known activists during the mid-19th century was Wong Chin Foo (1847-1898), known for coining the term “Chinese American.” Chin Foo was a journalist dedicated to advancing the Chinese community’s civil rights and labor rights in the U.S. He founded the Chinese Equal Rights League in 1892 to protest the Geary Act, a successor to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which declared Chinese ineligible for U.S. citizenship. 

Despite our country’s history of racially discriminatory laws, Asian immigrants and Asian Americans have consistently engaged in labor resistance. On June 25, 1887, thousands of Chinese railroad workers staged a strike to demand equal pay to white laborers, better working conditions, and shorter workdays. Asian immigrants and Asian Americans have also engaged in labor solidarity and union organizing with other marginalized groups. 

As a divide-and-conquer technique to keep wages low and diminish worker power, laborers of different ethnic and racial groups were often pitted against each other. Establishing divisions and oppositions between groups is a function of white supremacy: Solidarity and coalition building are necessary for resistance, and this solidarity was often born in the fields. 

Asian immigrants and Asian Americans were a part of labor history and were far from silent and compliant in the face of work-related injustices. 

A multiracial alliance of Japanese and Mexican Americans organized a union of farm workers in 1903 in Oxnard, Calif., called the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association. This was a historic event in the American labor movement because it was the first time members of different racial groups aligned themselves to form a cohesive labor union. While these histories of solidarity are essential, the role of Filipinos has largely been erased. 

Filipino farmworkers led by Larry Itliong and Philip Veracruz organized a grape workers’ strike in 1965 in California’s Central Valley. They joined Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to form the United Farm Workers. They demonstrated the history of Mexicans and Filipinos coming together in resistance and the power of solidarity and unity. The history of Asian women’s contributions to labor history is also left out of textbooks. 

In the 1980s, garment workers in Chinatown earned 50 cents for skirts and jackets. There were environmental health hazards from crowded quarters and poor airflow, which resulted in tuberculosis.

In 1982, nearly 20,000 Chinese immigrant women took to New York City’s Chinatown streets to demand benefits, fair wages, and better working conditions. This strike is still known as one of the largest protests in the history of Chinatown. Within hours of seeing thousands of Asian immigrant women marching through the streets of Chinatown, the employers withdrew their demands, and the workers and their union won their strike. 

The impact that Asian immigrants and Asian Americans have made in labor history is frequently missing from the media and textbooks, despite numerous roles of unionizing, rallying and organizing to inspire workers to fight for justice and better workplace conditions. To include these contributions to the labor movement, teaching Asian American history in schools is essential. 

While four states have passed laws that require teaching Asian American history in schools, scholars and activists maintain that it must go beyond a race to secure victories for only our AAPI community. The goal should be to build grassroots progressive power in AAPI communities at local levels and build solidarity with other marginalized groups. Today’s students share this vision and are walking out to protest DeSantis’ education policiesspeaking out about racial justice issues, and protesting discriminatory bills that target the LGBTQ+ community. White supremacy aims to divide us, and solidarity must be our resistance. 

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Kimi Waite is an assistant professor of child and family studies at California State University, Los Angeles. She is the 2021 California Council for the Social Studies Outstanding Elementary Teacher of the Year.