How the Asians-led clothes strike in 1982 formed three a long time of staff’ activism

Almost two decades later, the strike is still known as the one of the biggest protests in the history of Chinatown. However, the success of the strike continues to be overlooked or, at best, forgotten by the public imagination, says May Chen, one of the main ILGWU organizers of the strike. Back then, there was little media coverage of Asian Americans, making movements and activism under Asian leadership “invisible until the millennium.”

With the recent wave of attacks on Asian Americans – the by-product of decades of systemic racism and more recently the racialization of COVID-19 as the “China Virus” – a new wave of Asian-American activism has emerged. While President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 Hate Crime Act, more than 85 Asian-American and LGBTQ groups criticized the law enforcement focus – which has had a dubious track record in protecting Asian-American communities – for not addressing the root causes of anti-Asian violence, including economic inequality. In in a op-ed to the Professor Linh Thủy Nguyễn wrote in the Seattle Times: “We can call physical assault and deaths racist violence, why can’t we also make the system of racial capitalism that creates the economic precariousness of a living paycheck also an issue of violence? ? “

Racial capitalism and economic precariousness were at the center of the 1982 ILGWU strike, which was a clear reprimand for the widespread misconception that Asian Americans were politically uninterested and largely uninvolved in issues such as labor rights. It’s a story of how Asian-American alliances and activism have transformed the economic conditions of an industry that exploits marginalized immigrant women, with lessons for activists to follow nearly 30 years later. And most importantly, it’s an example that shows how racist violence manifests in more subtle ways beyond hate crime and violence.

Economic independence through the clothing industry

In 1963, Chinatown’s clothing industry comprised 50 clothing factories and employed a total of 50 clothing factories 2,000 Manpower. But after that Immigration and Naturalization Act In 1965, eliminating the racial quota system that gave preference to Western European immigrants and “skilled” workers, a new wave of Chinese immigration doubled the Sino-American population in a decade. Twenty years later, apparel makers were selling between $ 150 million and $ 200 million in annual merchandise – from zippers and waistbands for sportswear to patterned dresses – with $ 100 million on the payroll. Chinatown’s apparel industry was booming and included 500 apparel manufacturers with up to 25,000 workers, 80% of it were Chinese women. For these non-English-speaking immigrants, the clothing industry was a route to economic independence and a means of supplementing their husbands’ incomes.

However, wages were low, working hours were long, injuries were frequent, and crowded, unsanitary and poorly ventilated facilities spread viral and gastrointestinal diseases among textile workers. Jay Mazur, former manager of the Local 23-25 ​​Chapter of the ILGWU, described the demands of the workplace as “absurd, unrealistic and completely unacceptable”. Vacation, jury duty, etc.) and more robust health and retirement benefits. Industries negotiated a contract with the union, but Chinese manufacturers turned it down because they feared their businesses would go bankrupt. ILGWU organizers like Chen decided to take the matter to the streets, culminating in the 1982 clothing strike.

“A lot of employers thought they could take advantage of workers ‘ethnic sympathies and just say,’ Look, we’re all Chinese. You don’t need the union, you can function without it, ‘”said Chen. “Fortunately, the workers and the union realized that if they gave up they would have a lot to lose.”

Workers were given a tougher union contract, and the strike prompted members of the Chinatown community to become more politically active Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, the first and only union for AAPI workers. According to Chen, the most significant impact of the strike was how it changed the cultural perception of Asian-American women. Chinese women were once perceived as calm, docile, and submissive; Now they have been seen speaking out against injustices among the workforce, actively engaging in their union, and assuming leadership positions in local community organizations. Some women have even been empowered to break away from domestic violence.

“Chinatown, especially when I was working for the union in the 80s and 90s, was still very male-dominated and chauvinistic,” said Chen. “But the women in this community became much more open … that was pretty amazing to me.”

New time and place, same working conditions

While the strike improved working conditions for textile workers in Chinatown, the textile industry was hit hard during the wave of globalization in the early 1990s. US-based Chinese manufacturers moved production overseas for cheaper labor, and new media companies built the remaining factories in the neighborhood, closing up to 50 stores outside Chinatown each year between 1998 and 2001, disrupting vital trading activities for weeks. Unable to recover financially, the last standing manufacturers shut down, leaving 8,000 workers unemployed over the next two years. Those with special skills (such as pattern making) found jobs in high-end American fashion stores; the rest moved out of the industry and turned to alternative jobs: geriatric care, catering (some women wrapped dumplings in Chinese restaurants) and other low-wage, service-oriented jobs.

Almost two decades later, California is now the epicenter of the US apparel industry and busy over 45,000 Textile workers, many of whom are Asian and Latin American immigrants without papers. And while the location of the industry has shifted, working conditions remain unchanged.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor discovered violations such as wage theft and unsanitary conditions in 85% of California’s factories You visited. In addition, the workers are paid according to the piece rate system, so that as little as $ 0.03 per garment, or up to $ 300 for a 75 hour work week. The industry’s economic uncertainty was exacerbated by the recent pandemic – global supply chains have been disrupted and consumer demand for clothing has plummeted so badly that commercial Western brands have canceled $ 1.44 billion with orders. To make up for lost revenue, Clothing manufacturer switched to the production of masks, hospital gowns and other forms of personal protective equipment (PPE) in large quantities. But even though garment workers were classified as key workers in the U.S., they continued to toil in factories where toilet breaks were limited and social distancing and face covering were observed insufficiently enforced. One of the largest coronavirus outbreaks in Los Angeles occurred at a clothing factory in LA Apparel last summer 375 workers Tested positive for COVID-19, resulting in four deaths. While more than 234,000 California residents are vaccinated daily, Undocumented workers remain hesitant and fearful of revealing their immigration status during vaccination.

Although Chen recognizes the discrepancy between what are called essential workers and their actual treatment, she appreciates that the work of textile workers is finally being recognized.

“It’s very bittersweet,” says Chen. “I think it’s good that there is finally a catchphrase that shows even the slightest appreciation for workers who were previously completely invisible … And especially for Asians – we have been invisible for so long.”

Memorable working hours

Although the apparel industry in Chinatown is almost non-existent today, the lessons of the 1982 strike are still salient. Like the organizers who led the 1982 strike, California textile workers continue to organize for fair wages and safe working conditions. At the end of last year, Senator Maria Elena Durazo. in the US state of California put the. in front Garment Workers Protection Act (GWPA or SB-62) to replace the piece rate system with a minimum hourly wage and hold brands accountable for abuse in the workplace. With support from the Garment Worker Center, the Western Center On Law & Poverty, and Bet Tzedek Justice For All, the GWPA passed of the Senate Judiciary Committee in April and nearing the improvement of the lives of thousands of workers.

What made the 1982 strike so successful, says Chen, boils down to two key factors: acting collectively with common goals and the willingness of immigrants, especially women, to voice their concerns without apologies.

“Garment workers have recognized that when Chinese workers unite, they can be an important force,” said Margaret Fung, co-founder and executive director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in the documentary We are one. “They can control their lives, their working conditions and their wages, but only if they work together and have a union.”

For Asian Americans in particular, Chen hopes that transformative social change is possible, be it an end to unfair labor practices or the numerous cultural mythologies that make Asian-American communities vulnerable to all forms of violence.

“As in the case of Vincent Chin, there have always been waves of anti-Asian violence,” said Chen. “But what’s good now is that more people have their say.”

Aaron Mok is a Chinese-American freelance multimedia journalist who reports on climate, agriculture, work and their interfaces with social justice. His work has been featured in Civil Eats, Politico, GreenBiz, Food Tank, and others.

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