40 years later, union leaders remember NYC Chinatown garment workers’ strike

Forty years later, Katie Quan still vividly remembers the crucial strike by garment workers in New York’s Chinatown. Quan, who was 29 at the time, was a key organizer of the strike, in which more than 20,000 workers – mostly Chinese-born women – marched to Columbus Park on June 24, 1982 , refusing to work and demanding higher wages and benefits.

Quan, now a senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, said it was the most significant collective action in which immigrant Asian women in the United States have come together. never engaged. This caused the unions to pay more attention to the power of Asian American workers and created class consciousness within the community.

The 40th anniversary of the strike comes amid another wave of worker empowerment across the country, with hundreds of thousands of workers striking and voting to unionize in recent months.

ILGWU members march through Chinatown to urge remaining stores to sign the new contract, following the July 15, 1982 rally.Courtesy of ILGWU Collection at the Kheel Center, Cornell University

“A lot of people just assumed that women wouldn’t want to strike,” Quan, now 69, told NBC Asian America. “They had never attended meetings, and they had certainly never gone on strike before. They were quite adamant in my factory. In fact, they gave me the change and they sent me to the public telephone. They said, ‘Call the union and tell them we want to strike.’

It was the largest strike in New York’s Chinatown history and one of the largest in the garment industry.

“The larger lesson is that there is definitely agency and power among Asian women,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be something to be afraid of.”

Women sewing clothes in Chinatown
Women work in a Chinatown garment factory in New York on September 6, 1981.Bettmann Archive/Getty Images File

Quan was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, then moved to New York in 1975 to take advantage of the city’s strong garment industry. At the time, major clothing brands relied on small manufacturers, who hired laborers to sew the garments. She worked as a basic seamstress, responsible for sewing the zippers and waistbands on the pants. These were desirable jobs, she said, because they were unionized and offered benefits such as health insurance and pensions.

“Chinatown was a working-class community. The men worked in restaurants, and the restaurants were mostly unorganized,” Quan said. “Those in non-union jobs in the restaurant industry were subsidized by their wives who worked in the garment industry.”

She then became a shop steward at one of Chinatown’s largest factories. It was a common path: some workers eventually saved enough money to buy or rent sewing machines and owned their own small manufacturing businesses.

Textile workers unite and fight for better wages and better working conditions.
Textile workers unite and fight for better wages and better working conditions.Courtesy of ILGWU Collection at the Kheel Center, Cornell University

Most Asian garment workers at the time were recent arrivals from China and spoke little or no English. This language barrier created a wedge between Chinese-speaking employees and the management of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILDWU).

The 1982 strike was called when some workers refused to renew their contracts, citing reduced wages and benefits, part of a broader trend by American manufacturers to cut production and shift work to abroad in the context of the rise of globalization in the 1970s and 1980s.

Rallies of tens of thousands accompanied the strike, and soon every manufacturer agreed to sign the union’s pledge for wage increases and benefits.

Quan later wrote that the strike changed the dynamics of the Chinese-American community.

ILGWU Local 23-25 ​​members and organizers rally at the Chinatown Rally in support of the new union contract held in Columbus Park, New York.  Rallies were held on June 24, 1982 and July 15, 1982.
ILGWU Local 23-25 ​​members and organizers rally at the Chinatown Rally in support of the new union contract held in Columbus Park, New York. Rallies were held on June 24, 1982 and July 15, 1982.Courtesy of ILGWU Collection at the Kheel Center, Cornell University

“Before the strike, Chinese employers assumed that they could count on their workers to support them because of ethnic solidarity, and they probably assumed that as women brought up in the traditional way, workers would not fight Chinese men. “, said Quan. wrote in 2009. “But the 1982 strike demonstrated very clearly that when labor issues are at stake, Chinese workers (men and women) will act in their class interests, as they actually do in the factories when they fight for higher piece rates or have other disputes.

The mobilization of Chinese workers in 1982 was also a wake-up call for union leaders to work more closely with Asian American workers, Quan said. She was later recruited to work with the ILDWU.

Members of ILGWU Local 23-25 ​​hold signs showing their support for the union contract during the Chinatown rally in Columbus Park, New York.  Rallies were held on June 24, 1982 and July 15, 1982.
Members of ILGWU Local 23-25 ​​hold signs showing their support for the union contract during the Chinatown rally in Columbus Park, New York. Rallies were held on June 24, 1982 and July 15, 1982.Courtesy of ILGWU Collection at the Kheel Center, Cornell University

May Chen, another strike organizer, became a founding member of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), established in 1992, which is the first and only national organization of Asian American and Pacific Islander workers.

“The work of the garment workers’ strike truly inspires all workers who are part of the union today,” said Eunice How, president of Seattle’s APALA chapter and community organizer at UNITE HERE, a union spun off. . ILGWU and the Merged Garment and Textile Workers Union. “We celebrate the legacy of the frontline workers’ strike and reflect on the leadership of activists like garment workers.”

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