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Asian Pacific American Labor Organizing: An Annotated Bibliography, Part II: Contemporary Struggles from the 1960s

By Glenn Omatsu


Part II of this labor bibliography focuses on contemporary labor organizing in Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. "Contemporary" is defined as the period from the late 1960s onward. As explained in the introduction to Part I of this bibliography, the decade of the 1960s is a watershed for Asian Americans due to the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act that ended more than a half century of immigration exclusion of peoples from Asia and the birth of the Asian American Movement. The 1965 Immigration Act reshaped the composition of Asian Pacific American communities, and the Asian American Movement redefined community consciousness. Through participation in the Movement, activists mobilized workers and other community sectors to become active participants in the transformation of America.

Labor struggles in Asian American and Pacific Islander communities today are community-based struggles. In this sense, today’s struggles continue the legacy of earlier generations of Asian Pacific immigrant laborers who, excluded from the "house of labor" in America, developed a strategic approach to organizing closely connected to the communities that nurtured them. Thus, both historically and today, the labor struggles of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders encompass issues broader than working conditions and wages. The struggles embrace the aspirations for justice and dignity of immigrant communities, promote the quest for equality, and are also often linked to movements for human rights in former homelands. At the same time, these movements led by workers confront and change community dynamics, including gender and generational relations, leadership dynamics, and relations with other ethnic and racial groups. In short, in the contemporary period the labor struggles of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander seek to expand democracy in America and around the world.

While traditional narratives in labor studies focus on the central role played by unions and the AFL-CIO in worker struggles, contemporary labor struggles involving Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have not centered around unions. For example, in the past decade two major campaigns dealing with the rights of garment workers (the mobilization against the Jessica McClintock Corporation and the Thai-Latino Garment Workers Campaign for Retailer Accountability) emerged from grassroots organizing by community-based groups. Both campaigns raised the issue of manufacturer and retailer accountability for sweatshops, an issue that has now identified as critical in the labor movement. Similarly, community-based organizations during the past decade launched restaurant worker organizing campaigns in ethnic enclaves, a sector of the workforce long ignored by mainstream unions. Currently, community-based organizations are addressing the rights of immigrant domestic workers, immigrant cabdrivers, and market workers in ethnic enclaves — again, sectors long ignored by unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

Much of the work on these community-based campaigns has been initiated by worker centers such as AIWA (Asian Immigrant Women’s Advocates) in the San Francisco Bay Area, KIWA (Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates) in Los Angeles, and Workers Awaaz and the Chinese Staff and Workers Association (CSWA) in New York. Generally, unions regard these worker centers as "pre-union formations" — i.e., as vehicles outside the framework of organized labor. However, in this period of large-scale decline of union power in America, activist-writer Miriam Ching Yoon Louie has perceptively noted that worker centers may be more accurately described as "post-union" and are clearly at the forefront of some of the most innovative and exciting developments in immigrant worker organizing today.

For support of labor struggles of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, the past decade has also witnessed an important shift in the attitude and approach of the AFL-CIO. In the early 1990s, Asian American union leaders joined together to form APALA (Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance) within the AFL-CIO, promoting a shift in the federation’s policy toward active organizing of Asian Pacific workers. Leaders of APALA have also worked closely with the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute to recruit and train a new generation of labor organizers from the ranks of Asian Pacific American student activists. Moreover, APALA has linked its focus on worker organizing to community issues, such as civil rights and immigrant rights, and has strategically forged labor-community alliances in support of union campaigns.

Overall, contemporary labor struggles by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are transforming our communities and expanding democracy. By uniting together and allying with other forces, seeming powerless people — such as immigrant garment workers, cabdrivers, restaurant workers, domestic workers, and market workers in ethnic enclaves — are changing power relationships in our communities and redefining issues. By creating new grassroots formations such as worker centers, immigrant laborers and activists are experimenting with new forms of democracy and new vehicles for empowerment of people in our communities.

Today, in a world that seems to be increasingly defined by corporate-driven globalization — where sweatshops have become the norm rather than the exception and where societies are now divided into "haves" and "disposable" others — the community-based labor struggles of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders provide an alternative vision of human relations and a different world order. In this critical period, these labor struggles are part of grassroots movements of tens of millions worldwide that not only are challenging corporate-driven globalization but also are envisioning and constructing a different world around concepts of justice, dignity and human rights.









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