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Asian American Studies 197A
Winter Quarter 2002

Asian Pacific American Labor History

Christine Araquel, Raymond Ramirez, Eric Tandoc

Samahang Pilipino Theme Song

Remember all the manongs

They came here all alone

Without a family and a home

To fulfill a dream they never found

Just a broken heart and no home

Through the years we found each other

Struggling hand in hand

Burning with love, never letting go

And everything was for their children’s cause

Now here I am, searching for my own

And I scream, and I shout

To tell everyone what I am all about

And I look at all our faces

I see you, I see me

I see all our family

Cause we are brothers and sisters, always and forever

We are brothers and sisters, we live as one

We are brothers and sisters, Samahang Pilipino

We are brothers and sisters, we live as one

Here we are together, sharing our dreams

Let’s reach out and let others know

That all we are is one big family

We’re working together, for tomorrow is here

And we scream, and we shout

To tell everyone what we are all about

We’re meeting, singing, dancing, playing, crying, loving

Cause we are brothers and sisters, always and forever

We are brothers and sisters, we live as one

We are brothers and sisters, Samahang Pilipino

We are brothers and sisters, we live as one

We are brothers and sisters, always and forever

We are brothers and sisters, we live as one

We are brothers and sisters, Samahang Pilipino

We are brothers and sisters, we live as one family.

One family.


History is often able to act as an adviser in the resolution of injustices many groups face in society; i.e. we can learn a lot from studying the triumphs and failures of past generations. Such is the case with labor activism. There are many instances wherein the simple lessons of the past can be applied to further the goals of present-day labor struggles. One such lesson is the importance of building strong labor coalitions that cut across ethnic divides. Indeed, the legacy of the struggles of past generations–such as the Oxnard Sugar Beet Strike of 1903 and the experiences of the "manong" generation of early Filipino American farm workers–stand as undisputable proof of the power of cross-ethnic solidarity. These lessons live on today through various organizations such as the Pilipino Workers Center that practice multi-ethnic solidarity through interaction with activist groups of different ethnic backgrounds. Thus, this study seeks to examine the events and significance of the major historical Asian American labor movements mentioned above, as well as a present-day struggle of domestic workers in which the lessons from these movements are being practiced. Through this examination, we hope to provide information on what we believe is an important necessity for the success of labor movements in today’s multi-cultural society–the importance of cross-ethnic labor solidarity.


By Raymond Ramirez

"In the past we have counseled, fought and lived on very short rations

with our Japanese brothers, and toiled with them in the fields....

We are going to stand by men who stood by us in the long, hard fight..."

- J.M. Larraras to Samuel Gompers, 1903


An examination of past and present employer tactics in labor movements often reveals a constant, disturbing trend: the use of divide and conquer tactics to exploit partitions between various groups that may have cultural and/or ethnic differences. These practices have carried on throughout the generations. For example, labor activist and guest lecturer Quynh Nguyen spoke of how, in an assembly line in Texas, Vietnamese workers were segregated from–among others–the Latino and African American workers. Obviously, in situations such as these, solidarity between these different groups is difficult to build given the lack of common ground among the different ethnicities.

But history has taught us that resistance to this type of domination is possible, and it has been done in the past. One such case is that of the Oxnard Sugar Beet Strike of 1903. The strike came as a result of the work done by some 2,000 Japanese and Mexican farm workers that united to form the Japanese Mexican Labor Association (JMLA). This union was the first farmworkers union in California’s fields. More importantly, it marked the first time that members of different ethnic backgrounds coalesced to form a forceful labor union that compelled employers to concede to their demands. Indeed, the Oxnard Strike provides a concrete model by which present-day labor movements can learn about the importance of forming cross-ethnic coalitions. Hence, this report seeks to: explore the events in 1903 that led to the workers strike and its successes; and examine the significance this event poses for labor movements in general.


The Oxnard Sugar Beet Strike of 1903 marked a new era in labor mobilization in that it featured a coalition of Japanese and Mexican farm workers who came together to fight against employer abuses.

Oxnard emerged as a "boom town" at the turn of the century, quickly becoming a major center for the rapidly emerging sugar beet industry. By 1903, the industry had processed almost 200,000 tons of sugar beet. Labor contractors recruited Japanese and Mexican workers from their respective countries to Oxnard to work the fields. The racial atmosphere of the time was stifling. Japanese immigrants were looked down upon by European Americans, who saw the former as–among other things–"cunning", "distasteful", and "uncivilized". These descriptions were essentially extensions of the unflattering images white Californians associated with earlier Chinese immigrants. On the other hand, Mexicans, a group with some similarities in religion and culture to European Americans, were not seen with the same level of disdain by the latter, though a level of hostility certainly existed.

In 1902, the Western Agricultural Contracting Company (WACC) was formed. One of the incentives for its formation was to "provide local farmers with an alternative to the Japanese labor contractors" whose organizing influence was feared by the white employers. The formation of the WACC, whose leaders had close ties to the white Oxnard farmers, effectively offset any potential power these Japanese contractors had. Using divide and conquer tactics, the WACC established Japanese and Mexican departments, presumably to keep the two groups from potentially coalescing.

The WACC strategy would not hold up, however, as Japanese and Mexican laborers grew increasingly dissatisfied with company policies such as: forcing nonwhite contractors to subcontract under the WACC; paying fees to the WACC; overpricing in WACC stores in which laborers were compelled to purchase goods; and worker wages that were below the prevailing rates of the time. For instance, "the workers thinned beets at $3.75 per acre instead of the prevailing piecework rate of $5.00 to $6.00 per acre."

In the early 1903, Inose Inosuke, the head of the WACC Japanese department, recruited one hundred twenty student-laborers from San Francisco. These laborers proceeded to protest the unfair working conditions they had to endure, and arranged a meeting among Japanese workers, which eventually led to meetings that included Japanese and Mexican workers. The unacceptable working conditions proved sufficient enough to create common ground between the two ethnic groups, both of which elected to strike.

To showcase their "(subordination of) class distinction to racial solidarity," the farm workers elected Japanese contract laborers to the president (Baba Kozaburu) and vice-president (Heizo Otomo) positions of what was now the JMLA. There is evidence that the Japanese secretary of the union, Y. Yamaguchi, was one of the students recruited from San Francisco. Mexican representation came in the form of J.M. Larraras, who was appointed secretary of the Mexican branch. To counterweigh such cultural difficulties such as language barriers, "all discussions were carried out in both Spanish and Japanese, with English serving as a common medium of communication." By early March 1903, the JMLA "had 1,200 members or 90 percent of the entire labor force out on strike." The strike was strategically timed, as harvest season loomed on the horizon. Indeed, "few sugar beets made it into the mill during the strike."

The position of the JMLA was made clear by Yamaguchi and Larraras in a news release:

Many of us have families, were born in the country, and are lawfully seeking to protect the only property that we have–our labor. It is just as necessary for the welfare of the valley that we get a decent living wage, as it is that the machines in the great sugar factory be properly oiled–if the machines stop, the wealth of the valley stops, and likewise if the laborers are not given a decent wage, they too, must stop work and the whole people of this country suffer with them.

When strikebreakers were brought in from San Francisco by the WACC, violence erupted. A shooting incident targeted at the JMLA occurred on March 23, leaving Luis Vasquez, a union member, dead and four wounded. Despite their non-involvement in the shooting, the prompt arrest of union officials followed. When Charles Arnold, the man arrested for the incident, was acquitted by an all-male Anglo jury, the JMLA "escalated its militancy". For instance, the foreman on Arnold’s ranch was shot, presumably by JMLA associates.

There were, of course, various non-violent tactics used by the JMLA. Among these strategies included persuading strikebreakers to join the farm worker struggle. For instance, newspaper reports show that strikebreakers were approached by JMLA members and brought over to the union’s side.

The magnitude of the strike prompted the American Federation of Labor to send mediators to intervene. Negotiations between the two sides culminated in a final settlement on March 30. The result was success for the JMLA. For the most part, the WACC canceled existing contracts, agreed to pay for prevailing piecework rates, and in effect broke its monopoly.

Encouraged by their victory at the bargaining table, the Larraras applied for membership in the AFL. It is here that the union ran into the harsh realities of a racist society. Regarding this request, AFL President Samuel Gompers replied, "Your union must guarantee that it will under no circumstances accept membership of any Chinese or Japanese." Much of the hostility aimed at Japanese laborers was racial in character. For instance, Gompers said that this "different species" (i.e. the Japanese) could not be Americanized, and hence could not be unionized.

Refusing to buckle, the JMLA stood its ground and did not break away from its multi-ethnic base. Indeed, in replying to Gompers’ position, Larraras wrote:

We are going to stand by men who stood by us in the long, hard fight ended in a victory over the enemy....We therefore respectfully petition the AFL to grant us a charter under which we can invite all the sugar beet and field laborers of Oxnard without regard to their color or race. We will refuse any other kind of a charter…

The charter bid eventually fell on deaf ears, and the JMLA never became part of the AFL. Gompers’ rejection of the union effectively sealed its fate. By 1906 newspapers had ceased to mention JMLA activities, presumably because the union was defunct by then. The AFL policy of racial exclusion would remain intact until the 1930s.


Despite its failure to secure AFL membership, the Oxnard Sugar Beet Strike of 1903 was a significant turning point in the American labor movement. For one, it showed that cross-ethnic coalitions can be utilized as a powerful force in the labor movement. Also, the Strike also illustrates how everyday individuals are able to take communal leadership roles and affect social change by taking the initiative to fight for certain causes. Finally, given that student laborers were crucial in leading the strike, the Oxnard Strike is example of the difference politicized student activists can make in changing the world around them. These points are examined in the discussion below.

As mentioned earlier, the JMLA was the first cross-ethnic union in US history. Regardless of their anti-Japanese policy, the AFL was forced to acknowledge the strength of the JMLA. It also forced the AFL to recognize the viability of the agricultural work force, which had been neglected for years. Other organizations were also affected. For example, the Los Angeles County Council of Labor (LACCL), which supported the JMLA during the strike, adopted a resolution "favoring the unionization of all unskilled laborers regardless of race or nationality." Thus, the success of the JMLA was such that it "forced the white trade-union movement to either include or specifically exclude Mexican and Japanese workers from their ranks."

There would be other instances in the future wherein Japanese tried to form bonds of solidarity with other racial groups. The Japanese Federation of Labor, for instance, was created more than a decade after the Oxnard Strike. This organization, led by Suzuki Bunji, a Japanese representative of labor from Japan, sought to "’protect the rights and priviledges of Japanese workers…and to improve their welfare’ by cooperation and possible affiliation with "white labor groups" (emphasis added).

Indeed, at an AFL national convention, Suzuki spoke of the importance of Japanese inclusion in the AFL when he stated, "We look upon you as our big brother whose guidance and cooperation will give great impetus to the growth of the labor movement in Japan." The existence of a Japanese union was particularly important, for it would serve as proof that Japanese workers were organized and were merely waiting for American unions to recognize them. While this particular attempt at inclusion would fall short, it nonetheless provides an example of the importance of cross-racial solidarity. In this case, the Japanese inclusion in the AFL would have benefited them in their labor struggles, and vice versa. Unfortunately, racist policies of the AFL effectively prevented this from happening.

Many lessons can be learned from seeking coalitions such as these. One of the more relevant lessons is the notion that coalitions that cut across ethnicities are successful precisely because–not despite–of their diverse makeup. Nowhere is this concept more important than in the multi-cultural society we live in today. Indeed, it seems that many campaigns today can only be won through ethnic cooperation. For instance, it is important for Asian American activists to be able to work with Latino workers in present-day campaigns such as the New Otani Hotel movement. That means, among other things, that activists must speak the workers’ language and understand the workers’ cultures in order to establish working relationships. Strength is in numbers, and as in the Oxnard Strike, the more that groups can be involved in labor struggles, the better it is for the movement overall.

The 1903 Strike is also significant in that it serves as an example of the ways in which everyday people can adopt various types of communal leadership roles. While the JMLA, given the arrangement of its bureaucratic structure, certainly had the appearance of a "top-down" style of leadership, it could not have functioned as successfully as it did without its grassroots base. For one, all the strikers should undoubtedly be considered leaders in their own right. Leadership, I believe, is largely based on initiative, something the strikers definitely had. It takes a lot of fortitude for one to go on strike. For instance, there is always the realistic possibility that the strike will end unsuccessfully. Also, strikebreakers were called in, thus increasing the possibility of failure. Thus, given the huge risks involved with striking, the initiative that everyday laborers of Oxnard took in going on strike–much less an unprecedented cross-ethnic one–should definitely be considered a form of leadership in its own right.

The various examples of grassroots leadership can be seen in the instances in which the JMLA increased its militancy after the Vasquez shooting, and in which union members worked to persuade strikebreakers to join their ranks. Obviously, this would not have worked out without the initiative of JMLA members at the grassroots level. Hence, because of the initiative taken by the strikers to further their labor cause, they were able to secure victory at the negotiating table.

There would be many more instances in Japanese history in which Japanese took upon leadership roles and protested unfair working conditions, such as the strikers at Oxnard did. One such instance occurred with the Labor League in Fresno. This organization, founded in 1908, once declared that one of its goals was "to publish an English monthly to educate and inform ignorant anti-Japanese elements." Also, in 1907 the Japanese Socialist Party sent an open letter to the racially restrictive American Socialist Party:

We believe that the expulsion question of the Japanese laborers in California is much due to racial prejudice. The Japanese Socialist Party, therefore, hopes that the American Socialist Party will endeavor to bring the question to a satisfactory issue in accordance with the spirit of international unity among workingmen.

These instances illustrate the frustration that Japanese of the time must have felt toward the restrictive, exclusive, white establishment.

Finally, the Oxnard Strike is a powerful example of the successes associated with student-led initiatives. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, some of the strike leaders were student laborers. Their success in achieving steps toward social change should definitely be looked to by student-activists as proof of the importance of the work they do. Students today, as in the Oxnard Strike, are important because in many instances, they arguably provide the ideological backbone for a given movement. For instance, during the Oxnard Strike, "it is likely that some of the Japanese leaders of the union, particularly the boarding students, were influenced by the Japanese Socialist Movement". Likewise, many student-activists today are able to apply concepts learned in classrooms such as class dynamics and communal leadership into real life situations by going out and doing work in various communities. The expansion of student-initiated classes at institutions of higher learning will undoubtedly do much to increase the numbers of those participating and interacting with our communities.

The legacy of student-activism goes hand-in-hand with politicization. Indeed, one of the legacies of the Oxnard Strike is the politicization of the individuals involved in the strike. It is reasonable to argue that, even after the strike, the workers must have looked at future relations with employers much more critically. In the same way, the exposure of students to the field of activism will certainly go a long way forming future community leaders. For one, students would get an opportunity to better understand specific community issues (for example, in education, labor, or police brutality), and how these issues are political in many ways. Indeed, observing one’s surrounding environment in a critical fashion is arguably a byproduct of one’s politicization.


The Oxnard Sugar Beet Strike of 1903 was undoubtedly an important step in the advancement of the American labor movement. The strike was significant in that it featured a cross-ethnic coalition for the first time in American labor history. Because of the strike, the two ethnic groups developed close, strong bonds, despite AFL prejudice. The strike is particularly important in studying current labor struggles because it illustrates the forcefulness of a multi-ethnic coalition. The Oxnard Strike also provides current activists with lessons regarding different levels of alternative leadership they may choose to get involved in. Finally, the Oxnard Strike gives present-day activists proof that movements that involve students have been successful in the past, and will continue to be successful in the present and the future. Indeed, to this day, the legacy of the Oxnard Sugar Beet Strike of 1903 lives on.


By Eric Tandoc

"I see life as a continuous progressive struggle–a group of people

struggle to survive. They get older and then they are gone. But the

next ones will come together and solve some of their problems.

They’ll align themselves with others and make advances that the

previous generation wasn’t able to accomplish."

-Philip Vera Cruz, 1992


It takes courage to do what has never been done before. In the 1920s and 30s, thousands of young Filipinos traveled halfway across the world, in search for a better future for themselves and their families. What they found was struggle. But it is through their struggle that they made life better for those who came after them. Filipino farm workers in the valleys of California established a strong legacy of collective leadership, inter-ethnic solidarity, and fighting for workers’ rights. This legacy was passed on to later generations and had a lasting impact on Asian Pacific American labor organizing.


The manongs were the pioneering generation of Filipino-Americans that immigrated during the 1920s and 30s. Meaning "older brother," manong is a name used as a sign of respect for one’s elders. This term was adapted for an entire generation to recognize their great contributions in working to improve conditions for later generations of Filipino-Americans. U.S. colonization in the 20th century crippled the Philippines economically while promoting the United States as a superior country filled with boundless opportunities for success. Since the majority of the population was struggling to survive, many single men saw migration to the United States as an opportunity to get an education, become wealthy, support their families financially, and return to the Philippines as rich men.

However, upon migrating to America, Filipinos were forced to face the harsh reality of the United States’ socioeconomic system. Being the first large population of Filipino immigrants, the manongs were subject to blatant individual and structural racism that prevented them from succeeding socially, economically, and politically in the United States. The jobs available to the manongs were either as dishwashers, busboys, and domestic workers in the cities; as factory workers in the Alaskan canneries; and as farm workers in the California valleys.


On the farms, Filipinos worked for less than minimum wage due to the profit-driven nature of agribusiness. In the 1940s, they worked eight to ten-hour workdays at 70 to 80 cents an hour. One manong, Sebastian Sahugan, said, "…most of us could only find work in the fields. We worked 8 hours and earned 80 cents."32a The growers always chose to reap more profits rather than raise the wages of the farm workers. They lived in labor camps with poor housing conditions, with small rooms, cracked walls, and narrow hallways. Others consisted of crude houses made from scraps and planks of wood. Most had communal bathrooms and showers made of wood and shingle sidings, located in a separate building. This proved to be dangerous in cold winter nights, as there were reports of manongs freezing to death on the way to the bathroom. The growers, as capitalists, sought to cut costs at the expense of humane living conditions. This situation was a manifestation of the low status that Filipinos held in society and the structural racism that prevented them from advancing socially and economically. This led them to organize unions and fight for better wages and living conditions.


Anti-miscegenation laws such as the California Assembly Bill SB 321 in 1945, prohibited marriage between whites and "Negroes, mulattos, Mongolians, and Malays." Whites weren’t the only ones who discriminated against mixed marriages. Filipinos often ostracized and looked down upon those that overcame the anti-miscegenation laws by going out-of-state to marry white women, since there were many cases of white women that had taken advantage of Filipinos for their money. These laws denied an entire generation of Filipinos the basic human right to have a family and raise children. Since few Filipinas immigrated to the United States, the majority of the manongs lived out the rest of their lives as single men.


Many efforts were made to organize farm workers in the first half of the 20th century. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) formed in 1905, influenced and radicalized Mexicans and Filipinos in the 1930s. They later influenced Philip Vera Cruz with their idea of one large national labor organization, and potentially an international organization of workers. In the late 1950s, the National Farm Labor Union (NFLU), AFL-CIO, consisted of mostly Filipino farm workers, as well as some Mexicans and African-Americans. The large turnout of workers at NFLU meetings led the AFL-CIO to establish the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) in the San Joaquin Valley in order to help in the organizing of farm workers. Larry Itliong and Dolores Huerta were hired as organizers of AWOC, which was comprised of mostly Filipinos. In 1965, Filipinos from AWOC demanded a salary increase in Coachella Valley and the growers quickly paid in order to prevent profit-loss early in the season. This victory was not complete since they did not win a contract. When they called for the same increase in Delano later in the season, the growers were unwilling to yield. Thus, on September 8th AWOC began the Delano grape strike. The National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), comprised mostly of Mexicans led by Cesar Chavez, joined the strike two weeks later. Six months after the launch of the strike, the NFWA organized an important farm workers march from Delano to Sacramento that caught the attention of landowners as well as the AFL-CIO. (Vera Cruz, 44). The AFL-CIO began pushing for a merger between the NFWA and AWOC and in August 1966, the two merged into the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC), AFL-CIO. After the merger, the UFW began a successful national boycott of non-union grapes and together eventually won grape contracts in 1969 and 1970.


The NFWA-AWOC merger created one strong union that was necessary for the farm workers movement to succeed. The inter-ethnic coalition was powerful and symbolic of workers of difference ethnicities standing together against ruling class exploitation. Manong Sebastian Sahugan stated, "…we have organized to fight for our basic rights–decent wages, better working conditions and workers’ rights, we also have health clinics and legal and social services provided for our basic rights."44a The unification of the Mexicans and Filipinos constituted the majority of farm workers on large farms. However, differences between the two ethnic groups led to distrust between the two groups, as each was afraid of the other gaining more power and dominating the union. The Filipinos were the favored workers among the growers since they were mostly single men and usually had more experience than the Mexican workers. This meant more profits for the growers, since they didn’t have to train new workers or pay for the housing of entire families. However, the Mexicans had greater numbers and were clearly the future of the farm workers movement, since the manongs were older and had no succeeding generation due to the anti-miscegenation laws. The Teamsters further exacerbated the inter-ethnic tensions in the interest of serving the growers’ divide and conquer tactics to keep wages low and profits high. They did this by luring Filipinos into the grower-controlled Teamsters and thus weakening the Filipino constituency within the UFW. When the UFW formed in 1966, the Mexicans became the dominating force with Cesar Chavez as director and Dolores Huerta as vice-president. The Filipinos were conceded with secondary roles as Larry Itliong became assistant director and Philip Vera Cruz was appointed second vice-president by Cesar. This compromise already set an unequal dynamic between the Filipinos and Mexicans that would only magnify later on. Larry Itliong eventually resigned due to disagreements with Cesar and the Filipino leaders lost any actual power in the union. Despite this, there were countless leaders among the membership who never received recognition or fame, but only wanted to fight for justice for the farm workers. These hidden contributions were overshadowed by the publicity that surrounded Cesar Chavez.


Many of the problems and conflicts within the UFW stemmed from the top-down command style of leadership that concentrated too much power into the hands one person. Although they sought collective leadership, the vulnerability of the union in its early years led Cesar Chavez to believe he needed to guide it personally. By doing this he was heavily promoted and idolized with celebrity status in the union. Eventually his power grew to the point where people were not allowed to question or criticize his authority and decisions. This becomes problematic because if one is unwilling to accept criticism, then they will never know if they are making mistakes that need to be corrected. The power was supposed to have been gradually transferred over to the rank-and-file by including them more in the decision making process. But the more power one accumulates, the harder it is to let go of it. This mirrors what happened to many socialist movements after gaining independence. Instead of the government dissolving into ownership and leadership by the masses of workers, the state’s power often increased up to the point of authoritarian rule. This is due to the vulnerable national situation that creates the need for close guidance and protection of the victories won. Similarly, the democratic principles of the union were distorted in the board of directors by the 1970s. Philip Vera Cruz criticized this in his personal history, and advocated a more collective and democratic leadership approach for later generations when he said, "Leadership, I feel, is only incidental to the movement. The movement should be the most important thing. If the leader becomes the most important part of the movement, then you won’t have a movement after the leader is gone. The movement must go beyond its leaders." This principle is the basis for collective leadership, which distributes work and accountability on the collective rather than on a single authoritative leader. The idea that the people being helped also have to be involved and active in working towards their own liberation is an essential element of collective leadership.


In a 1971 interview, Philip Vera Cruz stated, "…we will be attempting to organize the young people, and we got to keep it in the right direction."51a As vice-president, Philip Vera Cruz grasps the need to create a common understanding with next generation to pass on the knowledge and experience gained from their struggles. The principles of collective leadership were sown into the next generation of progressive youth through projects such as the construction of Agbayani Village. This retirement home for farm workers, located at the UFW’s "40 acres" west of Delano, underwent construction after the winning of the grape contracts. The village was constructed collectively with the help of volunteers consisting of students, workers, community organizations, and church groups. This was an opportunity for different sectors to integrate with and interact with the farm workers, as well as make a positive impact in their lives.

Interaction with the future generation of youth also occurred at UCLA’s Pilipino Cultural Night, when a group of students composed and sang a song to the manongs that connected their struggle with the lives of students today. As the manongs sat in the front row, the students paid tribute to their elders in a song that would later become the theme song for UCLA’s Samahang Pilipino student organization. Mel Ilomin and the other songwriters wanted to ensure that the contributions of this pioneering generation of Filipinos would not be forgotten in later years as the first lines of the song are "Remember all the manongs, they came here all alone." It is through the lyrics, "We’re working together, for tomorrow is here," that the students profess their understanding of the legacy of collective leadership passed on to them by their manongs.


The legacy of collective leadership is present in many of today’s Asian Pacific American labor movements and campaigns, such as the garment workers, restaurant workers, and factory workers. The farm workers movement was one of the strongest and most important movements in U.S. labor history. Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance organizer and guest lecturer Quynh Nguyen, spoke of how she refused to face the bosses of Vietnamese workers in Texas because it was important for them to organize and speak for themselves. This is characteristic of Philip Vera Cruz’s philosophy, for if she were to have spoken for them, the bosses would have respect for her but not necessarily for the workers. This way, when she leaves, the workers are still strong and self-reliant. The garment workers and restaurant workers campaigns also use the principles of collective leadership by organizing and developing leadership in the workers themselves, so that they become self-sufficient organizers of workers as well.

The Filipino farm workers movement had lasting effects on Asian Pacific American labor organizing and influenced later generations to see leadership through a collective perspective. The inter-ethnic coalition showed growers that they could no longer use divide and conquer tactics to mask and mystify their exploitation of the workers. Thus, through an examination of the Filipino farm workers struggle, generations of activists today can gain a better understanding of the importance of collective leadership, inter-ethnic cooperation, and youth involvement in present-day labor struggles.


By Christine Araquel

"Everyone, no matter their immigration status,

deserves a decent standard of living and quality of life."

- Association of Filipino Workers 


Today, the sector of Filipino domestic workers and home health care workers has grown into a large industry in the United States. A high concentration of these workers exists here in Los Angeles. What draws people into this industry has to do with a number of contributing factors. For one, immigration status is an issue. Because these people, usually women, are undocumented citizens, they usually lack legal working papers. This, in turn, keeps them from finding better jobs. Since they have to survive, they have to work. So jobs as domestic workers and home health care workers are usually the only sectors that become available to these people. Many of these workers worked as professionals in the Philippines. Prior to immigrating to the United States, many worked as teachers, nurses, accountants, business managers, etc. However, upon arriving to the United States, a lot of them ended up in home health care and domestic positions because they lacked the required legal working papers.

Home health care workers, also known as home care workers or caregivers, belong to two categories. There are public home health care workers and private home health care workers. Public home health care workers are part of a government project. These workers are unionized and they also have to have their papers. They get paid through the government as well. There aren’t very many Filipinos involved in this sector. Then there are private home health care workers. This sector deals more with the informal economy. This is the sector that many Filipinos are a part of. At the same time, a lot of abuses occur within this area. These workers find jobs through agencies who end up keeping a large portion of the workers’ pay for marketing fees, training fees, placement fees, etc. This, in turn, causes the workers to be in debt. Workers are paid under the table. Because these people are immigrant workers, they become very vulnerable to their employers. This leaves a lot of room for them to be exploited. Their monthly wages range from $400-$600 a month. Many often work as live-ins causing them to work up to 24 hours a day without being paid overtime. Alice Vargas, a live-in caregiver, is one such worker. In an interview, she said, "The salary is very low. You work hard. You work 24 hours and the payment is very low. Suppose you work 24 hours, you clean everything, sometimes you can’t even sleep, and she pays you only $65-$75 a day. That is not enough". In other cases, some work for $600 a month for five days a week. That comes up to a wage of approximately $30 per day. This doesn’t meet the minimum wage requirement.

The work of a domestic helper and home health care worker is not easy. For many, live-ins work up to 24 hours a day. The work of both domestic workers and home health care workers is quite similar. They cook for the patient and/or family of the employer. They clean the house. Home health care workers are required to give their clients medication. Also they usually have to lift the patients, which is physically straining. Alice Vargas works 24 hours a day up to 5 days a week. She describes a typical day of work to be rather difficult. Not only is the work physically demanding, it can also be emotionally challenging especially if the employer is strict. She describes a typical day of work as the following: "In the morning, I cook and feed the person I watch breakfast, then I give them a bath. After that, I give medication, cook again for lunch. And then I clean the house… I only work as a caregiver but sometimes they make me a housekeeper. That’s the one I do not like. If you are a caregiver, you’re a caregiver not a housekeeper. If you’re a housekeeper, you have to clean all the windows and I cannot afford to climb all of the windows because I am a caregiver. If you are a caregiver, you only watch the patient, the old woman or old man, and then you give them a bath, change the clothes, cook, and give medication." She isn’t allotted enough time to rest since she is always on her feet.

Other domestic workers who come from professional backgrounds to work in these positions often are treated as second-class citizens. In one particular case, there was this domestic worker who worked for a family. The employers would allow their dogs to sleep with them, but if the worker did so much as to just lean on their bed, she’d get physically abused for that. In her case the dogs were treated better than she was. In an interview with another domestic helper, Anna Garcia talked about how she was verbally abused by her employer when she made mistakes with her chores. "If they found any mistakes with the work I did or even if they made mistakes, they would always blame me for it. They would never hit me. But they would call me names. They would tell me I was a stupid Filipina. That always made me mad because I would work so hard to take care of their housework. I even took care of their kids. I didn’t like how they called me names. I didn’t deserve that. But I learned to live with it because I knew of other women who worked as domestic workers like me who were treated far worse."

The people who employ Filipino domestic workers and home health care workers do so for a particular reason. They’d rather hire undocumented workers so that they wouldn’t have to comply to labor standards. The employers would be able to pay them as little as they’d like and overwork them as much as they’d like. The undocumented Filipinos that work for them are unaware of their rights. Because of that, they aren’t very demanding. However, if they do stand up to their employers, the employers always have the advantage to intimidate the workers by threatening to call INS.

What the Filipino domestic workers and home health care workers don’t know is that they do have rights. Even though they are undocumented, they are still entitled to the same rights as any other worker. According to the labor laws, they are entitled to minimum wage, decent working conditions, and fair treatment.

That is where the Pilipino Workers Center (PWC) comes in. This organization was launched in 1997 on the idea that all workers are entitled the right to safe working conditions, living wages, and a decent standard of living. Because many domestic workers, home health care workers, as well as other low-wage workers suffer from things like a lack of job security, a lack of health insurance and other benefits, crowded housing conditions, and discrimination, the Pilipino Workers Center was founded to help organize these workers so that they could improve not only their working conditions but their living conditions as well.

Since the Pilipino Workers Center is such a young organization, organizing domestic workers and home health care workers is still a new process. However, there has been a considerable amount of progress. They’ve done research to find out what the situation is for Filipino workers in terms of where they are and what industries they’re concentrated in. From this research, they’ve found that there are a lot of low-wage workers in the Los Angeles Filipino community. It turned out that one of the industries they’re concentrated in is home health care and domestic help. The research is ongoing especially since there hasn’t been any research done on Filipino workers at all prior to the research the PWC has conducted. The next step they took to try and organize these workers was to build a trusting relationship with them through personal interaction. From that, they started the Association of Filipino Workers where members would elect their own leaders. Through this association, the workers continue to be able to build a community where they could share their problems and work collectively to determine solutions to issues that are affecting them all.

Organizing Filipino domestic workers and home health care workers is fairly different from other models of organizing. For example, organizations like KIWA usually start off by targeting an industry. They then file back wage claims or other types of cases, then launch that into a campaign. For example, KIWA has launched the Restaurant Workers Organizing Campaign. However, with the PWC, the community organizers can’t just target the domestic worker/home health care worker industry because they all work separately in individual households. This makes it very difficult to target the people. So what the PWC does is locate these workers geographically by going door-to-door in different housing and apartment complexes in Los Angeles neighborhoods while distributing fruits, vegetables, and other food to the people in the community. Through this food distribution, the organizers are able to meet with the workers. The workers are then able to share their stories about difficulties in the workplace. In addition, PWC relies on word of mouth so that these workers can tell other workers about the Pilipino Workers Center. That way, they, too, can get help with their problems in the workplace.

In addition to the difficulty of targeting the domestic and home health care workers, there are other barriers to organizing. Since these immigrant workers are undocumented, they’re scared to talk about the problems they face on the job. For one, they’re intimidated of their employers. They’re afraid of getting caught in case their employers do find out that they’re letting others know how bad their working conditions are. They’re also afraid that if they get caught, they’d be deported. Deportation is a big issue to them since they spent a lot of time and money trying to get to the U.S. In addition, it’s rather difficult to organize these workers within the community because many Filipinos like to believe that they all work as professionals and come from middle class backgrounds. This mentality only denies the Filipino working class conditions and promotes individualistic thinking.

Today, Filipino domestic and home health care workers and community-based organizers are continuing to work towards building working class leadership within the Filipino community. By targeting these workers, the PWC is able to help file individual cases for things like back wage claims. The people in the Association of Filipino Workers and the Pilipino Workers Center are able to collectivize their resources. This helps domestic and home health care workers file papers whether it be for immigration or work. In addition, the PWC holds workshops for the domestic and home health care workers so that they know their rights and know how to organize themselves. Through educational discussions, the workers learn about immigration, employment, and health issues and how these are all connected to larger political issues like U.S. imperialism and globalization.

Though they are working to expand human rights within the Filipino community, they are also working towards promoting interethnic unity. Within the Filipino community, organizers are seeing to it that there is leadership in the working class. That way, all of these people can receive the rights to safe working conditions, living wages, and decent living conditions. As they continue to work on this it is important to draw connections to other communities and promote interethnic unity. Obviously, the issues that domestic and home health care workers face aren’t only Filipino issues. Other communities of color deal with the same problems. That is why the PWC also works in solidarity with other organizations like KIWA. All people are entitled to the same basic human rights. That’s why it’s important for Filipino workers to work with other groups in order to build that sense of cohesion and solidarity.


Indeed, history can act as an adviser in the resolution of injustices in today’s society. Such is the case with the movements discussed in this study, the Oxnard Sugar Beet Strike of 1903 and the "manongs" of the Filipino farm workers movement. In the Oxnard Strike, workers of Japanese and Mexican descent protested working unfair labor practices by going on strike and employing a strategy of inter-ethnic solidarity, even when racial biases in mainstream unionizing stared them in the face. The Filipino Farmworkers Struggle depicts the need for cross-ethnic solidarity between laborers, as well as the impact their struggles have had on present-day student activism. Finally, the Pilipino Workers Center’s present-day fight to secure decent working conditions for Filipino domestic workers and home health care workers in Los Angeles shows how lessons of history–such as the importance of inter-ethnic solidarity–are being applied to the work of activists today.

While legacy is important, we must remember that it is all for nothing if new generations of activists cease to surface and carry on and learn from that legacy. Without a doubt, today’s student leaders seem to be influenced by the labor leaders who preceded them. For instance, the manong generation is honored and looked to for inspiration by today’s Filipino American youth, as evidenced by the Samahang Pilipino theme song. It seems that these future leaders have learned about the struggles of their predecessors, and have sought to make sure that past oppressions cease to exist.

Thus, groups such as Samahang Pilipino are examples of students taking action. However, many other students should get involved as well. In particular, many labor issues, such the struggle of domestic workers, are relatively invisible to the Filipino and Asian American communities. But steps are being made to communicate the legacy of labor movements in Asian American history to more Asian American/Pacific Islander students today. For instance, various student minority-run retention and outreach projects provide guidance and friendship to students in UCLA and the community. Projects such as these serve as middlemen between past Asian American labor legacies and the students of today.

We feel, however, that the breaking down of certain barriers will go a long way towards involving more students in community issues. One important barrier that came up in our discussions was the issue of recruiting/introducing students of color to various community-based movements. Specifically, we feel that young people need to be less exclusive (cliquish) and more open to meeting and working with new people. From our observations, people today need to overcome their pride and make efforts inquire, talk, and get to know students who are already in the student-activist loop. Likewise, organizations must realize that people have different levels of gregariousness, and that greater efforts may be needed to attract and acknowledge (when in public settings, for instance) individuals that are introverted and/or who may be detached from their heritage and ethnic culture. Once this wall is broken down, we feel that the prospects for forming links between the community and community organizations become much more improved.

In discussing this issue, it was somewhat relieving to know that our generation is not the first to experience this type of divide. Indeed, we only needed to look to the struggles of our manongs to find that the Filipino community of their time had its share of divisions as well. For instance, Philip Vera Cruz once noted that many Filipinos often failed to acknowledge each other in public. This seemed to be a product of their insecurities and fear of associating with Filipinos when around whites.

In the present-day version of this problem, it seems that it is difficult for students of color to unite because there are various social pressures that exist to prevent this. For instance, many Asians today come from different social classes, and hence have less of a common denominator with among each other. This phenomenon definitely plays a huge role in hindering a wide base of individuals from possibly participating, in a shared leadership capacity, with community-based movements. As noted earlier, once this barrier is broken down, we feel that individuals and organizations will be more open to working with each other in the future.

Through steps such as these, potential activists can learn of the struggles of their predecessors, and the potential that America has for racial hostility. This politicization will go a long way in making sure that individuals critically view their surrounding environment and learn to question why the status quo is the way it is. While much work needs to be done, movements such as those in the labor field have accomplished much. One of the most important accomplishments has been the utilization of student advocates. It seems that only with student participation can the overall movement for a more compassionate, progressive society really continue.










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