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Asian Pacific American Labor Organizing: An Annotated Bibliography, Part I: Historical Struggles, 1840s – 1960s

By Glenn Omatsu


This annotated bibliography consists of two parts. Part I focuses on historical labor struggles of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and Part II covers contemporary labor struggles. "History" is defined as the period from the 1840s, marking the time of the influx of Chinese immigrant laborers into the continental U.S. and the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, to the 1960s. The 1960s represent a watershed in Asian American and Pacific Islander history for two reasons. Passage of the 1965 Immigration Act ended more than a half century of exclusion of Asian Pacific immigrants from America, resulting in a new wave of Asian immigrant workers. Second, and perhaps more important for the writing of labor history, the period of the late 1960s and early 1970s saw the emergence of the Asian American Movement and birth of Asian American Studies. Activists and scholars arising from the Movement redefined traditional approaches to labor history (and American history, in general) by studying Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as active participants making their own history rather than as passive objects acted upon by others. This paradigm shift would have profound implications for the writing of labor history — not only in terms of identifying new research source materials but also in providing new interpretations of standard events, issues, and leaders in labor history, such as role of Samuel Gompers, the contradictions facing the Knights of Labor, and even the foundational philosophy of American unionism.

Like other immigrant groups in America, the history of Asian Americans is essentially a labor history and part of the history of working people in America fighting for justice, equality, and the expansion of democracy. Yet, in contrast to the labor histories of European immigrants, the labor struggles of Asian immigrants and Pacific Islanders are often excluded from traditional accounts of American labor history. This exclusion is rooted in the peculiar status of Asian immigrant workers in the development of organized labor in the U.S., culminating in the formation of the AFL. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, this peculiar status was posed by union leaders as "the Chinese Question" — i.e., how organizations of workingmen in America should respond to the influx of Chinese immigrant laborers brought in by capitalists as a source of "cheap labor" and sometimes as strikebreakers. Should organized labor embrace these newcomers or exclude them? For succeeding groups of Asian immigrant workers, the "Chinese Question" would be expanded to include Japanese, Filipino, Korean, and Punjabi (Indian) immigrants (who were mistakenly identified as "Hindus" by other Americans on the Pacific Coast). With rare exceptions — notably, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and some local unions — organized labor chose the path of racism rather than solidarity, defining Asian immigrant laborers as distinct from European immigrant workers — as "unassimilable" into American society.

However, the "Chinese Question" revolved not simply around the issue of inclusion or exclusion of Asian immigrants and Pacific Islanders from the tent of organized labor. More fundamentally, the question became integrally linked to campaigns for labor standards and labor reforms in the nineteenth century and the development of an "American" working class consciousness that was shaped by racial oppression towards African Americans and especially toward Asian immigrants. Thus, understanding the historical relationship of organized labor to the "Asian Question" is essential for understanding the foundation of American unionism.

The consequences for traditional historical treatments of Asian immigrant workers are two-fold. First, and most important, labor historians have viewed Asian immigrant workers as objects that were acted upon by others rather than as active agents in the making of their own history — paraphrasing historian Roger Daniels. Thus, from traditional accounts in labor history, Asian immigrant workers are analyzed in terms of their victimization and their exclusion from unions, and the focus is clearly on the actions of the "excluders," notably union leaders and white workers. Second, based on this framework, traditional labor historians have largely ignored labor organizing within Asian immigrant communities. In other words, if Asian immigrants were excluded from unions, how could they have a history of worker militancy and organizing?

Beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a new cohort of historians emerging from the Asian American Movement shifted the telling of Asian American labor history from the excluders to the excluded. Pioneers such as Yuji Ichioka, Him Mark Lai, Ronald Takaki, Sucheng Chan, and Judy Yung began to research the rich archives of Asian immigrant newspapers and collect oral histories. They began to construct a labor history that showed the ways that Asian immigrant workers had not only actively shaped Asian American community politics but also challenged the racism of mainstream unions. These pioneer historians drew from the work of historians like Alexander Saxton and labor historians in Hawai‘i who recognized the central role of the "Asian Question" in the forging of American unionism. Moreover, influenced by the activism of the Asian American Movement, this new cohort of historians interpreted the labor struggles of earlier generations of Asian immigrants as going beyond workplace issues and concerns within particular industries. Due to their exclusion from organized labor, the labor struggles of Asian immigrants developed as community-based struggles and embraced wider community demands for justice and dignity and an end to discrimination and racism. Frequently, these labor struggles were linked to issues in immigrants’ former homelands, such as the independence movements in Korea, China, and India in the early part of the twentieth century. Moreover, immigrant labor struggles redefined community dynamics, such as relationships between workers and merchants, men and women, youth and elders. In other words, the labor history of Asian immigrants speaks to the theme of the expansion of democracy in America — for Asian Americans and others.

The bibliography reflects this vision of Asian immigrant laborers. While I have included research citations relating to the exclusion of Asian immigrants from organized labor, I have done so to help researchers understand how the foundation of American unionism has been shaped by anti-Asian racism. However, the clear focus of this bibliography is on the ways that Asian immigrant and Pacific Islander workers actively created their own labor history and expanded democracy within America. Included in this bibliography are selected primary sources in the native language of immigrant laborers — Chinese, Japanese, and Korean — largely drawn from the archival work of Him Mark Lai, Yuji Ichioka, and others. Also included in this bibliography are interpretative articles and essays on labor history from publications emerging from the Asian American Movement, such as newspapers, journals, and pamphlets.

For labor struggles relating to Asian immigrants in Hawai‘i, I have included some interpretative essays relating to the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. These perspectives by native Hawaiians help to expand understanding of the labor struggles of Asian immigrants in Hawai‘i by contrasting the civil rights’ focus of these struggles to the struggle for sovereignty of indigenous people.

Finally, this two-part bibliography draws citations from a previously unpublished bibliography on Asian Pacific American labor (UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1989) that covered both historical and contemporary issues. The earlier bibliography focused on both working conditions and organizing campaigns; the current two-part bibliography emphasizes organizing campaigns.

"History," wrote the great Filipino immigrant writer and labor organizer Carlos Bulosan, "has determined our lives, and we must . . . work hard for what we believe to be the right thing. . . [L]ife is something we borrow and must give back richer when the time comes." In the spirit of Carlos Bulosan, this bibliography shares the legacy of Asian Pacific workers.









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