Asian Immigrants in the Labor Movement: From Hawaii’s Plantations to Wisconsin’s Public Sector


Filipino workers at Hawaiian strike camp, circa 1925

Filipino workers at Hawaiian strike camp, circa 1925

In Wisconsin, Asian American union workers are passionately mobilizing. They have warned politicians that a recent bill signed by Gov. Scott Walker outlawing collective bargaining will not be forgotten in the coming elections.

This should not be surprising. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) were not only the fastest growing racial group in America over the past decade, they are also among the fastest growing ethnic groups in organized labor, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “As a share of the union workforce, only Latinos are growing at a rate faster than Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders,” said Nicole Woo, Director of Domestic Policy at CEPR and an author of the center’s recent report.

Like Latinos, the number of Asian Americans in unions has surged as their numbers in the overall workforce have risen. In 2009, one in every 20 American workers was Asian, whereas 20 years ago, the ratio was one in 40.

Asian workers consider unionizing and its tool of collective bargaining ways to help raise wages and improve conditions in the workplace, Asian labor leaders say. According to the CEPR report, “even after controlling for workers’ characteristics, including age, education level, industry and state, unionized AAPI workers earn about 14.3 percent more than non-unionized AAPI workers with similar characteristics. This translates to $2.50 per hour more for unionized AAPI workers.” Unionized Asian workers are also 16 percent more likely to have employer-provided health insurance and 22 percent more likely to have a retirement plan than their non-unionized counterparts.

Contemporary Asian workers view the situation in Wisconsin as a throwback to the union movement’s initial struggles in the 1800s. Collective bargaining was introduced in 1886 following the founding of the American Federal of Labor.

“Wisconsin is a horrible attack on the rights of workers,” prominent Chinese-American labor leader and educator May Chen told Fi2W. “The idea that workers are lazy and public sector unions are costing the country too much money is a little bit ridiculous considering how important government workers are,” she added.


The entry of Asian Americans into the labor movement was not immediately recognized. Marlene Kim, a professor at the University of Massachusetts says for a long time, a stereotype of Asians persisted as reserved, uncomplaining immigrant family providers who did their jobs diligently, worked long hours, went home at the end of the work day, and collected their pay checks. They were not seen as aggressive or politically militant, even though many participated in strikes as far back as the 1800s.

“Like other racial minorities during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Asians were relegated to the jobs that no one else wanted – those that were the lowest-paying and that had the worst working conditions,” writes Kim in a report titled Organizing Asian Americans into Labor Unions. At that time, Asian Americans mainly worked in industries like agriculture, mining and railroad constructions that hired a lot of low-wage immigrant workers.

Even then, under the radar, Asian workers were organizing for better conditions and wages. One of the first large scale protests was the 1867 Central Pacific Railroad workers strike in California where about 2,000 workers idled in their camps and refused to work.

May Chen, a leader in the Chinatown strike of 1982

May Chen, a leader in the Chinatown strike of 1982. (Photo: Cristina DC Pastor)

Other protests followed, including the 1875 Chinese garment workers strike in San Francisco and a series of strikes involving Japanese and Filipino plantation workers in Hawaii demanding higher wages and better housing conditions in the early 1900s. Historically, the New York Chinatown strike of 1982 was one of the largest Asian American worker strikes with about 20,000 garment factory workers marching the streets of Lower Manhattan demanding work contracts.

Chen, then affiliated with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, was one of the strike organizers.

“The Chinatown community then had more and more small garment factories,” she recalled. “And the Chinese employers thought they could play on ethnic loyalties to get the workers to turn away from the union. They were very very badly mistaken.”

Most of the protests included demands for higher wages, improved working conditions and for management to observe the Confucian principles of fairness and respect. By many accounts, the workers won. The strike caused the employers to hold back on wage cuts and withdraw their demand that workers give up their holidays and some benefits. It paved the way for better working conditions such as hiring bilingual staff to interpret for workers and management, initiation of English-language classes and van services for workers.


“The problem faced by an Asian worker is immense, and it’s everywhere,” said Maf Misbah Uddin, president of Local 1407, affiliated with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Uddin said it creates an unjust atmosphere in the workplace. “We work harder so we can get a promotion, but promotions do not come to us most of the time.”

With his Local 1407 union representing New York accountants, statisticians and actuaries, or about 125,000 municipal workers, Uddin, a Bangladeshi immigrant, is one of the highest ranking Asian labor leaders in the country.

Maf Uddin, President of Local 1407

Maf Uddin, President of AFSCME-Local 1407. (Photo: Sarah Kate Kramer)

The benefits of unionizing are not always quantifiable in terms of wages and benefits, but they can be just as important, said Uddin. “Across the country where Asian workers are neglected or abused, we are improving the working conditions for our people. Asian workers have realized unions are their best options.”

Chen concurs. “It is very much an appreciated goal of many Asians to get a job, become a union member and have some security benefits,” she said.  Chen, who is one of the founders of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance or APALA, added,  “if there is no union, Asians want to have one.”

Founded in 1992, APALA is the only national organization of Asian American labor unions. It claims to represent about 660,000 union members nationwide.

While Chinese, Japanese and Filipino workers were active in unions in earlier eras, Chen said she is seeing younger Vietnamese and Koreans swelling today’s union ranks. A lot of Asians work in the private sector, from garments factories to banks, but there are also many working in the public sector, such as the Post Office, hospitals, city and municipal governments and public schools, she added.

“A lot of the young organizers come from a really diverse background of Asian nationalities,” she said. “That’s very positive. It gives the labor movement the ability to speak to and reach out to those populations.”

Uddin said unions have made headway among South Asian Indians and Pakistanis in New York, and there are potentially thousands of future Asian union members.  “45,000 taxi drivers, 15,000 construction workers, and more than 10,000 street vendors ready to organize,” he said.

Back in Wisconsin, APALA is ramping up efforts to organize the Asian Pacific American community not only against the anti-collective bargaining law (currently being blocked by a judge) but to ensure their voices are heard in the crowded political arena. “We are not only fighting back against these attacks but also reminding our base of the upcoming elections in 2011 and 2012,” said Gregory Cendana, executive director of APALA.

Cristina Pastor is a Feet in Two Worlds business and economics reporting fellow.  Her work, and the work of other Fi2W fellows, is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation.

AboutCristina DC Pastor
Cristina DC Pastor, a former Fi2W Business and Economics Reporting fellow, is the publisher and editor of The FilAm ( Her book, “Scratch the News: Filipino Americans in Our Midst” (Inkwater, 2005), is a celebration of ordinary citizens at the center of extraordinary stories. She is a graduate of The New School.