40 years on, union leaders remember the garment workers’ strike in NYC Chinatown

Forty years later, Katie Quan vividly recalls the pivotal strike by the garment workers in New York City’s Chinatown. Quan, then 29, was one of the main organizers of the strike, in which more than 20,000 workers — most of them Chinese-born women — marched to Columbus Park on June 24, 1982, refusing to work and demanding higher levels. wages and benefits.

Quan, now a senior fellow at the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, said it was the most significant collective action Asian immigrant women in the US have ever participated in. It made unions pay more attention to the power of Asian American workers and led to a class consciousness within the community.

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

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

“A lot of people just assumed the women wouldn’t want to strike,” Quan, now 69, told NBC Asian America. “They had never attended meetings, and they certainly had never hit. They were pretty adamant in my factory. They even gave me change and sent me to the pay phone. They said, ‘Call the union and say we want to go on strike.’”

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

“The broader lesson is that there is definitely freedom of choice 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 clothing factory in New York City’s Chinatown on September 6, 1981.Bettmann Archive/Getty Images file

Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Quan later moved to New York City in 1975 to take advantage of the city’s robust clothing industry. Back then, major clothing brands contracted small manufacturers, who hired laborers to sew the garments. She worked as a regular seamstress and was responsible for sewing zippers and waistbands to trousers. 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 most of the restaurants were not unionized,” Quan said. “Those who work in non-union jobs in the restaurant industry were subsidized by their wives who worked in the garment industry.”

Later, she became the clerk of one of the largest factories in Chinatown. This was a common route: Some workers eventually saved enough money to buy or lease sewing machines and had their own small manufacturing businesses.

Female garment workers unite and fight for better wages and better working conditions.
Female garment workers unite and fight for better wages and better working conditions.Courtesy of The Kheel Center ILGWU Collection, Cornell University

Most Asian garment workers at the time had come from China recently and spoke little or no English. This language barrier created a gap between the Chinese-speaking workers and the leadership of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILDWU).

The 1982 strike was set in motion when some workers refused to renew their contracts, citing lower wages and benefits, part of a broader trend of U.S. manufacturers scaling back production and moving work abroad during the rise of globalization in the 1970s and 1980s. †

Demonstrations of tens of thousands of people accompanied the strike, and soon every manufacturer agreed to sign the union 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 rally organizers at the Chinatown Rally in support of the new union contract held in Columbus Park, New York.  Rallies took place on June 24, 1982 and July 15, 1982.
ILGWU Local 23-25 ​​members and rally organizers at the Chinatown Rally in support of the new union contract held in Columbus Park, New York. Rallies took place on June 24, 1982 and July 15, 1982.Courtesy of The Kheel Center ILGWU Collection, Cornell University

“Before the strike, Chinese employers assumed they could count on their workers to support them because of ethnic solidarity, and they probably assumed that as traditionally raised women, the workers would not fight against Chinese men,” Quan wrote in a statement. 2009. “But the 1982 strike showed very clearly that when labor issues are at stake, Chinese workers (both men and women) will act in their class interests, as they do in the factories when they fight for higher unit prices or have other disputes. .”

The 1982 mobilization of Chinese workers 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 placards showing support for the union contract during the Chinatown Rally in New York's Columbus Park.  Rallies took place on June 24, 1982 and July 15, 1982.
Members of ILGWU Local 23-25 ​​hold placards showing support for the union contract during the Chinatown Rally in New York’s Columbus Park. Rallies took place on June 24, 1982 and July 15, 1982.Courtesy of The Kheel Center ILGWU Collection, Cornell University

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

“The work of the garment workers’ strike really inspires all workers who are part of the union today,” said Eunice How, chair of the APALA Seattle branch and a community organizer at UNITE HERE, a union formed by the merger of ILGWU and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. “We celebrate the legacy of the frontline workers’ strike and reflect on the leadership of activists such as the garment workers.”

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