40 years later, union leaders recall garment workers’ strike in New York’s Chinatown

Forty years later, Katie Quan still vividly recalls the pivotal garment workers’ strike in New York City’s Chinatown. Quan, 29 at the time, was one of the main organizers of the strike, in which more than 20,000 workers, most of them Chinese-born women, marched into Columbus Park on June 24, 1982, refusing to work and demanding better results. salaries and benefits.

Quan, now a senior fellow at the UC Berkeley Labor Education and Research Center, said it was the single most important collective action in which immigrant Asian women in the US raised class consciousness within the community.

The 40th anniversary of the strike comes amid another wave of worker empowerment across the country, with hundreds of thousands of employees striking and voting to unionize in recent months.

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

“A lot of people just assumed that women wouldn’t want to strike,” Quan, now 69, told NBC Asian America. “They had never attended meetings and certainly had never struck before. They were pretty firm in my factory. In fact, they put change in my hands and sent me to the pay phone. They said, ‘Call the union and tell them we want to go on strike.’”

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

“The broader lesson is that there is definitely agency and power among Asian women,” she said. “It doesn’t need to be something to be afraid of.”

Women sewing clothes in Chinatown
Women work in a Chinatown garment factory in New York City, on September 6, 1981.Bettmann Archive/Getty Images Archive

Quan was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, then moved to New York City in 1975 to take advantage of the city’s robust garment industry. At the time, the big clothing brands contracted with small manufacturers, who hired workers to sew the garments. She worked as a base seamstress, responsible for sewing zippers and waistbands onto pants. These were desirable jobs, she said, because they were unionized and offered benefits like health insurance and pensions.

“Chinatown was a working class community. The men worked in restaurants and the restaurants were mostly non-union,” Quan said. “Those who work non-union jobs in the restaurant industry were subsidized by their wives who worked in the garment industry.”

She later became the shop steward 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 owned their own small manufacturing businesses.

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

Most Asian textile workers at the time were recent arrivals from China and spoke little or no English. This language barrier created a divide between the Chinese-speaking employees and the leaders of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILDWU).

The 1982 strike was launched when some workers refused to renew their contracts, citing reduced wages and benefits, which was part of a broader trend by US manufacturers to cut production and move work abroad amid the rise of globalization in the 1970s and 1980s.

Demonstrations of tens of thousands of people accompanied the strike, and soon all the manufacturers agreed to sign the union’s pledge for wage and benefit increases.

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.  Demonstrations 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. Demonstrations 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 that they could count on the support of their workers because of ethnic solidarity, and probably assumed that, as traditionally raised women, the workers would not fight Chinese men,” Quan wrote in 2009. “But the 1982 strike clearly demonstrated that when labor issues are at stake, Chinese workers (both men and women) will act in the interests of their class, just as they do in factories when fighting for higher wages or having other conflicts.”

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

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

“The work of the garment workers strike really inspires all the workers who are part of the union today,” said Eunice How, APALA Seattle chapter president and community organizer for UNITE HERE, a union that was formed through of the merger of the ILGWU and the Amalgamated Garment and Textile Workers Union. “We are celebrating the legacy of the frontline worker strike and reflecting on the leadership of activists like garment workers.”

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