This group was unlikely to storm the streets of New York’s Chinatown in the summer of 1982: nearly 20,000 garment workers, mostly Asian American women, marched together for best benefits. Dressed in matching union caps, they carried signs in English and Chinese, stating “In union there is strength” and “Support the union contract”.
“The atmosphere was so exciting!” said May Chen, a union organizer who worked for the hospitality union at the time and was “borrowed” to help with picket lines and logistics. “The Chinatown hierarchy was so male dominated, and here the women got together and spoke up.”
The walkout managed to retain essential benefits for garment workers who worked long shifts in often difficult conditions. The success of the strike also showed that Asian American women – even those with a language barrier – could amplify their voices, take action and be heard.
Conditions in Chinatown clothing stores
In 1980, about 430 garment shops employed a total of 25,000 workers, 80 percent of whom were women. Many had come to the United States when the discriminatory Chinese exclusion law of 1882 was overturned by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, eliminating racial quotas. Some had come to find their husbands, while others had fled unrest in their home countries. Obtaining a job that did not require speaking English had given these women career independence, as well as a community of fellow immigrants.
But the conditions in the packaged factories were not always humane. Buildings were often run-down and work spaces cramped, according to a report in the Asian American Writers Workshop. Getting pricked by needles was so common, writes Katie Quan in Amerasia Journal, which some bosses checked to see if there were any shards of needles in the workers’ fingers and then praised them for achieving this right of way.
On top of that, poor air circulation and crowded quarters led to tuberculosis, as well as kidney and stomach problems. Working days are generally longer than 10 hours, in low light conditions. And wages were earned piecemeal – at meager rates. Garment workers in Chinatown stores earned 50 cents for a skirt and 50 cents for a jacket, according to an Oct.12, 1983 article in the New York Times. Experienced workers, depending on Time, said their daily earnings were only $ 9-10 a day.
Benefits were the main demand
Yet women clung to jobs, many attracted by the perks offered by the International Women’s Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), Local 23-25. The union protected wages, paid holidays, social benefits and pensions, it also offered access to a health center, with full coverage for workers and partial benefits for their families. Every three years, the contract was renegotiated between the employers and the union.
But in 1982, things changed. As foreign labor became more accessible, some employers attempted to cut benefits by reducing vacation days as well as medical and retirement benefits. Many employers were ready to work with the union, but, Chen says, a small group of them used “the Chinese press to build support against the union.”
A “ strong and powerful ” projection
Quan, who worked at Kin Yip Sportswear, one of the biggest stores in Chinatown at the time, wrote in the Chinese-language community newspaper Sing Tao Daily News that if the union declares that it is on strike, the workers should follow suit and include its phone number. Among the non-stop calls she received, one was from the anonymous husband of a worker who quoted a Chinese proverb: “When fire eats away at the hairs on the skin of working women, they will rise up like tigers.”
And, as Quan writes, that’s what happened. Garment workers began to regroup, handing out union flyers, answering phone calls and spreading the word in the local media. “The workers were really concerned about protecting their benefits, which was the union’s main attraction for them,” Chen says. “So most of the workers were positive about the union’s call to action.
Despite growing support for a strike, on June 24, some women hid in the toilets of shops, fearing to participate. But as soon as the organizers knocked on doors, showing the power of the masses, they joined them. Their number rose to 20,000 as they walked down Mott Street in New York to Columbus Park.
“Most of these women were really the backbone of their families, so it was wonderful to watch them feel so strong and powerful,” Chen says.
Another rally took place five days later – still with a turnout of nearly 20,000 – and the resistance gave in. Eventually, most employers signed with the union, marking a major victory for garment workers and a turning point for the union, which would work closely with its Asian American workers.
While it may have been one of the loudest and most effective workers’ rights strikes, Chen (who continued to work for the union after the strike) says the seeds had long been sown. “There was a tradition in New York’s Chinatown of collective action on the part of a large number of Chinese community organizations,” she said.
The 1982 strike was unique, however, in that it was fueled by a group of people who historically simply had to put up with inequality.
As Chen puts it, “the community has come to respect women and the power of collective action for rights.”