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Work to do: Our full labor history must include Asian Pacific Americans

The Hill logo The Hill 6/23/2022 Leah Milne, Opinion Contributor
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President Biden recently signed into law a bill that would explore whether to establish a National Museum of Asian Pacific American History and Culture. In his support of H.R. 3525, Biden said Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) “have literally shaped the history and the contours of this country.”

The news of a potential national museum offers Americans a prime opportunity to better acquaint themselves with Asian Pacific American interventions in unionizing and union history.

Even as employees at corporations such as Apple, Starbucks, Amazon and Microsoft are organizing unions, the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to U.S. union history remain overlooked. Deep connections exist between labor history and historically underrepresented groups, making the early unionizing efforts of AAPIs significant.

One of the earliest labor disputes in the U.S occurred when Native Hawaiians protested their pay and working conditions on a Hawaiian plantation in 1841 by walking off the job.

In 1930, Carlos Bulosan arrived in Seattle from the Philippines at age 17 and spent two decades working low-wage jobs along the West Coast. He was allowed few breaks and meals, lived in second-rate housing, and often experienced discrimination based on his race and nationality. He chronicled many of these experiences in the 1946 semi-autobiographical classic, “America is in the Heart.” While organizing an independent Filipino union for agricultural workers, Bulosan’s friend reportedly was accosted by a woman who exclaimed, “I hate the Filipinos as deeply as I hate unions!”

The Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance reported that in 2017, the number of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islander workers was highest among all racial groups, as is their participation in labor unions, further proving the need to disaggregate data about workers across specific ethnicities to better understand their needs and cultural backgrounds.

Connecting labor and unionizing to race and ethnicity matters because early movements in labor deliberately excluded immigrants and other marginalized groups, often leading to violence and an early echo of the racism against AAPIs that persists today. Stop AAPI Hate reports over 9,000 recent incidents of anti-Asian discrimination in the U.S. in 2020 and 2021, including harassment, physical assault and workplace discrimination.

But the discrimination and targeting of Asian workers is not a new phenomenon in this country.


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The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 targeted Chinese migrant workers and was the first U.S. law to prevent a specific ethnicity or nationality from entry into the United States. Hatred of immigrant Chinese laborers — mostly men, due to U.S. labor and immigration laws — led to one of the largest mass lynchings in U.S. history when a mob in 1871 killed 19 Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles.

A century later, in 1982, Chinese American auto technician Vincent Chin was killed in a hate crime by two white auto workers who thought he was Japanese and blamed Japan for the economic crisis in the Detroit auto industry. This month marks the 40th anniversary of Chin’s murder.

Of course, all Americans, especially those of marginalized groups, have contributed to increasing the rights of workers, even if their contributions have been overlooked.

Black civil rights leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis   praised the work of unions in helping to bring equality to all Americans. Chris Smalls and Derrick Palmer, the Amazon Labor Union leaders in New York, and Nikki Taylor, one of the seven workers trying to organize a union at the Memphis Starbucks, follow in their footsteps.

The history of American farm labor movements, and what would become the United Farm Workers of America, has origins in Latinx organizers, including Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Yet, in this framing, many skip the contributions of Filipino organizers Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz. Itliong was acknowledged in 2013 with the naming of the Itliong-Vera Cruz Memorial Bridge in California. The 2018 publication of a children’s book about Itliong adds to the narrative of these organizers.

But as these stories emerge, Asian Pacific American contributions need to be highlighted.

Almost 15,000 Chinese workers helped build the U.S. transcontinental railroad between 1863 and 1869, but their efforts were until recently overshadowed by white Irish and Mormon workers whose work was made iconic in the 1869 official photograph commemorating the railroad’s completion.

In his endorsement of a museum, Biden said, “More than anything else, it’s going to help people see themselves in the story of America, a story that makes us better Americans.”

Yes, publicly supporting the development of a National Museum of Asian Pacific American History and Culture would help make these histories — and other stories of Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander history — easier to learn and access.

This is just the beginning. Employers, union leaders and policymakers must actively combat AAPI hate in the workplace and foster cultures of inclusion by hiring more diversely, offering access to support groups and equitable and affordable mental health care, and unequivocally addressing and providing active resolutions to discrimination in the workplace and everywhere.

Leah Milne is associate professor of multicultural American literature at the University of Indianapolis, author of “Novel Subjects: Authorship as Radical Self-Care in Multiethnic American Narratives,” and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @DrMLovesLit.

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