Asian Americans in the Labor Movement

by The Opportunity Agenda  

Happy Labor History Month and AAPI Heritage Month! Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) activists have always played an integral role in building the labor movement in the United States and around the world. Their work is intersectional by necessity, since organizing to address the particular conditions of the working class requires considering how workers’ ethnic and racial identity, nationality and migration status, and gender and sexuality impacts their experience in the workplace.⁠  

In fact, the first racially discriminatory immigration policy in the United States – the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act – was enacted to specifically exclude Chinese laborers from entering the country. For Chinese American workers already in the country, these xenophobic policies further subjected them to racism, labor exploitation, and denial of pathways to citizenship. Despite these barriers, Chinese American workers came together to demand labor rights and connect their struggles with global issues.

There is a rich history of AAPI labor activists organizing their communities to build a better future. At a time when white supremacy seeks to erase the radical histories of our people, it is our duty to remember. Learn about a few of these groundbreaking AAPI activists and honor their legacy by continuing the struggle for labor rights!

Philip Vera Cruz (1904 – 1994) and Modesto “Larry” Dulay Itliong (1913 – 1977) 
Filipino American Labor Organizers  

Philip Vera Cruz and Larry Itliong were Filipino immigrants who, upon arriving in the United States, worked as agricultural laborers. As migrant workers, they were subjected to harsh working conditions alongside other Filipino and Mexican farmworkers. Over time, both men rose to become influential labor organizers, co-founding the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC).  

In 1965, Vera Cruz and Itliong organized the “Delano Grape Strike” where over 2,000 Filipino workers walked off the California grape farms to demand the minimum wage. In the past, farm owners broke Filipino workers’ strikes by replacing them with Mexican workers and vice versa. However, Itliong was able to join forces with César Chávez and the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), making the Delano Grape Strike the first time Mexican and Filipino workers joined in solidarity on the picket line. The strike would go on to last five years with accompanying calls for consumers to support their strike by boycotting table grapes.  

Ah Quon McElrath (1915 – 2008) 
Chinese Hawaiian Labor Leader  

Born to Chinese immigrant parents and raised in Hawai’i, Ah Quon McElrath was an influential leader who helped transform the landscape of Hawai’i’s labor movement. She “gave voice to Hawai’i’s working class and helped power a labor movement based on racial equity.” Even after retiring from the union, she continued to advocate for various social justice issues, such as universal health care and press freedom.  

As early as 12 or 13 years old, McElrath and her siblings worked in pineapple canneries due to the lack of child labor laws. While studying at the University of Hawai’i in the 1930s, she became involved in the anti-fascist movement. These experiences shaped her political understanding, and she eventually joined the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). Her union was devoted to non-discrimination, bringing together multiple ethnic groups under a common banner of labor rights. Through the ILWU, McElrath disrupted the unchecked feudal power of the sugar and pineapple growers and enhanced the lives of the workers in her community. 

Grace Lee Boggs (1915 – 2015)  
Chinese American Activist and Author  

Grace Lee Boggs is a key figure in Asian American activism. She worked closely with Black activists and community members in pursuing racial justice during the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. Boggs understood the connections between the issues she struggled with in her youth — namely, low wages, workplace discrimination, poor housing conditions, and anti-Asian racism — and the poverty and disempowerment that Black communities experienced. Eventually, she and her husband became influential organizers in Detroit’s Black Power movement where she advocated for higher wages, better working conditions, and tenant rights for the people in Detroit.  

May Ying Chen (1948 – Present)  
Chinese American Labor Organizer  

May Chen is a labor organizer who spent her career advocating for immigrant workers. Through her advocacy, she helped create the AFL-CIO’s Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) to represent AAPI union members and served as the International Vice President of UNITE HERE, a trade union representing 300,000 workers across hospitality industries.  

While living in New York, Chen took part in one of the largest Asian American workers strikes in history: the garment worker’s strike of 1982. Around 200,000 workers, the majority of whom were Chinese and Hong Kong immigrant women, marched through Chinatown to Columbus Park to demand safer working conditions and higher wages. This historic strike inspired May Chen to become a leader in labor organizing and advocacy for decades, until her retirement in 2009. 

Silme Domingo (1952 – 1981) & Genes Viernes (1951 – 1981) 
Filipino American Labor Organizers and Pro-Democracy Activists  

Based in Seattle, Silme Domingo and Genes Viernes were Filipino American labor activists who organized for union democracy while engaged in the Filipino struggle against U.S. imperialism. Domingo and Viernes worked together as leaders of the Cannery Workers and Farm Laborers Union, Local 7, the first Filipino-led union in the U.S. They were also members of the Katipunan ng mga Demokratikong Pilipino (Union of Democratic Filipinos or KDP), a group of Filipino Americans who sought to mobilize broad opposition against the U.S.-backed Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines.  

As labor organizers, they understood that the injustices they faced as Filipino-American workers in the United States was connected to the same U.S. imperialist oppression faced by Filipino workers in the Philippines. Their revolutionary activism posed a threat to the status quo, and after Domingo and Viernes won their officer elections of the ILWU Local 37, they were assassinated by local gang members in 1981. Later, it was revealed that they were murdered on the orders of the Filipino dictator, Ferdinand Marcos Sr., who targeted them for their anti-Marcos organizing. In 1989, advocates filed a federal civil suit trial of Ferdinand and his wife Imelda Marcos which marked the first and only time a foreign dictator has been found liable for the murders of U.S. citizens in the United States. 

Yang Song (1979 – 2017)  
Asian Migrant Massage Worker 

Yang Song was a massage worker in Flushing, NY who NYPD officers harassed for months before her death during a police raid in 2017. Her family later revealed that she had been sexually assaulted by police and pressured to become an informant against other massage therapists. Despite the pressure of the police, she refused. After Song’s death, community members rallied outside of the 109th police precinct to hold a vigil for Song, and through that community gathering, Red Canary Song was born. 

Red Canary Song is a grassroots collective of migrant Asian sex and massage workers, formed in Yang Song’s honor. These activists seek to hold the police accountable for her death and organize for the decriminalization of sex and massage work. For Red Canary Song, “the full decriminalization of sex work is necessary for the safety and survival of massage workers and trafficking survivors.” 

Prem Pariyar (1984 – Present) 
Nepali Dalit Rights Organizer 

Prem Pariyar is a Nepali immigrant and grassroots community organizer fighting against caste oppression in the workplace, schools, and beyond. Before he immigrated, Pariyar was a social worker and vocal advocate demanding caste protections for Dalits, a diverse social group that has been historically marginalized in the Hindu caste system. When he moved to California, he found himself needing to advocate for himself and members of his caste once again. As an undocumented Dalit restaurant worker, he faced heavy discrimination and poor working conditions. He began to organize with nail salon workers in solidarity.  

Later, as a social work graduate student at California State University, he again experienced caste discrimination and organized for protections for his fellow Dalit students. Now, he has brought his struggle state-wide, promoting California’s historical civil rights bill to end caste-based discrimination.  

For AAPI working class people, their political contexts sit at the intersection of multiple layers of marginalization. As a result, their resistance and advocacy necessitate a strong understanding of intersectionality and transnational solidarity. From Nepal to the Philippines to Hawai’i and the mainland, continue to advocate for labor rights and build off the legacy of these influential labor leaders!  

Do you know AAPI labor activists that should be on this list? Help us chronicle their important contributions to our social movements by contacting us with your nominations today!  

Image: Two ILGWU workers on strike, 1966, Kheel Center CC BY 2.0 DEED
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