China Daily, July 1, 2012
Thirty years ago, a strike by garment workers in New York's Chinatown challenged a power dynamic that many had assumed was immune to change.
"In the strike, the garment workers showed that they could fight for their right instead of being the victims of racial, class or gender exploitation," said Katie Quan, a former seamstress who by the time of the July 1982 walkout had risen in her union's local to the post of organizer.
Quan is living proof of the changes the strike produced: She is now associate chair of the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Berkeley. On Thursday, she took part in a panel discussion, We Are One: The 1982 Chinatown Garment Strike, 30 Years Later, at the Museum of Chinese in America, located in Chinatown.
Members of Local 23-25 of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union called the strike after negotiations for a fair contract were halted by a group of employers. Garment manufacturing was still a major employer in New York at the time, with many immigrants from China and Hong Kong among the workers.
The companies "wanted to take the little benefits away from them," Ed Vargas, one of the strike organizers, recalled at Thursday's panel discussion at the Museum of Chinese in America.
Two large rallies by the workers led to a resumption of negotiations and, eventually, a satisfactory contract. The strike also elevated Chinese-immigrant workers to leadership posts in the union and helped mobilize activism in the community.
"Workers were strongly for the union after the strike. They were activated and willing to volunteer their time for the community," said Connie Ling, one of the workers who took part in the strike.
Ling became the business agent of Local 23-25 and, though now retired, remains active in union matters. (The local is now affiliated with Workers United and the Service Employees' International Union.)
The emergence of new labor leaders from the community wouldn't have happened without the strike, Quan said during the panel discussion.
"The union was an organization that helped them to fight," the activist-turned-academic told China Daily. "It's a lesson that can be learned not only in the US, but also in other countries nowadays."
In memory of the workers killed in a Bangladesh garment factory fire in December 2010, the panelists called for international solidarity in the low-wage, dangerous industry. Collective bargaining and other labor rights should be pursued despite labor standards that differ from country to country, Quan said.