It was an unlikely group to storm the streets of New York City’s Chinatown in the summer of 1982: Nearly 20,000 garment workers—mostly Asian American women—marched together in solidarity for better benefits. Clad in matching union caps, they carried signs in both English and Chinese, reading, “In union, there is strength,” and “Support the union contract.”
“The mood was so exciting!” says May Chen, a labor organizer who worked for the hotel union at the time and was “borrowed” to help with the picket lines and logistics. “Chinatown’s hierarchy was so male-dominated, and here came the women standing together and speaking out.”
The walkout succeeded in retaining critical benefits for garment workers who toiled long work days in often harsh conditions. The strike’ success also showed that Asian American women—even those with a language barrier—could amplify their voices, take action and be heard.
Conditions in Chinatown’s Garment Shops
In 1980, about 430 garment shops employed a total of 25,000 workers—80 percent of whom were female. Many had come to the United States when the discriminatory Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was overturned by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, eliminating racial quotas. Some had come to reunite with their husbands, while others had fled turmoil in their home countries. Securing a job that didn’t require speaking English had provided these women with career independence, as well as a community of fellow immigrants.
But conditions in the packed factories were not always humane. The buildings were often decrepit and the workspaces packed together tightly, according to an account in the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Being pricked by needles was so common, Katie Quan writes in Amerasia Journal, that some bosses checked for needle fragments in workers’ fingers and then congratulated them for reaching that right of passage.
On top of that, poor airflow and crowded quarters led to tuberculosis, as well as kidney and gastric issues. Works days commonly stretched on for more than 10 hours—in low-light conditions. And pay was earned by the piece—at meager rates. Garment workers in Chinatown's shops earned 50 cents for a skirt and 50 cents for a jacket, according to an October 12, 1983 article in the New York Times. Experienced workers, according to the Times, said their daily earnings amounted to just $9 or $10 per day.
Benefits Were the Main Demand
Still, the women clung to the jobs, many drawn to benefits provided by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), Local 23-25. The union protected wages, holiday pay, welfare payments and pension, it also offered access to a health center, with full coverage for the workers and partial benefits for their families. Every three years, the contract was renegotiated between the employers and union.
But in 1982, things changed. As overseas labor became more accessible, some employers tried to cut benefits by scaling back on vacation days as well as medical and retirement benefits. Many employers were willing to work with the union, but, Chen explains, a small group of them used “the Chinese press to rile up support against the union.”
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A ‘Strong and Powerful’ Showing
Quan, who was working at Kin Yip Sportswear, one of the largest Chinatown shops at the time, wrote in the Chinese-language community paper Sing Tao Daily News that if the union said to strike, workers should follow suit—and included her phone number. Among the nonstop calls she received, one came from a worker's anonymous husband who quoted a Chinese proverb, “When fire singes the hairs on the skin of the women workers, they will rise up like tigers.”
And, as Quan writes, that’s what happened. The garment workers started banding together, distributing union leaflets, answering phone calls, and spreading the word through the local media. “Workers were really concerned about protecting their benefits which was the main attraction of the union to them,” Chen says. “So most workers were positive about the union’s call to action.”
Despite increasing support for a strike, on June 24, some women hid in the shops’ bathrooms, afraid to participate. But as soon as the organizers knocked on doors, showing the power of the masses, they joined in. Their numbers swelled to 20,000 as they walked down New York City’s Mott Street to Columbus Park.
“Most of these women were really the backbone of their families so it was wonderful to see them feeling so strong and powerful,” Chen says.
Another rally was held five days later—again with a turnout of nearly 20,000—and the holdouts gave in. In the end, most employers signed with the union, marking a major victory for the garment workers and a turning point for the union, which would work closely with its Asian American workers.
While this may have been one of the loudest and effective labor rights strikes, Chen (who went on to work for the union after the strike) says the seeds had long been sown. “There had been a tradition in NY Chinatown of collective action by the huge number of Chinese community organizations,” she says.
The 1982 strike was unique, however, in that it was powered by a group of people who had historically been expected to simply put up with inequities.
As Chen says, “The community came to respect the women and the power of collective action to win rights."