Forty years later, Katie Quan still vividly remembers the pivotal garment workers strike in New York City’s Chinatown. Quan, who was 29 at the time, was one of the key organizers of the strike, in which more than 20,000 workers — most of them Chinese-born women — marched to Columbus Park on June 24, 1982, refusing to work and demanding higher wages and benefits.
Quan, now a senior fellow at the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, said it was the most significant collective action that immigrant Asian women in the U.S. have ever engaged in. It made labor unions pay more attention to Asian American worker power and sparked a class consciousness within the community.
The 40th anniversary of the strike comes amid another wave of worker empowerment across the country, with hundreds of thousands of employees striking and voting to unionize in recent months.
“A lot of people just assumed that the women would not want to strike,” Quan, now 69, told NBC Asian America. “They had never attended meetings, and they had certainly never struck before. They were pretty adamant in my factory. In fact, they put change in my hands and they sent me to the payphone. They said, ‘Call the union and tell them we want to strike.’”
It was the largest strike in the history of New York City’s Chinatown, and one of the largest for the garment industry.
“The broader lesson is that there is definitely agency and power amongst Asian women,” she said. “It doesn’t need to be a thing that’s to be fearful about.”
Quan was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, and later moved to New York City in 1975 to take advantage of the city’s robust garment industry. At the time, large clothing brands contracted small manufacturers, which hired workers to sew the garments. She worked as a rank-and-file seamstress, responsible for sewing zippers and waistbands to pants. These were desirable jobs, she said, because they were unionized and offered benefits such as health insurance and pensions.
“Chinatown was a working-class community. The men worked in restaurants and the restaurants were primarily not unionized,” Quan said. “Those who are working in nonunion jobs in the restaurant industry were subsidized by their wives who were working in the garment industry.”
She later became the shop steward of one of the largest factories in Chinatown. This was a common route: Some workers eventually saved enough money to buy or lease sewing machines and owned their own small manufacturing companies.
Most Asian garment workers at the time were recent arrivals from China and spoke little or no English. This language barrier created a divide between the Chinese-speaking employees and the leadership at the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILDWU).
The 1982 strike was set in motion when some workers refused to renew their contracts, citing reduced pay and benefits, which was part of a broader trend of U.S. manufacturers scaling back production and moving work overseas amid the rise of globalization in the 1970s and ’80s.
Rallies of tens of thousands of people accompanied the strike, and soon every manufacturer agreed to sign the union’s pledge for wage increases and benefits.
Quan later wrote that the strike shifted the dynamics of the Chinese American community.
“Before the strike, the Chinese employers assumed that they could count on their workers to support them because of ethnic solidarity, and they probably assumed that as traditionally-raised women the workers would not fight Chinese men,” Quan wrote in 2009. “But the 1982 strike demonstrated quite clearly that when labor issues are at stake, Chinese workers (both men and women) will act in their class interests, as they actually do in the factories when they fight for higher piece rates or have other disputes.”
The 1982 mobilization of Chinese workers was also a wake-up call for union leaders to work more closely with Asian American workers, Quan said. She was later recruited to work with the ILDWU.
May Chen, another organizer of the strike, became a founding member of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), formed in 1992, which is the first and only national organization of Asian American and Pacific Islander workers.
“The work of the garment workers strike really inspires all of the workers who are a part of the union today,” said Eunice How, president of the APALA Seattle chapter and a community organizer at UNITE HERE, a union that was formed through the merger of ILGWU and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. “We’re celebrating the legacy of the front-line workers strike and reflecting on the leadership of activists like the garment workers.”