Not Your Model Minority: Organizing Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Workers

By Kim Dinh

(Photo Caption: TMC Board Member Antonia Domingo and Penn Plaza Action’s Judy Suh display APALA’s banner.)

2018 May Day Celebration – Pittsburgh, PA.

As immigrants and workers in Pittsburgh gathered on May Day to celebrate International Workers’ Day, for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities, the day also marked the beginning of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. In the United States, representation of AAPI workers and immigrants is often overlooked. In Pittsburgh, this gap in representation is even more apparent.

Where are AAPI workers in labor and civil rights movements?

AAPI workers, along with Latino workers, represent the fastest-growing groups of unionized labor in the U.S. Yet, despite a history of strikes that dates back to the 1800s, Asian American workers are still regarded as “the model minority,” as quite docile workers. AAPI labor is often exploited because of the public perception that they don’t fight back.

People who are denied their rights often organize out of necessity. Notable events in the AAPI labor movements include, but are not limited to, the Chinese Rail Workers Strike in June of 1867, the Oahu Sugar Strike in 1920 organized by Filipino and Japanese plantation workers, the Delano Grape Strike in 1965 organized by Filipino and Mexican agricultural workers (whose collaboration gave rise to the United Farm Workers Union), and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Strike in New York City’s Chinatown in 1982. About 20,000 garment factory workers, most of whom were Chinese women, took to the streets in New York to demand work contracts, which made it one of the largest AAPI worker strikes in the history of the US labor movement.

AAPI union members today represent many different East Asian, South Asian, and Southeast Asian diaspora in the US. AAPI workers, whether in a union or not, come from many different industries, such as agricultural, textile, construction, restaurant, service, hospitality, transportation, and more. While most labor unions are still primarily white-led and conservative in values, many AAPI union leaders are climbing in ranks. While the earlier AAPI labor movements saw Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino activists, today’s AAPI movements see a rise to leadership of younger generations of Vietnamese, Cambodian, H’Mong, Indian, and Pakistani workers.

Activism in AAPI communities is not confined to labor unions. In a 2011 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, 67% of unionized AAPI workers are also immigrants. In Pittsburgh, two of the largest groups of undocumented immigrants are Latino and Asian or Pacific Islander. To fight for workers’ rights is to fight for immigrants’ rights — undocumented immigrants are less likely to seek medical care out of fear of being deported. One out of three AAPI people do not speak English fluently. Language barriers keep AAPI people from seeking healthcare and other resources. In addition to demands for higher wages, paid sick days, education, housing, better work conditions, and benefits, activists also organize to demand language access, legal representation, and mental health resources.

Not Your Model Minority

Despite a history of fighting for the rights to live and work, many AAPI communities and those outside of them are still largely willing to uphold the narratives of the “model minority,” which implies that the success and social standing of Asian Americans today are because AAPIs “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” This narrative disregards the two million AAPIs who live in poverty, the AAPI youth affected by the School to Prison to Deportation Pipeline, and the undocumented workers who are subject to less-than-minimum hourly wages and unsafe working practices. It also justifies ingrained anti-black notions by situating one minority above another and by allowing one to criticize protests and other collective actions.

This reality helps explain where more recent AAPI movements are headed. Even though coalition work has been going on for decades, more and more AAPI groups are focusing on addressing larger systemic issues, such as unpacking entrenched racism and classism, as well as addressing intergenerational LGBTQ issues. This work proves to be challenging, and it is just the beginning of a long, but important, conversation.

Organizations and Coalition Building

As labor movements strive to become more inclusive of immigrant voices, a new labor-focused group hopes to engage AAPI communities in Pittsburgh. In early 2018, seeing the lack of representation of AAPI workers, a group of activists came together to form the Pittsburgh local pre-chapter of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), which, up until this point, has primarily been in the coalition-building phase. APALA’s national organization is the first labor group in the US working to advance AAPI labor and immigrant rights. APALA has 20 chapters and pre-chapters, as well as a national office in Washington D.C.

APALA Pittsburgh has been involved in the Wage Theft Coalition with other Pittsburgh groups, such as the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA), the Thomas Merton Center, and Restaurant Opportunities Group (ROC). They have also been involved in the organizing of Know-Your-Rights sessions for Restaurant Workers. Moving forward, APALA Pittsburgh plans to continue building coalitions and engaging Pittsburgh’s AAPI communities.

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TMC’s Kim Dinh and Board Member Antonia Domingo carry on at the May Day Celebration. (Photos: Steve Dietz from UnionPix)

Kim Dinh is the Technology and Operations Coordinator at the Thomas Merton Center and organizes with APALA Pittsburgh pre-chapter.

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