21st Century Lessons Emerge from Chinese Railroad Workers of the Past

The choice to make care jobs and other low-wage wage service jobs good jobs will have an impact on generations to come.
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Railroad workers fought racial discrimination, low wages and poor conditions 150 years ago. Today, Americans can avoid the same mistakes for home-care workers.

Last month, I attended the induction of Chinese Railroad workers into the Department of Labor's Labor Hall of Fame. Bringing together descendants of the railway workers and Asian American leaders from around the country, the ceremony was a moving commemoration of a hidden, important part of our nation's history.

Preparing for the event, I was reminded of how as a young person, I first learned of these stories with my father. An immigrant himself, the Chinese railroad workers who built the transcontinental railway connected him to a proud history of Chinese immigrant workers who enabled one of the most important feats in engineering and innovation in the United States. Unfortunately, part of that history is a shameful - and unnecessary - story of abuse and deep discrimination. In many ways, the experience of the railroad workers is a profound reminder of how we must think of our nation's progress going forward - that we always have a choice to make. We can make progress at the expense of human dignity, or in way that uplifts it. Both directions are possible, neither inevitable.

In 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, Congress authorized $136 million of the construction of the transcontinental railway, a bold investment to promote national progress and economic growth. Between 1865 - 1869 thousands of Chinese migrants helped construct America's First Transcontinental Railroad. In 1868 the Central Pacific Railroad company employed over 12,000 Chinese workers, comprising at least 80% of their workforce. The Transcontinental Railroad was truly an incredible engineering accomplishment, stretching 1,800 miles across plains, desert and the rugged terrain of the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains. But its construction required very difficult and dangerous manual labor: leveling roadbeds, boring tunnels, and blasting mountainsides. This work was performed almost entirely by hand and often required dangerous stunts like being lowered in baskets to hammer at the mountain and insert dynamite. About 1,200 Chinese immigrant workers died as a result of accidents, avalanches, and explosions.

In addition to being susceptible to the high risk of injury and death, Chinese workers also faced deeply entrenched racial discrimination. They received much lower wages than their white counterparts and were excluded from the opening ceremony when Central Pacific joined with the Union Pacific to complete the line at Promontory Point, Utah in the spring of 1869. The discriminatory treatment of Chinese workers was later compounded by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited further immigration of Chinese laborers.

Similarly today, in the midst of tremendous change in our demographics, the aging of the baby boom generation, changes in technology, energy and the global economy, legislators will need to think boldly about investments in infrastructure that will support progress and economic development for the 21st century. A choice is before us. Like Chinese railroad workers of the past, Asian and other low-wage workers are building this nation's 21st century infrastructure. And, in today's service-based economy, in many cases they are the infrastructure--whether it's technology, taxis, domestic work, or home care.

At the National Domestic Workers Alliance, we estimate that one in every ten home care workers are Asian. Japanese, Filipina, and Chinese caregivers across the country work hard to care for children and assist seniors and people with disabilities so that they and their families can live independent, active lives. The caregiving industry is experiencing exponential growth due to the tremendous need. By 2035, 11.5 million Americans will be over the age of eighty-five, more than double today's 5 million, living longer than ever before. In order to support older generations to work longer if they choose to and to age well, in their homes and fully integrated in our communities, we will require millions of professional caregivers who have the training, support and the respect they need. But as it stands, the workforce can barely be sustained - the wages are so low many full-time workers must depend on public assistance to care for their own families. And the work can be isolated and difficult, with high rates of burnout and turnover.

This is but one example of the types of choices we will need to make. Will we invest in a care infrastructure that both meets this growing need in the 21st century and supports good, dignified jobs for the workforce, or will we choose a low road path at the expense of human dignity?

Last year, the Department of Labor issued a regulatory change that ended 75 years of exclusion to minimum wage and overtime protections for our nation's home care workforce. Governors and state legislatures around the country will be presented with a choice as to whether they will include higher wages in their state budgets, and invest in the care workforce they need in their states - in a way that doesn't disrupt access to hours of care needed by the people who count on it.

The choice to make care jobs and other low-wage wage service jobs good jobs will have an impact on generations to come. This regulatory change only scratches the surface of what is needed. Immigration reform, raising wages, moving these jobs out of the shadows of invisibility, into the light of recognition and dignity today, in real time, are all part and parcel to both correcting our errors of the past and creating real economic and social progress for the 21st Century. In many cases, it will require a bold investment. If we learn anything from the story of the Chinese railroad workers, it's a choice we can't afford not to make.

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