Back When Organized Labor Declared War on the Chinese

While the history of the American labor movement is filled to overflowing with examples of conspicuous courage and unwavering solidarity (one can argue that it was organized labor, more than any other institution, that created the American middle class), labor's history is also littered with examples of ethnic and racial biases. Not least of which was its near-hysterical hatred of the Chinese.

This week happens to mark the 130th anniversary of the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act, signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur, on May 6, 1882. The Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese immigration into the U.S. for a period of 10 years, has to be considered one of the most toxic and disgraceful anti-immigration measures in American history.

Although the Chinese Exclusion Act was supposed to be repealed after 10 years, it remained on the books, more or less, all the way until 1943, with passage of the Magnuson Act, under which Chinese immigrants were once again permitted to enter the U.S. (with a paltry quota of 105 a year), and Chinese residents were permitted to file for naturalized citizenship. It was a dark and troubling chapter in American history.

One of the driving forces behind passage of the Exclusion Act was the Knights of Labor (full name: The Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor). Founded in Philadelphia, in 1869, the Knights of Labor was an astonishingly progressive workers' federation. The Knights started slowly, gained some traction in 1873, with the dissolution of the National Labor Union, continued to grow, continued to recruit, until, at its peak, in 1886 (the year of the Haymarket Massacre), it had a reported 800,000 members.

How "progressive" were the Knights? They were the first big-time labor organization to demand an 8-hour work day, the first to demand prohibition of child and prison labor, and the first to call for the inclusion of women and (after 1878) blacks. From a purely sociological standpoint, this was extraordinary. A labor federation dominated by white males calling for the equality of women and blacks? It was remarkable. Men and women, blacks and whites, were now welcomed under labor's commodious tent. The Chinese were another story.

Chinese immigration in significant numbers traces back to the California Gold Rush (1848-1855). While Chinese workers, like many foreigners, were never embraced by their American counterparts, so long as gold was still being discovered and jobs were plentiful, they were tolerated. But once the gold panned out, and Chinese workers moved into the mining and railroad industries, they were no longer even tolerated. It had become open warfare.

By labor's narrow reckoning, the Chinese were guilty of two things that could not and would not be forgiven: (1) They were seen as taking jobs away from "regular" Americans, and (2) because they were willing to work for less pay, they were accused of lowering the standard of living of the entire working class. Add to this the differences in language, their perceived inscrutability and standoffishness, and you had the basis for a workers' vendetta.

Organized labor has many things -- more than we can count -- to be proud of. But its treatment of the Chinese isn't one of them.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"), was a former union rep. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net