May 2020: Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month
This month, we celebrate AAPI labor leaders from past and present that have made waves in the movement for worker justice.
Ai-jen Poo is a labor activist. She started organizing domestic workers in 1996 and helped found Domestic Workers United. She is the co-founder and Executive Director of National Domestic Workers Alliance since 2010, working to bring quality work, dignity, and fairness to the growing numbers of workers who care and clean in our homes, the majority of whom are immigrants and women of color. The National Domestic Workers Alliance has passed Domestic Worker Bills of Rights in 9 states and the city of Seattle, and brought over 2 million home care workers under minimum wage protections. She has been recognized among Fortune’s 50 World’s Greatest Leaders and Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World, and a recipient of the 2014 MacArthur “Genius” Award. (Source: AFL-CIO & domesticworkers.org)
Kent Wong, Director of UCLA Labor Center, is an Asian American community and labor activist, an educator, an author, and a leader in the Los Angeles labor movement. He was hired as the first staff attorney of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center for Southern California, then served as staff attorney for SEIU. He helped organize and served as the founding president (1992-1997) of Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), the first national labor organization for Asian Americans. He served as president of United Association for Labor Education (UALE) and also currently serves as CFT – California Federation of Teachers vice president. In 2007, as part of a historic delegation led by Maria Elena Durazo, he helped to establish sister relations between Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO and the Shanghai labor movement – the first of its kind between US and Chinese central labor councils.
Born in the Philippines, Larry Itliong was a farmworker in California. In 1956, he founded the Filipino Farm Labor Union and later organized a group of Filipinos to strike against grape growers in Delano. For eight days they were harassed and faced violence and saw no progress. Itliong approached César Chávez and the two groups joined together to launch the Delano Grape Strike of 1965 that eventually led to the creation of the United Farm Workers (UFW). Chávez became director and Itliong assistant director. He continued to organize with the UFW and the Filipino American Political Alliance until his passing in 1977. (Source: AFL-CIO)
Born in the Philippines, Philip Vera Cruz worked on farms before moving to the United States. In 1943, he moved to California and became a farmworker. After joining the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, he was a key part of the strike of grape pickers in Delano, California, in 1965. He served as vice president of UFW until 1977. After that, he helped create the Farm Workers Credit Union and he created Agbayani Village, a retirement community for farmworkers. (Source: AFL-CIO)
Sue Ko Lee worked in the National Dollar Store’s San Francisco factory in sweatshop conditions in the 1930s. ILGWU began organizing the Chinese Ladies Garment Workers Union Local 361, and it won a union election in 1938. The owner immediately sold the company to a new company headed by the factory manager and a former National Dollar Store employee in attempt to set aside the contract and break the union. Lee and her fellow workers went on strike and actively organized the strike, obtaining solidarity from their white co-workers. The unified front led to a contract that improved salaries, benefits and working conditions for the workers and helped break down racial barriers in San Francisco. Lee went on to become secretary of the union local and the San Francisco Joint Board. (Source: AFL-CIO)
After graduating from San Francisco State University and working on anti-war and Filipino rights causes, Velma Veloria became an organizer for the Office and Professional Employees (OPEIU), ILWU Local 37 for cannery workers and SEIU. She fought for justice for Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo, ILWU local leaders who were assassinated in 1981. Later, she began working in support of political campaigns. Veloria used her experience to win a seat as a state legislator and pursued a variety of causes important to women and people of color. She organized numerous trade missions to Southeast Asia and helped strengthen relations between the United States and countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia. (Source: AFL-CIO)
Few records were kept about the Chinese Railroad Workers, particularly about deaths on the job, but estimates suggest that more than 1,000 Chinese laborers died during the construction of the transcontinental railroad. The disparate pay and working conditions between Chinese and white laborers led the Chinese workers to engage in what was then the biggest strike in U.S. history. In 1867, thousands of Chinese workers in the Sierra Nevada walked off the job and returned to their camps. The strike lasted eight days before Central Pacific cut off food and supplies. The workers went back on the job and over time, reports say that conditions improved, even if the strike wasn’t a total success. (Source: AFL-CIO)