Asian/Pacific American Labor Acitivists Speak Out on Union Reform, Organizing

"If you're going to speak Vietnamese, just go back to Vietnam. This is America."

These words of welcome shocked food processing worker Ho Lai as he deboned chicken at a Campbell's Soup plant in Nebraska. It was October 1975, and Lai was a recent arrival in the U.S. He had been forced to leave his family and three children behind in war-torn Vietnam. Like many immigrants new to the American workforce, Lai spoke no English.

The boss's harassment worsened when Lai suffered a gash to his hand. The union was mostly non-existent in the plant of 500 mostly white workers. So Lai took it on himself to find out what could be done. He went to the library, skimmed some books, and discovered labor law and unions. He began to stand up to his boss. His co-workers noticed, and asked him to represent them as their shop steward.

"'Are you crazy? I can barely speak English!' I said. But they pushed me and believed in me, so I agreed. To have my co-workers relying on me made me work harder. That's how I learned English," Lai said.

Lai spent almost eight years as shop steward. For the last 12, he has criss-crossed the western states organizing Asian immigrant workers for the United Food and Commercial Workers. Lai is now a UFCW international representative, but his story is not common.

Asian/Pacific Americans have been involved in workers' struggles here for over 100 years. Workers from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and India have been in the U.S. for many generations; more recently immigrants have arrived from Pakistan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and elsewhere. There are half a million Asian/Pacific Americans in the U.S. labor movement.

But they have not always been welcomed or even acknowledged by U.S. unions. While some Asian/Pacific Americans become leaders, many others experience intra-union discrimination. And some activists question whether their AFL-CIO constituency group, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, is doing enough to fight the union leadership glass ceiling.

REFORM LEADERS

For some Asian/Pacific Americans, getting elected to union office came through organizing for reform.

Bob Hasegawa heads up Teamsters Local 174 in Seattle. He was elected by a membership of mostly white, male truck drivers. A third-generation Japanese American and a long-time activist with Teamsters for a Democratic Union, Hasegawa has helped build one of the most reform-oriented locals in the Teamsters. The local has been successful in member-to-member organizing and short, strategic strikes for industry-wide standards.

"We're trying to build power from the bottom up as opposed to from the top down," he says.

Now Hasegawa is running for Teamsters western region vice president on reformer Tom Leedham's ticket.

Kitchen worker Meizhu Lui also came to lead her local, AFSCME Local 1489, through reform work. Lui, a second-generation Chinese American, says it was her "own experience of feeling excluded from the union, both as an Asian and as a woman, that made me more able to--and more dedicated to--figuring out ways people could become more involved."

She and co-workers, mostly women and people of color at Boston City Hospital, took on the white, male union leadership, creating a multi-racial rank and file reform caucus that remained active for several years. The caucus pushed for newsletters to be translated into different languages and for affirmative action. They got the union to fight racism in health care and to support democracy movements in workers' home countries.

'WHO IS THIS ROBERT GUY?'

When Lui became president of Local 1489, she threw out Robert's Rules of Order. Union meetings instead became a mix of union business, educational guest speakers, and open discussion--with an easily amendable agenda.

"Robert's Rules was basically used against dissidents and to make it hard to speak," she explains. "I wanted to make it easy for people to get their issues out. You need some order, but you don't necessarily need Robert's Rules of Order," she adds. "Who is this Robert guy, anyway?"

New Book

Secrets of a successful organizer

A step-by-step guide to building power on the job. Buy Now. »

Activists like Lai, Hasegawa, and Lui often meet each other through the six-year-old Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance. APALA is the only AFL-CIO constituency group that focuses on organizing.

Kent Wong, APALA's founding president, reports progress. "We went from fewer than ten Asian American union organizers across the country in '92 to a situation today where we have close to a hundred," says Wong, who is the director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education. Those numbers are partly the result of APALA's partnership with the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute.

"APALA has always been a very activist-oriented organization," he says. "We've also been noted for the number of young people that we have been able to attract and recruit."

Even with its successes, many still question how independent APALA should be--or can be--from the AFL-CIO. Should it be a vehicle for Asian Pacific Americans to reform their unions into more democratic institutions, or is APALA simply pushing for Asian tokens to rubber-stamp the AFL-CIO leadership's agenda? Although most agree that APALA is a useful network, others have hoped for more.

For instance does APALA do enough to confront the barriers that Asian/Pacific Americans still face within their unions? As Lui of AFSCME puts it, "Even the union movement has its own glass ceilings. I didn't find it easy at all or possible to get up into higher levels within the union." That, she says, is one of the reasons she left union work to become a community organizer.

Others question the nature of the partnership between APALA and the AFL-CIO's Organizing Institute. One activist says he's seen many young organizers get turned into "cannon fodder" as a result of the OI's organizing strategy.

"They use you up and they spit you out," he says. "The only reason they can do that is because you are fresh out of college. If you were a single mom, you wouldn't be able to handle the rootless life of an organizer. And if you get burned out, the AFL-CIO looks at it like, 'Well, there's plenty more where she came from.'"

APALA 'VERY SENSITIVE'

Katie Quan, an APALA founding vice president who was an international vice president of UNITE! until recently, admits autonomy is difficult. "Since we're almost entirely funded by the AFL-CIO, APALA is very sensitive to what happens in the AFL-CIO," she says.

"APALA's organizing director position came as a result of hard lobbying of Richard Bensinger [who was recently fired from his AFL-CIO Organizing Director job]," Quan adds, "so the politics of the situation are dicey. But at the same time, the AFL-CIO needs APALA as an example of what can be done in the long run."

Wong agrees. "I'm sure that we'll have a good relationship with [Bensinger replacement] Kirk Adams as well," he says, although Adams reputedly has a much more conservative organizing style than Bensinger.

Ray Quan (no relation to Katie Quan), a vice-president of SEIU Local 790 in San Francisco, is critical of APALA. Quan is a mechanic for the Bay Area Rapid Transit system and vice president of his APALA chapter.

"It's a good idea to have Asian American trade unionists meet in a group like APALA," he says, "but until we're willing to push for real change, I don't know much is going to happen.

"If APALA is going to become anything more than a minority spokesperson for the AFL-CIO, I think it's got to ask itself a lot of hard questions," Quan adds. "I don't know that even within APALA that people are ready and willing to ask those kinds of questions--and to be autonomous from the AFL-CIO."

Still, Ray Quan remains optimistic: "I do hope APALA can be a voice for reform. The struggle for people of color to have an equal voice in their union must go hand in hand with democratizing unions."

Linelle Mogado is an intern at Labor Notes and a member of APALA.