Document 23: Jennie Matyas, "Chinatown Turns Union: Against Overwhelming Obstacles, San Francisco's Oriental Dressmakers Build an Organization," Justice, 15 August 1938, p. 6.


    In this article written for the ILGWU's newspaper, Justice, Jennie Matyas emphasized the "spirit of the strikers" as well as the Chinese garment workers' heroism in the face of incredible pressure, both from an obdurate employer and "unscrupulous attacks" from others in the trade union movement. Matyas also praised labor leaders who sided with the union and striking women workers. In the end, she argued to a white union audience that the Chinese could be good union members, too.

Chinatown Turns Union

Against Overwhelming Obstacles, San Francisco's Oriental Dressmakers Build An Organization


    San Francisco's Chinese dressmakers have written their "1910" in this year of 1938.[A]

    Despite heart-breaking setbacks that would have tried the courage and determination of experienced unionists, despite the oft-repeated slur that the Chinese were unorganizable, they enrolled under the banners of the ILGWU and crowned a prolonged and desperate struggle with victory.

    The history of that strike, extending over many months, might well be a textbook of the methods used by employers and unscrupulous elements within the labor movement itself to keep a grossly exploited army of workers in subjugation.

    Cooperation given by department store employes and by William Green, A.F.L. President, will always stand as an object lesson in the importance of solidarity in the labor world. The spirit of the strikers and their unswerving determination to fight "to the end" will ever be an inspiration.

    Once and for all time, the question "Can Chinese stick together long enough to build a union and maintain it?" has been answered with a resounding "Yes!"

    In the fifteen weeks of strike, the Chinese workers withstood many attacks. They suffered hunger and privation. But never for moment did they suffer from the worst of all diseases during a strike--lack of confidence in the ultimate victory for their Union. Our International helped, as it always does.

    Hardly had the strike started when the Chinese local, the International organizers and the ILGWU were threatened with an injunction and a suit for $500,000.

    The Department Store Employees Union, who courageously supported our strike by refusing to send their members through our picket lines and kept the retail stores of the owner closed for three weeks, voted to return to work when a temporary restraining order was issued.

    The employers hoped that that action would kill the courage of the Chinese strikers. But they reckoned without Chinese intelligence and Chinese faith. The strikers appreciated the three weeks of heroism on the part of the Department Store Employees Union, were grateful to them for it and understood perfectly why members of Department Store Employees' Union, Local No. 1100, had to return to work under legal compulsion.

    When finally a temporary injunction was issued against our strikers picketing the stores, the strikers voted unanimously that they would continue to fight even though it limited them to the factory picket line.

    "To the end!" was their strike cry.

    One of the most vicious and unscrupulous attacks on the strike came from a shameful individual purporting to represent labor. This individual was for years a member of one of our locals. He worked in our Union shops, enjoyed our Union conditions, but he saw in the Union only an instrument by which he could further his own parasitic ambitions. Finally he took a traitor's pay and begin to work against the very Union in which he held membership, and from which he had received protection. He started making deals with employers wherever our International in San Francisco was attempting to organize. He engaged in the sorry business of peddling to employers in return for their pressure on their workers. Naturally, he assured them that conditions in their shops would remain unchanged if the workers were forced to join his so-called local.

    Our Chinese refused to be deceived by that individual. When they struck and the employers found that all other forms of intimidation could not shake the determination of the strikers to stick "to the end," the other manufacturers, members of the Pacific Coast Cotton Garment Manufacturers' Association, became panicky and entered into an agreement with this unscrupulous individual, whereby they handed over their workers in return for a status quo agreement. I remember well the consternation that suddenly swept our strikers when they heard that the "White employers" had called in their Chinese contractors and informed them that they would have to instruct their employees to join the false Union.

    This move was calculated to break the strike and the spirit of the strikers.

    Once again it was proved that small minds little understood the fortitude of these Chinese.

    In their absolute faith in the ultimate victory of our International and their strike, they renewed their pledge to fight! For fifteen weeks they fought, and finally, as you know, won a complete victory--a closed Union Shop, an increase in wages, time and a half for overtime, pay for Labor Day, price committee and other standard union conditions.

    Victoriously they returned to work for the first time in fifteen weeks, expecting to devote all their peace time energy now to building a real Union and a strong one in Chinatown under the banner of our International. For two weeks the workers planned, and dreamed of headquarters of their own in Chinatown, of classes to be held in their headquarters at which they would learn better English, of lectures on health which the International would help them to get, and which this community, with a high rate of illness, needs badly. For two weeks they dreamed that at last they were on the way to build a better life--a life consistent with hopes and aspirations of a new deal as we unionists know it. But only for two weeks!

    Not content with having betrayed the interests of the rest of the workers in Chinatown, that same traitor now led his dual union against us and caused pickets to be stationed in front of the Golden Gate, the only Union shop in San Francisco's Chinatown.

    Under the pretense that he had members in this very shop, he got the Central Labor Council to sanction his dual union activities.

    The day after the Fourth of July, Independence Day, you know, the entire shop was laid off on the ground that with the teamsters making no deliveries there was no point in manufacturing. It was, of course, hoped again that this would be the final bolt to our pioneer unionists. The workers had had only two weeks of work, but once again they determined that no matter what hardships they would have to endure they would not desert their Union or the International which had led them to victory.

    Our President Dubinsky came to the rescue. He got in touch with President Wm. Green, who instructed Edward Vandeleur, Secretary of the State Federation of Labor, as well as the man responsible for dual union activities, not to interfere in any way with our organizational activities.

    Can these Chinese stick together? Can they build a Union? In the face of heartbreaking adversity they have shown that they can stick together, fight together and build together.

    Some may talk in the sing-song of Old China, but the language of workers is the same the world over--it comes from the heart.


A. The comparison to 1910 here is a reference to the path-breaking strike settlement reached by the ILGWU in New York City in the signing of the "Protocol of Peace" that ended the cloakmakers' strike of that year. See the introduction to "Workers and Allies in the New York City Shirtwaist Strike, 1909--1910," another document project on this website.

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