How Did the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and Chinese Garment Workers Unite to Organize the 1938 National Dollar Stores Strike?

Strikers picketing a garment factory at 720 Washington
street and 3 San Francisco stores in Chinatown's first
big labor dispute.

Courtesy San Francisco Examiner, 27 February 1938


Documents selected and interpreted by
Thomas Dublin
With research assistance by
John Qiu, Julie Joseph, and Michelle Kleehammer
State University of New York at Binghamton
March 2004

    From the first arrival in 1849 of Chinese immigrants to work in the gold diggings of California's Sierra Nevada foothills, the relations between American and Chinese workers had been rocky. American workers routinely viewed their Chinese immigrant counterparts as coolie, or unfree, laborers and as a threat to wages and working conditions. At the peak of the anti-Chinese movement in the mid- and late-1870s, anticoolie clubs and trade unions made the argument that an inexhaustible supply of cheap immigrant Chinese labor undercut the living standards of white workers in California.[1]

    The first treatments of the anti-Chinese campaigns in California and of the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 typicaly reduced the Chinese to hapless victims of the racial onslaught. However, with the growth of a rich Asian-American historiography in the past decade, we have a clearer sense of the lives of Chinese and Chinese Americans in the United States. Even with the evident unbalanced sex ratio that characterized the Chinese immigrant generation, with men outnumbering women 20 to 1, eventually the numbers of American-born Chinese increased and a Chinese community emerged in San Francisco with more even numbers of men and women over time.[2]

    Chinese and Chinese Americans continued to live segregated lives in California. With the decline of mining and railroad construction and the explusion of Chinese from rural communities, the proportion of California Chinese residing in San Francisco increased markedly. And within San Francisco itself, the vast majority resided within the bounds of Chinatown. Increasingly, the Chinese worked for Chinese employers, in a world apart from the white working-class majority of the city.

    Although the labor movement in nineteenth-century California had demonized Chinese immigrant laborers and played a crucial role in the spread of the demand for exclusion, countervailing pressures gave trade union leaders reasons for seeking to organize Chinese workers. The continued existence of ill-paid Chinese contract shops in various trades provided employers with alternative sources of supply. If unionized white workers established wage scales that employers found exorbitant, they might contract out work in Chinatown shops. Even if employers did not frequently resort to this strategy, the threat that they might do so undercut standards in unionized operations. The very existence of a low-wage Chinese sector in San Francisco manufacturing was a cause for concern among labor leaders in the city and that concern grew in periods of high unemployment such as the Great Depression. This document project explores a moment when the concerns of a national union, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), and the aspirations of Chinese women garment workers came together and resulted, first, in a significant organizing campaign, and, second, in a successful strike against the largest garment manufacturer in San Francisco's Chinatown.

    Economic depression and New Deal reform efforts in the mid-1930s led to renewed concerns about sweatshop conditions in manufacturing. In this context, Americans and Chinese Americans investigated conditions in Chinatown garment shops. Rose Pestta (see Document 1), an organizer for the ILGWU, visited San Francisco in 1934 and in her subsequent autobiography reported on the ways that wholesale clothing firms contracted work in "Chinese owned and Chinese-operated establishments." She visited a number of shops, accompanied by a government official, and found numerous violations of regulations set by the Code of Fair Competition adopted by the garment industry under the auspices of the National Recovery Adminstration. A year later a detailed report writtn by Heng Tang Zhang in the Chinese-language newspaper, Chung Sai Yat Po, reported a total of 54 garment factories in Chinatown employing 1,200 wokers (see Document 2). In an analysis fully compatible with Pesotta's observations, the author argued that the crisis in the Chinese garment industry resulted from a chronic lack of capital resources, the seasonal nature of the work, and a lack of managerial knowledge on the part of Chinese contractors. Like Pesotta, Zhang called for the enforcement of an NRA-like Code to "eliminate all illegal competition," and exhorted Chinese needle workers to improve their skills and knowledge and work to reduce conflict with their Chinese emplyers.

    Rose Pesotta only passed through San Francisco on a brief visit, but the ILGWU soon appointed Jennie Matyas as an organizer among garment workers in San Francisco's Chinatown (see Document 3). Althoug the NRA was ruled unconstitutional in June. 1935, the passage in the same year of the Wagner Act created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and established a set of rules to facilitate workers' efforts to organize unions and enter into collective bargaining with employers. With assistance from Matyas, garment workers employed in the Chinatown factory of the National Dollar Stores signed cards designating the ILGWU as their collective bargaining agent. Using NLRB ballots in English and Chinese, workers overwhelmingly voted for representation by the ILGWU (see documents 5 and 6). After signing a preliminary agreement, National Dollar Stores "sold" their factory to a group headed by their foreman, and the breakdown in bargaining led the Chinese Ladies Garment Workers Union, Local 341 to go out on strike in late February (see documents 8 and 9). After outlining the employer's stalling tactics, striking workers concluded, "His goal is to break our rice bowl. Therefore, we have no choice but to set up a picket line to fight for fair treatment." The handbill provides clear evidence of striking garment workers' use of traditional Chinese language to justify a very American labor tactic (see Document 9).

    The strike continued for 105 days, more than three months, from late February until early June. The garment union secured the support of the retail clerks employed in the National Dollar Stores until the company succeeded in getting San Francisco courts to issue an injunction against the clerical workers (see Document 15). The Chinese Garment Workers Union countered with an unfair labor charge before the National Labor Relation Board (see Document 14). Chinese organizations became involved in the strike as the Chinese Digest published statements from both sides of the dispute (see Document 16), while the Chinese Six Companies, the leading business and benevolent organization in San Francisco Chinatown, offered its services to help resolve the strike (see Document 13).

    In early June the ILGWU signed agreements with both National Dollar Stores and the Golden Gate Manufacturing Company, succeeding despite the legal tactics of the firms and the evident economic distress of the Chinese garment workers during the 15-week strike. The two agreements provided that National Dollar Stores would purchase from the Golden Gate Manufacturing Company "its requirements of those garments" it would need for "its retail business," though the quantities involved would be at "the sole discretion" of the firm (see documents 19 and 20). For its part, the ILGWU gained a union shop at the Golden Gate Manufacturing Company; all garment workers would have to join the union to remain in the company's employ. The contract provided a 40-hour work week, a five percent wage increase for hourly workers, and a guarantee of at least $14 a week to both hourly and piece-rate workers. The contract provided no guarantee of steady work, but did provide for the equal distribution of work "among the regular employees" during slack periods. In determining layoffs in slack periods, the contract gave a preference to workers who had been employed full time" for at least three months," giving some recognition to the principle of seniority. The term of the contract was set for a year, during which period workers agreed not to strike and the company agreed not to lock out workers. The workers had achieved union recognition and a measure of security that was unique among Chinese garment workers in San Francisco in 1938.[3]

    The strike in the end was successful, but it did not prove to be a turning point for women garment workers in Chinatown. The National Dollar Stores strike remained an isolated success and did not lead to a continued wave of organizing in Chinatown contract shops. In fact, eleven months after the contract signing, the president of the Golden Gate Manufacturing Company wrote to officers of the ILGWU notifying them that the company was closing down operations at the conclusion of the term of their contract (see Document 28). In other words, the National Dollar Stores shifted its contracts and once again resumed purchasing its goods from non-union contract shops. The ILGWU managed to secure jobs for some of the laid-off Chinese garment workers in regular shops, but as Jennie Matyas recalled in an oral history interview some years later, "progress was very slow." It was difficult to convince European-American garment workers to accept Chinese working at their side (see Document 29).

    Still, the National Dollar Stores strike marked an important transition in the labor history of Chinese and Chinese-American women in the United States. It demonstrated that Chinese women garment workers would organize to improve wages and working conditions; it also established a link between Chinese women garment workers and the nation's leading union in the women's garment industry, the ILGWU. In subsequent years the union did open doors for Chinese women garment workers in non-Chinese garment shops and worked with garment workers generally to break down prejudice toward the Chinese. The strike widened the perspectives of Chinese women garment workes and prepared them for future alliances with labor activists and others that no doubt bore fruit in later years. San Francisco Chinatown was less isolated and Chinese women workers were no longer quite so segregated from social movements in that city.[4]

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