the Labor Movement and Protectionist Racism
by Christopher Chance:
The labor movement has its roots not in worker equality and the improvement of conditions, but in plain old simple protectionist racism – in this case, directed at Chinese labor in the late 1800s.
The Workingmen’s Party of California was popular with whites resentful of that Chinese labor. Their leader, an Irishman named Denis Kearney, played up fears that the Chinese, a filthy rabble of diseased, immoral sub-humans, would drive down wages and steal jobs from respectable working class white men. Although many of the laws and provisions directed at “John Chinaman” that Kearney promoted were opposed by business leaders – and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals – his anti-Chinese platform was so well-received in California that his views began to spread across the country, even to areas with little or no Chinese population. Other anti-Chinese union groups were established, such as the Cigar Makers’ International Union, who developed the first widespread use of the “Union Label” – in this case, a blue notice affixed to cigar boxes that would assure the buyer that only clean, decent white workers had prepared the cigars, and that they were untouched by filthy Yellow hands. Tailors and laundries followed suit, assuring the consumer of the type of sanitary working conditions that could only be achieved by a lack of Chinese labor.
Kearney, for his own part, saw the anti-Chinese fervor as a unifying crusade that would lead to a powerful labor movement. ”When the Chinese question is settled,” he said, “we can discuss whether it would be better to hang, shoot, or cut the capitalists to pieces. In six months we will have 50,000 mean ready to go out. . . and if John don’t leave here, we will drive him and his aborts into the sea… We are ready to do it… If the ballot fails, we are ready to use the bullet.”
The organized labor movement won its first legislative victory on May 6, 1882, when President Chester Arthur signed into law the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first major law restricting immigration into the United States, which was meant to stem the Yellow Horde. Although the law’s provisions were only meant to last for ten years, in 1902 the ban on Chinese immigration was made permanent, along with other other protectionist, anti-black, and anti-immigration legislation advocated by labor leaders like the AFL’s Samuel Gompers. The ban on Chinese immigration remained intact until 1943, when wartime considerations of the Chinese as an ally led to its repeal.
“Christopher Chance” is a psuedonym but I know his real name so it’s fine…. furthermore…. this has the ring of truth.
By and large I am in favor of labor unions in principle and the existence of most of them in specific, regardless of the respective aims, goals, and uses of them throughout history. Everyone makes mistakes. However, those mistakes should never be swept under the carpet, even if I don’t believe that we should carry those errors on giant banners.