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The Kheel Center ILGWU Collection

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The Chinatown Struggle of 1982

July 27, 2012

Members of ILGWU Local 23-25 march through Chinatown

A looming deadline and an expiring contract faced the 27,000 members of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) Local 23-25 Blouse, Skirt and Sportswear in the spring and summer of 1982.  While negotiations began at the end of March between the ILGWU and garment manufacturers, over the next three months, the union and Chinese contractors and shop owners in New York City’s Chinatown would face off in a stalemate that would culminate in large rallies and a successful strike on June 24 and July 15, 1982.  Approximately 15,000 union members, families, friends, and workers crowded Columbus Park in support of a new contract.  In the time between the start of negotiations and the contract’s expiration, the union and employers would battle over wages, vacation and sick leave, holidays, health, welfare and retirement funds, and cost of living adjustments (COLA).  During the resultant negotiations, the manager of Local 23-25, Jay Mazur, called the employers’ demands “preposterous, unrealistic and totally unacceptable,” further stating that for the union and its members, there would be no give-backs because they had nothing to “give back.”  As a premonition for what was to come, Mazur firmly stated at the very start that they were “prepared to do anything to make progress in our wages and benefits, even if that means a strike,” a stance held by the union from the beginning until the end.  The strike that was to ensue would be the first strike of such magnitude since the union’s last general strike in 1958 involving the New York dress industry.  And the determination and perseverance of the members of Local 23-25 would have a lasting effect on the union, industry and Chinatown.

Chinatown became the center of New York City’s garment industry as imports and off-shore production began to increase, and the manufacturers who remained in the city searched for ways to keep costs down through cheap labor.  The Chinese shop owners found themselves trapped in a situation fueled by increasing rent and utilities, fierce competition among shop owners, and the unpredictable lowering of prices from the midtown manufacturers aiming to keep their own overhead low.  To compensate and remain viable and profitable, the Chinese contractors reduced their workers’ wages and accepted jobs from nonunion manufacturers, undoubtedly causing a strain between the contractors and the ILGWU.  Furthermore, the decade leading up to the 1982 strike was marked by the upsurge in the proliferation of sweatshops, which brought about intensified media, government, and union attention to the conditions, hours, and wages of the shops in Chinatown.  In spite of the turmoil and volatility, the garment industry in Chinatown experienced a drastic expansion over the course of two decades.  In 1963, approximately 50 garment factories in Chinatown employed around 2,000 workers.  In twenty years, that number soared to 20,000 workers in 500 factories, a substantial growth for an industry in decline.  By the time of the contract negotiations in 1982, the annual merchandise production in Chinatown was between $150 and $200 million with an annual payroll of over $100 million.  Chinatown, its shops and factories, was the home and livelihood to 20,000 members of Local 23-25, who would become central in the impending struggle.    

Negotiations began on March 31, 1982 for the contract that was set to expire May 31 and would cover 150,000 workers in four states across the Northeast.  As the employers demanded concessions, the union, led by Mazur on the negotiating team, stood firm with their requests for an increase in wages, an increase in holiday pay, an extra paid holiday, a paid personal day, payment of lost wages due to jury duty, paid sick leave, and additional employer contributions to the Health and Welfare Fund, Retirement Fund, and Health Services Plan.  The employers though, had their own set of mandates, including a return of three holidays, no increase in holiday pay, allow employers to hire new workers at the federal minimum wage of $3.35 an hour, overtime on a weekly, not daily, basis, an increase in the work week from 35 to 40 hours, and no additional contributions to the health and welfare funds.  On June 1, after numerous clashes, several compromises, and final concessions, an agreement had been reached with manufacturers and firms, and accepted by members of the executive board, negotiating committees and shop representatives.  Industries reaching an agreement with the ILGWU for a new contract included children, knitwear, coat and suit, rainwear, and dress in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New England states.  Provisions of the new contract included a wage increase of $1.10 per hour over three years, a 12th paid holiday which could be utilized as a personal day or holiday, such as Chinese New Year, and additionally, an increase in holiday pay.  The union won two days of bereavement pay, increased employer contributions to the Health and Welfare Fund and an improved cost of living adjustment (COLA).  The contract was to take effect on June 1, 1982 and remain so for three years, until May 31, 1985.  The last unseen obstacle would be the acceptance of the new agreement by the contractors.

Throughout negotiations with the union, the contractors were represented by the Greater Blouse, Skirt and Undergarment Association (GBSUA).  The GBSUA as an organization provided oversight for the 650-700 contractors in the city, both Chinese and non-Chinese.  While the Chinese members accounted for more than half of the membership, they were not represented proportionately on the board.   Within the GBSUA, the Continental Garment Manufacturers Association (CGMA) was formed to represent the 500 Chinatown shop owners who believed they were due a larger role in aspects of operation and decision making.  The Chinese shop owners felt their demands were not taken into consideration during the negotiations and believed the provisions of the proposed contract would make it difficult for them to remain in business.  When representatives of the GBSUA met to approve the contract on June 10 and sign a tentative agreement of the provisions from June 1, the Chinatown contractors banded together and voted to overwhelmingly reject the contract.  The dispute was no longer merely between the union and the contractors, but now an internal struggle had surfaced among the contractors themselves.  The Chinese contractors felt that several regulations in the contract were unreasonable.  In response to their dissatisfaction with the contract, the Chinese members of the CGMA presented the union with their own list of 15 demands.  The demands included changes in the methods of computing overtime, changes in arbitration procedures, changes in the payment of the holiday fund, ways of maintaining wage and hour records, calculation of piece work, and the right to accept work from non-union manufacturers if a shop is without union work for two days.  The rejection of the contract in Chinatown jeopardized the jobs and livelihood of the members of Local 23-25.  Furthermore, the union was unwilling, but mainly unable to renegotiate or take any of the demands into consideration.  The new contract had already been agreed upon by other manufacturers, contractors, the union and its members.

The union was left in the midst of a crisis with only three options.  First, the union could call a general strike at all of the shops currently without a contract.  A strike unfortunately could be unpredictable in terms of length and cost, and cause undue hardships for members as well as potential damage to an industry already facing delays and decline.  A second option was to renegotiate the contract in respect to employer demands, a route unacceptable as the members of Local 23-25 could not have a different or inferior contract as compared to the rest of the union and membership.  And finally, the most feasible option involved to continue working without contracts while approaching individual employers on a shop by shop basis to sign interim contracts.  Thousands of union members volunteered for the newly formed Committee to Defend the Union Contract, opening a network of communication to members in the shops and out into the community, and providing up to the minute information on the progress and delays.  The volunteers discussed the situations in the shops, and took their message to the streets, spending hours after work and devoting weekends distributing leaflets, organizing phone banks, and utilizing media such as local television and radio to urge workers to support the union and defend the contract while informing the public of their plight. 

The rejection of the contract by the Chinatown employers created a tense situation involving a large number of shops and employees working without a contract.  As the Chinatown shops were the only holdout, the union declared that those employers who did not sign the contract were operating as a non-union shop unable to receive work from union manufacturers.  Consequently, the midtown manufacturers who utilized those Chinatown contractors were forced to send work elsewhere and pull out their bundles from those shops, causing a delay in shipments, especially the fall sportswear line.  A key component in the dispute involved the disengagement felt by the contractors, especially the Chinese contractors, regarding the negotiations that occurred between the union and the manufacturers.  Misinterpretations abounded that helped to stall negotiations, chiefly the Chinese contractors’ lack of comprehension regarding the American collective bargaining process.  The Chinese shop owners were mistaken to assume that if they continued to reject the contract, the union would eventually cave in to their demands.  Conversely, the union was unable to budge because they could not negotiate a settlement that would differ from the rest of the industry.  Confusions continued when, according to contract rules under the agreements required by the collective bargaining system, the ILGWU sent out warnings to manufacturers about sending work or if needed, removing work, garments, and production, from those Chinese shops that had yet to sign an agreement.  The Chinese contractors claimed that the union was harassing shop owners to sign the interim agreements and withholding work to force their hands.  They utilized media to gain sympathy in the press by emphasizing the difficult position the predominantly white manufacturers and union, as well as the GBSUA, had created and insisted that there was never opposition to improving the conditions for their workers.  The contractors continued an “us versus them” mentality, pitting the Chinese employers and workers against the union and manufacturers.  Additionally, the Chinese news media often provided unfavorable coverage of the union who maintained a policy of not negotiating in the press.  Many in Chinatown were not initially aware of the union’s position and the plight of the women workers.  Local 23-25 members escalated their activities through membership meetings, leafleting and speaking on local radio.  The Chinese women of the union united to stand up against the employers who would not sign a contract to improve their working conditions.  The garment workers emphasized that the struggle was between the employers and employees, and that they were ready for a fight.

On June 21, the seven member negotiating team tentatively accepted the contract which would next be presented for approval by the GBSUA on July 1.  While events seemed promising, Local 23-25 members were still apprehensive and began preparing for a mass rally to garner support and boost morale.  The rally held on June 24, 1982 was the largest turnout of Local 23-25 members in the history of the local as well as the Chinese community and Chinatown.  The demonstration was to display a show of solidarity for the members of the local, backed by the support of the whole union.  By nine in the morning, the crowd in Columbus Park was so large that the people started to fill the surrounding streets.  Exact numbers vary, but estimates place the number between 15,000 and 20,000 people wearing union hats and carrying signs, demonstrating confidence that the contract would soon be ratified.  Mazur was joined by ILGWU President Sol Chaikin and president of the New York City Central Labor Council Harry Van Arsdale to take the stage and address the assembled crowd.  Speakers also included many of the women who had devoted much time and effort to the union and were instrumental in organizing their fellow workers such as Shui Mak Ka, Lily Moy, and Alice Tse, whose words were broadcast in Chinese and translated in English.  The speakers galvanized the crowd and captured the militant spirit growing through the chants of the rally cry “we are one.”

Initially propelled from the momentum of the successful rally, the local and its membership were soon again confronted with setbacks.  First, on Thursday, July 1, 1982, the Chinese contractors for a second time rejected the contract by a vote of 260 to 85 against.  Then, the CGMA filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board against the ILGWU.  The charges filed against Locals 10 and 23-25 were in response to the union’s tactic of negotiating with individual shops.  Finally, on July 8, a number of Chinatown garment factories shut their doors for a two day work stoppage in an attempt to garner support from other employers, force the union into concessions, and temporarily cripple the sportswear industry.  With the situation remaining unstable and a number of contractors still refusing to sign the interim agreement, the union decided to take final action.  July 15, 1982 would be the day of the strike.

The rally held in Columbus Park on Thursday, July 15, was a tremendous success for Local 23-25 and the ILGWU.  Before the rally, approximately 90% of the employers had signed the contract.  To compel the remaining shops to sign, another 15,000 union members, Chinese garment workers, friends and supporters were in attendance that day as President Chaikin addressed the gathering.  Speakers energized the crowd, and by mid-morning, the large assembly moved into the streets, marching through Chinatown.  Signs announcing “defend our union contract” were held high.  Picket lines had been set up in front of the unsigned shops, and the marchers continued their way through Chinatown as shop owners rushed to sign contracts.  By the afternoon, the last remaining firms had signed the agreement.  The display of solidarity and the belief of “we are one” united the union and members of Local 23-25, confirming that all workers are equal and deserve the same contract.

 

ILGWU Local 23-25 Jay Mazur's recollections of the events from his oral history:

pages 260-268

“I mean you shouldn’t forget it because it was not only the ILG—it was not only Local 23.  The Chinese employers attempted to break the union, and we were negotiating with over 500 contractors representing probably 75 to 80 percent of all the contractors in the union at the time.  And it involved about 20,000 workers.  We attempted to negotiate an agreement, and the employers saw this as an opportunity to break the union.”

 “And so I came up with the idea of saying “We are one,” meaning the workers in the union are one, not the workers and employers are one.  We had to struggle, and it went on for a very long time, about two months.”

 “I’m going to say it again, not because I was involved, but there’s never been a situation since 1911, with the uprising of the 20,000, that you had a situation like this.  And in some cases it was similar because you had Jewish women and Jewish employers.  Here you had Chinese women and… It culminated in a strike, in a rally, in Chinatown, in a park in Chinatown.  It was kind of interesting because I got down there with Chick [ILGWU President Sol Chaikin] early in the morning, and nobody was there.  The Chinese like to get together.  So some of them went to the shop first, and then from the shop they came to the… I mean it’s an extraordinary story.  And they came.  They came—they walked into this park, and you see people as far as the eye can see; there were something like 15,000 people in the park.”

 “And then we marched through Chinatown with a dragon out front and the drums.  We marched from one end of Chinatown—the line stretched for 20 or 30 blocks—from one end of Chinatown to the other, and in 24 hours we had signed every firm in Chinatown.”

 

Selected Bibliography

ILGWU Publications
5780/PUBS
http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/ead/htmldocs/KCL05780-PUBS.html
The Chinatown Garment Industry Study, Submitted to Local 23-25 ILGWU and the New York Skirt and Sportswear Association by Abeles, Schwartz, Haeckel & Silverblatt, Inc., June, 1983.

ILGWU Publications, Justice, 1975-1995
5780/051 PUBS
http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/ead/htmldocs/KCL05780-051PUBS.html
The collection contains the ILGWU’s official publication, Justice.  The issues during the spring and summer of 1982 provide updates on the progress of contract negotiations.  Justice, vol. 64, no.7, July-August 1982, devotes a large amount of the issue to the contract, the rallies and strike of Local 23-25 with photographs from the events.

ILGWU Local 23-25 Publications, 1968-1995
5780/059 PUBS
http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/ead/htmldocs/KCL05780-059PUBS.html
The collection contains the Local 23-25 News, including vol. 31, no. 3, August 1982 issue which summarizes the new contract, and all of the events of the preceding months, including the rallies and strike.

ILGWU Local 23-25 Records, 1922-1972
5780/059
http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/ead/htmldocs/KCL05780-059.html
The collection contains information from the local documenting their struggle with the contract negotiations.  Items of particular importance include:  “Local 23-25 Three Year Report, 1980-1982,” newsletters and pamphlets, Local 23-25 Executive Board meeting minutes, and especially press clippings and articles that document the entirety of the dispute from the early contract negotiations to the strike, from a wide range of press sources including Pei Mei News, Sino Daily Express, The United Journal, The World Journal, Women’s Wear Daily, New York Post, China Post and China Daily News.

ILGWU Jay Mazur Papers, 1951-1995
5780/203
http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/ead/htmldocs/KCL05780-203.html
Mainly from his tenure as president, but some information from his time as Manager of Local 23-25 both before and after the strike, including Chinatown and daycare centers. 

ILGWU Local 23-25 Photographs
5780/059 P
http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/ead/htmldocs/KCL05780-059P.html
The collection includes photographs from the 1982 rallies and strike.

UNITE Local 23-25 Photographs
6000/024 P
The majority of the photographs of the 1982 rallies and strike, including preparation, set-up, speakers on the stage, the crowds and the march through Chinatown appear in this collection.

UNITE President Jay Mazur Oral History Interview
6229 OHT/6229 OHM
Jay Mazur provides his recollections of the battle with the Chinese employers during contract negotiations and the rallies and strike that took place during his time as Local 23-25 Manager.

Bao, Xiaolan.  Holding Up More Than Half the Sky": Chinese Women Garment Workers in New York City, 1948-1992. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Quan, Katie.  Memories of the 1982 ILGWU Strike in New York Chinatown. Amerasia Journal; 2009, Vol. 35 Issue 1, p75-91, 17p.

 

For More Information

View the photographs of the Chinatown Strike and Rally on the ILGWU website as well as the video "We Are One" 

View Photos: 
Speakers at the Chinatown Rally
Members marching through Chinatown
Showing support for the contract
Large crowd at the Chinatown Rally
Listening to speakers
Organizers at the Chinatown Rally
ILGWU Sol Chaikin
ILGWU Local 23-25 Manager Jay Mazur

View Video: We Are One

 

Written and compiled by Kathryn Dowgiewicz