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‘40 Years Later,’ Labor Leaders ‘Remember New York City’s Chinatown’s Garment Worker Strike’

Published Sunday, May 22, 2022
by Brahmjot Kaur/
‘40 Years Later,’ Labor Leaders ‘Remember New York City’s Chinatown’s Garment Worker Strike’

(NEW YORK CITY) – Nearly forty years later, Katie Quan still vividly remembers the pivotal Garment Workers Strike in New York City’s Chinatown.

Quan, who was 29 at the time, was one of the key Organizers of the Strike, in which more than 20,000 Workers - most of them Chinese-born Women - marched to Columbus Park on June 24th, 1982, refusing to work and demanding higher wages and benefits. 

Quan, now a Senior Fellow at the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, said it was the most significant collective action that Immigrant Asian Women in the U.S. have ever engaged in and that it made Labor Unions pay more attention to Asian American Worker Power.

It also sparked a class consciousness within the community.

The 40th anniversary of the Strike comes amid another wave of Worker Empowerment across the country, with hundreds of thousands of Employees striking and voting to Unionize in recent months.

“A lot of people just assumed that the Women would not want to Strike,” Quan, now 69, told NBC Asian America. “They had never attended meetings and they had certainly never struck before.  They were pretty adamant in my factory.  In fact, they put change in my hands and they sent me to the pay-phone.  They said: ‘Call the Union and tell them we want to Strike.’”

It was the largest Strike in the history of New York City’s Chinatown and one of the largest for the Garment Industry. 

“The broader lesson is that there is definitely agency and power amongst Asian Women,” she said. “It doesn’t need to be a thing that’s to be fearful about.”

Quan was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and later moved to New York City in 1975 to take advantage of the city’s robust Garment Industry.

At the time, large clothing brands contracted small manufacturers, which hired Workers to sew the garments.

She worked as a Rank-and-File Seamstress, responsible for sewing zippers and waistbands to pants.

These were desirable jobs, she said, because they were Unionized and offered benefits such as health insurance and pensions.

“Chinatown was a Working-Class Community.  The Men worked in restaurants and the restaurants were primarily not Unionized,” Quan said.

“Those who are working in Non-Union jobs in the restaurant industry were subsidized by their wives who were working in the Garment Industry,” she said.

She later became the Shop Steward of one of the largest factories in Chinatown.

This was a common route: Some Workers eventually saved enough money to buy or lease sewing machines and owned their own small manufacturing companies.

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