We Are One: Commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the 1982 Chinatown Garment Workers Rally

On a steamy Saturday at the Chinatown basketball court a few weeks ago, union members and their families paid tribute to an important day in organized labor history. The rally remembered the date – June 24, 1982 – when 20,000 organized Chinese-American women walked out of garment factories to demand better wages, health benefits and better working conditions. Their rally in Columbus Park staged the biggest strike the city has seen in decades.

Edgar Romney, director of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, reminded the gathering at the commemoration: “There were about 500 factories in the New York metropolitan area. Most of the garment work that has come out of the New York industry has actually come out of this Chinatown community. Women sewed for hours – shirts or dresses for big brands for as little as 50 cents.

Romney went on to explain the story: “While many other factories signed the contract offering enhanced benefits, a small minority of factories in Chinatown refused to sign and did not allow workers to get this at what they were entitled to.” Some factory owners didn’t think their employees would leave, but they came out and held a rally in Columbus Park under the theme “We Are One.” The garment workers finally won the strike after negotiations a few weeks later.

Union retirees enjoy the debates in the lightly shaded area.(Photo by Tequila Minsky)

Chinese Americans fighting for critical advantages in this era were historic.

Ms. Ho, a garment worker, also spoke at the commemoration, later hired as an ILGWU sales agent, visiting factories, talking with workers, working with the union to act as a liaison between workers chinese clothing.

“Store owners might fire you for no reason, but with the union you are protected. We want respect and a reasonable salary. In the fiery language of an organizer, she recalled that the fight was for dignity and that the power belongs to the people who must remain united and fight.

ILGWU retirees proudly wear the cap identifying their union.(Photo by Tequila Minsky)

For the workers who bravely stepped out, health benefits for their families have been a key benefit earned. The ILGWU also provided citizenship and language classes to help its members assimilate into the United States.

The ILGWU newsletter writes: Over the next few decades, garment factories in Chinatown began to close as designers found cheaper labor overseas. Virtually no factories in Chinatown remain.

Seated in a lightly shaded area, retired Chinatown garment factory workers wearing ILGWU caps listened to the speakers. Between the speakers, cultural entertainment by the Red Silk Dancers transformed the atmosphere. During the commemoration, there were tents with possibilities for artistic activities for children.

Making Chinese kites among the activities for children.(Photo by Tequila Minsky)

Michael O. Stutler