Asian Pacific Islander labor has never been a recent phenomenon within United States history. Yet, within mainstream education, we are time and time again left out of American labor history. Since the “discovery” age and settlers, people of color have been the sole backbone to modern civilization. From chattel slavery, Chinese railroad workers, Japanese plantation workers, Mexican Braceros (just to name a few out of many), the United States has always been dependent on our incomparable work ethic. Yet, we are still continuously subjected as foreign commodities, despite our contributions. Instead, mainstream society defines the start of the U.S. American labor era as the boom of the 1930 auto and textile industry. Even as a student within the University of Washington’s Labor Studies department, the majority definition of American labor has always been defined by an era where white males of the Midwest mobilized in response to exploitative work environments. Coming together with common experiences of institutionalized oppression, these individuals ultimately created unions that held enough bargaining power to sway the course of major political campaigns. Yes, these moments in U.S. history are essential to the American identity, but why aren’t the rest of our histories allowed to be equally represented as well?
As Asian Pacific Islander Americans, not only did we endure harsh working conditions and exploitation, but we have had to fight the consequences of repetitive Asian exclusion acts and racial discrimination. Our fights and revolutions have always been on multiple fronts, yet our experiences are only a little well known. As an individual of the “millennial era,” I urge my generation to continue learning about our histories. Not just as a series of events, but as lessons to study. Because despite all our advancements, history still repeats itself today.
Since the beginning of January 2015, I have had the opportunity to serve as a student volunteer with UNITE HERE! Local 8, a labor union located in the historic Belltown Labor Temple. Although I was raised in the world of community organizing, labor and labor unions were waters unknown to me. It wasn’t until I met my supervisor, Eunice How, that I realized I had overlooked one of the most common, yet substantial communities of our city. Even as a service industry employee myself, I was amazed by how much I took the efforts of the labor community for granted. Ergo, thanks to Eunice and a large dose of humility, I quickly learned about the various disputes and injustices happening within Seattle.
Currently in Seattle, there has been an ongoing labor dispute by workers at the Grand Hyatt and at the Hyatt at Olive 8 hotels; both owned by developer Richard Hadreen. In July 2013, UNITE HERE! and the Hyatt Hotels reached a national agreement. Within this resolution, workers were allowed a fair process to vote whether or not they want to be a union. This applied to all U.S. Hyatt hotels. However, in Seattle, this process has not yet been granted to its workers of both the Grand Hyatt and Olive 8. In response, workers of the hotels called for a boycott in August 2013—a movement that has since gained momentum and citywide support by state representatives, senators, community organizations, and non-profits.
Initially, it was challenging to see how a student volunteer could make any impact in a fight against a multimillion-dollar corporation. The union was David and Goliath had manifested himself into luxurious skyscrapers. They had power, money, and SPD on speed dial. And for many of the general public, it would seem like a lost cause. But I was swiftly proven wrong. Within seconds of my first day, myself and other students watched videos and stories of Hyatt workers. Many people of color, some first generation, but all with experiences commonly shared within our community. It was 2015 and workers still had to fight for the basic rights of dignity and respect. The thought of who would win was no longer relevant. Instead I was reminded that fighting for the sake of equality, wherever it be, is what mattered most. As a Japanese Filipina American, I had come from a line of workers that had to fight bigotry and adversity, just for the sake of fair and equal treatment of their and my generation. Thus we as union activists had an obligation to continue that fight.
Tactically, we used weekly phone banking and leafleting as a way to call attention to the actions of the Hyatt hotels. Many national organizations hold annual conferences at the downtown Convention Center and in turn book rooms at the Hyatt hotels, which are in close proximity. Through each phone call and leaflet, our hope was to educate these organizations and the general public on the labor disputes within the hotels they were investing thousands of dollars in. Some were sincerely concerned, a number were annoyed by our committed persistence, but most were simply and disappointingly indifferent.
For the majority, it’s easy to disengage our feelings from situations that don’t directly affect our livelihood. It’s simple to look the other way, when we aren’t the victims. But as members of the APIA community, it is vital we continue to recognize our unique history that is heavily tied with our community today. Especially for my Generation Y/Millennial population. As youth, many of us have the privilege of greater economic and educational opportunity than our parents. But that is solely because of the fights against adversity, they have had to face. Without their efforts, we undoubtedly would not have the social power we currently hold. Labor unions may not have the same political bargaining power as we once did during the New Deal era, but the power of community solidarity has never changed.
Currently, the workers of the Hyatt hotels are still on boycott demanding the basic rights of dignity and respect. This past February, UNITE HERE! successfully held their third picket line outside the entrance of the Grand Hyatt. Using bullhorns, gongs, and party noisemakers, we marched up and down the block chanting at the top of our lungs. People of different ethnic, class, gender, and age backgrounds showed their support and even attracted curious bystanders on the streets of downtown. I made it onto at least 20 different Snapchats. It was an event to be proud of. Regardless of what side you were on, you recognized there are still agencies that exist, dedicated to helping others obtain their basic rights. But despite its success, with every day that passes, the workers of the Hyatt hotels are still selflessly risking their livelihood for the sake of their families and others—sentiment reminiscent of every APIA generation before us. Therefore, as a form of solidarity, I ask those of the community to offer their support and help speak up for those that are forced to be silenced. Help continue this boycott of the Grand Hyatt and Hyatt at Olive 8 hotels until these workers are met with the respect and dignity they have always deserved. We must continue to learn about the history of the APIA labor movement, so moments like this aren’t shoved into the shadows of American history.