Chinese Labor Unions in America

By Fong, Walter N. | Chinese America: History and Perspectives, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview

Chinese Labor Unions in America


Fong, Walter N., Chinese America: History and Perspectives


Chinese traditionist organizations were formed based on having one of the following criteria in common: locality of origin, clan identity, fraternal bonds, or common economic interests. The last included organizations formed by merchants, small entrepreneurs, professionals, and craftsmen and artisans as well as workers. They tended to form wherever there were economic activities of some scope that demanded organization to regulate activities and to protect economic interests. Merchant organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce, being part of the leadership in the Chinese community, had long been known to the public; however, craft and labor guilds that had been a part of Chinese traditionist society had been little studied.

The following paper by Walter N. Fong (Kuang Huatai; Kum Ngon Fong) on Chinese labor guilds, or as the author preferred to call them, Chinese labor unions, was first published in Chautauquan, vol. 23 (1896), 399-402. It was one of the few contemporary descriptions of these organizations on the American mainland. Fong was a Chinese Christian of Taishan ancestry and one of the earliest Chinese graduates of Stanford University. Later he married a white woman, Emma Ellen House, and took a teaching position at University of California, Berkeley. When Sun Yatsen arrived on the American mainland in 1904, Fong was among the group of Christian converts who listened to Sun speak at the Presbyterian Church in San Francisco and was first to join Sun's Revive China Society. In 1905 he and his wife departed for Hong Kong where he soon sickened and passed away. His wife returned to America and in 1907 married Yoshio Kuno, Fong's colleague and friend at the university.

Fong also wrote an essay on the Chinese Companies that was published in Overland Monthly and Outwest Magazine, vol. 23, no. 137 (May 1894), 518-526.--HML

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The writer will now ask his reader to examine with him the Chinese labor unions on the Pacific coast. Of the unions on this coast the most important are the unions of the laundrymen, the cigar-makers, the shoemakers, the jean-clothes tailors, and the ladies' underwear manufacturers. There are many others of minor importance besides these mentioned here, but it seems unnecessary for us to go into details as to each one of them.

As to the organization of these unions--the Cigar-Makers' Union has a president-secretary-treasurer, an interpreter, an agent in each cigar factory, and a headquarters keeper, or janitor. Each of the other unions has only a president-secretary-treasurer and a janitor.

The functions of the president-secretary-treasurer are about the same in all unions. He is to preside at all meetings, to keep all money accounts, record important transactions of his union, and collect all dues and fines. He is generally the chairman of the executive committee. The interpreter of the Cigar-Makers' Union is to communicate between the Americans and the union in all transactions. The reason why this union has a permanent interpreter while others have not is because the majority of the cigar-makers work for American employers, while the members of the other unions work for their own countrymen. The agent in each cigar factory is to act as interpreter for the workmen and to superintend them. If any dispute arises either between the employer and workmen or between the workmen themselves, it is the duty of the interpreter to report the exact story to the union. The duty of the janitor of one union is the same as that of another. He takes care of the headquarters and the goods, he notifies the members of meetings, and he must have tea and tobacco ready in the hall while the meeting is in session. The term of each office is one year. All officers are elected by the members at large.

Each union has some wooden slate about eight inches long and two inches wide--as many as there are members in the union. Each slate contains the following words: "A meeting at 8 o'clock P. …

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