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

By Shirley Ng, AsAmNews Staff Writer

A commemoration was held on Saturday for the 40th anniversary of the Chinatown Garment Workers Rally at Columbus Park, where the rally was held on June 24, 1982.

It was a celebration to remember the power and victory of 20,000 organized Chinese American women that walked out of the factories to demand better wages, health benefits and improved working conditions. It was historic to see older Chinese Americans fight for critical benefits at that time.

The commemoration included music, dance, children’s activities and veterans speaking about the strike. 

ILGWU former manager, Edgar Romney speaks with an interpreter at the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Chinatown Garment Workers Rally at Columbus Park with an interpreter. Credit: Shirley L. Ng

“The bulk of the work that came out of the industry of New York, actually came out of this community of Chinatown, said Edgar Romney, former ILGWU manager.

Dance performance at Chinatown’s Columbus Park during the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Garment Workers 1982 Rally. Credit: Shirley L. Ng

While many other factories signed the contract offering the improved benefits, a small minority of Chinatown factories refused to sign and did not allow the workers to get what they were entitled to.

Young boy making a kite during the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Garment Workers 1982 Rally. Credit: Shirley L. Ng.

To pressure those owners, the garment workers walked out and held an organized rally at Columbus Park under the theme, “We Are One.” Some factory owners did not believe their employees would walk out, but they did. 

Watch the documentary to learn more about the historic strike and the Garment Workers’ Chinatown Rally in New York City.

What was so amazing about these 20,000 Chinese American women, was that they were the member majority of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) Local 23-25.  They sewed for hours as their livelihood, putting together a shirt or a dress for many major brands for as little as 50 cents for sewing a jacket! Now you can imagine the markup of prices from these designers.

Retired Chinatown Garment Factory worker with daughter holds an enlarge simulated ILGWU clothing tag at the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Garment Workers 1982 Rally . These tags were sewn onto the clothes to show the garment was a USA product made by union workers. Credit: Shirley L. Ng

Ms. Ho was a garment worker and was subsequently hired as a business agent to work with the union to act as a liaison between the Chinese garment workers. She would visit the factories and speak with the workers.

Ms. Ho, a garment worker and former ILGWU business manager speaks during commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the garment workers rally. Credit: Shirley L. Ng

“We fight for our dignity. We want respect and a reasonable salary. Shop owners could fire you for no reason, but with the union you are protected. The people is the power, stick together and fight. You must participate and be involved,” Ms. Ho said at the commemoration.

So much was at stake for these women since almost all of them were the sole health benefits provider for their families. Their husbands worked in restaurants and did not receive any health benefits, so they knew what was at stake and supported their wives and the strike. ILGWU also provided citizenship and language classes to assist its members to assimilate in the US.

With the support of the ILGWU, the Chinese American women despite a language barrier raised their voices and were empowered when they came together, something not commonly seen or done by that generation at that time. The garment workers eventually won the strike after negotiations a few weeks later.

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

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