Chinese workers helped make the United States a lot more “united” by building the first transcontinental railroad, linking the east and west coasts and bringing people and prosperity across the land. This week, the U.S. Dept. of Labor ceremoniously inducted Chinese railroad workers of 1865–1869 into the Labor Hall of Honor. In so doing, said U.S. Deputy Secretary of Labor Christopher P. Lu, they were beginning “to right an old wrong.”
The Dept. of Labor statement said, “It is fitting that these brave workers who helped bridge and build our country together while advocating for safe working conditions and fairer wages will be the first Asian Americans inducted into the Labor Hall of Honor. Those are, after all, the values of this department.”
It is ironic that the completion of the railroad by those industrious, over-worked, under-paid Chinese workers eventually led to the harshest discrimination against them — the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The law barred Chinese immigration and prohibited Chinese from becoming citizens in order to “preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.” When the railroad allowed masses of early white settlers to populate the west, those settlers feared the cheap labor that Chinese workers provided to the wealthy landowners.
“These were immigrants who came to this country seeking a better life, and they had the chance to work on something really extraordinary,” Lu told one reporter. “And then you had a nation that not only did not appreciate their efforts, but then led to exclusion after that.”
The Chinese were labeled “perpetual foreigners” whose willingness to work for low wages was seen as preventing white men from getting work.
The law wasn’t repealed until Washington State Rep. Warren G. Magnuson proposed the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act of 1943, also known as the Magnuson Act. Even that had to be repealed in 1965, because while it allowed Chinese immigration (of only 105 people per year), it did not allow Chinese ownership of property.
“Between 1882 and 1965, Chinese history is very sad,” said John S.W. Park, professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California. “It’s the story of a very marginalized ethnic group. Lots of men die by themselves, separated from families for decades. It’s the history of an immigrant group who was so important to a state’s economy, and was rejected on a national level.”
In light of the Dept. of Labor’s recognition, it is also ironic that labor unions supported the Chinese Exclusion Act, believing that industrialists were using Chinese workers as a way to keep wages low. In fact, the Industrial Workers of the World were the only labor group to oppose the Chinese Exclusion Act.
These days, Asians of all nationalities can come to America, and most of the news revolves around their academic successes, corporate achievements, and appointments to high office. As the oppressions of the past fade from memory, it’s satisfying that API Heritage Month brings these occasional recognitions — such as the Dept. of Labor’s Hall of Honor — into the light. (end)