The complicated history of Chinese workers and New West's labour movement
Unions today often talk about intersectionality and anti-racism, but in the early 20th century, they were often agents of discrimination against racialized workers
The labour movement has a long and storied history in New Westminster, and that extends to the Chinese community in the city.
The relationship between Chinese workers and unions is a complicated one that saw Chinese workers in the city excluded, then used, by unions in the early 20th century.
But the history is also one that challenges the dominant narrative that stereotypes Chinese workers as “docile cheap labour” with “a reductive lens of racism,” according to one academic paper.
In a history master’s thesis submitted to Saint Mary’s University in Halifax late last year, Diane Oliver outlined how “Chinese people began to resist the prohibitive social, economic, and political policies through protests, Chinese unions, and collaborative efforts of Chinese and white Canadians.”
And the role of the Chinese community in New West was not insignificant in this history.
“In general, employers supported Chinese labour, as it was reliable and cheap,” Oliver wrote.
Unions often opposed Chinese labour
But that viewpoint wasn’t often supported by politicians or trade unionists, nor by white BC residents on the whole.
A common refrain from the white community was that Chinese migrants were “taking jobs away from white Canadians,” while employers profited by paying Chinese workers less than their white counterparts.
And the prejudices were all part of a domino effect, Oliver noted: “Being underpaid forced them to live in cramped housing in segregated, underdeveloped parts of major cities, such as Victoria and Vancouver. This, then, reinforced the prejudices of white society, which saw Chinese migrants as dirty, diseased, and immoral.”
Those prejudices, then, strengthened calls for anti-Chinese immigration legislation.
“[The prejudices] would become weaponized in labour negotiations throughout the 19th and 20th centuries,” Oliver wrote.
“These sentiments continued to be deployed by white society, white unions, and white politicians. When the economy turned bad, anti-Chinese organizations blamed the Chinese.”
A tough history of racialized workers and labour
Black workers in the US, for instance, were regularly blocked from union membership—and therefore from certain kinds of employment. Booker T. Washington wrote in 1913 that this often led to Black workers being strikebreakers, to which white workers then retaliated with violence and even murder.
Even as labour rights were improving for white workers in North America, including the implementation of eight-hour workdays and minimum wages, racialized communities were still left out of those advancements.
Former US president Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, famous for giving many workers a “foothold into the middle class,” also “intentionally cut out occupations dominated by people of colour, including domestic and agriculture workers.”
An 1885 royal commission report, Oliver wrote, found that “the employment of Chinese labourers did not impede the market for white labourers, and it found that Chinese labourers had proven to be beneficial to the development of British Columbia’s industry.”
That report, however, found little traction with governments.
The Vancouver race riots
And this racist sentiment found a home in New Westminster, particularly after the Vancouver race riots in 1907.
“Labour unions were pushing for the government in Ottawa to stop Asian immigration, seen as a social and economic threat to white Canadians with the rising numbers of Chinese, Japanese, and South Asians arriving in British Columbia,” Oliver wrote.
In fact, the riot was largely instigated by labour groups—unions backed by the Asiatic Exclusion League held a march against immigration, and a subsequent rally “quickly got out of control, with the crowd turning into a rioting mob.”
Local historian Jim Wolf said there is some evidence that, after the Vancouver riots, some families in that city’s Chinatown sent their children and wives to New Westminster’s Chinatown in an effort to keep them safe.
But the same labour groups responsible for the Vancouver riots sought to make clear that Chinese people were no more safe in New Westminster, Wolf said.
“But of course, once the riot does happen, and there's that blowback from the wider community about the embarrassment, because it makes international headlines, I think people are a bit more like, ‘Oh, wait a minute, we’ve gone too far,’” Wolf told New West Anchor.
“There’s definitely a cooling-down period that happens after those riots.”
Chinese workers start organizing
Nearly two months after the Vancouver riots, the New Westminster chapter of the Asiatic Exclusion League held its own rally, but only about 100 supporters showed up, according to Wolf’s book Yi Fao: Speaking Through Memory, which looks at the history of New West’s Chinese community from 1858 to 1980.
In that same year, however, Chinese workers in New West began organizing on their own.
The year prior, Chinese workers at white-owned laundries formed the first Sai Wah Tong, a Chinese laundry workers’ union, fighting for higher wages, shorter workdays, longer lunch breaks, and a six-day work week, according to Oliver.
“It only took one day of striking for the workers to get a monthly raise from $15 to $25,” Oliver wrote. “This was a significant victory. Workers from different industries took notice of the laundry union’s success and began to come together and advocate for changes to their working conditions.”
That included Chinese cooks in New Westminster, who Oliver noted were seeking a 40% pay raise—a demand they didn’t achieve, though they were able to get a standard wage increase.
Nearly a decade later, lumber mill workers formed the Chinese Labour Association, as lumber mills were one of the largest employers of Chinese workers in BC, according to Oliver.
Within two years, the CLA would reach 500 members, and it held its first major strike in New West and Vancouver sawmills, seeking workdays that were equal to those of white workers.
White union seeks to cooperate
According to Canadian labour magazine Our Times, Chinese workers were specifically looking to shorten their workdays from 10 hours to eight.
These initial strikes were unsuccessful, Winnie Ng wrote in Our Times. However, their actions inspired later actions at other mills that were more successful.
“In a somewhat surprising twist, the International Shingle Weavers’ Union of America, which represented white woodworkers, soon realized that, without the help of the CLA, they would not be successful in any of their labour demands, as most woodworkers were Chinese,” Oliver wrote.
Ng wrote that Chinese labourers, however, had opted to “proceed with caution.”
“Their tone of mistrust and skepticism was a direct result of the racism long inflicted on them by white workers’ unions,” Ng noted.
In 1917, the Chinese Times wrote that, while the invitation by the white workers’ union was “sincere,” the CLA was still “aware that the union is just being strategic and has its own motives for reaching out to Chinese workers.” (Translation into English by Ng.)
Oliver noted that the white workers may not have realized that, in seeking to work with the CLA, “they were empowering the Chinese workers.”
“The Chinese knew they were being used by the white workers. By allowing the white workers to join their union, the Chinese workers had been the ones to provide the strength and power that comes with unity,” Oliver wrote. “The Chinese had been the dominating bargaining tool for themselves and the whites in the union’s negotiations.”
A movement is ignited
While those initial sawmill strikes weren’t particularly successful, they were among the sparks of ignition for a movement that would prove successful.
“By coming together as racially marginalized workers, the Chinese were, for the most part, successful in their attempts to improve working conditions for themselves,” Oliver wrote.
“This would give them a sense of control over their lives and some semblance of value as labourers in white society.”
This was particularly important, Oliver noted, because of the tightening immigration restrictions in the ensuing years. Those restrictions forced tough decisions for Chinese residents in Canada who were not ready to leave the country permanently but who wanted to return home temporarily.
Anyone who opted to stay was forced to contend with Canada’s labour market—one that was often hostile to racialized workers.
Wolf said the story can easily be misconstrued as one purely of misery for people in Canada, but he believes it’s more complicated than that.
“If you just looked at the history from that perspective and those sources, you would imagine or come to the conclusion that, if you were a Chinese-Canadian living in New Westminster, your life was like hell,” Wolf said.
“But if you approach it from more of an oral history perspective … you get a much more nuanced view of people living together, having interactions that are not on that level.”
Macro and micro history
At a macro level, the Chinese community experienced systemic and institutional racism, and Wolf noted that any other perspective doesn’t negate that. But when one looks at the micro level, Wolf said, you get a more fulsome picture of a community.
And Oliver described a labour movement that showed the other side of that oppression; the Chinese community defied stereotypes of docility and expendability “through unionization, organized protest, and personal struggles.”
“They used the weight of their collective strength to push back at their white employers with the demand for a pay scale and working hours that were more comparable to whites,” Oliver wrote.
But after the First World War, things did slowly change, according to Wolf.
“Prior to the First World War, all the lumber mills and the canneries and so many of the businesses relied on Chinese workers, and Chinese workers being exploited by both merchants of Canadian descent and merchants of Chinese descent,” Wolf said.
But with the Great Depression, many of those businesses closed, and by the time they reopened, Chinese immigration was so diminished that it was hard to repopulate those workforces with Chinese labour.
At the same time, a new generation of Chinese families was growing up with an eye to entrepreneurship, starting their own businesses not only for the Chinese community but for the community at large.
“So that’s when they start going into professions like tailoring, green grocery, and restaurants and other businesses,” Wolf said. “That’s where the money is, and that’s where they want to grow their businesses.”