The "Chinese Question" and American Labor Historians

Michael Hoover hoov at
Mon Jan 31 16:21:42 MST 2000

> The "Chinese Question" and American Labor Historians
> By Stanford M. Lyman
> [from New Politics, vol. 7, no. 4 (new series), whole no. 28, Winter 2000]
> the Chinese worker.
> Those who seek honor for a non-racist labor
> heritage are led by the late Herbert Gutman and count among their number
> Eric Arnesen, Bruce Laurie, Leon Fink, Alan Dawley, Alex Lichtenstein,
> Daniel Letwin, and numerous other epigoni. Those who examine the patterns
> and consequences of white working-class racism are a dissident element
> among labor historians, and include Herbert Hill, Alexander Saxton, David
> Roediger, Nick Salvatore, Noel Ignatiev, and Gwendolyn Mink, among others.
> To this force and counterforce must now be added works addressing the role
> of the Chinese workers and the anti-Chinese movement in the annals of
> American labor history. In support of the followers of Gutman there has
> recently appeared Andrew Gyory's Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the
> Chinese Exclusion Act;
> Gyory aims some of his most withering fire at Gwendolyn Mink. In 1986, Mink
> had argued that white workers' support for Chinese exclusion had become "a
> peculiar bridge between unionism and national politics." In Gyory's
> opinion, Mink has erred most egregiously by "repeatedly stressing, with
> virtually no original evidence, that workers in the eastern United States
> backed the cries of their brethren in California and that their support for
> Chinese exclusion thereby 'nationalized labor politics' "; however, even
> worse, Gyory retorts, Mink has echoed "the work of [Alexander] Saxton and
> [Herbert] Hill and anticipated that of [David R.] Roediger."
> Louis Proyect

Mink's 1986 _Old Labor and New Immigrants in American Political Development:
Union, Party, and State, 1875-1920_ focuses on ways in which organizational
and political interests of AFL were mediated by national issue of
immigration and links AFL response to immigration to its conservative
stance in and toward politics.

Her original evidence re. "Chinese Question" includes:

*Democratic Party belief that labor electoral support required anti-
Chinese position (New York Tribune, 19 April 1882 & 21 August 1882,
Daily Alta California)

*Gompers 1883 anti-Chinese testimony before US Senate (hearings
published in 1885 as _Relations Between Capital and Labor_)

* has become a solemn necessity on our part to protect the
Caucasian race, against the intrusion of the Oriental people."
(Democratic National Committee, _The Political Reformation of 1884:
A Democratic Campaign Handbook_)

*Cigar makers union anti-union activities against Chinese and
recruitment of cigar makers from eastern states to California.
(Walter Fong, "Chinese Labor Unions," _Chautauguan_, June-July 1896)

*Cigar Makers Union in eastern states defended anti-Chinese position
of Californians and actively involved themselves in exclusion
movement. (Gompers and Herman Guttstadt, "Meat vs. Rice: American
Manhood vs. Asiatic Coolieism: Which Shall Survive_, 1902)

*"...the caucasians are not going to let their standard of living
be destroyed by negroes, Chinamen, Japs, or any others." (Gompers,
"Labor Talks," _American Federationist_, September 1905).

Above examples support Mink's conclusion that 'old labor' response to
industrial-era immigration underly AFL's ties to Democratic Party and
to emerging US political order.      Michael Hoover

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