In honor of this coming Labor Day, we highlight a seldom-written about Chinese worker-led action documented by the lens of MOCA staff thirty years ago.
Recognizing a historic moment as it was happening, MOCA staff went out to shoot the following series of photographs documenting the Campaign for Economic Justice in August 1992 at Foley Square. At this, dubbed “the center of justice in New York City” because it served as home to a concentration of federal, state, and local courthouses, the then recently formed grassroots construction workers’ union, Chinese Construction Workers’ Association (CCWA), and its allies protested against racial discrimination in hiring on the two new federal construction projects being erected at Foley Square. It was common to systematically exclude Chinese construction workers from the building trades union and relegate the few hired on projects to the most unsafe tasks. However, carrying a banner that demanded that “Construction in Chinatown Must Hire Chinese,” Chinese construction workers and members of the Chinatown community took a stand and fought for a share of good paying jobs in their own community. Their campaign, including the two August 1992 demonstrations photographed here, drew more than 3,000 supporters.
Photographs show the progressive coalition of community groups, unions, activists and residents who came out in active support of the Chinese construction workers’ cause. These included the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), the Open Door senior center, Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE), Asian Lesbians of the East Coast, Asian American Union for Political Action, the Chinatown Health Clinic, Positive Work Force, students, and a few Chinatown shop owners, who signaled support by placing the campaign’s bilingual placards outside their stores.
The mass action resulted in over eighty of the 2,000 jobs generated by the multimillion-dollar projects being allocated to Chinese construction workers—a modest but meaningful victory, especially for those ultimately hired.