Labor & Unions: California’s Asian Pacific Islander Perspective



Yesterday in Sacramento marked the 2012 California State Asian Pacific Islander Policy Summit. This annual event features discussions on key issues and current policy proposals that affect California’s Asian and Pacific Islander (API) communities. The goal is to engage and mobilize APIs across the state to strengthen the voice of their communities and advocate on behalf of important policy issues.

Labor and the fight for economic justice were among the central discussion topics of the summit. There appears to be a number of popular misconceptions today when it comes to Asian Americans in the workforce and their relation to the labor movement- as one does not seem to naturally associate the two. Ironically so, because Filipino workers played a critical role in the initial strikes that led to the creation of one of  labor’s most powerful organizations, the United Farm Workers of America.

Although APIs played a historical role in the labor movement, they have not gained an equal level of political mobility through unionization in comparison with their Latino or African American counterparts. This in large part is due to the drop in participation from more recently formed API immigrant communities. As the gap grew, so did the barriers to union entry for new arrivals.

Statistics show that roughly 12% of APIs on a whole participate in labor organizations, which equates to only 4.6% of total union participation. A shocking number when you consider that Asian Americans are one of the nation’s fastest growing ethnic groups, and they currently account for 15% of California’s total population.

The Asian Pacific Islander community in California is one that has grown not only in numbers, but also in complexity and diversity- making it difficult to organize and unify behind a common agenda. This is a necessary hurdle to overcome if APIs hope to improve their strategic planning and effectiveness in political advocacy.

Personal feelings toward the labor movement aside, there is no denying that unions and like organizations offer tremendous benefits to immigrant communities. Not only will membership help to provide significantly higher wages and other long-term benefits, they give voice (not to mention the needed political muscle) to affect change.

It is no coincidence that Asian Pacific Islanders are the second largest ethnic population in California (1.2 million voters and counting) but the least represented. The old adage is true, there is power in numbers, and the more organized the better.