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Labor Unions have historically held anti-immigration and nationalistic sentiments on their platforms. This makes the fact Progressives romanticize organized labor somewhat puzzling, as both factions of political actors often have conflicting objectives. One example of the prevailing nativism in the labor movement was Cesar Chavez’s hostility towards immigrants; how contemporary liberals square this cognitive dissonance when they proudly proclaim they are “Pro-Labor” is beyond the veil of reason. It should not be shocking that labor unions were one of the driving forces in implementing anti-Chinese legislation in the early 20th Century. 

The article THE ‘WAR’ AGAINST” CHINESE RESTAURANTS, published in 2017 by Regulation Magazine, provides a historical example of the anti-Chinese sentiments of organized labor. In the early-1900s, the United States excluded Chinese immigrants from most spheres of economic life in the United States; since many jobs required licensing that was only available to U.S. Citizens (p.32). The growing communities of Chinese immigrants in cities like San Francisco were able to enter the food service industry and laundry services. Chinese restauranteurs succeeded in providing a quality and low-cost dining option; birthing the American love affair with chop-suey. This was not without resistance since these new exotic restaurants were siphoning away business from eateries owned and operated by native-born citizens. The American Federation of Labor affiliated, The Cooks’ and Waiters’ Union, was a staunch supporter of anti-Chinese legislation (p.33). Various food service unions boycotted Chinese Restaurants and advocated for laws to loosen their gripe on the restaurant industry.

After the boycotts failed to achieve the Union’s anti-competitive objectives, they decided to lean on the legislature’s pen to reclaim the market share lost by Caucasian restaurant proprietors. The unions had the perfect pretext for demanding regulation (p.13); that was the moral concern of white women. As detailed by Chin and Ormond:

“..Newspapers offered lurid reports that Chinese restaurants were fronts for opium dens, and that Chinese men used opium “as a trap for young girls.” The idea of white female victimization became a media trope. In 1899, King of the Opium Ring, by Charles E. Blaney and Charles A. Taylor, played at the Columbus Theater and the Academy of Music in New York. Later produced around the country, it featured a clown who rescues a young white woman from the balcony of a Chinese restaurant. Movies depicted similar scenes and renowned “realistic” artists painted Chinatown vistas… (p.34).

At the time, there was a profuse amount of propaganda suggesting that Chinese men would try to lure white women into their establishment and then take advantage of them. The upper-class habit of “slumming” made trips to Chinatown a popular destination. There remained a lingering fear that white women would be enticed by the food but would decline into exploitation and degeneracy. Organized labor capitalized on this perception of Chinese immigrants and utilized it to provide the pretext for creating laws that would derail the success of Sino-dining establishments. Most of these measures varied by state and municipality, the majority of these laws either restricting or barring white women from entering or being employed in Chinese restaurants (p. 34-37). The unions have since given up on these measures once Chinese restaurants no longer appeared to be a threat and have since moved on to other policy issues (p.37). This chapter in American history perfectly embodies the incentives and dynamics of Bruce Yandle’s Bootleggers and Baptists (1983) model of coalitions. Regardless of the veracity of the claims of Chinese men seducing white women, it is still a “moralistic” concern as it posits a normative motive for enacting such ordinances and state legislation. Some of the holy-rollers included missionaries who entered Chinese neighborhoods proselytizing Christianity, who purportedly witness this moral impropriety (p.34). It should be conspicuous who the Bootleggers are in this scenario, as a union in themselves are nothing more than glorified lobbyists whose pedigree of rent-seeking can be traced back to the medieval guilds.

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