From Protectionism to Inclusion: Unions and Immigrant Labor

The rights of immigrant workers in the United States is not a new debate. For labor unions, immigrant labor was not always viewed as a positive contribution to the fabric of American society. Long before the formation of the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) in 1955, major national unions adopted protectionist and often-racist stances against Chinese labor reminiscent of current rhetoric surrounding Mexican immigrant labor in the United States. Examining the correspondence of two national labor union leaders at the beginning of the 20th century provides context for the debate about immigrant labor in the United States.

On February 1, 1905, Samuel Gompers, the President of the AFL (American Federation of Labor) wrote to Frank Duffy, the Secretary of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (UBCJA), expressing his concerns that local UBCJA unions in Honolulu might support Chinese immigrant labor. He claims,

“My information is that several local unions in Honolulu … are endangering the policy of protection of the American workmen and Caucasian race, by allowing them to be induced … to favor modification of the Chinese Exclusion law.”  (emphasis added)

Gompers was referring to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (renewed in 1892, made permanent in 1902, and repealed in 1943). The law prohibited the immigration of all Chinese laborers for 10 years and was the first law intended to prevent a specific ethnic group from immigrating to, or becoming naturalized citizens of, the United States. Gompers saw the exclusion of Chinese labor from the U.S. Territory of Hawaii, which was not yet a state, as a cause for the labor movement, and even went so far as to describe Japanese labor as “evil.”

The above images are available in Digital Collections: Gompers and Duffy.


On March 29, 1905, Duffy replied to Gompers that “Organized labor will soon be compelled to take stringent measures against allowing the Chinese and Japanese to enter the United States or any territory controlled by the United States government.” In response on April 6, 1905, Gompers agreed with Duffy. Business leaders and planters in Hawaii, through the 1887 Bayonet Constitution (which stripped power from the Hawaiian monarchy and denied Asians a path to naturalized citizenship) and later legislation, had imposed severe restrictions on Japanese immigrant laborers. In his letter, Gompers stated his belief that by imposing restrictions on Japanese labor, Hawaii had mistakenly given the appearance of preferring Chinese immigrant labor. In his eyes, allowing the immigration of either Chinese or Japanese laborers was “foolhardy.” Five days later, Duffy responded that legislation must stop the “invasion” of Japanese and Chinese labor and that the he hoped the AFL would take up the cause.

This correspondence expressing support for the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act continued throughout the year. In September 1905, Gompers wrote:

“…our fellow workmen living on the Pacific coast and in Hawaii realized the danger that not only threatened but confronted them from Chinese, Korean, and other Mongolian laborers and the American Federation of Labor convention declared that efforts should be made to extend the exclusion laws …”

Gompers expected Duffy and the UBCJA’s support in treating “oriental” labor as a dangerous threat to American labor. In order to make his letter more persuasive, he cited Acting Governor of Hawaii A.L.C. Atkinson’s address to a conference of labor representatives in New York,

“We are especially interested in the subject of immigration. The territory of Hawaii is the outpost of American civilization, and the people of the Territory feel that the contest for the settlement of this country by Americans or Orientals can only be settled by the encouragement of the immigration of Americans… I feel that we will have your support in our efforts to make a success of our own civilization in this outpost Territory, especially as we are face to face with the full power of the Orient.”

Atkinson viewed Chinese immigration to Hawaii as a threat to future Hawaiian statehood, rather than a positive contribution to the Hawaiian labor force. Gompers quoted him in his letter to Duffy in firm agreement. The 1905 correspondence demonstrates their continued intention to “Americanize” the Hawaiian territory with non-immigrant labor.

This sentiment did not abate with the passing of decades. In 1920, both unions favored excluding Japanese and Korean immigrant laborers. Gompers corresponded with UBCJA regarding the expansion of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Specifically, the UBCJA resolved to “extend the present Chinese Exclusion Act to cover all Orientals, or to immediately pass such laws as are necessary for our relief and protection.” The resolution described Japanese labor on the Pacific coast as a “menace” and a drain on the country, gradually “creeping” into all trades formerly occupied by UBCJA members. Gompers responded that the AFL would make “every possible effort” to lobby Congress to enact such legislation. You can see Gompers’ November 1920 letter on display in the “Immigrants Get the Job Done” display in the Hornbake Library or in the online exhibit.

We need only to look to recent headlines to see parallels, with calls for deporting immigrants and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) increasing raids on immigrant families’ homes.  Rhetoric that describes immigrant labor as a drain on American society and a menacing threat to the country, as we can see, goes back generations. Only in the 1930s did the AFL begin to shift its stance from immigration bans and severe restrictions towards support for legal immigration, and acknowledge hardships faced by immigrant laborers.  In 1974, the AFL-CIO stated that the immigration “problem” in the United States was not the sheer number of immigrants — 400,063 in 1973 – but rather “brutality, exploitation, trafficking in human lives, profiteering and corruption of both public servants and employers. It’s a story of human misery that affects the cross section of American life directly…” The AFL-CIO now affirms that the labor movement is a home for new immigrants — a complete departure from its predecessor organization’s earlier


To learn more about the labor movement’s shift from protectionism to inclusivity, visit our exhibit For Liberty, Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History in America. You can visit in person at Hornbake Library or online, and be sure to explore the section on Immigrants’ Rights! For more information about the UBCJA, see the UBCJA Archives. This post is one of a series of on immigrants’ rights, so be on the lookout for more posts this month from the Labor History Archives team!


Jen Wachtel is a graduate student at the University of Maryland pursuing an M.A. in History (Modern Europe), a Master of Library and Information Science (Archives and Digital Curation), and a graduate certificate in Museum Scholarship and Material Culture. She is a Coordinator for Labor History Collections and Mass Media and Culture Processing Archivist at Special Collections and University Archives. Jen expects to graduate in December 2018 to pursue a career in museum archives.

4 thoughts on “From Protectionism to Inclusion: Unions and Immigrant Labor

  1. Pingback: Racism, immigration, and moving on: Q&A with Japanese internment camp survivor Homer Yasui – Oligarchs In Charge

  2. Pingback: Racism, immigration, and moving on: Q&A with Japanese internment camp survivor Homer Yasui

  3. Pingback: Q&A with Japanese internment camp survivor Homer Yasui - Monkey Viral

  4. Pingback: Racism, immigration, and moving on: Q&A with Japanese internment camp survivor Homer Yasui – All Sides Of It

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