It was Labor Day last Monday, and I wanted to take this week to honor a labor union organizer who was a woman named Sue. I found most of my information from the US National Park Service but you can find a more extensive list of references in the show notes for this episode. Make sure to follow the Q
Publish Date: Sep 07, 2021
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It was Labor Day last Monday, and I wanted to take this week to honor a labor union organizer who was a woman named Sue. I found most of my information from the US National Park Service but you can find a more extensive list of references in the show notes for this episode. Make sure to follow the Queens of the Mines instagram and facebook pages this week for images from the story!
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Sue Ko Lee
Ok, so let’s talk about Sue Ko Lee, just you and me. Next week, I will have a guest but today it is just us.
Sue Ko Lee was born in Honolulu, Hawaii March 9, 1920. She grew up in Watsonville, California, for our out of state listeners, that is in Santa Cruz County, just south of the Santa Cruz that you may know. Sue was the oldest of ten children. - already in a leadership role.
She met Lee Jew Hing, who was an immigrant from China. He was a bookkeeper for National Dollar Stores. Most Chinese workers in San Francisco worked for Chinese employers like Joe Shoong, the owner of National Dollar Stores. They married when Sue was 18. She soon took a job at the same factory, along with several of her family members as Chinese American garment workers.
Chinese American garment workers were working in poor conditions and making low wages. They had limited options because most white-owned businesses refused to hire them. Also, the Chinese immigrant community was so close-knit, many workers were connected to their bosses through family and friendship ties. Such personal relationships sometimes made workers reluctant to speak out against poor treatment.
Many unions had supported the Page Act and the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Page Act of 1875 was the first restrictive federal immigration law in the United States, which effectively prohibited the entry of Chinese women, marking the end of open borders. Seven years later, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act banned immigration by Chinese men as well. So Chinese workers like Lee and her family had a complicated relationship with the labor movement.
Until the 1900s, Chinese and Chinese American workers were locked out of unionized factories by racist hiring practices. They reasonably feared that if all the factories were unionized, their jobs would be taken by white workers.
Unions like the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union were working hard to organize Black, Latino, and Asian American workers in the 1930’s. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union was one of the largest labor unions in the United States in the 1900s, representing hundreds of thousands of mostly female clothing industry workers.
In the 1930s, the garment industry was the largest employer in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Chinese-owned factories undercut white-owned union shops by charging lower prices for work, paying lower wages and assigning their workers longer hours. Here the workers continued to toil under sweatshop conditions, earning wages ranging from $4 to $16 a week. Sue Ko Lee, a button hole machine operator, worked in the National Dollar Store factory for 25¢ an hour. These practices allowed them to stay in business in the face of the hardship of the Great Depression—but came at a high cost to their workers. This concerned the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.
The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union organizers struggled to make any headway among Chinese workers until Jennie Matyas, an immigrant from Hungary arrived as the new organizer. Matyas built personal relationships with the workers and their Chinese community and earned their trust.
Sue Ko Lee and her coworkers voted to join the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, using ballots written in both English and Chinese. They became the Chinese Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, Local 341.
In 1938, she participated in a strike against the National Dollar Stores garment factory. After several bilingual collective bargaining sessions, the union and National Dollar Stores signed a preliminary agreement. The factory then arranged a “sale” to a group of its managers, which the workers saw as an attempt to get out of the contract. In response, more than 150 of them walked out.
Both American-born Chinese workers and Chinese immigrants, many of them older women, joined the strike. Sue Ko Lee made speeches, helped strike leaders organize picket lines, and was on the front lines of the strike, even bringing donuts and coffee to the strikers.
After more than 15 weeks on the picket lines, the strikers won a new contract with a 5 percent raise; enforcement of health, fire, and sanitary conditions, a forty-hour workweek and a guarantee that Golden Gate Manufacturing would p