Strikes represented a key way in which ethnic workers in the United States made the country their own, taking matters into their own hands and shaping the nation’s future. Performing labor—and particularly labor that was difficult, dangerous, poorly paid (or unpaid), and crucial to the construction of the nation—was a defining feature of the experience of most ethnic groups in the US. Oppressed by both racism and classism, ethnic groups often had little power over their (usually white) employers. One of the key ways that workers were able to exercise power and demand better conditions was through strikes. Throughout the book, Takaki gives examples of where workers defied racist assumptions that they were docile, passive, and obedient, instead compelling employers to improve their wages and conditions through strikes.
Furthermore, strikes are a key example of why unity across different ethnicities is so important. Takaki gives many examples of employers hiring workers of a different ethnicity from the workers on strike to act as “scabs,” or strikebreakers. In this sense, strikes show how ethnic divisions can be used against the working-class and keep them oppressed. Indeed, some of the most powerful strikes Takaki depicts are those where workers of different ethnicities went on strike together. This show of solidarity often terrified employers, thus forcing them to capitulate to the strikers’ demands.
Strikes Quotes in A Different Mirror
Justifying this racial hierarchy, mine owner Sylvester Mowry invoked the images as well as language used earlier by slavemasters to describe the affection and loyalty of their slaves. "My own experience has taught me that the lower class of Mexicans…,” Mowry declared, “are docile, faithful, good servants, capable of strong attachments when firmly and kindly treated. They have been ‘peons’ for generations. They will always remain so, as it is their natural condition.”
But, like the enslaved blacks of the Old South, Mexican workers demonstrated that they were capable of defying these stereotypes of docility and submissiveness. Demanding self-respect and better wages, they repeatedly went on strike.
Though they imported workers along with supplies, planters were conscious of the nationalities of their laborers. They were systematically developing an ethnically diverse labor force in order to create divisions among their workers and reinforce management control. Complaining about the frequency of strikes on plantations where the workers were mostly from the same country, plantation managers recommended: “Keep a variety of laborers, that is different nationalities, and thus prevent any concerted action in case of strikes, for there are few, if any, cases of Japs, Chinese, and Portuguese entering into a strike as a unit.”
In their demand for a higher wage, the strikers explained: "We have decided to permanently settle here, to incorporate ourselves with the body politique [sic] of Hawaii—to unite our destiny with that of Hawaii, sharing the prosperity and adversity of Hawaii with other citizens of Hawaii." Significantly, the Japanese were framing their demands in “American” terms. They argued that the deplorable conditions on the plantations perpetuated an "undemocratic and un-American" society of "plutocrats and coolies." Fair wages would encourage laborers to work more industriously and productively. The goal of the strike was to create "a thriving and contented middle class—the realization of the high ideal of Americanism."