The threat of foreign labor

I was just skimming some old journal articles  looking for an appropriate citation for the paper I’m writing and ran across a 1929 paper entitled The Philippine Problem: Attitude of American Labor Toward Filipino Immigration and Philippine Independence. (Note that the article can only be read by those with access to a JStor subscription, i.e. people at libraries or university campuses.) It struck me that the following excerpt could be published today with only a few minor details changed, and the significant replacement of “Filipino” with “Mexican.”

The Filipinos are human beings with the normal desire to improve their conditions of living. In their native land they are paid a wage of about 40 cents per day. In Hawaii they receive from $1 to $1.50 per day. On the Pacific coast they can easily command double that amount. Under the circumstances one can hardly hold ill will against the individual Filipino who refuses to be happy in Hawaii and continues to move Eastward until he arrives in the promised land.


The organized workers of the Pacific coast states have become apprehensive of this new uncontrolled flood of cheap Asiatic labor. Filipinos have taken the place of white workers in the culinary trades; they have replaced white bell boys and elevator operators and made it more and more difficult for white hotel maids to find employment. Steamships in the highly protected coastwise trade have been manned with Filipinos while American seamen are vainly walking the docks looking for jobs. The whole situation is extremely puzzling to the average American worker.

On the other hand, there are some elements in the 1929 narrative that, thankfully, have no parallel today, showing that despite the regular cycles of xenophobic panic, progress has been made on a fundamental level.

As to the assimilation of these people, the Attorney-General of the State of California has ruled that they are Mongolians and therefore under the state law cannot marry whites.

You can also see examples of blatant bigotry that reminds one significantly of today’s anti-immigrant ranting, while at the same time maintaining a level of course racism that is no longer considered widely acceptable in the public discourse.

In September, 1927, the annual convention of the California State Federation of Labor, by unanimous vote, adopted a resolution calling up the California Congressional delegation to work for the enactment of a law which would effectively exclude Filipinos. The annual conventions of labor federations in several other Pacific coast states have done likewise. The Washington State Federation of Labor convention declared the Filipinos undesirable on the following counts:

“First, because they represent cheap and irresponsible labor of a type that cannot be assimilated, and as such they threaten American standards of wages and living conditions. Second, because they have given serious offense to communities in which they have congregated because of their moral conduct, with the result that one community in Washington the citizens became so aroused that they organized and forcibly evicted the Filipinos. We feel sure that it is not good for labor nor for American institutions and standards to permit the free and unrestricted influx of these people, and we endorse the position of the California State Federation of Labor in asking for their exclusion, and instruct the officers of this Federation to assist in securing the legislation necessary to accomplish this end.”