During the APALA's early days, from left, May Chen, Matthew Finucane, Katie Quan and Kent Wong were some of the organization's key players.

442: The APALA was the country’s first and only AA+PI national labor organization

In honor of Labor Day, we look at how more than 500 labor activists came together to give AA+PI workers a stronger voice

During the APALA's early days, from left, May Chen, Matthew Finucane, Katie Quan and Kent Wong were some of the organization's key players.

Illustration by Vivian Lai

Words by Samantha Pak

The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.

Have a historical tidbit you’d like to share? Let us know!

From Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz working alongside Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in 1965, to the Jung Sai garment workers striking in 1974, AA+PIs have long been part of this country’s labor history and the efforts to improve working conditions for the community and beyond.

But it wouldn’t be until May 1, 1992 that there was a national organization representing AA+PI union members. When it was founded, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) was the first—and is still the only—national organization of its kind.

It all started in 1990. AA+PI labor activists approached the largest federation of unions in the country, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), to propose the formation of a national AA+PI labor group. This was brought on by a growing concern about sweatshop work and child labor that helped raise awareness within the AFL-CIO of AA+PI workers’ plight. A number of regional AA+PI worker groups such as the Asian Immigrant Women’s Advocates in San Francisco and the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association in New York also helped the federation see the need for an AA+PI organization at the national level.

Two years later in Washington, D.C., more than 500 AA+PI labor activists gathered to found APALA, with the goal to give AA+PIs a more effective voice within the AFL-CIO, and on labor issues nationally. That convention was chaired by Katie Quan, whose prior experience was in labor organizing as one of the organizers for the 1982 garment workers’ strike that had 20,000 garment workers—mostly Asian American women—striking for better pay and working conditions.

Another key player at the time was May Chen, one of the organization’s founding members and an officer during APALA’s early days. Like Quan, Chen also had a background in labor organizing. Prior to co-founding APALA, she worked at the Chinese Committee of the Local 6 Union, representing workers in the service and hospitality industries. And it was actually witnessing the garment workers’ strike in 1982 that inspired her two-plus decades-long career advocating for workers (she retired in 2009).

Once it was established, APALA’s first president was Kent Wong and its first executive director was Matthew Finucane.

Since its founding, APALA has worked to address workplace issues affecting 660,000 AA+PI union members—in all industries—around the country. The organization’s work also includes defending and advocating for the civil and human rights of the community as well as immigrants and other BIPOCs.

Published on September 4, 2023

Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.

Art by Vivian Lai

Vivian Lai is an experienced L.A.-based graphic and UI designer with a proven track record of problem-solving for diverse clients across industries. She is highly skilled in design thinking, user experience, and visual communication and is committed to staying up-to-date with the latest design trends and techniques. Vivian has been recognized for her exceptional work with numerous industry awards.