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Activist, Scholar, Dandy

Worker Justice is Our Work

South Asian Americans and Organized Labor
By Sandhya Jha |
FEBRUARY 23, 2022
Photo by Brooke Anderson, Spring 2009. Action by West Oakland community members and port truck drivers to demand clean air and good jobs from the Oakland Port Commission.
Workers, at restaurants and hotels and construction sites, create and transport and clean and protect what all of us need, and yet workers are over and over again treated as disposable. The COVID-era language of “essential worker” points to a society that would come to a stop without working people. And essential workers come from every culture, race and background, including South Asian.

I’ve been involved with issues of labor justice in the US since my late teens, and I have witnessed -- and in one instance been swept up in – numerous workers’ strikes during visits to family in Kolkata. The first time I got to march in a worker campaign alongside another South Asian American, though, I was about thirty-five and engaged in a campaign to fight for the rights of truck drivers at the Port of Oakland. I stood a little taller that day, marching alongside Sikh truck drivers as we went to disrupt a port commission meeting and make our demands heard. I felt powerful walking alongside workers who reminded me of my own family. Our coalition consisted of mostly Black community members seeking healthier environmental standards and truck drivers from every race and culture seeking basic rights.

Over the years, I have also worked with South Asian American young adult activists, ages 18-24, through a program called Bay Area Solidarity Summer (BASS). When some of them ask what they can do beyond campaigns on their college campuses, I tell them about how fulfilling it is to be involved in labor organizing, about what we can accomplish when people who live, play, work and pray in a community come together to demand and create healthier living conditions, safer neighborhoods, and jobs that pay a decent wage. I tell them that when we work together, we can take on anyone from corrupt business owners to elected officials who have forgotten who they work for. In this process we learn from each other’s stories and grow stronger by building community. Even though some of these young people come from families of low wage workers, many of them don’t realize how much of a role South Asian Americans have played and continue to play in the American labor movement.
ASATA joining with GABRIELA USA at the Oakland Women's March January 19, 2019.
Some of their surprise stems from the fact that the formal labor movement in this country has historically been anti-immigrant, as well as anti-Black, even though it was the was the Chinese railroad workers who carried on one of the largest worker strikes in American history in the late 1800s. The other reason for their surprise is that the model minority myth – the myth of the agreeable, hardworking, nondisruptive “good” Asian minority -- has rendered invisible anyone South Asian who is not upper class and in one of a handful of professional careers.

My Archival Creators Fellowship project will preserve the stories of South Asian American workers who have engaged with union organizing. I hope to hear and share stories from teachers, construction workers, restaurant workers and more of us who recognized their power as part of a larger movement. In reaching out to friends and possible interview subjects in the labor movement, I have realized that the worker movement reflects the diversity of South Asians in the U.S.: diversity of religion, caste, country of origin, and types of work. I seek to amplify this diversity.

Stories give us power and imagination, and the stories that are told about South Asian Americans are much more limited than our reality. The stories of South Asian American workers who have often joined in cross-racial campaigns for worker dignity have the power to help us replace the model minority lie with a far richer truth about the power of who we have been, the truth of who we are, and the possibility of who we can be in the global struggle for workers’ rights.
Sandhya Jha with other faith leaders at the Poor People's Campaign San Francisco "March for our Lives" December 11, 2019.
I want the next generation of South Asian American youth to know that worker justice is our work. I want them to know what is possible for them, and who made it possible. I am excited for those stories to inspire the next generation.
Sandhya Jha is an organizer, activist, Christian pastor and founder of the Oakland Peace Center in Oakland, CA. Sandhya's engagement with workers' rights led them to their fellowship project with SAADA this year: documenting the stories of South Asian workers who have engaged with labor organizing in the United States. The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).