Home / General / This Day in Labor History: February 26, 1885

This Day in Labor History: February 26, 1885


On February 26, 1885, the Alien Contract Labor Act, better known as the Foran Act, restricting contract laborers from entering the U.S., passed Congress, putting additional pressure to stop Chinese and eastern European immigration as a result of white labor angry over foreign competition.

If there was two things that white workers hated in the late nineteenth century it was Asian workers and contract labor. On the West Coast especially, but really the whole country, white workers clearly articulated that they felt the nation was for white men and that non-white immigrants were an attack on the ability of these white men to control their labor and fight against employers for what they deemed right. Now whiteness was certainly exceedingly malleable, but no one questioned that the Chinese were not white. For example, the Knights of Labor willingly accepted Black labor, not because they weren’t racist, but because they figured that African Americans were Americanized enough to understand concepts of free labor. Eastern Europeans caused a lot of discomfort among the Knights, but Asian immigrants were clearly as non-white as you could get.

Related to the discomfort with the Chinese was that so many Chinese workers came over on contracts that ensured they were low-paid and in debt to the people who paid them to come over. That meant they wouldn’t have the manhood to stand up for their rights like white men. And yes, this critique of whites was heavily gendered, as they had a vision of working-class manhood deeply connected to independence. So dependent labor was anathema. Now, there were lots of immigrant workers coming to the U.S. as part of contract laborers, including from Italy, Greece, and Mexico, at least in the years after 1885. Moreover, there were plenty of skilled workers coming from nations such as England and Germany under contracts. White workers and the organized labor movement paid no attention to this. But the Chinese were particularly villainized.

This all led into the anti-Chinese mania that swept the West Coast in the early 1880s that manifested itself in the Chinese Exclusion Act but also created anti-Chinese mobs throughout the region. But just the Chinese Exclusion Act wasn’t considered enough. Acts for enforcement were then demanded. So Martin Foran, a congressman from Ohio, sponsored a bill that banned the payment of transportation costs for potential workers prior to immigration. Moreover, rather than go after the immigrants themselves, the law put the burden of enforcement onto ship captains under penalty of steep fines. Now, this was not just applied to the Chinese. This could seriously disrupt the Italian contract labor system of padrones, for instance. The law’s supporters placed it in the context of freedom and slavery. One of its main Senate sponsors was Henry William Blair, a New Hampshire Republican. He stated that it was “aimed at slavery rather than freedom” and “designed to prevent substantially the cooly practices which have been initiated between and carried on to a considerable extent between America and Europe.” Many of his colleagues were outraged at the idea that European labor could be the same as Chinese labor, but the comparison worked enough to pass the law. John Tyler Morgan, an Alabama Democrat, was horrified about such a comparison and stated it was a “disgrace” to compare Europeans with non-Europeans. Of course, he was driven by a different set of racial priorities.

The Foran Act was a major legislative success for the Knights of Labor. It put all of its power behind getting it passed. In fact, it might be the only real significant legislative success for the Knights at the national level. As I’ve said concerning the Chinese Exclusion Act in the past, the one where white American labor unions could unify enough and connect with popular sentiment enough to get legislative victories in the Gilded Age was over immigration restriction.

This law did not include Hawaii, where American employers continued to import Japanese laborers until 1900, two years after the U.S. officially annexed it. Also, the Foran Act cut against the contract doctrine dominant among Gilded Age elites. At the same time that workers had turned the mid-century doctrine of free labor into a way to articulate idea of independence and manhood, employers and the courts had twisted it into the doctrine of free contract. In other words, they created a legal fiction that employers and employees were completely equal when it came to terms of employment, as no worker had to choose to take the offer of a 12 hour a day job in a steel mill for low wages. Of course, this completely ignored realities of power, as the Lochner case demonstrated in 1905. But the courts really were uncomfortable with anything that violated this idea. So an 1886 Michigan case led to a judge creating an arbitrary divide between voluntary and coerced migration that was not in the bill at all, but which he just placed in there. Sure, something like slave labor would then be banned, but if a worker chose to sign a contract, one which was explicitly not allowed in the actual law, the courts would just ignore the letter of the law. Other courts did the same thing. One case in Louisiana in 1895 that attempted to deport a German who worked under a contract labor system was thrown out by a judge explicitly based on his race. What this did was push the energy back to explicitly keeping out the Chinese, who were seen as servile, rather than the Italians or Greeks who were seen as holding at least some aspects of white manhood.

All of this made it impossible for port officials to figure out what to do. Now, the Knights of Labor may have declined significantly after 1886, but then William McKinley named KOL head Terence Powderly Commissioner of Immigration in 1898. If it seems odd to name a labor leader to an immigration post today, it shouldn’t then because what mattered more to Powderly than keeping out non-desirable workers? Nothing. As Powderly held the former KOL belief that eastern Europeans were completely incapable of being real Americans with real white manhood, during his four years in the job, he vigorously used the Foran Act to prosecute and deport eastern Europeans. But that was his deal and not consistently applied across the years.

For immigrants, this was all nonsense. The letter of law made it basically illegal to have secured a job before you reached the United States. But immigrants wanted to secure a job before taking such a risky move. Naturally enough, immigrant communities soon found ways around this law, which was to secure the job and then lie about it when you got to the U.S. and the immigration officials questioned you. Given the lack of a meaningful enforcement mechanism, this almost always worked. Moreover, even if an employer was actually charged with violating the Foran Act, the conviction rate was approximately 1 out of 1,000. Basically, no one cared but the American labor movement and it didn’t have the power to see the prosecutions through.

This post borrowed from Gunther Peck, Reinventing Free Labor: Padrones and Immigrant Workers in the American West, 1880-1930 and Andrew Urban, Brokering Servitude: Migration and the Politics of Domestic Labor during the Long Nineteenth Century.

This is the 425th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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