On June 24, 1867, Chinese workers building the transcontinental railroad across Sierra Nevada went on strike over the horrific conditions of their work for the Central Pacific Railroad. This remarkable strike did not succeed, but they made it very clear to the extremely rich and corrupt men running the Central Pacific that their collective labor mattered.
Conditions for Chinese workers in 19th century California were rough from the beginning. Escaping unbelievably levels of poverty in southeastern China, thousands of Chinese, almost all men, moved to California in the late 1840s as part of the gold rush. White Americans were shocked to see Chinese in “their” gold fields, not to mention Latin Americans, Hawaiians, Mexicans, and other non-whites. So they responded with violence to evict them from the diggings. But the Chinese still had two important places in the California economy. First, they filled the roles of female reproductive labor such as cooking and laundry that white men would not do in a predominantly male state. Second, they would provide the cheap labor to do the hardest work most native-born whites did not want, such as building the railroads. The first was controversial enough for white workers; the second was unacceptable as they saw Chinese workers undermining wages for whites. Meanwhile, they did not care at all about the actual conditions of Chinese labor except as it affected themselves as whites.
For the Chinese, they did not have a lot of options. Returning to China was not realistic for most of them, no matter how bad it got in the U.S. The poverty in Guangdong, where most of them originated, was just unspeakable. The hostility they faced from white workers meant any kind of meaningful cross-racial alliances were out of the question. The jobs they could get were awful. This was especially true for the railroad workers. The railroads did undermine white wages through the use of Chinese labor. When the employment of Chinese railroads began in 1864, they were usually paid $26 a month and they had to pay for their own food, unlike white workers. The pay did rise a bit over time, but many of these workers were in debt and the work was still unbelievably dangerous.
Building the railroad across the Sierra Nevada in the 1860s would be dangerous for any workers. This was an era where workplace safety was not even considered a priority by employers. They could just hire more workers. Rockfalls, explosions, cave-ins–death on the job was an everyday occurrence. Plus there was dealing with the snow, which could be intense. Central Pacific executive Charles Crocker would have competitions between Chinese and Cornish miners over who could blast through the rock more quickly, which had the duel advantage of creating racial hatred as well as speeding up the work. Workers on both sides of this died, but Crocker? He thought it was great.
On June 19, 1867, a tunnel exploded. It killed a white worker by the name of Burns and five Chinese workers. No names were provided for them because no white people cared. I mean, they cared so little that in railroad payroll books, the name “John Chinaman” was often used for all the Chinese workers. But for the Chinese miners, this was the final straw. They started talking to each other and five days later, they went on strike. 3,000 workers simply put down their tools. We don’t know today how they planned it, but it was a quite disciplined action. There was no violence. Crocker himself noted that was this a strike of white miners, there would have been violence. But that’s now how the Chinese workers operated. They just didn’t work. Crocker and his partners–Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, and Collis Huntington–tried to break the strike and the problem with scarce labor by looking into recruiting newly free Black labor in the South. Ironically, southern planters were looking to hire Chinese labor to discipline the ex-slaves at the same time.
The workers had concrete demands: they wanted $40 a month, a 10-hour day for above-ground work and an 8-hour for tunneling work instead of the 12-hour day they faced, and end to beatings, and the right to quit without harassment from the company.
But the Central Pacific had a very simple solution to the immediate problem at hand. The workers were way up in the mountains. They were totally reliant on contractors for food. This was especially important to Chinese workers who found most American food disgusting and demanded their own food supplies. So the railroad simply cut off the supplies, starving the workers into submission. The Chinese really did try to resist this. They hoarded what supplies they could, which got them a few days. But Crocker and the law enforcement he owned threatened to start killing the Chinese if they resisted in any way. They would shoot them in cold blood too, Crocker didn’t care. Some tried to walk back to San Francisco. Crocker hired cowboys to chase them down, lasso them like cattle, tie them up, and force them back on the job.
There really wasn’t much the workers could do here. They ended the strike after eight days. But while they got nothing in terms of negotiations, they had truly shown labor power. Crocker and his partners were genuinely scared. They wanted to bring in all sorts of new labor now, but that would take time. The CP was getting paid by the mile. Every mile they did not meet the Union Pacific driving west from Omaha was less money for them. So the Chinese had shown that they could coordinate their labor power. To stop this from happening again, the CP raised the pay for the Chinese workers. Wages increased to over $35 a month. They also got bonuses for working in the hot weather of the Nevada summer once they crossed the Sierra and ended up in the horrible desert. To be clear, nothing got safer for these workers. But they did get paid a little more before they died.
Moreover, as historians of Chinese migration have noted, we can’t necessarily evaluate this strike in the terms that we would for much of American history. Not only do we not have sources from the Chinese workers themselves giving us any personal information about how they thought about it, but given Chinese culture at the time, they may have seen it as successful because it allowed them to save face and gain dignity in their own community. That makes a lot of sense to me. In fact, we have not one single document from any of the workers who participated in this labor action. So we have to speculate.
What we do know is that this action received no sympathy from white workers, who continued to see the Chinese as more of an enemy than their employers, leading to both the Chinese Exclusion Act and murderous violence against Chinese workers in the coming years. White workers repeatedly would choose racial solidarity over class solidarity; in this case, they could not even conceive of the Chinese as part of their class.
If you want to read more about the background to all this, here is a very useful website laying it out in significant detail.
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