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This Day in Labor History: January 4, 1944

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On January 4, 1944, workers in the Minidoka Japanese concentration camp in Idaho went on strike in a short-lived but remarkable moment that demonstrates how workers, even in oppressive conditions, act to defend their perceived rights on the job.

First, the so-called “interment camps” were concentration camps. There is no difference between what the US did to the Japanese than what the Germans did to the Jews outside of the mass murder. Admittedly, that’s a huge difference, but this was still the rounding up and imprisonment of a minority group for “security” reasons. It’s a national shame. It’s worth noting that the U.S. government has paid reparations for this, which we should do for other minority populations too.

When the Japanese-Americans were rounded up and thrown into these prison camps in early 1942, the conditions were very rough. The housing was often not completed. Moreover, it’s not as if they were just left to their own devices in the prison camps. They had to work. The War Relocation Authority was a very New Deal program and so it wanted to use work as a way to rebuild a society and it wanted to be self-sufficient. Lots of the ideas about agriculture and labor came to bear in these dry, isolated, windy, and hot (though sometimes very cold) camps, mostly in the western deserts.

The War Relocation Authority thus demanded that the prisoners do all the labor, including maintenance. Most of the prisoners acquiesced to this but some strongly disagreed, arguing that if the government was going to imprison them for the crime of their race, then the government should take care of them. Still, work was a major part of the experience for many Japanese in the concentration camps.

One of the major issues was heat in the winter. The government simply did not do enough to keep people warm. Older Issei tended to get the job to take care of heating public stoves, maintaining hot water, and keeping the laundries and bathrooms running. But as early as the summer of 1943, they began to chafe over the government trying to reduce expenses by cutting back on the payroll. Yes, these workers did receive some money for their work and a government, ever looking to cut expenses, sought to make these workers labor harder by cutting back on the workforce. Workers needed that money–it was still a capitalist society, even inside a prison camp, and people needed to buy stuff.

The janitors and boilermen were furious. G.R. Green, the white superintendent of construction and maintenance, responded by threatening the workers with dismissal. This only infuriated the workers more because not only was Green a jerk, but they had created a hierarchy of work that he refused to recognize, telling the workers exactly what they had to do. In this, it was the old story of employers seeking to strip any autonomy from workers, a key part of Taylorism, but in a very different location. This got the alarm of the main camp superintendent, but one reason the government wanted to cut the employees is that they wanted to convince the Japanese to leave the camps and move east to work in factories. The last thing the government wanted was to create full employment in the prison camps.

Meanwhile, as winter approached, the need for constantly checking the pipes to make sure they didn’t freeze pushed workers to the brink. It was too much work and too few workers. When Green ordered all workers to go onto a 24 hour schedule, only three agreed and on December 28, 1943, the rest quit. The detainees believed that the government was trying to make the work so terrible that they would leave their families and their people and move to unknown territory in the east, which most did not want.

The janitors and boilermen gave the camp authorities until January 4 to deal with the problem. When said authorities, the workers walked off the job. They were soon joined by other workers doing hard work in the cold. The garbage workers who carrying kitchen trash to the hog farms stopped doing so, letting the refuse pile up. The coal haulers only would deliver to the hospital and kitchens. Most of the truck drivers stopped work too. Motor pool workers killed the fires in the laundry rooms and bathrooms and threatened to not deliver food to any cell block who restarted them. In other words, this moved toward a general strike in Minidoka.

The authorities tried to play the patriotism card with the Japanese workers, but let’s just say that since they had been locked up for their race, that wasn’t so effective. When one block leader decided to break the strike by restarting the fires–and let’s be clear, this was Idaho in January so this strike caused the community real suffering–the rest of the camp turned against this block and considered the leader an outcast. Other sympathizers were seen as spies, called dogs, and considered scum.

On January 10, the strike ended with the workers winning. After nearly a week of cold and also of significant solidarity between the workers and the rest of the community, the authorities agreed to return to the status quo ante strike. The 24 hour work day was repealed and workers were able to keep their self-created job classifications and hierarchy.

This was not the only moment of labor activism in the concentration camps. What these workers showed was that despite their status as race prisoners in a white supremacist state, they still held to ideas of dignity and solidarity in their work and would take action to protect those beliefs. These labor actions did not have larger implications on the trajectory of the American labor movement, but then many labor actions do not. That does not mean they are not important. That’s even more so when we are talking about an oppressed class that were total outcasts due to their race.

I borrowed from Connie Chiang, Nature Behind Barbed Wire: An Environmental History of the Japanese American Incarceration, to write this post.

This is the 465th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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