“Why is the union important?”

A French reader's response to the term "Asian-American," plus an interview with Andrew Jiang, a political consultant and former union organizer.


Hello friends!

Our post last week on the utility of “Asian-American” received quite a few responses, and we’re so grateful to everybody who wrote in. (Welcome, new readers!) We want to spend some time processing the ideas you’ve shared, and we hope to feature some of them in the newsletter soon. Please don’t hesitate to post a comment or write us (ampleroad@substack.com) if you want to join the conversation.

In particular, I want to think more about global comparisons. One point I left out of my last newsletter is that living in France has made me more appreciative of the term “Asian-American,” as French republicanism presupposes the value of assimilation and tends to discount cultural diversity. (Harsher critics have called out the idea of a “colorblind France” as a “myth.”) In the United States, Michelle and I tended to be suspicious of gestures of multiculturalism that were untethered from political goals of economic equality. But here we’ve found ourselves starved for even a gesture toward the heritage, culture, and history of minority peoples.

We asked our friend Alexis Dang, who was born in France and has Vietnamese roots, what she thinks of the term. She told us she has always preferred to refer to herself as a Francaise d’origine vietnamienne, rather than the hyphenated term Franco-Vietnamienne, which assumes a double nationality. She also points out how the French media has struggled to fully translate the term “Asian-American”:

When reading your article, I wondered if I would be okay with identifying as an Asian American. I don’t have an answer. It doesn’t translate well in French and you can feel that when watching the French news covering the Stop Asian Hate movement. The media says les Americains d’origine asiatique and not Americains asiatiques. When speaking about other communities, they do use les latino-americains, les Africain-Americains.

When she has come across “Asian” as a broad term, she says, she hasn’t felt it captured her experience, and she found barely any inter-Asian solidarity growing up:

The term Asiatique is broad enough in French to include everyone and is a way to avoid any mistakes. I rarely hear people refer to themselves as franco-asiatique. When someone says or asks if I’m asiatique, I just add “Oui, d’origine vietnamienne.” This broad term doesn’t really mean anything to me. I grew up understanding that Vietnamese people from the South hated people from the North, that all the Vietnamese hated the Chinese, the Cambodians, and the Laotians, and loved the Japanese, Koreans, and Taiwanese. So I didn’t see any unity implied in the term Asiatique. In my hometown, and in the big city nearby, there were three big Asian communities: Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian. They were never mixed in any parties or associations. I had the chance to know both Vietnamese and Laotians because my mother’s family lived in Laos, but even the Viet-Lao have their own community in France, marrying each other and having their own specific accent.

She talks about a new generation of activists in France trying to create a new term:

I have been reading a lot on activism against racism and there is a new term that appeared at the beginning of the pandemic and the #jenesuispasunvirus movement that really spoke to me; it refers more to how people see Asians in France, rather than how we see ourselves (which is so complex for many). It’s asiatiquetage, a portmanteau of asiatique and étiquetage, or labeling (see definition and info, in French, here), and it’s all about how we have been labeled (étiquetés) and the common idea that we all look alike.

This term can however only be used in a context when speaking about racism and discrimination. For once, I could feel some truth in a term to define myself, because it doesn’t reduce my Frenchness, my legitimacy as French, but it also refers to the way people perceive me.

So I don’t have a clear answer to your question. I don’t want to be called franco-asiatique but I wish that people who are asiatiquetés had more power to fight against discrimination and racism. The journalists, writers, or bloggers whom I follow are trying to raise awareness on racism against Asians and are mindful of people’s origins. I’m glad they found that unifying word.

We’re looking forward to thinking through these global comparisons, and our own blind spots, more soon. Please write in!

Today we feature an interview with Andrew Jiang. I’ve known Andrew since we were in middle school. Born in Alabama, Andrew moved to Taiwan when he was in the sixth grade. Humble, warm, and self-effacing, Andrew laughs easily and lets other people speak. (When Michelle first met Andrew, she described his qualities as “the dream combination: political conviction untethered to any hint of male chauvinism.”) I have long admired his work in union and political organizing. Currently, he’s a principal at Zero Week Solutions, a political consulting firm. We share in common the Catholic faith, Taiwanese identity, and interest in how to build class and cross-racial solidarity.

In this interview we talk about organizing for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Filipino farmworker movements, the election of David Ryu, the first Korean-American to the L.A. City Council, and grassroots organizing in political campaigns. We interviewed Andrew several months ago; otherwise we would have asked him about the recent vote among Amazon workers against unionization. But we think this interview will give you a sense of how he stresses the importance of unions for ensuring labor rights.

Albert: How did you get into political organizing?

Andrew Jiang: Barack Obama ruined my life. [We all laugh.] I heard him say, in 2008, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” I was inspired and I applied to work for the campaign. It was a Friday afternoon at 3 p.m., and somebody from the Obama campaign told me they wanted to hire me and asked if I could be in Wisconsin the next day. So I quit my job and flew to Wisconsin to work on his campaign.

AW: What did you do?

AJ: I was on an advance team, which is a really “bougie” job on a campaign. But Obama’s campaign emphasized organizers and organizing. He really wanted to build community relationships.

After that, I became an organizer in Virginia and then Colorado. I moved to Ventura County to work on a congressional race in 2012. That’s when I went to work for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). I went to California because I specifically wanted to work on Asian and Pacific Islander (AAPI) issues. And I realized, you know, you don’t get hired for being Asian in Colorado. You get hired for being Latino and speaking Spanish, because those are the dominant communities there. So if I wanted to work on AAPI issues and in the Asian community, then I needed to go somewhere like California or New York.

Michelle: How long did you work for the union?

AJ: I did political organizing for SEIU from 2013 to 2015. We bargained in Ventura County for a wage increase, and went from $9.50 to $12.50 in three years. The contract we won was probably the largest-percentage increase the union had ever gotten in the state.

What’s interesting is that I spent about a year in the community before the contract even came up. I would go from LA to Ventura twice a week, about an hour drive. I would just meet with the members, and I gradually built these real relationships. Even after I quit my job, I would go visit their head lady maybe once a month. She was my white grandmother. I would go see her and she would ask, “Do you need water? Are you taking care of yourself?” She really cared. And I would say, “Give me all the dirt”—what was going on with the union and all the other members.

MK: What did she do?

AJ: She worked in home health care. There’s a program in California called HHS, which is in-home health services for people who need cleaning, general cooking, bathing, that type of stuff. The government assigns them a certain number of hours and they can have either a social worker or one of their family members do it.

In families that are struggling or that have really elderly people, they don’t have to have another job, so a daughter or a son can be a full-time caretaker. The system is helpful because we don’t shove a bunch of people into senior homes, which cost the state about two or three times more than people being taken care of by their families. In theory, it’s a win if it’s executed correctly. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.

AW: How did you get into working with the union?

AJ: One of the reasons they hired me was they needed a Mandarin speaker. At the time, before the Supreme Court changed the rules, members automatically started paying dues to the union once they were enrolled. The union was trying to engage their new Mandarin-speaking members. I worked with the Chinatown group in the union, as well as a Taiwanese group in the Golan Heights/San Gabriel Valley area.

Much of my work involved giving Chinese-speaking members the opportunity to communicate with the union. And of course I tried to get them more involved with the union’s work. But for them, commitment was a big burden. You’re asking a sixty-year-old lady who’s taking care of an eighty- or ninety-year-old person, full time, all day, “Hey, can you come to these union events? Can you come to these meetings?” Her natural response would be: “Why is the union important?”

I understood where they were coming from, because my aunt took care of my grandmother for thirty years. She had late-stage Alzheimer’s and was in a wheelchair. My aunt had to put all her food into a blender and feed it to her spoonful by spoonful. She would have to carry her to the bathtub. Just going out for a walk was an event for grandma.

You could pay somebody forty hours a week to do this job, but it’s definitely a hundred-hour-a-week job. I imagine it’s kind of like taking care of a baby. So they’re doing this backbreaking, exhausting work—and there were some counties that classified them as “non-workers” so they could pay them under minimum wage.

MK: What type of Asians did you work with?

AJ: A lot of the ones in Chinatown are from southern China. These aren’t the “crazy rich Asians”—the average income in that part of town is around $19,000 a year. When I was working with the union, many of them weren’t connected to the internet, or barely had a cellphone. I couldn’t just text or email and expect them to respond or show up. I had to call half of the members on landlines. But we ended up building out a very sophisticated calling tree where people were in charge of other people if information needed to go out.

MK: Can you describe a conversation where you felt like you convinced the person to show up?

AJ: I worked a lot with the leaders on how to talk to people and listen to their feedback. One of the things we realized was that talking about the union in abstract ways wasn’t a great tactic to get people to show up. You really have to tell them how the union’s work affects their lives.

For example, when the governor does budget cuts, the state will cut 10 percent of the hours across the board. In turn, the counties come in and reduce everybody’s hours by 10 percent for each budget cycle. After five budget cycles, the county only pays for twelve hours of work. But our union was learning that workers were still doing twenty hours a week of work, so they weren’t being paid for eight hours. How do you preserve your hours or get more? That was the type of organizing we had to focus on. We homed in on actual policies that directly affected people’s lives. Broader movement-type organizing really doesn’t get people mobilized.

On the flipside, it’s really important for politicians to listen when people express their needs and wants. One of the biggest mistakes people make when they run for office is that they think they know what they should say and what the community cares about. And it’s a huge surprise to them when they lose because they weren’t saying the right things. That was one of the big lessons I learned from older union organizers. They would go into a community and talk to people and find out what they cared about. And then they would work around those issues.

In East LA there was a lot of trash and graffiti everywhere; that was a major fixable complaint. So the union worked with people on the ground to clean things up. That’s how we moved into the community. Then we could do stuff like mobilize people to go on strike. But it’s really hard to take a group of people and say, “We need to bargain for this. And we need you guys to go on strike and not work.” People in the community will say, “We don't know who you are. We have no connection to you.”

The union has this program called “Walk a Day in Our Shoes.” Any politician running for office who wants an endorsement needs to spend a day with one of our members, just to see what their daily life is like. A lot of people try to skip out on it, and I tell them, “Look, you have to do this; the SEIU is a powerful union. You’ll have more leverage with them afterwards.” In my experience nobody’s ever come out of it thinking, “That was a waste of time.” Every politician I’ve ever spoken to who’s attended the event has said, “Wow, you guys do amazing things. It’s really important work.”

By the way, one of those politicians was Kamala Harris. When I was at SEIU, we were big supporters of hers; she had done a Walk a Day in Our Shoes day with a home healthcare worker, and has been a staunch supporter of home health workers since.

AW: What’s an example of a story your members told?

AJ: One of the most powerful ones I heard was from a lady who said that when she was in a grocery store she had to decide between buying broccoli and buying cabbage because she couldn’t afford both. She was describing shopping as someone who doesn’t have much income; she said, “I need enough food to feed my family for the whole week.” I’ve never stood in a grocery store and asked myself, Do I want the broccoli or the cabbage? Contrast that with a county supervisor in California, who gets paid $180,000 a year. One of the supervisors I met was upset at his water bill, which he said was high because he had a pool. That was the extent of the financial frustrations in his life! So it was a surprise for him to hear a mother talking about the difficulties taking care of her disabled son. These stories are very impactful to people.

MK: How did you end up winning the wage increase? What did workers do to get it?

AJ: If there’s one thing you should know about Ventura County and unions, it’s that Oxnard is the largest city in the county. Oxnard was a large organizing hub for both Filipino and Latino farm workers for over a half a century.

Every Filipino American knows Oxnard because that was one of the central locations of the farmworkers’ strike. The owners would play Filipinos and Mexicans off each other. Filipino workers would ask for a bathroom or water break and the owner would fire them and hire Mexican workers. Then the Mexican workers would ask for water breaks, and the owners would hire back the Filipinos. The unions formed separately along racial lines. Larry Itliong, a Filipino immigrant and labor organizer, worked with Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez to unify workers across racial divides.

So there’s a long history of labor organizing in Oxnard. Over and over members share stories of elders in their families who fought in those struggles. They told us they wanted to continue that battle through bargaining for better wages.

It’s not easy to get over a hundred workers to put their lives on pause every Monday for months, but we did it. Every week we would show up at the Board of Supervisors meetings with these workers, who would also bring the people whom they cared for. Everyone wore purple shirts the union provided. We also had staff camped out to organize actions and rallies.

I think that modern day unions sometimes forget their roots in movement politics. Of course we don’t want to spend the members’ money on buses, shirts, staff, and all the other costs associated with getting people to a rally. But when you walk into a bargaining room, you don’t want the other side to forget how large a union membership can be. The visual is so powerful, and it puts a lot of pressure on elected officials.

It frustrates me that sometimes people don’t realize how hard it is to get 100,000 people to one place for a protest. Take the Black Lives Matter protests, or the anti-Iraq War protests, you name it—it took effort for each person to attend those demonstrations. No one wants to spend hours walking around, screaming, hot, stuffed among thousands, without anywhere to pee. That’s not the first choice of what most people want to do. So when tens of thousands of people show up, something must be up. That’s why we remember these pictures and images as a nation.

Filipino farmworkers, led by Larry Itliong (left), began the Delano Grape Strike in 1965. Photos from the Farmworker Movement Documentation Project/University of California San Diego Library.

AW: So after SEIU you went to the David Ryu campaign?

AJ: Yeah. I quit SEIU because I wanted to go back into campaigns. Union politics is very difficult.

AW: Can you talk a little bit about the campaign in 2015? Ryu was the first Korean-American elected to Los Angeles City Council.

AJ: Yes, and the second Asian-American ever. At the time I was interviewing to work on a congressional race in Illinois for Jan Schakowsky, who was co-chair of the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues. I was ready to go. I just thought I’d interview with this Korean guy to see what he was like.

During that interview, I learned that there had never been a Korean American on LA City Council. This is partially because Koreatown in Los Angeles is heavily gerrymandered: it’s split between three city council districts, making it nearly impossible for Koreans to gain power. A lot of Korean-Americans there are small business owners, and every four years the council members come in and just basically collect checks for their campaigns. Three council members with no connection to Koreatown influence the decisions, and all three of them want money. Some people have even heard politicians and consultants refer to K-Town as an ATM.

Before the 1992 LA uprising, the Korean community didn’t participate much in the political process. Since then, there’s been a movement to try and unify K-Town into one city council district. It’s much easier to negotiate and talk to one city council person who actually cares about you than to deal with three who don’t.

MK: So it’s still gerrymandered?

AJ: It is. But we're doing redistricting in 2021, so hopefully they don’t do that again? [Laughs.] A lot of states will do gerrymandering based on political affiliation, but they can also do it along racial lines. For the Ryu campaign, we knew there were about 5,500 Korean voters in K-Town, and we got 3,600 to vote for him. We were tracking that pretty specifically, down to houses and blocks. That’s how we were able to turn out voters.

AW: Wow.

AJ: If you have enough volunteers or staff members on a campaign, you can go into the same community over and over again. It may seem excessive to go seven times in a month, but people aren’t always home, and it takes a couple of tries to actually talk to them. We tell our campaigners to knock on all the doors, even if it’s a house they’ve already been to. The hope is that people in the neighborhood will begin to recognize us in the streets. Some people are always home, too, and it’s really possible to build a relationship. Voters feel a little bit more invested in the campaign.

But that type of campaigning is resource-heavy. It takes a lot of energy and effort to do any type of grassroots organizing. Oftentimes consultants want to just skip it. It’s so much easier to just write a mailer or broadcast some TV ads. You never have to hear people’s responses or deal with them. And it’s much cheaper to send someone a piece of mail than to ask somebody to knock on doors.

But I always argue the opposite. If someone’s come to my door three times, I’m much more likely to vote for their candidate than if they just sent me twenty pieces of mail. When I look at AOC’s campaign, I notice the same thing: she was an organizer who got heavily outspent, but she won because she had built relationships for two years. She was out in the community, talking to people. Voters remember that; they remembered that she showed up. Their congressperson at the time was barely even in the state—he lived in DC permanently and was pretty high up in the congressional power structure. He had forgotten about his residents and what it was like to live there. So even though she was down something like twenty points forty-five days out from election day, she won.

With David’s campaign, sometimes the concerns were minor, like the placement of a stop sign or a speed bump, or the material used to pave the roads. Sometimes they were bigger, like homelessness. But different parts of the district had different concerns. We tailored the mail we sent out to address specific issues. So when David won, he had this gigantic list of campaign promises. Some we thought were pretty impossible to deliver, but he actually got through 95 percent of them in five years.

MK: What have you been up to recently?

AJ: I’ve been consulting for Fatima Iqbal-Zubair’s campaign. She was running against this heavily favored incumbent. We didn’t win, but I’m really proud of her campaign. She’s going to run again, and we’re building a very grassroots campaign. (She wanted to run a grassroots campaign this time, but she got screwed over by COVID.)

She’s running in an assembly district in this area, in Carson, Watts, and Compton, where they’ve built six different refineries. All these people are living right next to oil drillers. The air is bad and oil spills have led to pollution in the water. Their assembly members have been taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from these companies and have never voted for more transparency or disclosure on oil-related issues like fracking.

AW: So how did you do grassroots organizing during COVID?

AJ: You try to do it over the phone, but it doesn’t work. It’s really difficult. We tried some online stuff. There was a guy running for governor in California named John Chiang—he’s Taiwanese and he’s absolutely an academic when it comes to being a politician. He’s the smartest guy in the room, but he’s not very interesting to listen to. He used to be the treasurer and then he was the controller and he would make these hourlong speeches, and I’d be like, “I don’t know what he’s talking about, but I like him a lot.” [Laughter.] He would have been a great governor.

Anyway, he had organized a Line or WhatsApp group with five hundred people in it. And some of them were existing groups. We could disseminate information to those groups faster than the campaign could send other information out through the press.

But there are also downsides to the online approach. If you think of how the Tea Party turned into the Trump machine, they did a lot of organizing of neighborhood groups, mobilizing people around racist fears. And now we know a lot of the Facebook groups were manipulated and hijacked by outside interests. I live in a city called Alhambra, California, and there’s an Alhambra, California Facebook group owned by someone in Poland or Romania. All of the cities in San Gabriel Valley have a Facebook group page owned by this guy. After a while, the community discovered that the people moderating the group and controlling what was being seen didn’t live in the community—nobody knew them personally. So we had to make a new group, because you can’t dismantle the old one. Facebook doesn’t care. They say they’ve tried to clamp down. But Facebook has a billion users—what are you going to do, write them an email?

AW: We wanted to ask you about AOC’s interview with the New York Times that served as a controversial postmortem of the 2020 elections. Do you agree with her analysis that all of the candidates who ran on more progressive issues ran the table while the centrists struggled?

AJ: I feel like it’s fundamentally a question of what you believe campaigns are. I believe campaigns are about speaking to people and hearing them, because it’s their way of expressing their needs and wants. But not everyone views it that way.

From a thirty thousand–foot level, some people are saying, look, Donald Trump turned out ten million more of his voters by speaking to his base, by saying things like they wanted to hear. I guess that can be true in a way. But if you look at the numbers, it’s more that he turned out like thirty million voters—twenty million of ours and ten million of his. The Republicans registered 1.5 million people in Florida. That’s why they crushed it there. Stacey Abrams’s New Georgia Project registered 500,000 people in Georgia, and look what happened there. In 2008, Obama registered 800,000 people in North Carolina and won by like 10,000 votes. Knocking on doors and making phone calls is hugely important for the Democratic base.

And it does speak to the necessity of talking to your base about things they care about. No one shows up excited to vote for a moderate. It’s okay to have boring politicians, but they don’t excite people and get them to vote. No one went out to vote for Biden because they felt like he was going to protect fracking in Pennsylvania and be moderate on these issues. A Green New Deal excites people, health care for all excites people, forgiving student debt excites people. I always tell candidates, how do you get a bunch of kids to go out there to vote for you? I mean, I’d rather spend my time playing video games—and I work in the industry! So I think it does come back to grassroots organizing. You need to speak to people about what they care about.

Links for the week

  • Thanks to Andrew Jiang, we’ve gone down a wonderful rabbithole learning about the history of Filipino-American labor organizing. Here’s a quick excerpt from the PBS documentary on Asian Americans, where you can hear Larry Itliong speak.

    We also loved this quick primer on Larry Itliong’s life.

  • We were inspired by Time to Say Goodbye’s interview with Naomi Murakawa, who makes an impassioned and compelling case for abolitionist organizing.

  • Read this rousing story of Katalin Kariko, one of the pioneers in pursuing the technique of developing vaccines using mRNA. Her research has been critical to the success of the COVID-19 vaccines. The story highlights her moving background as a Hungarian immigrant. It also repudiates the scientific academy's conventional thinking, obsession with "star making," and inability to explore unorthodox ideas:

    But for many years her career at the University of Pennsylvania was fragile. She migrated from lab to lab, relying on one senior scientist after another to take her in. She never made more than $60,000 a year.

    Dr. Kariko’s struggles to stay afloat in academia have a familiar ring to scientists. She needed grants to pursue ideas that seemed wild and fanciful. She did not get them, even as more mundane research was rewarded.

    “When your idea is against the conventional wisdom that makes sense to the star chamber, it is very hard to break out,” said Dr. David Langer, a neurosurgeon who has worked with Dr. Kariko.

    We were also inspired by her purity of focus and disinterest in fame:

    By all accounts intense and single-minded, Dr. Kariko lives for “the bench” — the spot in the lab where she works. She cares little for fame. “The bench is there, the science is good,” she shrugged in a recent interview. “Who cares?”

Book Club

Thanks to all who came out to talk about Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters. It was such a great discussion! Our next book club is Friday, April 30th at 2:45 p.m. ET, when we’ll discuss Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun. Please email us for the zoom link. (And enjoy this LRB review comparing Ishiguro’s opening scene to Corduroy, our baby’s favorite book at the moment.)