2017 marks 150th anniversary of the historic eight-day strike of Chinese workers employed by Central Pacific Railroad.
Charles Crocker, Central Pacific Railroad director, supposedly inspired by the efficient work of his own personal servant, Ah Ling, originally brought in fifty Chinese workers as an experiment. By the end, close to ten thousand Chinese were employed by Central Pacific.
Crocker described their behavior approvingly: “More prudent and economical, they are content with less wages.”
White men received room and board, but the Chinese had to set up their own camps and feed themselves. While some white workers grumbled about working alongside Chinese, most gained from the company’s decision, moving up to fill foremen, teamster, and blasting positions that paid more than the laborer jobs performed by the Chinese.
Crocker told his partners that there was “no danger of strikes among them.” He referred to the Chinese workers as his “pets.”
Blasting through the mountainsides with the unstable industrial explosives of the period, many of the Chinese workers lost their lives. Avalanches killed others. One particularly harrowing type of work involved lowering workers over the sides of rock cliffs to drill slots, stuff the holes with dynamite, and light the fuse. Coworkers had to pull them to the top before they were blown up along with the granite. Not all made it back.
In June 1867, several thousand Chinese workers had had enough. They went on strike near Cisco, proclaiming “Eight hours a day good for white men, all the same good for Chinamen.”
The men, many of them from Canton in southern China, had demands: They wanted pay equal to whites, shorter workdays, and better conditions for building the country’s first transcontinental railroad.
“This project, the railroad, going through the mountains was the largest engineering project in the country at the time,” Hilton Obenzinger, associate director of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford University, told NBC News.
“And this work stoppage was the largest labor action in the country at that time,” he added.
The strike ended after Central Pacific director Charles Crocker choked off food, supplies, and transportation to thousands of Chinese laborers who lived in camps where they worked.
While the railroad made no concessions, Obenzinger said the action helped counter the image that the Chinese were docile and wouldn’t fight for their rights.
“They learned that the Chinese could not be taken for granted,” he said.