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Michael W. McCann and George I. Lovell, Union by Law: Filipino American Labor Activists, Rights Radicalism, and Racial Capitalism

Justin Jackson
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Michael W. McCann and George I. Lovell, Union by Law: Filipino American Labor Activists, Rights Radicalism, and Racial Capitalism, London, The University of Chicago Press, 2020, 504 p., ISBN: 9780226679907, 35$

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1Students of slavery and its afterlives might be forgiven if they have not yet considered Filipinos and Filipino Americans in the modern United States as subjects for scholarly investigation. After all, racialized chattel enslavement in this country became the exclusive misfortune of Africans and African-Americans by the time of its founding, and that institution in North America ended nearly forty years before Filipinos in substantial numbers first began migrating to Hawaï, and then the U.S. mainland, in the wake of the Spanish and Philippine-American Wars and the archipelago’s annexation (and just as U.S. Army generals began abolishing slavery in their new Asian colony’s southernmost province). Yet a growing cohort of academics, critics, and activists now understand “racial capitalism,” theorized first by Cedric Robinson in the 1980s, as a phenomenon that predated and survived African slavery, structured social life beyond relations between persons of African and European descent, and implicated imperialism and colonialism. Political scientists Michael McCann and George Lovell enter their ranks in this sweepingly comprehensive examination of the twentieth-century legal activism of Filipino cannery workers in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Impressively, McCann and Lovell do much more than merely offer a compelling chronological narrative, as they join historians Paul Kramer, Allan Lumba, and others in creatively interpreting change over time in Filipino‑American relations through a racial-capitalist paradigm. These coauthors also draw on multiple disciplinary literatures to contend persuasively that, in the modern United States, law has simultaneously defended the racial, class, and international hierarchies characterizing its racialized capitalist society and spurred “radical egalitarian” (18) challenges to it. This includes American law’s universalizing, individualizing liberalism and the “racial innocence” (2) presumed by contemporary U.S. civil rights jurisprudence.

2Obviously never enslaved, Filipinos toiling in Alaska and the lower forty-eight states throughout the twentieth century, according to McCann and Lovell, still suffered as “relatively unfree and rightless persons” (79) who stood to gain from becoming citizens and union members protected by national civil rights and labor and laws. Thus the importance, in their minds, of Wards Cove Packing v. Atonio, decided in 1989 by the U.S Supreme Court, a case originally brought forward in the preceding decade by Filipino plaintiffs as a class action lawsuit alleging discriminatory racial segregation in Alaska’s salmon canneries. Decided in the Reagan era by a newly conservative majority of justices, the opinion eviscerated the less-strict procedures for determining admissible evidence of discrimination’s “disparate impact,” the standard by which the high court had upheld workplace civil rights victories in lower federal courts under the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause and Title VII of the U.S. Congress’s 1964 Civil Rights Act. For McCann and Lovell, Wards Cove marks the near-culmination and partial defeat of a century-long campaign by left-leaning Filipino activists to use the law to secure equality of rights in America’s “racial capitalist empire” (355). Yet their book’s essential contribution is not historiographical; Chris Friday and others have already written excellent labor histories of the Alaska canneries. Rather, their disciplinary domain is sociolegal studies, particularly the legal mobilization theory they have helped pioneer, and the methodological boundaries of which they try to expand here in both temporal and spatial scales. To this end, McCann and Lovell reconstruct Filipino workers’ imperial, postcolonial, and transnational legal subordination and activism in the twentieth century U.S. empire by employing and integrating a diverse set of theoretical concepts and social science literatures. From Marx, Gramsci, and E.P. Thompson’s appreciation of the relative autonomy of law in class societies, to American political development, social movement and critical race theory, and post-structuralist readings of legal discourse and power, the authors assemble an ambitious scholarly agenda promising original interventions in multiple fields.

3They organize the book in a two-part narrative, bookended by expansive and dense discussions of various academic literatures and the disciplinary implications of their findings. Its first part, on “ American Capitalist Expansion, Colonialism, and Empire ” charts the origins of Filipino migrant laborers’ unfree legal status in the imperial aftermath of 1898, as the United States’ multiple wars in the Philippines sealed its fates as a U.S. colony until the Commonwealth era of the 1930s, and as a U.S. client state in the Cold War following formal independence in 1946. Beginning in the 1910s and 1920s, poor workers originally from northern Luzon, and pensionados in the states for university study, departed from Seattle seasonally for jobs in Alaska salmon canneries, before they returned to the Pacific Northwest, often to return to other precarious, low-paid agricultural work into which white male employers and U.S. laws segregated them, by virtue of their race and nationality. Wards Cove exposed an industry that changed little since these early twentieth-century decades, despite unionization. Paid little, less than white counterparts, their wages chiseled by labor recruiters and company stores in remote regions, and poorly housed and fed, Filipinos joined Chinese and Japanese men relegated to the dirtiest and most dangerous tasks by abusive white male owners and managers. As “ colonial nationals ” ineligible for U.S. citizenship (except for some Filipino veterans, until the Cold War era), Filipino Alaskeros, like other Asian workers, also suffered racial segregation and discrimination, and violence, beyond the workplace, and McCann and Lovell date their first legal campaigns to challenges against alien land and anti-miscegnation laws in Washington state in the 1920s and 1930s. McCann and Lovell painstakingly document the byzantine organizational permutations and internal politics of Filipino cannery unionism. From 1933, when Filipino cannery workers formed an American Federation of Labor local, they soon joined the new Congress of Industrial Organizations and then, when the CIO purged communist officials during the red-scare repression of the McCarthyite era, moved into the International Longshore Workers’ Union, which accommodated its leftist leadership and members. (This included Carlos Bulosan, a left-wing literary giant whose posthumously published 1973 book, America is in the Heart, captured both Filipinos’ alienation in American society, but also Popular Front-style demands for traditional liberal and egalitarian rights). Chapters in Part Two, “ Challenging Empire: Transpacific Rights Radicalism ”, trace the permutations of ILWU Local 37’s internal and external legal politics, as young second-generation Filipino activists in the 1970s, inspired by the civil rights movement and New Left, simultaneously confronted corrupt union officials, racial discrimination in the canneries, and the dictatorship of Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos during the martial-law era. Sadly, this era was punctuated by double tragedy, with the virtual defeat of Title VII class-action anti-discrimination lawsuits by employees in Wards Cove and, in 1981, the assassination of two charismatic Filipino‑American rank-and-file reformers in the union, Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo, who had established ties with leftist anti-Marcos forces inside the Philippines through the Union of Democratic Filipinos. Criminal and civil prosecutions pressed by their allies secured multiple murder convictions against Filipino‑American gang members and union bosses and awarded historic tort damages against Marcos, following his fall from power and exile in 1986, which exposed his regime’s involvement in the killings. Yet legal victories were bittersweet, given the civil rights retreat signaled in Wards Cove and, by the twenty-first century, the decline and virtual disappearance of Alaskan salmon canneries the industry that first spawned and then sustained the rights radicalism of two generations of Filipino labor activists.

4This ambitious book makes formidable contributions to several fields beyond critical legal studies and legal history, including studies of Filipino America, migration, and U.S. foreign relations, among others. Scholars of post-slavery societies such as the United States will especially appreciate the illuminating comparisons McCann and Lovell make between the legal plight of African‑American and Filipinos as marginalized workers of colors, and their related and sometimes intersecting campaigns to secure civil and human rights (indeed, Tyree Scott, an African‑American Vietnam War veteran from Seattle who in the late 1960s and 1970s launched an effective nationwide anti-discrimination legal campaign against construction employers and building trades unions, mentored Filipino‑Americans’ legal activism leading to Wards Cove). Yet careful historians of slavery, perhaps more sensitive to literary style and the empirical nuances of context and change over time, may hesitate to accept critical-theoretical and social scientific language which sometimes glosses over the fine gradations of coercion suffered by the authors’ subjects at different times and places, and borders on jargon. McCann and Lovell’s description of Filipino cannery labor as “ conscripted ” (21), for one, risks conflating the indirect coercions of global market forces and U.S. immigration and naturalization law with a term more appropriately reserved for referring to forced military service in wartime – arguably a more direct and drastic expression of “ repressive ” law inherent in the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence (indeed, Christopher Capozzola reminds us that Filipino-Americans not yet U.S. citizens were actually drafted as early as World War I, not just World War II, as noted by McCann and Lovell). Similarly, the coauthors’ self-declared “ affinity ” (400) for Filipino‑American activists’ anti‑racist, anti‑imperialist, democratic socialist agenda is admirable, and reflects current academic trends toward authorial transparency and disclosure of bias, given the conventions of standpoint theory. Yet a historical narrative which, at points, reads like chronicle or hagiography may prompt some readers to wonder if the authors withheld possibly valid criticisms of their subjects (some of whom they know personally, and provided personal papers and oral history interviews), especially their legal or political strategies. This notwithstanding, this book, more than twenty years in the making, is a scholarly labor of love which matches in its grand scope and innumerable insights the remarkable legacy of a group of working-class Asian-American radicals who will not now be so easily overlooked, or forgotten.

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Justin Jackson, « Michael W. McCann and George I. Lovell, Union by Law: Filipino American Labor Activists, Rights Radicalism, and Racial Capitalism »Esclavages & Post-esclavages [En ligne], 6 | 2022, mis en ligne le 19 mai 2022, consulté le 10 décembre 2023. URL :

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Justin Jackson

Assistant Professor in History, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, United States

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