In June of 1982

In June of 1982, Chinese women immigrant workers went on strike
for a good contract, stepping out on Chinatown New York tarmac.


In 2015, I combed through black and white
cropped hair and smiling faces,
beige hose and flowered blouses
looking for a relative, my grandmother,
even my own faced mother,
a girl attentively snipping threads
among heavy folds of fabric.


You practice combing by removing short fibers, hoping what can be worsted can be useful,
and incite the rest to twist together to make one rectilinear foretelling.


While we waited in the car for my father
back with a plastic container of duck,
I asked: Do you remember working in the factory?
Mom later turned to dad. He thought about it:
My job was snipping threads and making rice.
The rice? We brought our own side dishes.
The foreman served us rice.
Was it unsanitary, to eat in the factory?
No one got sick, mom pointed out.
It was okay, dad agreed.


In 2015, I wanted something to be mine. Why not this?


That semester I sailed through labor studies
on gilded waves of ultra-leftism like I was
being pop quizzed on hot-headed justice, 1930s
on the compensation of workers, the fire still
named for assembly line production and not
for the worker women who died for them in 1911.


I felt like I could combust,
the way our professor lectured Five Points
without mentioning the now soggy stubble of Astroturf
the block still bent between Baxter and Mulberry.
I found my comb, curious now, at
the threads caught in the tooth.


Take the 1982 ILGWU Strike in New York Chinatown.
In history, when unions flatten workers
into busy squabbling lines of easily excitable, simple –
everyone knows but does not care about the smearing,
blurring into nameless faces and selfsame bodies with no past.


Workers become a different kind of machine.
Arm and leg a lever in an equation for optimization.


The hand is not actually a lever,
and the joint is not actually a bolt.
I watched the aftermath of Rana Plaza in 2013,
the one they say is no one’s fault.


Famous pictures plastered on screens,
dust turning, some freak sandstorm
turning workers into martyrs.
It is easy for the overseas bosses to pretend
that the workers have always been there,
this far distance from human, even dead.


In 2015, I chase the past,
a compass vibrating off-kilter,
a comb picking through what
has already been shaped.


You know their victories not our victories,
but you recognize when they lose, we lose.


Your hand is the hand that combs
is the hand that cheers the strike
is the hand that Taylor broke into a lever and a bolt
is the body that embraces someone you would fight for
in a factory doomed to become a stranger’s story.


In June of 1982, Chinese immigrant women struck,
so we organize, powerful enough to fight for more.

— Alina Shen




Alina Shen originally wrote this poem for the LaborArts “Making Work Visible” contest while a student at City College in 2015. Currently Lead Organizer of CAAAV Chinatown Tenants Union, a chapter of CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, she has revised it for this 40th Anniversary exhibit.