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Union by Law

Filipino American Labor Activists, Rights Radicalism, and Racial Capitalism

Union by Law

Filipino American Labor Activists, Rights Radicalism, and Racial Capitalism

Starting in the early 1900s, many thousands of native Filipinos were conscripted as laborers in American West Coast agricultural fields and Alaska salmon canneries. There, they found themselves confined to exploitative low-wage jobs in racially segregated workplaces as well as subjected to vigilante violence and other forms of ethnic persecution.  In time, though, Filipino workers formed political organizations and affiliated with labor unions to represent their interests and to advance their struggles for class, race, and gender-based social justice.

Union by Law analyzes the broader social and legal history of Filipino American workers’ rights-based struggles, culminating in the devastating landmark Supreme Court ruling, Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio (1989). Organized chronologically, the book begins with the US invasion of the Philippines and the imposition of colonial rule at the dawn of the twentieth century. The narrative then follows the migration of Filipino workers to the United States, where they mobilized for many decades within and against the injustices of American racial capitalist empire that the Wards Cove majority willfully ignored in rejecting their longstanding claims. This racial innocence in turn rationalized judicial reconstruction of official civil rights law in ways that significantly increased the obstacles for all workers seeking remedies for institutionalized racism and sexism. A reclamation of a long legacy of racial capitalist domination over Filipinos and other low-wage or unpaid migrant workers, Union by Law also tells a story of noble aspirational struggles for human rights over several generations and of the many ways that law was mobilized both to enforce and to challenge race, class, and gender hierarchy at work.

504 pages | 24 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2020

Chicago Series in Law and Society

History: American History

Law and Legal Studies: Law and Society

Political Science: American Government and Politics


Can anti-discrimination litigation be a tool for social change?  For many years, a contingent on the academic left contended that the answer is no . . . . A remarkable new book by Michael McCann and George Lovell offers a different view . . . . That is what makes Union by Law such a timely book. McCann and Lovell fully appreciate the limits of legal rights, and of anti-discrimination law in particular . . . . Yet the authors are not prepared to give up on legal rights mobilization. In their view, “law still provides one of the most important institutionalized sites . . . for subaltern group resistance to . . . hegemonic policies, practices, and relationships in both state and society.” They note that “legions of leftist activists in and beyond the United States have embraced the liberal principle of egalitarian citizenship to challenge the proprietarian, profit-based principles of capitalism.”  Legal contests, they conclude, “often generate ‘forums of protest’ that can keep alive alternative ideas and ideals, inspire and hotwire mobilization for new forms of advocacy, keep pressure on dominant groups to reassess their interests in conceding changes that benefit marginalized people, and thus sometimes alter at least slightly the balance of power among social groups.” That may not be much, but it is something to celebrate in the ongoing battle for social change . . . . Rather than simply writing off antidiscrimination law as inherently neoliberal, we should recognize the important though limited role it can play as one of many tools to achieve more radical ends.


"Union by Law is a pioneering subaltern history of immigrant workers and their relationship to law and legal institutions in the 20th century. The book should fundamentally reshape how we do research on legal mobilization and social movements. Rather than analyzing discrete, bounded episodes of law and organizing, this pioneering study examines resistance across time and space in order to capture questions of differential power, to understand the development of nomoi and narratives, and to see clearly the long-term dynamics of racial hierarchy and global empire.  Though unique in its narrative, lens, and methodology, the book confirms much of what sociolegal scholars like Stuart Scheingold and Michael McCann himself have long argued: law is variegated both for and against social justice; official law is repressive in most moments but can signal possibility in others."

The Law & Society Review

"Expanding our understanding of Filipino American labor activism through a legalistic approach to the struggle, Michael McCann and George Lovell have written a significant book that should influence a generation of scholarship. . . . the insights of the book’s core make it a fine contribution to the fields of labor history and legal history, as well as to political science."

Pacific Historical Review

Union by Law is a tour de force, a product of an immense amount of research and knowledge. It carefully and artfully follows the political and legal experience of Filipino Americans from initial US Colonization to union mobilization to Cold War–era violent struggle to the Wards Cove decision at the end of the 1980s. Throughout an illuminating and beautifully written historical narrative, the authors carefully delineate the ways in which law enveloped the lives of these immigrant laborers, both in confining and offering certain momentary opportunities. It is another terrific addition to the canon of these two leading scholars of the field.”

Paul Frymer, Princeton University

Union by Law offers a magisterial and inspiring history of inter-generational and transnational struggle by Filipino migrants conscripted to work in the Alaska salmon canning industry. With rigor and care, the book examines the brutality of racial subordination, its iron-clad linkage with worker exploitation, and the extent both rely on legalized forms of oppression. But from the margins, workers find the courage to reclaim power and rewrite the legal meaning of discrimination in a system of racial capitalism. That the system ultimately stymies the workers’ boldest claims only underscores the necessity of their struggle. In this sense, it is a history that speaks with particular force to our current times.”

Scott Cummings, UCLA School of Law

“This is a powerful book, covering a long history of labor mobilization in the face of a racialized labor regime and a frequently exclusionary and hostile legal system. It clearly shows the power of the law to support the claims of less powerful groups from time to time as it is mobilized by social justice advocates, as well as the inevitable slippage and failure of the law to accomplish these ends at other times. It expresses both despair and a resurgent hope that the institutions of American law and politics might live up to their ideals.”

Sally Engle Merry, New York University

Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
Notes on Terminology


Part I American Capitalist Expansion, Colonialism, and Empire
Prologue to Part I: The American Colonial Project in the Philippines

1 Filipino Migration to the Metropole: Racism, Resistance, and Rights
2 A Cannery Workers’ Union by Law: The Formative Years
3 Rights Radicalism amid “Restrictive” Law: The War Years

Part II Challenging Empire: Transpacific Rights Radicalism
Prologue to Part II: The Cold War Era: Global Empire, the Rise of Marcos, and Civil Rights

4 LELO, ACWA, and the Politics of Radical Rights Mobilization
5 The Trials of Tragedy: Turning Anguish into Anger
6 Wards Cove v. Atonio: The Execution of “Good” Civil Rights Law

Conclusion: Theorizing Law and Legal Mobilization in Racial Capitalist Empire

Appendix: Official Legal Texts

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