Aug 28, 2023 - News

Self-defeating racism in Utah's early labor movement

A news article quotes from a flier calling for a boycott of Ogden businesses.

From The Salt Lake Democrat, Oct. 19, 1885. Image via Utah Digital Newspapers

In the vast annals of Utah racism, it's hard to read the vicious anti-Chinese hate in the decades after the Golden Spike — a cause aggressively advanced by the early labor movement.

  • In 1885, the Knights of Labor were up against their own bigotry.

Driving the news: The Knights, who were the first national labor federation, organized a boycott in Ogden against anyone they thought was too nice to Chinese people.

  • They targeted a number of people who were previously sympathetic to the Knights, burning the tenuous goodwill they had established.

Context: Anti-Chinese hostility was becoming violent in Utah by 1885, with attacks by disgruntled white workers who believed Chinese immigrants were depressing wages, and at least one known lynching.

Zoom out: Campaigns to "expel" Chinese workers were escalating throughout the West, including the killings of at least 28 Chinese miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming, in September 1885.

Details: Although the Knights of Labor disavowed the massacre, less than two weeks later they revived their calls to expel Chinese workers — and ramped up anti-Chinese rhetoric in Ogden, where fewer than 100 Chinese people lived.

The intrigue: The Knights of Labor, while amassing about 800,000 members nationally, had more precarious ties in Utah.

What happened: When the Knights printed their list of "Chinese-friendly" Ogdenites to boycott, the railroad town had enough.

  • The Ogden Herald finally deemed the group's efforts there a failure.

The big picture: It was not the first or last time that organized labor allowed racism to flummox its goals.

Yes, but: In their zeal, the Knights pushed at least one of their boycott targets toward a more forward-thinking conclusion.

  • Chinese and white workers should be paid the same, Ogden realtor Joseph West wrote, "destroying the bitter competition now existing between these races."

Previously in Old News:


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