Arab Americans in the Labor Force and their Impact on U.S. Society
As Labor Day approaches this Monday, did you know about Arab Americans’ historic contributions to the labor force? Their significance in the early twentieth century cannot be overstated. Arab Americans played a prominent role as the backbone of American industrialization and war preparation throughout the twentieth century.
A large wave of Arab Christians emigrated from Lebanon and Syria in 1890s, finding work as grocers and peddlers. However, third, fourth, and fifth-generation Arab Americans today are much more likely to have descended from their ancestors who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1910s and 1920s in search of highly paid unskilled labor. In 1914, Henry Ford offered a wage of $5.00 per day to all of his employees. At this point in time, many laborers made less than $5.00 per week so immigrants eagerly followed Mr. Ford to the assembly lines.
Ford opened the Rouge Factory in Dearborn, Michigan in 1918, which explains the high concentration of Arab Americans living in the area today. Arabs, in particular, settled around the Rouge Factory because Henry Ford held prejudices against other races and groups that exceeded his prejudice towards Arabs. For example, he was more willing to hire Arab immigrants than African Americans, which further explains the outcome of Michigan’s current demographics.
Of course, there are numerous different identities within the demographics of Dearborn and within the Arab American community itself. As Matthew Stiffler states: “some Arab Americans, like my family, came here in the 1890s from Lebanon. Some families came here from Iraq or Yemen or Palestine maybe a week ago.” Today, it is impossible to accurately measure the size of the Arab population in southeast Michigan because historical immigration records often labeled Arabs as either Asian, Turkic, or white.
Arab Americans’ contribution to the auto industry and the U.S. economy in the twentieth century is unsurmountable because their work allowed for automobiles to be purchased by the middle class. Prior to their work in the Rouge Factory, only the elite class could afford a car.
In addition, the Rouge Factory was transformed into a site for military production during the breakout of the Second World War. Arab Americans worked on the highest producing factory of militarized machinery in the U.S.
Steve P. Yokich was a notable Arab American that advanced the U.S. automobile industry. As the president of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) from 1995 to 2002, he worked to improve the lives of all employees by enhancing their degree of job protection. In fact, he is still remembered in a positive light for the “ground-breaking job protection and generous benefits” that he fought to obtain for members of the United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers despite his passing in 2002.
The UAW was comprised of 672,000 members when Yokich retired so his efforts affected a substantial populace.
Yokich was a third-generation union member after his parents and his grandparents, who emigrated from Lebanon to work in the booming automobile industry of the time. Amazingly, Yokich dropped out of high school to assist his father at the Heidrich Tool and Die factory in Oak Park and he still succeeded in becoming the president of a major union. He was known for being blunt and truthful to both his friends and adversaries. Despite this fact, he was still able to forge a beneficial relationship between his union and both GM and Ford.
Compiled by Arab America