Hard-won Successes, Uncertain Futures
The first Monday in September is celebrated as Labor Day, a federal and state holiday and yes, one of the few days that Costco is closed. For most folks, Labor Day is a three-day weekend to go camping, hold beach barbecues (steaks, hot dogs and hamburgers), have family gatherings, and even take a short vacation to O‘ahu or Las Vegas.
Labor Day, which became a federal holiday in 1894—almost 125 years ago, honors the organized labor movement. For Filipinos in Hawai‘i, the labor movement has been an integral part of our community’s history and progress.
“Hawai‘i workers, through unions like the ILWU, were part of the movement that changed pre-War Hawai‘i from a feudal oligarchal society to a more egalitarian community. As in many other parts of our country, the annual Labor Day weekend celebrations have shifted from commemoration of labor’s important role in building civic life through parades and rallies to typical American and local long-holiday weekend activities like camping, barbecues and family gatherings,” said Senator Gilbert Keith-Agaran, who represents Central Maui and whose father, Manuel Coloma, was a 1946 Sakada.
The plight of the Sakadas and the difficult and unfair working conditions led to the first Filipino labor union in 1911 organized by Pablo Manlapit of Kaua‘i. In the following years, Filipinos led strikes, with the most notorious one in April 1924 when approximately 1600 Filipino plantation workers went on strike at 23 of Hawai‘i’s 45 plantations for eight months. During the 1924 strike, sixteen Filipinos and four policemen were killed in what has been called the Hanapēpē Massacre. But not all Filipinos would join the 1924 strike. Herman Andaya participated in an oral history project of the University of Michigan and recalled that he refused to participate in the 1924 strike because he came to Hawai‘i to work—not to strike.
Thirteen years after the 1924 strike, Manlapit’s lieutenant, Antonio Fagel, together with future International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) president Carl Damaso, and 3,500 Filipinos engaged in an 85 day strike against the Pu‘unēnē plantation in Maui. The Hawai‘i Sugar Planters Association (HSPA) agreed to a fifteen percent pay raise but there was no written contract signed.
World War II briefly interrupted the recruitment of plantation workers but from 1944 to 1946, the ILWU saw an increase in union membership from 900 to 28,000. HSPA anticipated a strike and planned to bring in replacement workers from the Philippines. But HSPA was concerned its recruiting efforts would be restricted by the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934. HSPA quickly arranged to bring in over 6,000 workers from the Philippines before July 4, 1946, the date the Philippines would regain their independence and immigration would be limited to only 50 per year.
HSPA thought the Filipinos would be potential strikebreakers but the ILWU had organizers from the Marine Cooks and Stewards union on board the ships signing up the Filipinos who were welcomed into the ILWU once they arrived. Anak, published during the 100th year anniversary of the Sakada, cites Cirilo Sinfuego and Pepito Ragasa, 1946 Sakadas, as recalling that everyone who stepped off the S.S. Maunawili became a member of the ILWU.
In 1946, the ILWU led about 26,000 sugar workers and their families—about 76 thousand people—on a 79 day strike from September 1 through November 18—shutting down 33 of the 34 plantations. The ILWU learned from prior strikes and included all ethnic groups. The sugar workers won the strike and the sugar plantations’ domination of Hawai‘i’s economy and social life ended, opening the way for Hawai‘i to develop into a more modern and democratic society.
Celina Macadangdang Hayashi fondly tells how her grandfather Pedro Macadangdang, a 1946 Sakada, recalls the strike “Papa told me that he joined ILWU because he recognized that although he had to sacrifice time and money, he could see that it benefitted the greater good. He felt that the sacrifice was an investment in the future for his family. He shared that contributing money from his meager earnings was very difficult to do. He remembered going on strike, and feeling very anxious and worried about it, but knowing it was important and about how Mama (my grandmother) made food for the workers when they went on strike.”
Over seventy years later, there are perhaps a dozen surviving Sakadas on Maui. Gone are the memories of working for a dollar a day and living in almost slum-like conditions. The memories are passed on through the generation by oral histories: “Papa shared with me the hardships he had to endure: the difficult back-breaking work, the cruel treatment and the meager pay working for the sugarcane plantation. He told me that it was only with the laborers uniting and bonding together, in the strength of the union, that they were able to overcome these harsh working conditions,” recalls Hayashi. Silvestre Baggao, a 1946 Sakada, joined ILWU so his rights as an employee were protected, said daughter Myrna Baggao Breen. “My Dad said the ILWU represented the workers to assist them with wage increases as well,” Breen explained.
Recent immigrants from the Philippines can no longer work at the now-closed Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company. Filipinos now populate the health care and hospitality industries and the number of small-businesses owned by Filipinos are on the rise.
In a society where immediate gratification and a “What have you done for me lately” attitude prevails, some wonder whether unions are still effective. “I am not a trouble-maker so I would not need the help of a union,” said a young married man and father of a toddler son who preferred to remain anonymous. “Unions have benefitted workers but are losing ground,” he said.
Steven Castro, who has served as ILWU’s Maui Division Director for the last four and a half years, disagrees. “I believe unions are still effective. We always have organizing drives. When we’re able to show the comparisons, it usually works in our favor.”
Although HC&S and Makena Surf closed last year, ILWU’s union membership on Maui remains high, with approximately 5,500 members and close to a thousand retirees. The union membership is in the hotel industry, golf courses, pineapple, and general trades such as trucking. “We’re growing, sometimes it’s a slow pace. We just ratified a renewal with Andaz and the benefits and wages are excellent,” said Castro. “The greatest benefit of unions is being able to negotiate benefits that you may not otherwise have with a non-union,” Castro explains. “For example, at some of our major hotels, the employer pays for all the medical and no contribution from the employee. That’s really important because the cost of medical is so high, especially here in Hawai‘i.”
Arnel Alvarez, a steward for ILWU at the Grand Wailea Resort echoes Castro’s sentiments: “I appreciate the union for negotiating contracts for workers to have job protection, full medical insurance, legal representation, tenure, contract negotiations, and seniority benefits, such as being first to be informed and considered for promotion or new job opportunities that come up, and just feeling secure in your position, if you’re doing a good job.”
Of course, having a union does not guarantee success in all labor disputes. A female union member working at a major airline, who insisted on anonymity, said “Our union provides many positive benefits. But they cannot win cases when there is not enough evidence.” Another anonymous male union member claimed “Unions are mostly beneficial but not when they don’t back you up when you most need it.” An anonymous member of the United Public Workers union commented on the recent labor struggles at Maui Memorial Medical Center “The union was effective in terms of getting what was due to us.”
Lucio Calina, Jr. whose dad was a Sakada, has worked at both union and non-union positions and believes in the strength of unions. “The company I work for now has no union. But when I was a civilian worker for the U.S. Air Force, the union was beneficial for workers.”
Castro explains that non-union members have benefitted from the actions of unions. “Historically, in order for non-union employers to maintain their non-bargaining union employees, the employers have to be competitive. They have to offer similar wages, holidays, pension plans, or 401K plans, so they don’t lose their employees to a union shop. For example, we had a nonunion employee making $10-plus per hour and minimal benefits as a housekeeper. We got her in a union shop and she now makes $20 per hour plus benefits.”
While there is still a long way to go before Filipinos reach equity of place in the American social order in Hawai‘i, the future looks bright for Filipino-American youth, many of mixed ethnicity, with Filipino being only one of many influences enriching their bloodlines and cultural perspectives. Many youth view the labor movement as a piece of old history because the technology generation has become grounded in another, more worldly place, one more fluid and intangible. The traditional institutions for stability, such as church, school, and community organizations, do not garner intense, broad-based interest from today’s youth, who are more comfortable with the opportunities for connectivity and entrepreneurship in multiple co-existing worlds, each offering something uniquely inviting for the individual who is in search mode. There is strong acknowledgment and wide acceptance that the large majority of future workers will be employed by companies and corporations, and that most will have a union to represent them in negotiations for contract benefits. But there is also an acknowledgment by the unions of the need to work hand-in-hand with employers. “We try to get the best we can for our members but we have to keep in mind the company needs to make a profit. We work really hard with our employers,” said Castro.
Today the descendants of the 1946 Sakadas have accomplished much beyond the dreams of their parents, and many remember the importance of unions. “I’m from a union family—my parents were both members of Local 142—so I’ve always welcomed support from labor,” said Keith-Agaran. “I live in and represent a community of working families so job opportunities are important. I’ve served on the labor committees in both the House and the Senate and I remain sympathetic to workers’ concerns with our workers’ compensation system and for maintaining basic workers’ rights and benefits.”
The union struggles have not fallen on deaf ears. “Papa shared how it was only in solidarity (through the union) that he and his fellow plantation field laborers were able to achieve the working benefits and rights that they deserved,” added Hayashi. “When I interviewed him in 2015, he was 92 years old and he still expressed such heartfelt appreciation and triumph in their victory in attaining fair and equitable treatment, benefits and wages—all of which my generation so casually expect and take for granted today!”
For the thousands of Sakadas such as Andaya, Baggao, Calina, Coloma, Macadangdang, Ragasa, and Sinfuego, Labor Day was not just about hot dogs and hamburgers or a day in the sun. After all, their day in the sun was pure labor.
Elizabeth Ayson, Ph.D., left, is a retired educator, having served in the State Department of Education for over forty years. She previously served as the Principal at ‘Īao Intermediate School, the Vice Principal at Lihikai Elementary School and Maui High School, and she taught at Lihikai Elementary School, Blanche Pope School in Waimānalo, O‘ahu, Frank Thompson Middle School in Boston, Massachusetts, and Stuart Elementary School in Boston, Massachusetts. She was graduated from Baldwin High School, Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois (majoring in Music Education and Elementary Education), and University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa (M.Ed.). She received her doctorate from Union University in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Alfredo G. Evangelista, above right, son of 1946 Sakada Elias Acang Evangelista, contributed to this article.