Dr. William Puette, Center for Labor Education and Research (CLEAR) at the University of Hawaii

ROBYNN: So some laborers have compared work to slavery. Analyze & detail.

BILL: The question of slavery may seem like a harsh statement, that Hawaii’s laborers were treated like slaves, but if you go back and look at the records of how people were treated at that time period, it really is justifiable.

You could also argue, and there’s scholars who have argued that plantation workers were treated better in Hawaii than in any place where there were sugar plantations because that’s true. On other sugar plantations it was flat-out slavery.

The advantage Hawaii workers had was the people who settled in Hawaii were the children of missionaries who were from abolitionist stock, so they had a fundamental abhorrence of the concept of slavery, but it was their children who ended up being the plantation managers so they were always in a bind between it makes good sense to treat people as bad as slaves but they didn’t want to have it come right out as slavery, we’re not treating them like slaves after all, but the fact of the matter is that’s how they ended up being treated.

because the managers may have thought one thing but the overseers that they would hire and that’s why the term luna is the term for overseer, were quite often people who were trained right out of the slave plantations in the south and they treated their workers as they were expecting workers to be treated in southern antebellum plantations in the south.

So there’s plenty of examples of workers that were beaten. The luna, the overseer in Hawaii notoriously carried this whip, what they called the ‘black snake’ and they didn’t hesitate to use this. And the law that covered people at that time was a law enacted in 1850 and was really a part of the changeover from the Hawaiian monarchy to the new way, what they at that time called reform, and it was a reform that was pushed down the throat of the monarchs of Hawaii in what they called a ‘Bayonet constitution.’

King Kawakawa was forced to sign this and part of the terms of the constitution opened the door for things like the masters and servants act and the disenfranchisement of all of not just the Hawaiians but all of the Asiatics and the Asians that they had here – Asiatics being the term they used in that time period.

So there were property restrictions on the right to vote. They weren’t able to own land. And they were brought over on contracts that had been passed under the guise of what had passed in 1850 as the masters and servants law. Well the term master and servant, there were laws like this in the US before the civil war also, and they were laws that enshrined and established in legal terms, slavery.

So the best absolute proof of this is Hawaii’s masters and servants law was in 1900 when Hawaii was annexed and became a territory, was considered voided by the anti-slavery amendment that came out of the Civil War, but much later than it was in the rest of the US. So under the Masters and servants law, these people were considered contract workers, they could be under contract for ten years, but instead of being enforced in civil court, when you violate a contract, as most people think of a contract, like an independent contractor today, under the masters and servants law, the magistrates and police enforced these things, so if somebody didn’t show up to work, they would be hunted down by the police. And they would be thrown in jail and they would be fined and their contract would be extended at no pay for usually in the beginning double the time period that they were not there.

And you had people who came here, not thinking the work was going to be as awful as it was, and they tried to run away and they were hunted down and in many cases they were jailed and when they came back they would be beaten in addition to all these other things.

So there’s clear records of this kind of thing happening to individual workers.

And then the other thing that I like to point out is in Hawaii, for many years, they knew about this tactic that was used of keeping track of workers with a little dogtag. In Hawaii the term for it is bongo. Bango, or bango. And the bango tag comes from the Japanese word for number, just had a number on it and during that period all of the Japanese and Filipinos, all of the plantation workers were given these tags and that meant the plantation workers didn’t bother with their names.

They just called them. They identified them by their name – hey number 337, number 442. This was when you hear the oral histories later on when they’re talking about this era they were greatly insulted by this stripping away of their name and having to live with just this number, because that was again an insult to their family, to their history to their heritage to their culture, but beyond that, as I found out later on when I was trying to find some of these on eBay, it turned out that these plantation tags were also very commonly used during the period of slavery in the antebellum south and they were called plantation slave tags.

So the exact same device that was used to keep track of slaves in the south became the device by which the people in Hawaii under the Masters and Servants Law were kept track of on the plantation with their numbers.

ROBYNN: Capitalism and the plantation industry. Relation to demand for labor.

BILL: There’s a famous quote from the Planter’s Monthly, and the Planter’s Monthly was the newspaper of the sugar planter’s association, which was organized well before any labor union was organized, was the employer’s organization.

And in their planter’s monthly there’s this great quote, we read it today and it almost sounds insulting, but it’s “The only way you’re going to be successful at having plantation labor, and the lesson of this is right out of plantation, sugar plantations and other plantations of this sort throughout the world, is by having plain cheap servile labor.”

And this is what they needed. And they wrote these words in the context of the fact that there were not enough Hawaiians to fulfill the need for labor in that time period, so how were they going to get labor? And it was pretty clear that they were not just going to be able to recruit labor from mainland US and try to find people who would come out here and do work because the work is servile and again it’s slave labor. There’s no way around it. Again, it’s never going to work.

So capitalism looked upon this type of enterprise as an enterprise that could only succeed by using slave labor. Servile labor. And that’s where again, they ended up passing that master and servants law that had to be enacted in order to justify and put into law the ability of the planters to hire workers on that basis, as slaves, and bring them over from countries all across the south pacific and Asia.

ROBYNN: Vividly describe the hard work.

BILL: First of all, I have to say as maybe obvious, let’s acknowledge this as I have to acknowledge this myself – I never worked on a sugar plantation. We have only oral histories that we are familiar with today. I think it’s sort of a problem when we’re trying to teach labor history today to generations of people in Hawaii, the students in high schools and even their parents, they were born in a time period long after the worst of plantation labor and so people who go back to that time period when there was the treatment of slave labor conditions, those people are not alive anymore.

We fortunately do have oral histories in which they describe very vividly how horrible and how hard the work was, and again one of my favorite was an example of, reading an account of a plantation worker in Waianae plantation, and he was from Japan. He was a wrestler; he was in excellent physical condition. He had a little sideline in the plantation after hours of being a Japanese wrestler.

So we have somebody who is in peak physical condition but he could not stand the labor. It was exhausting. It was awfully hard work. The sugar plantation work, particularly in the very early years, unlike what happened in later years when they would burn sugar cane, people used to see that in Hawaii for many years and think that was the way it was always done, the burning of sugar cane fields which allows, when the burn the sugarcane after it’s matured enough then the stalk of the cane, where the actual sugar is, the stalk of the cane is moist enough so it doesn’t burn, so it’s a way of harvesting it and burn off all the roughage.

But in the early days these people came over, they hadn’t figured that out yet so they had people, this was mostly women’s labor by the way, that were stripping the cane by hand, manually, hole hole work they called it, stripping the cane. And it was horrible work. When you see what they wore sometimes people are shocked because they think my god, this is Hawaii, they must have been sweating to death. They were bound up with clothes all around their face, all around their hands and arms and legs, and the reason for that is this cane stalk material would lacerate them. They would be bleeding severely after one day’s labor if they didn’t protect themselves in that way. And the cloth they used had to be heavy enough that it would protect them. That it wouldn’t easily be cut through.

So it wasn’t a walk in the park. Then you have in addition to the hard labor, the grueling labor, you had it being done under conditions that were like a sweatshop for each individual worker who was out there. And if anybody’s ever done something like that where piled on a bunch of clothing and ran around the block a couple of times understands how grueling it is when your body heat is not being able to dissipate, particularly in the tropic sun. But they had to go out there, they had the women strip the cane down, and then the men’s work was what they call hapaiko, which was to carry the cane.

And so they bound them together in 80 to 100 pound, sometimes even more than that because it really depended on what they could carry, loads, and then they threw it over their shoulders and carried it off to the trucks. Now, these people were not paid on an hourly basis. They were paid in the old traditions, like in the mines in the US a long time ago, by the tonnage.

So it was how much you brought in was how much you got paid. It was not an hourly wage or it was certainly not a weekly wage or even necessarily a monthly wage. There’s many arguments that stimulated the early disputes about how they were playing around with the weighing process and how they were throwing away some of the cane, saying you can’t put this in, this doesn’t count. We’re going to deduct from your total how much you carried in that day. So that kind of work is very physically demanding and grueling and you’re knee deep in this work and the fields are full of spiders and centipedes and the worst kind of tropical animals.

The one thing that we don’t have in Hawaii is snakes. So we’re fortunate for that, but virtually any other kind of vermin you can imagine – rats, as I say, and bugs the size of small dogs would end up coming out at you. It was difficult work and the people who were cutting it had these sharp axes and women had to do the hole hole work. It was, I can’t say enough, I don’t know if I’m communicating.

But today, the generations we have today, they have no sense of how hard and demanding and grueling and hard that work was. But I do like to go back to that wrestler, Waianae, who found he couldn’t handle it. And he ran away several times and he kept being arrested, fined, thrown in jail and then beaten with the overseers whip. But that didn’t stop him; he kept trying to do it until he was beaten into submission.

ROBYNN: Early contracts. Protests were around living conditions. Describe.

BILL: The, in Hawaii on Oahu there is a wonderful place called the Waipahu cultural garden park, and I think you, some of you visited this in the past. As wonderful as that place is I criticize it because the housing that is depicted is from a much later time period, which is sort of understandable because they used blueprints and so forth that were available and the blueprints come from a period where they had blueprints and they built housing much much later, after a lot of union protests had created situations where they were trying to appease labor with better housing. But early housing, and there are pictures that survive, not many, because there wasn’t that much interest in the press to go out and take pictures of this, but there are a few pictures in the state archives that depict this. They were just shanties. They were horrible places to stay and they were more reminiscent of slave cottages you saw in the south in the US.

So when workers were recruited from other cultures, and other cultures where concepts of cleanliness are different from our own. The Japanese in particular had a hard time with conditions. They’re no strangers to grueling work, but they are also used to having baths and bathing on a regular basis at the end of every workday they would bathe and that’s not the culture of the western people who owned those plantations. They were more likely to see a bath as something once a week, maybe once a month. They would never have any provision for that, and then they would just hose them down. So the way they treated slaves in the south.

So this kind of issue of cleanliness became a big issue in a lot of the early labor disturbances in the Japanese camp in particular. Because they were used to much more personal hygiene and so some of the strikes, some of the settlements were as simple as after the strike, we want to be able to build a furo, a Japanese bathtub so that we can have this time to take a bath at night and be clean. And demands that some of the water be made available for that purpose. Sugar production uses an intense amount of water. I remember being told at one time it takes a ton of water to make a pound of sugar. And so the use of water on the plantation is very jealously guarded so they were a bit concerned I’m sure about making that kind of water available to the plantation workers just for taking all these baths, which I can see from the western perspective, why do you need all that? We don’t need all that. What’s the problem? Nobody else traditionally needs this.

But they weren’t sensitive to the culture these people were coming from. And that’s just one culture. The problems were magnified a hundred times when you look at the other ethnic groups that had their own backgrounds and their own understanding about what you need for personal space and what you don’t need for personal space. Most of the people who came over who were single were made to live in barracks. They didn’t have individual housing. It was barracks life where you’d have sometimes ten, sometimes forty workers you were sharing a single building with and you’d roll out your cot next to the next worker and that was it. And that was permanent condition through the whole period of your contract, that’s how it was. Later, the people who got the best housing conditions would be married couples, but that was kept to a minimum. There were not that many married couples early on. And so many problems resulted from it that later when they brought in Filipinos in 1906 they made specific provisions that they weren’t even going to allow women; they were going to go only for men because it was cheaper to house them. And then they didn’t get any fancy notions about settling in Hawaii, because certainly there was no idea in the minds of the planters that the people who were brought in, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Filipinos, would ever stay in Hawaii. They were meant to be on these contracts and then they were to get out and leave afterward and go back to the country that they came from. They did not want them building roots here in Hawaii. And when that was done, it was done with great difficulty.

ROBYNN: Why was it economic for planters to recruit men?

BILL: There was a period of time before the burning of the cane when the women, particularly Japanese women were useful because they could do this type of work. And this is classic, they paid the women half as much as they paid the men. Flat out. So as bad as the men were paid, the women were paid much less for doing very very grueling work. But there was the side problem from that that you have married couples developing. And where you have marriage you have babies and all these other things that they did not want to deal with. So they much preferred to have not just male but servile male labor. And we have some very interesting oral histories, particularly when they were recruiting the Filipinos. How some of the Filipino men were in line to go to Hawaii and they would be asked questions about education and if they mentioned that they had any education whatsoever they were disqualified, they would be thrown out. They were not looking for educated Filipinos. They were looking for people, one of the oral histories by this Filipino man was he went to them and they disqualified him and he talked to one of his friends and they told him why because he told them that he could speak a little English and knew something and had gone to school for a couple of years. So he went in line again and when they asked him the same question, he put dirt all over his face he just shook his head and pretended like he was retarded and they took him. Just like that they snapped him up and that’s how he ended up in Hawaii.

ROBYNN: Describe waves of immigrants on plantations. Did they displace workers on the social ladder?

BILL: The pattern of immigration of these workers from Asia and the South Pacific is very complicated and lots of different things can be said but most important to understand is a large number of people who came in to work came to work on those contracts. When their contracts were up, then they left. They did not stay. So there was a constant need to recruit more labor. So you didn’t have Japanese and Chinese staying and then becoming a new echelon in society to a huge extent. To a limited extent, yes, there were always people who fought the trends and tried to find a way to stay, find a niche they could build in Hawaii. Mostly when they were able to do that they did it by serving their own plantations. In other words, if you were Japanese and you tried to stay in Hawaii, one thing you might be able to do after your contract was up was you might go into selling tofu. Now, selling tofu you’re not going to be in competition for any western merchant because tofu is not sold to anybody except the Japanese plantation workers. So for that reason you might be able to have a small business that caters to a specific need. Or there were some people who came to Hawaii specifically to build a newspaper just for that ethnic group. At one point there were five or six different newspapers – even more, there were Japanese newspapers and Chinese newspapers, so there were communities that were self-sustaining around the plantation that served those needs. And there was less resistance from the owners and the planters and the big five who really controlled the economy to squelch that than there was if they tried to go into town and take jobs from anybody else in the society or make businesses to compete against the economic interests, which were very monolithic in Hawaii at that time period. But many, many thousands came and thousands went right back out again. There was a time period when before 1900 something like 46,000 Chinese came and then about ten years later there was maybe only 20,000 and then after that there was even 10,000 and 2,000. Where did all those people go? Well, most of them didn’t stay in Hawaii. Some of them married Hawaiians and so you had this, that mix going on and they would often do that because they wanted to own land. It was the only way an Asian could own land in Hawaii was if they married a Hawaiian. So you see a lot of families today that have Hawaiian/Chinese, is probably one of the most common mixes because of the restrictions against owning land in that time period. But so many of our Chinese went. I’m the director of the center for labor immigration at the university of Hawaii, and one of the parts, one of the collections that have that we haven’t even had a chance to catalog yet and really do some work on, but we have obtained, are boxes and boxes of personnel files from Filipinos who left, who went back to the Philippines. And a similar story of Japanese who if they did not go back to Japan they would then move on to the US and there were ensuing problems. They created exclusion acts when they went to California afterward. But staying in Hawaii was not a big option. It certainly happened in a small scale but it left the plantations with a constant need to bring labor in. And in some cases after the Japanese strikes in 1906, 1909, you started to see the planters saying there’s too many Japanese. They looked at the workforce and they realized it was overwhelmingly Japanese and so then they were looking around not just for new workers, because they might have gone back to Japan. They wanted to look for workers that would offset or displace the Japanese and workers who in particular did not have any inclination to join with Japanese workers. That’s why the Filipinos became the most attractive immigrant force after that.

ROBYNN: Racial hierarchy on the plantations.

BILL: It’s one of the most shocking records that we have is a record that shows what the pay scales were around 1900 and 1906 for the different ethnic groups, it’s broken down by ethnic groups. Now, the first thing you have to understand about this is that people weren’t paid on an hourly basis. There were lots of different ways they were paid. But they were looking at the scale, and the method of payment, so the base pay, given the calculation of what your tonnage rate was, would be different for one race as opposed to another. And that different, that racially different or prioritized pay scale, seems to reflect the value that the different races or ethnicities had in the minds of the planters at that time period. There was a real sense that some people are more valuable, their work is more valuable, even though they’re doing basically the same thing. White men have more value than Asians. That was certainly clearly apparent in their scale. And that became complicated because white, what does that mean? There weren’t many Caucasians that were in the fields. There were certainly some Poles and Norwegians who came in some very small numbers at some points to work in the plantations, but by and large you’d have Portuguese, you’d have Hawaiian. Now, Portuguese and Hawaiian were considered to be a worthier form of labor, so even when they did the same work, they were paid at a higher rate than Japanese. And Japanese were paid at a lower rate than Chinese. And not just because the Chinese came first. I think because the Chinese came first, they were vilified in the early years of the plantations but as they left and it became impossible to replace Chinese because of the Chinese exclusion act that Hawaii also had to abide by, then there was this oh, those Chinese they weren’t so bad, they were pretty good actually, so they brought the Japanese in. And they kept this weighted scale. Japanese labor was not going to be as highly compensated as Chinese labor. And when the Filipinos came in, Filipino labor was not going to be compensated as highly as Japanese. So you see this definite hierarchy of pay scales for workers at that time period and it became, unlike parts of the rest of the US, such a sore point that the early labor movement that began to evolve in Hawaii evolved along these racial or ethnic lines. So you had a Japanese higher wage association, which was not just a union, because it was not just workers who assembled it, but it was all the Japanese in the community, even the intellectual Japanese that had come to do the newspapers and so forth as well, saying this is an insult to our people. To Japanese. That we should be paid fundamentally less and that our work is considered less worthy and less valuable than Chinese, than Portuguese, than Hawaiians, and certainly less than whites or haoles, as they’re called. And so when Filipinos came in and they were angered by the fact that Japanese got paid more than they did. Their base rate Japanese was better than that. Now, perhaps in some strange sense, the planters thought well, more experienced workers are more valuable, but it definitely created in the minds of the workers this sense of I’m angry as a Filipino that I’m being treated differently. And valued less by other people who I don’t consider to be better than myself. And Japanese felt the same way, of course not about Filipinos but about people who were getting paid better on the plantation for the same work. So pay equity is a really big issue and it created a unique form of labor resistance in Hawaii because it was a form which was ethnic and community based, not just labor-based. Not just worker-based. Their whole background of their community, as I say all the professionals as well and all the small businesses, as they began to exist, were supportive of changing this insult to them as a people because they viewed it as a cultural insult, an ethnic insult, a racial insult.

ROBYNN: Ethnic opportunity hierarchy.

BILL: Sure. There was generally on the plantations one of the other aspects of this racial disharmony was the overseer or the luna, as the term in Hawaii is to describe the overseer, the lunas were almost never going to be from the same race or ethnicity as the people they were overseeing. The feeling was that couldn’t happen. It was some sort of fraternalism that would be bad. You can’t fraternize. I can see this hangover even today in modern hotel industry in Hawaii; there are still contract rules against fraternizing with hotel guests. And I suppose that hearkens back to the time period when the lunas had to be of a different race and ethnicity from the people they were managing. Now that broke down later plantation period because of union organizing but in the early days you would definitely see, you would have Portuguese who would be the lunas in Japanese fields. But there were levels of field overseers. There were field bosses and then there were the head bosses above them and they would be of a different race. Those were more likely to be western Europeans and not Portuguese. So you would have Germans or English or Irish or any number of different people who might be the head bosses and then under them you’re going to find the Portuguese who are going to be the field lunas and then under them you’re going to find at various times Japanese or Filipino laborers. Now, Japanese got to be field bosses, a luna, when it was a predominately a Filipino gang later on. Those things could happen and did happen as time progressed on the plantation. But it was a strange condition for whatever reason it made for disharmony in the workplace because you resented the fact there was no chance or opportunity for advancement, whichever way you looked at it. You are never going to be a luna because lunas aren’t your race, aren’t your ethnicity. If you’re Filipino you just don’t’ see a Filipino luna, that just wasn’t the case in early plantation period.

ROBYNN: How did workers cope?

BILL: The workers developed many different ways of trying to deal with the oppressive working conditions. Some of them were ways they didn’t develop but were ways we see the plantations implemented in order to divert the attention and concern of the workers and stop them from organizing. In other words, there’s pretty clear evidence that things like prostitution and gambling, which were officially illegal and couldn’t happen on the plantations, were nevertheless provided with a wink, wink kind of thing. And the only way they could be on the plantation in any way would be with the knowledge of the plantation managers and owners. To allow this as an escape valve for the tensions and so forth that built up. You’re talking about a largely male workforce in many cases so they looked around and said well we must do something I suppose to stop them from exploding entirely in front of us. So they did that. Later on they would bring in different entertainments. But certainly gambling and prostitution, which is ironic because there’s this missionary heritage to the plantation owners and the people who own these things and officially they looked down upon them. Officially, there were a couple of plantations where the workers were expected to attend Sunday services in the protestant faith even though they were mostly Buddhist and something else, and the Filipinos were mostly Catholic. There was an encouragement to try to convert them into the religion of the overseers and the religion of the plantation management. But while that was still going on they would have these entertainments that would develop. Certainly that was happening. But the workers developed their own tools for trying to handle the problems and certainly one of the best known that has survived is the Japanese women used to sing in the plantation fields. People singing while they’re doing hard labor is something we see people doing in the south as well, and we think of them as uniquely southern US, uniquely African songs that came from African culture and African music traditions. Well, likewise in Hawaii the Japanese women would, in order to make the work easier to bear, they would call them hole hole bushi, the songs. And hole hole is actually a Hawaiian word for stripping cane. In other words these were songs they would sing in the fields while they were stripping cane to keep their mind off and to somehow deal with the problems that they had. Some of the hole hole bushi are humorous; they made fun of the things going on. They made fun of the luna. Of course, they were singing in Japanese so they wouldn’t get into a lot of trouble for that. Sometimes they made fun of each other. How they would make more money if they were sleeping with a Chinaman than doing this hole hole work or whatever. And it was women’s humor that women shared; it wasn’t generally men who were in on this. And we know of that instance because there was a treasure trove of this that was discovered by accident by our ethnic studies department here at the University of Hawaii. So the hole hole bushi have survived. I tend to think these kinds of things existed in the Filipino community and in the Chinese community and records; history has been lost to be able to record that type of things.

ROBYNN: Plantations placating workers. Paternalism of planters.

BILL: There’s a phrase that some people may have heard in reference to mainland US, White Man’s Burden, and you see this clearly in the history of the Hawaiian labor movement also. The people who came here were missionaries of abolitionist stock who on the one hand felt that slavery was somehow wrong. On the other hand they definitely felt that ‘brown people’ were not of the same level of humanity as they were. We should always remember that. Abolitionists were not believers in complete affirmative action or civil rights that we think of today. They were against slavery but they were pretty much not against segregation and other things that are a part of our civil rights history that we know about. So this idea of the white man’s burden, the concept as it’s used in the rest of the United States, certainly the concept played out in Hawaii, was that there was this feeling we have to take care of these people because are not up to taking care of themselves. We bring them in and they are like little children, they can’t think for themselves, we really have to take care of them. And so that attitude I think is an attitude that you see spins out into the way workers were treated and in fact there’ve been famous articles and books written about this paternalism: the father treating the child, the parent treating the son. And you see the paternalism reflected in what I think the people who look kindly on the plantation management, in a kindly way, say well, they provided housing. Look at the wonderful housing they provided. They’ll turn to the Waipahu cultural garden park. Look at the wonderful housing they provided. And they provided medical, and they provided…well, first of all a lot of these things that were provided were not initially provided and became things that had to be provided because there were labor disputes in which the workers through great struggle had to express concerns about not having these houses, not having these conditions. So that’s the first thing. But then as the time went on there was a lot of patting yourself on the back of plantation management who were providing this wonderful living standard and see we’re not treating them like slaves, aren’t we doing a good thing here? See we’re providing for their medical needs. Hawaii’s tradition of the prepaid health care act goes back to the days when they provided medical. But the provision of medical and some of these other things was very primitive. Even when it first started and throughout the whole plantation period it was not only was it primitive medical treatment, for instance, if you’re just looking at that side of it, but it would often be meted out according to the favorites. In other words, it was a way for the plantation management to reward the good, the servile, the people who didn’t speak out against the plantation and by withholding the privileges, to show your censure without the black whip any more, the snake whip, to people who spoke out or complained about conditions. Suddenly your house wouldn’t be taken care of very much anymore. And as things started to fall apart, the work crew that would go around, which had to be authorized by the overseer, they just would never get around to fixing your house because after all, you’re complaining and you’re bellyaching and it looks like you’re trying to form an organization over here. So you wouldn’t receive the same treatment other people would receive. So this idea of paternalism in its fullest extent, like a parent treating a child and they’ll have favorites. This is my favorite child and I’ll give this child everything and this is my not so favorite child and they get the box. Remember the famous story of Jimmy Carter the president when his brother Billy Carter was saying yeah, when I was young and my parents bought Jimmy the bicycle and I got the box. So there’s this different treatment, disparate treatment that will develop on the plantation depending on how you behave, and if you know your place, that expression, and if you behave according to the way you’re expected to behave, then life could be a lot more bearable because you would be given things through this paternalism structure that they had for rewarding perks. And in fact the term perquisite was exactly what was used for the value that the plantation owners later on tried to furnish to the department of labor, when the department of labor was instituted for saying look, we don’t need to pay these people with a minimum wage because we’re providing them with all these perquisites, all these perks of being a plantation worker like the housing and like the medical and all these other things. And the plantation workers opposed this. One of the whole, I think issues of the 1946 sugar strike was to say let’s put an end to perquisites, give us the cash. Don’t tell us that what you’re providing us is worth this amount of money because it’s not. And it’s not uniformly made available. So the plantation workers, as they went along and this paternalism became enshrined in a sort of wage and hour format, resented it even more and more.

ROBYNN: were the relationships like between Japanese and Filipino laborers leading to 1920.

BILL: The history of labor disputes and labor organizing and labor movement in Hawaii has two major eras. There’s an initial period of what they call the racial unionism, and that was a period that really started from 1900, after annexation, until 1935, 1937. And during that period you have unions organizing in a very non-traditional way. They organized out of the communities. And these communities were upset at the different wage scales that they were being paid. The Japanese were really insulted that they were being paid less than Chinese and Portuguese and Hawaiians and at the same time period the Japanese were increasingly, because of the way labor was being drawn in, becoming increasingly the dominant labor force on the plantations. So by 1906, if you were to look at the workers who were in Hawaii plantations, there were relatively few Chinese and the Japanese had clearly the majority, something like 85% to 90%. Just a huge percentage of the plantation work force by 1906 was Japanese. What then happens is the Japanese start to take on some of these conditions that they were having problems with. In some cases they were the cultural issues of sanitation problems. In some cases they were, in one strike in 1906 there was an autopsy performed without permission on one of the workers and this was a great insult to the culture of the Japanese and there was a whole strike that developed on one plantation because of this. But they were pretty much-isolated events plantation to plantation. As the time goes on, the workers were starting to see that this was a possibility, that they could have an impact on changing conditions, because concessions began to occur. They would never get contracts – they were not unions in the traditional sense that we think of today where they were labor organizations negotiating contracts. They went out over a problem and then they wouldn’t come back until the problem got resolved. And often the problem did get resolved to some extent without real admissions of doing anything wrong. Somehow the plantation management would make a concession to them. And so with those concessions the workers began to see that this could work – this organizing and the solidarity that existed across their own ranks, if exercised, could create better conditions for them. So then you start to see it grow. And instead of just being a plantation experience, you start to see it become an island-wide experience, particularly on the island of Oahu….

ROBYNN: Going to have to say the last part again.

BILL: So the early strikes were just plantation experiences, but as the plantation workers began to see that they could be successful at bettering and changing their conditions by means of organizing efforts and by means of these disputes. And they weren’t violent disputes in particular. It wasn’t like they leapt up in a riot and beat to death the lunas. It wasn’t a revolution – a slave revolt. It was we’re not working. It wasn’t even picketing because they didn’t for the most part have pickets at all. They just wouldn’t go to work. They would go to their halls, where they would all meet, and in some cases and stay there and refuse to go to work. But they were able, because the Japanese had a huge, at this time period, say 1900 to 1910, had such a huge monopoly of the work force that they were very successful at stopping the work being done. The only way work could get done by somebody else is if the plantation owners and they did this a couple of times, went out, recruited Hawaiians and paid them two times, three times sometimes the amount they were paying the Japanese to get them to work. And economically that was not viable; they couldn’t do it on a regular basis. And the Japanese knew it so they just held them out until concessions were made. And so which they did. Made concessions. And conditions at the camps got to be better. Housing got to be better. Sanitation got to be better. More respect. So you started to see a definite movement forward in the conditions on the plantations with these things. And the word spread through the Japanese community and to plantations all over, so you started to see more of them in different plantations. And then the next big move would be when you had multiple plantations on an island get together and try to form a strike, so you see this happening over conditions. By this time, because the plantation owners were looking at this and seeing it was getting more rather than less, they realized they had to bring in other workers, so it was really in 1906, from 1906 to 1909 when the plantations actively recruited Filipinos, to bring Filipinos into the plantations. There’s no question that the reason they brought Filipinos in was to offset the huge power that the Japanese had on the plantations at that time period. They were pretty much the mainstay of the plantation labor force. And why did they bring Filipinos in? Well, there were attempts to bring Koreans and Okinawans and a lot of other different groups, but the Filipinos they had the best chance at bringing in mostly because of conditions in the Philippines, just like they were able to bring Japanese in because of conditions in Meji, Japan that made it possible for them to get labor out of Japan. And likewise there were conditions in the Philippines that made it possible to bring labor in during that time period, under this contract labor system. And the other thing is there are some animosities that go way back in the culture of these different peoples that they did not get along well together. The Japanese did not have good relationships with the Philippines. Japan and the Philippines did not have good relationships and certainly during World War II is probably the best example of that where the Japanese invaded the Philippines and so many Filipinos despised Japanese as a result of that invasion. And so as they began, as the plantation owners took advantage of this animosity that naturally existed between Japanese and Filipinos, it worked out perfect for them. They brought in Filipinos to offset. So the goal was, and it was a goal they were pretty much able to reach as far as the plantation ownership was concerned, was to have fifty percent of the workforce Japanese and fifty percent Filipino. Those became the two largest groups in the plantations beyond a doubt. So you had then these two groups that were on the plantations but they didn’t live together, they didn’t talk together, they didn’t’ share languages together. So you had Filipino camp and you had Japanese camp in terms of the housing because they did not want to live together. Their cultures were completely and thoroughly different. Their languages were different. The Filipinos also had a problem that the Japanese never had, and I think this has been discounted in looking at Hawaiians labor history, because the Filipinos were actually three different cultures because of the different parts of the Philippines that they came from. And when I say three different cultures I mean three different languages even. They did not even speak the same languages. You have people you can say oh he’s speaking Filipino. But actually Filipino is not a language. There’s Ilacano, there’s Biscayan, there’s Tagalog. So you have people from all these different groups in the Philippines, who themselves were forming their own little camps within the Filipino camp so they could talk to each other. And in some cases it may be all ilcanos on one plantation, so that’s the way it was. But another part of the plantation might be all people who spoke Tagalog, and they were going to have a much harder time doing what the Japanese were much more successful at doing, and that was to make an organization to reach out from plantation to plantation. And because the Japanese are lot more homogenous, they speak the same language, so it was a lot easier for Japanese to organize than Filipinos. And Filipinos came afterwards, so their organizing, which I think was on the same track as what the Japanese were doing, was on a cycle behind it in trying to accomplish the same things. But by 1920 you do see an effort, because both groups began to realize that they were being badly abused, but they really had their own organizations. There was a Japanese higher wage association, a Japanese association of labor, and there was a Filipino wage association and a Filipino association of labor and they were organizing on their own. But they thought in1920 there was actually a sort of treaty when the Japanese union leadership and the Japanese wage association and the Japanese Federation of Labor met with the Filipino, leaders of the Filipino Federation of labor to try to have a synchronous strike. It wasn’t really a merged group; it was the two groups who were going to try to strike at the same time. They were going to coordinate their strike efforts. But that level of coordination was probably doomed from the start and the 1920 strike failed. It was the first ‘dual union’ strike because you had the Japanese union and the Filipino union and they were trying to maintain their autonomy as organizations representing their own groups of people but somehow pull off a coordinated strike movement. Which was not successful.

ROBYNN: Did they have the same demands?

BILL: The demands, if you look at the issue of demands they were very, very similar. The things that the Filipinos were looking for and the things that the Japanese were looking for were the same. The Japanese weren’t looking to be paid more than the Filipinos, thank god, that wasn’t exactly what was going on here; they wanted an end to the racial system. They wanted to get control over the way a wage was calculated and get closer to a wage an hour law. Even though that concept wasn’t a concept even in the US yet until the ‘30s decades later. But they wanted to get away from weighing cane in and to allow for better treatment of the workers, better provision of labor for housing, and all these other things they wanted to make as a matter of successes that would apply to everybody. So they had mutual goals. This is not an issue of different goals. They had the same goals: to improve the working conditions, to improve the wages on the plantations. But they were trying to organize in different ways for obvious different reasons. They spoke different languages, they represented different cultures. The Japanese had a different history because they had been doing it for a longer period of time and they saw the success and they knew better how to organize and they had a better network among the plantations than the Filipinos who were really reaching out for the first time, trying to connect. They’d only been in Hawaii, most of them, for 10 to fifteen years, not even that, less than that in many cases. So organizationally it was very difficult. And the plantation owners of course realized that this was an ideal way to separate them and divide them by appealing to different things and trying to frighten the Filipinos by saying oh, the Japanese, they’re going to take you over, they’re going to do this, and instilling fear in the Filipino community and instilling fear in the Japanese community. The Japanese were more family based by this time, because there’ve been more Japanese brought to the…and the Filipinos were still largely only men. One of the worst outcomes…

ROBYNN: Again.

BILL: The organizing in the plantations had many problems in bringing the Japanese and the Filipinos together. One of the differences between the Japanese is that the plantation workers as you go into the 1920 strike is that there were more family Japanese. You saw more couples, women and men Japanese having families in Japan and having houses that had the families. So they were organized in a different way, whereas the Filipinos were deliberately brought in as almost all men. So one of the things that they deliberately did is that they would threaten Japanese. The luna in the field, when he was dealing with Japanese women in particular who were doing the hole hole work. One of the things he would say in addition to I’ll whip you if you don’t do what I’m saying is if you don’t do what I’m saying, maybe we’ll throw you to the Filipinos. So there was this fear of a Filipino rapist that became this horrible dark fear and later on there are novelists in modern-day Hawaii of native extraction, who write about how they grew up with this fearing the Filipino rapist and so where did that come from? Well, that came from this effort to divide the two communities and the actual situation where the Japanese, there were Japanese women and there were Filipino men but there were no Filipino women. So obviously if you’re a Filipino man you don’t have to be a rapist to realize the only way you’re going to have a date or have any chance at female company is if you go to the Japanese camp and try to introduce yourself to a Japanese girl, and that’s fearsome. And so once you see that condition happening there, the plantation owners played on that to instill fear against them and try to get them to compete against each other and certainly not to cooperate with each other. So they would go to the Filipinos and say yeah, the Japanese are plotting to do this and plotting to do that. Did you realize that they’re taking all the money? You’re putting money down and it’s going into the hands of these people and they’re…so there would be all these ways to play upon these suspicions of the workers that would divide and it’s the rule worldwide, not just a military rule but a labor control rule, that you divide and conquer. The best way for the planters to keep the labor disputes to a bear minimum is to have these two competing racial groups or ethnic groups that would distrust each other. And the greater the distrust, the less cooperation they will have with each other in terms of forming a labor movement in some way. So this was a big problem in Hawaii was how they were going to combine the workers from these two different, very drastically different cultures into a single group because clearly they could not succeed in that division along those divided lines and that was a lesson that had to be learned really the hard way.

ROBYNN: 1920 strike marches? Was that combined?

BILL: Another reason why it was difficult for labor to organize, particularly during the period of racial unionism before World War II, is that there were awful laws that had been passed as part of the territory. These were clearly laws that had been passed to stop labor organizing. So they had laws against conspiracy and syndicalism and that they could jail anybody who was planning on having a strike. But certainly one of the most awful laws that was difficult for labor to overcome was the anti-picketing statute. So it was really illegal for labor unions to have any kind of picketing going on whatsoever. And so the response to that was really interesting. If you look back at the 1920 strike or even back to 1909, what the workers did instead of picketing they would parade. They would get their whole workforce together during the strike, because I think they learned something that a lot of our modern-day labor unions learned today and that’s you cannot on a strike just tell your people to stay home. Because they stay home, they worry, they fear, they’re plagued by all these doubts and that kind of lassitude is not helpful for their organizing anyway. But if you have an organizing activity where they get together and do something that proves their solidarity and their networking, that’s much better. So that’s what the Japanese were doing in 1920 and the Filipinos to a large extent. Because that’s all they had to do. There was no way they could picket in the traditional sense of establishing lines around the entrances to their employer’s property. So they would parade. And you’d see these incredible parades where they would start in a plantation, Waipahu, for instance. And then they would parade all the way down to, if they could catch a train they’d catch a train, otherwise they’d parade all the way into Honolulu and into Ala park. Ala park for some reason in Honolulu, a major park in that period, seemed to be the center, the final terminus point for a lot of parades in labor organizing during those time periods. So you’d see these vast, in pictures of the time period this huge array of people who were all collected at Ala park after they’d marched from Waipahu or several plantations as the case may be. And so that’s a tradition that went up to the 1946 sugar strike, which began, no coincidence there, on labor day. So that it became both a labor day parade and the first movement in their strike effort, rather than a picketing.

ROBYNN: What did it look like?

BILL: In the period we’re talking about, a period of racial unionism even up through the 1920 strike, we don’t have the groups coming together. In other words, you don’t have Filipinos and Japanese coming together in a single effort, you have Japanese doing their thing and you have Filipinos doing their thing. So the parades that took place, the labor parades in lieu of picketing, were very much ethnic based and plantation based. So you have this great picture of some of the women from one of the plantations in Eva, all Japanese women and not even the men, all the women together in a single part of the parade and they were all dressed in their plantation clothing, what they would wear if they were going to work in that day. And they would get their way to Honolulu and on the way they would march through the streets of Honolulu. And yeah they would carry signs that indicated how much they’re getting a day or how much they’re getting a week. And we have stories in our oral history of the Japanese woman who said as we carried our signs saying how much we were getting paid they would see women on the streets who were the haole women who lived in the town and they were crying to see how badly we were being paid. They had no idea because Honolulu is a different world and they didn’t get out to see what was happening on the plantation. They had no idea how poorly people were being treated in the plantation. So they did really build sympathy on these marches that took place from the plantations into town. And the primary thing they were able to do is they were able to give their cause some publicity, because there was no way it was going to be covered in the mainland press. The newspapers of that time period were really just tools of the commercial interests. Even today, one of the major papers in Hawaii is the Honolulu Advertiser. Well, its original name was the Pacific Commercial Advertiser and it was essentially a newsletter for the planters and the shipping companies. That is essentially what it was. It grew into a real newspaper but for it always maintained its heritage of a chamber of commerce newsletter rather than an actual newspaper.

ROBYNN: Community-supported strikes. Talk about organizing.

BILL: there was a lot of community support in the different ethnic communities for these actions and it was because the communities felt the way the workers were being treated was an insult not only to the workers on the plantation but to the whole culture and the whole ethnic group. So the Filipinos throughout Hawaii were upset at how the Filipinos were being treated on the plantations. Now, such Filipinos as there were in Hawaii were a support community around the plantation anyway so they knew what those conditions were anyway. Now when I say support, it’s really like an army to some extent when you think about it. Any time you have a huge presence like an army or a plantation labor force there’s going to be a support community that develops around it to provide services to that community. So businesses, small businesses in Hawaii began to grow up that were ethnic-based. They were non-competitive with what was going on in the towns, so that they were allowed to survive on the scale of just plantation businesses. But they would be little laundry places. Some of the women who were working on the plantation would do side jobs and have a little laundry business and maybe after their contract was done they would end up becoming a laundry business, straight, out of that. And so those communities were very supportive because they looked at this not only as a struggle of the plantation workers, but a struggle for dignity of their entire group. As if the dignity of the Japanese people was in question here. And its amazing because at the same time period one of the things the planters did is they would bring the Japanese consul for instance or the Filipino consul in, as representative of the Filipino government or representative of the government in Japan, and every time they would do this they would bring them in with the idea that they would tell the workers go back to work and honor your contracts and don’t do this and you should not be taking these actions. That was what they were told by these consuls and you would think there would be this loyalty to their governments. But there weren’t. They booed them, hissed them, threw tomatoes at them and so forth and continued with their actions nevertheless. So they paid little attention to the official government voices from the countries that they had. Because really the insult was felt most keenly by the people who were living there in the communities around the plantations and they’re the ones who understood what was really at stake and they’re the ones who supported them.


BILL: The kind of support you would really expect was not so much financial, because there wasn’t a huge amount of financial support that could be given. A limited amount of that. Mostly everybody chipped in a little bit to strike committees to be able to afford expenses. But you would see support for instance in the newspapers, in addition to the newspapers that were in town that were the planters’ newspapers that were going out to the English-speaking audiences, there were Japanese-speaking newspapers, there were Filipino newsletters that came out, Chinese newspapers during the period when the Chinese were there, so those people supported certainly in many different ways and told stories that were not being told in other places. And in fact, this became part of the problem I think was during the 1920s strike, during the 1909 strike. Afterwards when they tried to prosecute some of the strike leaders they would bring in the Japanese newspapers or the Filipino newspapers and they would say look at this, this is what this newspaper is saying. This is saying go out and strike. And they were often mistranslated deliberately to create an impression that this was a worse event than it was or that it was inciting violence when it was not inciting violence. So they did have that kind of support from the communities. And they did have people who would give them food and try to help them and give them credit in their own areas for that stuff. So they built up those, because I think those communities realized there was a one on one connection between the survivability and the improvement of the conditions of the plantation workers and their businesses, their small businesses that were in infant form but still developing.

ROBYNN: Check time…

BILL: At the end of all the early strikes, during this period of racial unionism when you had these Japanese strikes and Filipino strikes and even at the end of the 1920 strike when the dual-union strike tried and failed, nevertheless good things came out of all these strikes. Certainly the bad things was they would immediately try to identify the leaders of the strikes and jail them or deport them, so you’d lose a level of leadership. But the organization was much richer and deeper than just one or two agitators, as the papers liked to call them at that time period. So the organization still was there. I mean, they could peal off people like Pablo Manlapat and so forth but and deport them to the Philippines, but there was still a labor movement that was going to be left on the plantations and in the communities. And the practical thing that happened was conditions did get improved. In other words, they started to eliminate that difference in racial pay. It started to go out I think as early as the 1909 strike and by the 1920 strike it was almost entirely eliminated, so that’s a huge gain. Now, there was no recognition of this union that they’re going to sign a contract with, so today a union doesn’t really consider itself successful until it gets a contract and the employer agrees to an actual bargain with the union on a regular basis. That was not what came out of the 1920 strike so in some respects you can say oh, the strike was a failure because they didn’t get the recognition as a bargaining representative or agent. But on the other hand, conditions were improved: housing got better, medical care got better. There was always an improvement in this. And that’s why when you go to the Waipahu Cultural Garden Park and the Plantation Village you can see kind of nice housing. A lot of those houses were based on blueprints on houses that were built after that period. They started to relax the rules about bringing women in for Filipinos, so now you have Filipino picture brides that were able to come in. So a lot of the problems that instigated the strike and were underlying the strike in different communities began to be addressed. Grudgingly, but they began to be addressed and life got better on the plantation as a result of them. That message I think is the most clear message that the labor force got from these efforts to try to strike. And that was ‘this works.’ We didn’t get everything, but we got a lot, and things have been getting better since we’ve been doing this. So they did see there’s a value in organizing and in collective activity.

ROBYNN: Relations b/w Filipino & Japanese strikers.

BILL: At the end of the 1920 strike, the relations between the Filipinos and the Japanese was not good. It was broken because of the suspicions that were deliberately planted in the different groups. So the trust between the Japanese and the Filipinos, which had never been much, was almost eliminated entirely. So they were still two different, disparate groups that pretty much did not trust each other. So there was a period of time in which that would have to be built back up again. But I think they began to realize that this was also part of why the strike was a failure – because we couldn’t get together. So on the one hand I think the seeds were laid there for people to understand that something else had to be done. But the distrust was huge afterward. There was a lot of bad feelings among the Japanese community about the Filipinos and among the Filipinos about the Japanese. A lot of distrust came out of that and that was going to be capitalized upon by the employers. Again, between 1920, the next time you see a strike is 1924 and that’s all Filipinos. That’s the Filipinos’ major attempt to try to do their own strike in 1924 and again that was a failure and it resulted in a horrible massacre on the island of Kauai at Anapepe where the strikers were shot. Fifteen of them were killed as a result of that. So there was not the building of the community that you would like to have seen as a result of the 1920 strike. Something else had to come into play in order for that to happen and it did.

TRACK 2 – 0:02



TRACK 1 – 38:19

ROBYNN: Go ahead and say it again.

BILL: Sure. The last racial strike that took place in Hawaii is as late as 1937. It was a Filipino strike and it took place on the island of Maui. And that strike, it’s an interesting strike when you think about it because the group that was formed was called Vibor Movalinda. And the reason why this is such an important strike to remember is the word ‘vibor’ is the word for ‘viper,’ and it was named after this famous Filipino patriot. But ‘Movalinda’ was a name they made up, and it’s a name that’s a composite of the three parts of the Philippines: Musan, Vinsayan, and Mindanow. And so in recognition of the fact that they had these three cultures of Filipinos that they were bringing together into a single organization and it wasn’t going to be one over the other, it was going to be a single. So what you see in this strike, even though people say well, it was the last racial strike and it was a big thing because it was the Filipinos still trying to cling on to racial unionism. But what it showed was the steady progress in organizing into a more solid group. Because again the Filipinos had different cultural groups within their number that they had to bring together. That is something that absolutely had to be done in that community before they could move on to the next step and that is to unify or become united with other ethnic groups outside of Filipinos. So they say also I remember reading one time that it’s the first labor day in Hawaii. That’s not true. It’s the first May day labor day. Many of the labor groups in the world celebrate their labor day on May 1st. And the first celebration of that type of a labor day, May 1st labor holiday, goes back to 1937 and the Filipino labor strike. Because there were CIO organizers who came in to help them also, and they were the ones who said I have an idea, why don’t we have a big parade on May Day, which is Labor Day for everybody else in the world except in the US.

ROBYNN: ILWU. Racism in unions?

BILL: The history of mainland unions organizing in Hawaii is definitely history of racism, and you have to take that into consideration. The very first labor day, it’s kind of a historical joke that takes place in Hawaii, goes back to 1900 and it was organized by the government and by the economic leaders of that time period because they had just taken over Hawaii and brought it under US law by annexation. And so they looked for the first American holiday, the first US holiday they could celebrate and as it happened, ironically it was labor day. So they had a huge parade, the biggest parade that ever happened in the history of the Hawaiian islands was on labor day of 1900 and labor was sort of an afterthought to invite. They could only find, and this was after a real difficult effort, they could only find 300 white laborers in the towns, working in Honolulu primarily. And they were sheet metal workers and plumbers and boilermakers and painters, I think, were the major groups in that. And again they were like dragged in to this affair and what was sad about it too was at that time period those unions were all-white unions. And their big fear, because they mostly mainland people who came over here and developed a local because they were doing contracts or so forth in Honolulu, and their big fear was an Asian workforce. They were absolutely totally frightened that the Asians in Hawaii were somehow going to take over their trades. And so there was, one of the first groups that formed in Hawaii before this was the White Mechanic’s Union. And that’s what it was called. It was the White Mechanic’s Union. And even at that the painters and the plumbers who as I say participated in that 1900 labor day parade, they had this huge, awful float that was a monster, with a big black beard that was supposed to be an Asian worker, bearing a big sign on both sides of the float saying ‘stop Asiatics from infiltrating American labor.’ Which was my god… but again what’s interesting about that is those unions that we know existed in Hawaii in that time period didn’t last more than five years. You would see periodically during the 1900s, 1920 to 1930, unions attempt to come in from the mainland and try to organize workers and then they would fall apart. A lot of times they came in specifically because of war work. In other words, World War I created certain work opportunities in Hawaii as Pearl Harbor, as part of the trade off with annexation was that we have a navy post out here, so you would start to see the white labor force come out here in that time period. But because they had refused and most of them had policies where they refused admission of Asians or people of color, generally, into their ranks, they were totally unsuccessful. You’d see them come in, they’d charter, and then they would fall apart in a couple of years. They were not successful. Only when you started to see the carpenter’s union I think was the first union in Hawaii, which is part of the national carpenter’s union. They said we’re taking in Japanese, that’s it. If you don’t like it, that’s too bad, we’re going to do it anyway. And instead of losing their charter they just sort of blinked an eye or turned away from the national. And as a result the carpenter’s union became very popular in Hawaii and grew by leaps and bounds. And local 745, which has that early history in our state of forming trades union which is part of the AFLCIO had a policy from the very beginning of admitting Asians, in particular Japanese, who were people who worked on the plantations who had carpenter skills and were doing carpentry work on the plantations and later on went into the carpenter’s union and got work in town. So and that happened steadily and progressively in all of the unions that survived, and the unions that didn’t do that did not survive in Hawaii. But certainly there is that tradition of racism. And even unto the longshore…because the real story of Hawaii changing from that past where you have racial unions into the period of multi-ethnic unions and multi-racial unionism is the story of the ILWU. And we should remember the ILWU, the letters of the ILWU don’t reference plantation workers or sugar workers, they reference longshore and warehouse and that was the union that in the 1930s started to form putting aside racial limits. And it did so in a very Hawaiian way. It wasn’t a mainland union that came in and set up the longshore workers here on interracial or multiethnic lines. The longshore organizing that took place in Hawaii were local people who decided they were going to have a longshore union. So you have the Hilo longshore workers’ association and the Kauai longshore workers’ association. They created themselves for themselves out of themselves and it was they who began to first realize there’s no way you’re going to have a successful organizing union if we have only Japanese or only Chinese or only Portuguese or only Filipinos. It can’t be done. One of the reasons they could see that is there just weren’t as many longshoremen. On the sugar plantation, where we have thousands of Japanese thousands of Filipinos, you’re still thinking of terms of we can just organize the Japanese and have an effective strike. But when you’re a longshoreman and the gang is only fifty people or a hundred people and you have people who are all different groups, you can’t organize just the seven Filipinos or the twenty Chinese or whatever. You can’t do that. It’s just not going to work. So and it was really the genius of Hawaii’s local organizer and organizers that did that. Harry Komoku is the one that I’ve written about and I have such great admiration for. He’s a local Hawaiian who is mixed Hawaiian/Chinese. That famous mix. And he had been a seafarer and a member of the seafarer’s union and he saw how important this solidarity was across racial lines. How it worked on the ships and gave them power. He was on the west coast when they had the famous west coast strike of 1934 and saw how white and black workers all came together in a single union. So he came back to Hawaii and decided to settle down. He wasn’t going to be a crewman anymore and it was a normal transition for people who were ship’s crew when they settle down, to become longshoremen. So he realized this has to be the message, and it was Harry Komoku who developed the phrase ‘Brothers under the skin’ as part of his organizing. He would try to tell people look, we can’t just organize Japanese, we can’t just organize Filipinos. You might have different colored skin, but under the skin, same color blood. And in that way we are brothers, brothers under the skin, never mind the color of the skin. And that was his organizing speech, basically in a nutshell that he kept hammering on until he was able to bring them. And it was successful. Certainly it helped that this was happening also at the time period when the New Deal came in and they passed the national labor relations act. But very clearly the longshoremen in Hilo for instance had a real contract, recognition from C. Brewer, back as early as 1934. Here in Hawaii. And it’s amazing. And so their example was an example they tried to bring to other areas. And I think it would have been faster had there not been World War II. Because by the time the longshoremen had been able to get this and make it work for them, it was the end of the ‘30s. ’38 and ’40 and they were just at this point realizing this message has to be not just a message for longshoremen, not just a message for tradesmen in the city, this has to be a message for our plantation brothers and sisters because that’s where the majority of the people are and we have to convince them that we must be in a single union – there can’t be a Japanese wage Association or a Japanese federation of labor or a Filipino federation of labor or even a Vibor Murvalinda. There has to be a single union and we all have to be in it together and their message was a message they were able to use successfully to use organize sugar and plantation in a real union sense and get recognition. But it was based on their success at the longshore, at the water’s edge.

ROBYNN: Martial law when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

BILL: World War II, the bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor. It was a devastating event for a lot of things: for our country and for Hawaii’s economy and certainly for the labor movement, because the labor movement was just about to go and expand and grow under the protection of the national labor relations act and under the newly invented or conceived concept of multi-ethnic organizing. But with WWII it was such a devastating event that martial law was declared. Hawaii, because of Pearl Harbor, became essentially, and it was a territory it wasn’t a state. And it was easy to impose martial law in Hawaii and under martial law then the military ran the government. They ran all aspects of everyday life. The courts no longer controlled anything. You no longer had any ability to do anything except through the permission of the executive orders of the general who was in charge of martial law at that time period. So there were very strict rules that were set out that stopped labor organizing. And throughout the US I think labor in general had taken the position of okay, let’s wait. Let’s not press our demands; let’s not fight this. We’ll win the war and then we’ll come back and fight things as is necessary. So many of the people who were in the labor movement and who were the longshoremen and the people who were beginning to organize in the trades as well as in the plantations, they became soldiers. They went to war. And the labor movement was really on hold during that time period. That’s not to say there was no labor-organizing going on. Art Rutledge had come over during that time period and was trying to organize bartenders and a bunch of other people and gas workers in the town. And there are some famous stories about how he went in to negotiate something and the general had one of his sergeants put a bayonet on the gun and say look, you’re not going to argue with us and you’re not going to strike or you’re going to find this piece of metal up your rear end. That was exactly the kind of trouble that Art Rutledge had when he was trying to continue business as usual as far as labor organizing was concerned in the towns. But you don’t see that kind of conflict necessarily in the plantations or in the longshore. I think people decided this is a time period to deal with this devastating catastrophe and win the war and then come back. So there was very little plantation organizing or even longshore organizing or contracting going on during WWII until the war was over and they all came back. So people like Harry Komoku, they were soldiers, they came back afterwards. And when they came back and the war was over, then they wanted to resume and say let us begin again and take up where we left off and begin the organizing.

ROBYNN: Talk about that.

BILL: The period of organizing after WWII is a very interesting story. It’s almost an amazing story. To be there would have been fantastic. I would give anything to go back in a time machine to the period right after WWII and watch how they did this. Because they had an enormous problem to overcome that was made more enormous by the war because the divisions between the Japanese and the Filipinos were even worse because of the war. Because of the history of the war and what was going on between Japan and the Philippines during that time period. But the Japanese who were on the plantations, remember the biggest issue during WWII was are the Japanese, Japanese or are they Americans of Japanese descent. So WWII also set that record straight. We had war heroes from Japanese families in Hawaii and many came back distinguished war heroes. So it was pretty difficult to attack the Japanese as a group as oh they’re disloyal, the rotten people who caused the war, because it was a clear difference seen between what they did. So we have war heroes in the Filipino community, clearly. And we have war heroes in the Japanese community and there was a respect that they had to have for each other as a result of the war. So on the one hand there was a natural animosity that was underlying all of this, but on the other hand they also had to respect that in the time of crisis, in the time of need, both these ethnic groups stepped up to the plate and did their duty for America. And so there was respect. There was a certain level of respect that was there but it had to be worked on. It had to be more than anything else. So here’s the time period when the ILWU went out and laid the seed and they’re the ones, the leaders in the ILWU, the longshore, went out to proselytize. To be missionaries of unionism in the plantations and to explain to them how important this was that you come together and put these other issues aside and realize that we’re all union members together. We’re all Americans; we saw that in the war. And we’re all union members and brothers under the skin when it comes to things that we want to improve and want to make better for us and for our children as a result of organizing. And we’re not going to do it. It was easy to point to recent history and say look, you saw. This doesn’t work organizing just Japanese. This doesn’t work just organizing Filipinos. And us longshoremen are the best ones to say that because we tried something else and it worked. We’re a much smaller group and we got a contract, and how did we get a contract? Because we worked together. So it was a message that was sellable for a lot of different reasons and they didn’t have the protection of the law that they had before. It was much harder for plantations to expel union organizers because now under the national labor relations act, it’s an unfair labor practice if you do certain things. So there was a lot more protection, legal protections that union organizers could have and were able to take advantage of. Which is not to say that they still didn’t have to worry about being fired or laid off or banished from the plantation. There’s all manner of stories about how hard it was and how easily they could be blacklisted. And ejected from employment. But on the other hand, they had a huge support community that was based on this new concept that organizing had to be done on new lines that were not the classic old lines on which had proven to be failures. And so it’s interesting to see pictures. One of my pictures I think I still have on my wall, I blew it up. Is a picture of Harry Komoku. The longshoreman who organized with his ‘Brothers Under the Skin’ speech all the longshore guys in Hilo. And then what you’d also see is this same guy standing with a bullhorn in front of a jeep and a couple of other people behind him who were longshoremen and what they were doing is talking to plantation workers with a bullhorn. So they would drive in in a jeep and they would just start belting forth and saying what their message was. And when somebody came to evict them, they would get on the jeep and drive off again into the sunset and come back later on. So they were playing cat and mouse games with the plantation police and the plantation authorities but it was a new way of looking at things. It was a whole new framework. The Japanese and Filipino community had proven their worth as American citizens that question was resolved beyond all doubt, and it was very difficult to attack them in the same old ways they had been attacked. Plus, they had this new message, which was a very successful message. So they went to NLRB elections, they went through actual elections. They never did this in the 1920 strike or anything; there was never any union elections. They were using the new structure that had been provided by the National Labor Relations Act. And if you look at those elections, it’s overwhelming. They would go to a plantation and have an election to vote the ILWU as the bargaining representative and you’d see out of maybe 700 workers say at this one plantation, you’d see 685 for the union and fifteen against. It was every one of the elections was that kind of one-sided, overwhelming victory for them. And in a very short period of time it’s just stunning what they were able to do in such a short period of time. Because the war ended in what, 1945. By 1946 they had so well-organized everything they were able to assert their demands and get the first sugar contract. Just a year later. So they organized virtually overnight it seems like, the entire plantation labor force in Hawaii.

ROBYNN: Size of 1946 strike & labor power.

BILL: The 1946 sugar strike has certainly its roots in everything that had gone before, no question about that. But it was a strike that and I always like to make this parallel, because in the rest of the US 1946 is a period when there’s a huge number of strikes. It’s the highest number of strikes throughout the US. And for the same reason as there is in Hawaii. Because workers had put all their dreams and aspirations on hold to win the war. So all these soldiers came back and they said okay, let’s take up where we left off. So it really sort of put out of the normal flow of things, which might have allowed for strikes to happen in a less concentrated way, had they progressed naturally. But because they had been dammed up and suddenly released, all these things happened in 1946. Which is why they passed this anti-labor reactionary law the Taft-Hartley act in 1947. But during that period in 1946, you have the period right after the war and you have the ILWU going out and organizing. And they’re organizing in the communities, within the communities, the plantation communities, more so than anything else. And they’re organizing, I always like to point out, it’s very important to understand, they’re organizing politically as well as organizing in a labor sense. In other words, they’re, one of the examples they had from the longshore organizing was the women’s auxiliary. Most of the longshoremen were men, but the ladies got involved. There’s a ladies’ auxiliary of support that got their own hall and had their own activities and did all kinds of things and the ILWU learned this is a really valuable thing. That you’re not just organizing labor and the workers. You’re organizing their families and their communities. So the ILWU learned that lesson with the longshore and applied it in their organization in the plantations. It was community based organizing. And when they met and talked with people about being in the union they didn’t just meet with the sugar worker; they met with the sugar worker’s family, met with the entire camp as it would be. So if it was a Filipino camp they met with everybody – women, children, it was going to be a community effort to win and to organize and to be successful and they knew it. So they would organize out of the young men’s Buddhist association sometimes. It depends. All different types of groups. Whether they were Buddhist churches or Christian churches or Catholic churches for the Filipinos. That’s where they went, because that would be a lot of times the easiest place to meet with people. And to get the whole community all together. But they also did something which is an amazing forerunner of what we call affirmative action later on. And that is because there was this real concern about the Filipinos being separated from the Japanese, the ILWU made it a position that every strike committee had to have a co-chair situation where there were two chairs, and one would have to be Japanese and one would have to be Filipino. Bang. That was the rule. Now, this was a problem because a lot of the Japanese that had a longer history and a deeper history of organizing felt they knew better how to do this. They had well-established networks. They had done this lots of times, they knew how to set up committees to be able to set up resources during a strike. And the Filipinos were knew and complicated by the fact that at that time period, right after WWII, as the strike starts to build and preparation for the strike starts to build, the planters decide that they are going to respond to this by bringing in new Filipino workers, a whole bunch were brought in on a couple of ships that were going to offset this. And they thought well, these, fresh out of WWII, will never want to talk to the Japanese. They’ll still have the animosity approach. So that was clearly what was going on when they brought in all these Filipinos to try to break what they could see was organizing for a strike in 1946. And what the union did, I’m sure you’ve heard this story, was that they had organizers on board the ships who were convincing and talking and explaining the situation to the Filipinos and signing them up with union cards NRB union cards, on the boat. So by the time they got off the ships they were members of the union and joined in immediately. And that was able to happen because the Filipinos who were there already made it clear – when they got off the ship they weren’t just Filipinos who were newly arrived from the Philippines, they were Filipinos who fit into a Filipino community that was already there and already understood this is how we’re going to organize this one. So they already had support from the Filipino community. Its an amazing time period in which Hawaii changed completely from what it was to what it could be, and it was a period when the groundwork was laid for what would later become a political revolution in 1954. Because once that organizing had taken place and the sugar strike had been the success it had been in 1946, they had everything they needed in place in order to have the political organization to change the politics in Hawaii. They already had been doing that bit by bit, the ILWU had been building it into a political organization. And they had enough people in the territorial legislature that they could actually pass a territory labor law. Because the National Labor Relations act that they had been organizing all these people with has one little defect as far as labor is concerned, and that is that agricultural workers are not allowed to organize. Under the national labor relations act. Only industrial workers, not agricultural workers. That’s why Caesar Chavez had such a hard time, because he couldn’t organize under the national labor relations act. Well, what happened and this happened during the war, while the war was still on, ILWU had enough ability to get enough people elected to the territory that they were successful in passing a territorial labor law, which is a mini-Wagner act they call it, or a mini-national labor relations act, that extends unionization and the right to be in a union to all the people who were excluded under the national labor relations act. So agricultural workers, if you could go in and the NRB would not accept them, you could turn around and organize them under Hawaii’s little Wagner act. So the passage of that law is the beginning of the success of the organizing and you could see the ILWU was bearing fruit on the political level, not just the contract labor relations level. ILWU more than any other union I think, wisely understood in advance of many other unions in the US, that politics is the name of the game. You can’t just organize workers to negotiate contracts if you’re not organizing them politically. Everything that you gain in one contract sitting can be taken away by the legislature a month later. So you have to organize politically at the same time as you organize for collective bargaining.

ROBYNN: Gains from 1946. Immediate gains and for Hawaii labor and future.

BILL: The aftermath of the 1946 sugar strike was really a victory for the labor movement in Hawaii, and the labor movement at that time was largely the ILWU. But the ILWU was not just longshore, it was also sugar and later on it was pineapple. They were expanding into lots of different areas. It was also a victory for the long-oppressed people who had been disenfranchised by the way the Hawaii economic system had been built up and the political system had been built up, because they managed to organize people not just into a collective bargaining instrument, but they organized them into a political instrument that was capable of exhorting its force at the polls. So the ILWU’s endorsement of candidates was taken as an absolute matter of faith by the members of the ILWU in that period of the ‘40s. So when the ILWU said this is who we want you to vote for, that’s who they voted for in droves. And now they had the right to vote and the ILWU was registering these people to vote, so they made them a political force and had a huge impact. By 1954 they were able to elect legislators into a political party that for most of Hawaii’s history had no power whatsoever and that’s the Democratic Party. So the Democratic Party under the New Deal, under Roosevelt, had really changed its own direction in many respects and become a very different sort of party as it had been during and shortly after the Civil War. And so the Republican Party also had changed its basis. So this political realignment of the two parties coincided during this period of the ‘30s and ‘40s, particularly after the 1946 sugar strike, in the creation of a new voice for Hawaii’s people. There wasn’t an entrenched Democratic Party or an entrenched Republican Party together, there was an entrenched Republican Party but there was no Democratic Party. They created the Democratic Party out of the ILWU in essence. And so you have many people who came right out of the plantations. Leadership came right out of the labor movement at that time period and got elected for the first time. So many of the people of Japanese ancestry who never had a chance of getting into office got elected into office as a result of the organizing that took place in the 1946 sugar strike. So you see people who never had a chance in this, suddenly they had a chance. That changed forever, Hawaii. And there’s no minimizing this, this is a mammoth revolution. And this didn’t all take place in 1954. I think that’s the only argument I have with people. Because that’s the year the Democratic majority took over the houses of the Hawaii legislature. But it had been growing since 1943 when the ILWU actually had gotten enough people to get some bills passed, and they were smart enough to look at politics as a way of changing things. So the hopes and aspirations of people who had come to Hawaii on contracts, and their grandparents who had come there on contracts now realized that they have a home in Hawaii. They can live here. They can be in Hawaii and they can be Americans and they can live in Hawaii. They’re not just here to work, run a contract and go back to their country. That and the welcome hand that was laid out on behalf of the country and because of the labor movement and the success of the labor movement is the primary victory of the 1946 sugar strike was for labor and for the people of Hawaii.

ROBYNN: Reflecting back. Not ILWU alone. Early labor struggle.

BILL: The reason, there’s a lot of things that happened in order to create the victory of the 1946 sugar strike and some of these things we tend not to think too much about. Honestly I have to say that it’s important to understand that Hawaii history is part of US history and there’s no arguing about that. We’re part of the impact of WWII is not just Pearl Harbor. The impact of WWII and the Great Depression in the US earlier is the creation of the New Deal in the Roosevelt Administration that opened the door for a huge amount of labor’s organizing activities that allowed the victory and the chances for victory later on in that time period, so we’ve been moving in a progressive direction very clearly with lots of building blocks. And some of the blocks took place on the mainland and some of the blocks are blocks the workers themselves had to build with blood, sweat and tears in the plantations and as they moved in the towns and cities to build up their small businesses and communities. So I think it’s interesting to note sort of an historical anecdote is one of the first workers, the Imin they say came to Hawaii, Japanese contract laborers in the first wave, is who was lynched in Honokaa on the big island. There’s a memorial to him today and the memorial was put up not because he was a labor leader but because he was the first businessman. In other words, one of the things he did wrong that caused him to be lynched was he tried to open up a store in that area and that was directly in competition with the Big Five interests. So he’s looked upon as the first small businessman in Hawaii. Certainly the first small businessman from Japan to organize and he is a hero of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce, I suppose, and their history. But he’s also an important figure in the history of the labor movement. He was a plantation worker. He was lynched also because he was helping the plantation workers who were still working on their contracts with translation, because he spoke English. Now, his sacrifice, his life, the martyrdom that took place around the life of Konsu Goto is really I think fulfilled in the victory of 1946 because then all the things he wanted, all the things he was trying to accomplish as an Imin back in the 1880s became possible only after the 1946 sugar strike, and it was a long road from the one to the other. But it was now possible without contradiction, without fear of lynching that Japanese were going to be able to have the respect to do things in Hawaii. To build businesses and to move from the plantations into professions. And so these things were struggles that start as far back as the first plantation people to come over on the first contracts and every single disturbance, every single strike, every single attempt to organize, to deal with the un-permitted autopsy of workers in 1906 to the sanitation and the need to have baths later on, all of these were part of the building blocks when workers said no, we’re not going to put up with this anymore. We’re going to insist on a better condition. And it’s really a fearsome thing to have to do when you know the other side’s ability to retaliate against you is enormous. In the early days they could beat you to death or they could imprison you or they could deprive you of your house and your living and deport you. And all kinds of other things were there that could happen yet that did not stop them. And you have to look back at the courage of the forebears of the labor movement that came out of the plantation communities, out of these plantation workers whether Japanese or Filipino or Chinese. Their stories, our center loves to see them told and the ethnic studies center loves to see them told and the oral history center loves to see them told. Because we lose them when they aren’t told and it would be sad for this history of struggle, it’s a proud history of struggle because it’s a progressive history. It made a better place out of Hawaii. It made a place that isn’t going to be near as friendly to racism as any other place in the US. And it’s why I enjoy living here. That’s all.