LABOR Hawaiian Style

King Kamehameha III’s  “Great Mahele”  enacted in 1848, introduced and institutionalized the private ownership or leasing of land tracts. Within a few years sugar plantation interests had obtained possession of major portions of the best cane lands.

The Hawaiians were the first plantation workers followed by Chinese immigrants in 1852, some Japanese in 1868, the Portuguese in 1878, Germans and Scandinavians in 1881, the Japanese contract workers in 1885, and the Spanish in 1899. Other groups came. The Okinawans and Puerto Ricans in 1900, the Koreans in 1903, and the Filipinos in 1906.

Pua Mana No (Sure a Poor Man)

 Nonoke au i ka maki ko, (I labored on a sugar plantation,)

I ka mahi ko. (Growing sugarcane.)

Ua `eha ke kua, kakahe ka hou, (My back ached, my sweat poured,)

Poho, poho. (All for nothing.)

A `ai`e au i ka hale ku`ai, (I fell in debt to the plantation store,)

A `ai`e au i ka hale ku`ai, (I fell in debt to the plantation store,)

A noho ho`i he pua mana no, (And remained a poor man,)

A noho ho`i he pua mana no, (And remained a poor man.)

~ from the collection The Echo of Our Song: Chants and Poems of the Hawaiians by Mary P. Pukui & Alfons L. Korn (Honolulu: University Press of Hawai‘i, 1973), pp. 122-24.

The end of World War II brought dramatic social, political, and economic change to Hawai’i. Among the factors driving the change was the growing power of the labor union, which began organizing in Hawai’i in the late 1930s. Led by the International Longshore Workers Union, the labor movement organized tens of thousands of dock workers and predominantly Asian farm laborers.

Through negotiations and major strikes in 1946, 1949, and 1958, the unions succeeded in abolishing the so-called perquisite system, where plantation owners  supplied their workers with such basic necessities as housing, medical care, and, in some instances, food, but paid them very low wages.

1959 brought statehood to Hawai’i, and jetliners began regular air service to the islands. The tourist industry, the construction industry, and the retail sales sector experienced rapid growth providing non-agricultural work opportunities for the people.

Unionization in Hawai’i reached its zenith in the early seventies with the passage of the state’s collective bargaining law for public employees. State and county workers now had the right to bargain contracts and file grievances like their brothers and sisters in the private sector. Organized labor has won valuable benefits for working people in Hawai’i, contributing to a strong middle class in what was once a plantation society —  where power and wealth were held by a few. The majority of today’s workers have little or no memory of the long gone social structure of the past.

In fact, for today’s young workers, unions represent the establishment, a circumstance their grandparents would likely find difficult to fathom. And although labor unions nationally have watched their political clout diminish along with their membership, Hawai’i’s organized labor is still a reckoning force.

Today wages and benefits paid to Hawai’i’s workers are still somewhat less than their mainland counterparts, but the gap has grown smaller and smaller.  And today children of former plantation workers, many college educated, are seen everywhere in the middle-class professions. Today Hawai’i is one of the most socially progressive states in the nation, due in part to the spirit of sacrifice and determination that united earlier generations to establish the principle of wage parity in the islands.

IS THERE AN IMMIGRANT PLANTATION WORKER IN YOUR FAMILY HISTORY?

DO YOU KNOW THEIR PERSONAL STORY?

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