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Lessons from Hawaii’s history of organized labor

Don’t Let History Repeat Itself

The struggle for justice in the workplace has been a consistent theme in our islands since the sugar plantation era began in the 1800s. Hawai‘i’s sugar plantation workers toiled for little pay and zero benefits. Sugar plantation owners used manipulative techniques to create a servile workforce, but their tactics eventually turned against them as workers ultimately overcame adversity by organizing together as a union.

Although Hawai‘i today may no longer have a plantation economy and employers may not be as blatantly exploitive, we are constantly faced with threats and attempts to chip away at the core rights of employees in subtle, almost imperceptible, ways. History holds valuable lessons to address today’s workplace challenges and constant changes.

While some may have nostalgic, romanticized notions of the sugar plantation era, the reality was different. Many immigrants surprisingly found themselves in unfavorable working conditions – enslaved in the fields or in the mills, enduring constant pain and suffering – clinging to the hope that they would be able improve the quality of life for their families, all the while enriching their employers.

Lesson #1: Hold true to your values. Don’t let others define the “good life” for you.

The first commercially viable sugar cane plantation began in 1835 by Ladd and Company in Koloa, Kaua‘i. That’s also where the earliest recorded labor strike occurred just six years later.

Employers felt they were giving their workers a “good life” by providing paying jobs. However, when workers requested a reasonable pay increase to 25 cents a day, the plantation owners refused to honor their fair request. Native Hawaiian laborers walked off the job in unity to show that they would not put up with intolerable and inhumane work conditions. Working for the plantation owners for scrips didn’t make sense to Hawaiians. They preferred to work for themselves and take care of their families by fishing and farming. The eight-day strike served as a foretaste of what was to come and displayed the possibilities of organizing for common goals and objectives.

Lesson #2: Standing together in solidarity with aloha leads to triumph.

Importing Laborers for the Plantations

Sugar was becoming a big business in Hawai‘i, with increasingly favorable world market conditions. Yet, with the native Hawaiian population declining because of diseases brought by foreigners, sugar plantation owners needed to import people from other countries to work on their plantations. Immigrants in search of a better life and a way to support their families back home were willing to make the arduous journey to Hawai‘i and make significant sacrifices to improve the quality of life for their families.

The immigrants, however, did not expect the tedious, back-breaking work of cutting and carrying sugar cane 10 hours a day, six days a week. Some accounts indicate those who worked in the mills had to face 12-hour workdays. Women had it worse. They were responsible for weeding the sugar cane fields, stripping off the dry leaves — for roughly only two-thirds compensation of what men were paid.

Diversity with Bad Intentions

The first wave of immigrants were from China in 1850. The plantation owners relished the idea of cheap labor and intended to keep it that way. The first group of Chinese workers reportedly had five-year contracts for a mere $3.00 a month, plus travel, food, clothing and housing.

The Japanese, Koreans and Filipinos came after the Chinese. Diversity was important to the sugar plantation owners, but not for the same reasons we value diversity in the workplace today. For the owners, diversity had a self-serving, utilitarian purpose: increased productivity and profitability. Some owners paid the ethnic groups different wages to sow discord and distrust. Pitting the ethnic groups against each other prevented the workforce from banding together to gain power and possibly start a revolt.

The owners divided the ethnic groups into different camps. Yet, the islands’ natural Spirit of Aloha through collaboration and mutual trust and respect eventually prevailed in the plantations. The different groups shared their culture and traditions, and developed their own common hybrid language — Hawaiian pidgin — a combination of Hawaiian, English, Japanese, Chinese, and Portuguese. It was a reverse Tower of Babel experience. The owners brought in workers from other countries to further diversify the workforce. Their strategy was to flood the marketplace with immigrant laborers, thereby enabling the owners to lower wages, knowing workers had no other option but to accept the wages or be jobless and possibly disgrace their families.

Lesson #3: Be bold. Knowing your rights is liberating.


Imagine being constantly whipped by your boss for not following company rules. This was commonplace on the plantations. Luna, the foreman or supervisors of the plantations, did not hesitate to wield their power with whips to discipline plantation workers for getting out of line. The workers were even subject to rules and conduct codes during non-working hours. They were forbidden to leave the plantations in the evening and had to be in bed by 8:30 p.m.

Workers were also subjected to a law called the Master and Servants Act of 1850.   Because of the need for cheap labor, the Kingdom of Hawaii adopted the Master and Servants Act of 1850 which essentially was just human slavery under a different name.  The law provided the legal framework for “indentured servants” or laborers in bondage to a plantation enforced by cruel and unusual punishment from the Kingdom – the shared economic goal of slave-law to harness labor. 

For example, under the law,  absenteeism or refusal to work allowed the contract laborer to be apprehended by legal authorities (police officers or agents of the Kingdom) and subsequently sentenced to work for the employer an extra amount of time over and above the absence. In addition, if the contract laborer tried to run away, the law permitted their employers to use “coercive force” such as “bounty hunters” to apprehend them as if they were runaway slaves.  These conditions made it impossible for these contract workers to escape from a life of eternal servitude.

However, things changed on June 14, 1900 when Hawai‘i was formally recognized as a U.S. territory. It abruptly shifted the power dynamics on the plantations. The existing labor contracts with the sugar plantation workers were deemed illegal because they violated the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude.

Finding new found freedom, thousands of plantation workers walked off their jobs. Many who left the plantations never looked back. They left with their families to other states or returned to their home countries. Although there were no formal organized unions, that year 25 strikes were documented. The cumulative effect of all of those strikers was positive: within a year, wages increased by 10 cents a day to 70 cents a day. This left the owners no other choice, but to look for additional sources of immigrant labor, luring more Japanese, Puerto Ricans, Koreans, Spanish, Filipinos and other groups or nationalities.

Lesson #4: Harness the collective power of unions

By 1946, the sugar industry had grown into a major economic engine in Hawai‘i. More than 100,000 people lived and worked on the plantations — equivalent to 20 percent of Hawai‘i’s total population.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) was able to successfully unite and organize the different ethnic groups from every camp on every plantation. As a result, they were able to launch a strike in 1946 that lasted 79 days. Unlike other attempts to create disruption, this was the first time a strike shut down the sugar industry. All but one of the 34 largest plantations were impacted.

A Solid Foundation

This was a pivotal event in Hawai‘i’s labor history which eventually became a part of the fabric of our society today.  It was from these events that the unions were recognized as a formidable force in leveling the playing field and as a means to address social, political and economic injustice. Community organizing became a way of life for workers and their families. The Aloha Spirit eventually transformed and empowered the plantation workers and strengthened their support for each other. Today, the Aloha Spirit continues to prosper and guide our people and embodied as a State law under HRS, §5-7.5

Those early plantation experiences set the stage for ongoing change and advancements in the labor movement that eventually led to the public’s support for oppressed public employees, who at the time were the lowest paid in the nation and had the least favorable job security and benefits. Their work lives were subject to the vagaries of political machinations. For years, the public-sector unions sought to enact collective bargaining rights for its members. It wasn’t until the 1968 Constitutional Convention that convention delegates made a strong statement and pushed for public employees to have a right to engage in collective bargaining.  

During the general election of November 5, 1968, the people of Hawai’i voted to amend the State’s Constitution to grant public employees the right to engage in collective bargaining under Article XIII, Section 2.  Two years later, the Legislature passed Act 171, the Hawaii Collective Bargaining Law for Public Employees, in 1970. This law provided public employees the right to elect an exclusive bargaining agent for representation and to negotiate an employment contract with the executive branch of government. At last, public-sector employees could enjoy the same rights and benefits as those employed in the private sector.

The decades of struggle have proven to be fruitful. Due to the collaborative work of the unions, in combination with other civil rights actions, today all ethnicities can enjoy middle-class mobility and reach for the American dream.  Today, all Hawai‘i residents can enjoy rights and freedoms with access and availability to not only public primary education but also higher education through the University of Hawai‘i system. Individuals can strive and realize their dreams of becoming professors, legislators, physicians, attorneys, and other highly sought after professions as a result of the tremendous sacrifices, pain, suffering, and perseverance of past generations who fought to provide all of us with the better life we have today.


Shaping the Destiny of Hawai‘i

We must each, in our way, confront the deeper questions: What can we do to ensure that the hard-won freedoms that we have been entrusted with are not stripped away from the bloody hands who fought for them?  How do we ensure that these hard-earned gains will be handed down to not only our children but also our grandchildren, and great-grandchildren? 

We must not simply enjoy the benefits gained from those who worked so hard in the past without consideration for the future.  We cannot achieve improved working conditions and standards of living just by ourselves. We must work collectively together and utilize our legal and constitutional rights to engage in collective bargaining to ensure our continued academic freedom, tenure, equity, democracy, and all our other hard earned rights. 

During these unprecedented times we must work collectively together and utilize our legal and constitutional rights to engage in collective bargaining to ensure our continued academic freedom, tenure, equity, and democracy.  We must protect these and all other hard-earned and hard-fought for rights.