by Dr. Arcelita Imasa
Were Filipino workers treated well in the past and have they played a role in improving working and living conditions in Hawaii?
Most schoolchildren and even college students know little or nothing about the labor struggles of the past and the role Filipino workers played. These struggles have helped Hawaii attain a higher standard of living in the islands.
One key struggle was the Great Strike of 1920, launched by Filipino sugar plantation workers and joined in by their Japanese co-workers in 1920 and 1924.
The Great Strike of 1920 was conducted by the Filipino Labor Union led by Pablo Manlapit, an immigrant worker who became a lawyer and labor organizer.
The strike was launched to demand higher wages–$1.25 a day plus a better bonus system–an eight-hour workday, maternity leave for women, improved housing and medical clinics and paid holidays.
Workers were paid less than a dollar a day and often worked 10 to 12 hours a day for 6 days a week. There were different pay rates for each nationality of the workers. Women were paid less than men and they had to take their young children out into the fields with them as they worked.
The Hawaii Sugar Planters Association (HSPA) refused the workers’ demands and so the Filipino workers went on strike. The Japanese workers in the Federation of Labor united with their Filipino coworkers and joined the strike which spread from plantation to plantation on Oahu.
The sugar plantation owners refused to negotiate and instead evicted 12,000 workers and their wives and children from their plantation homes. About 5,000 went to Honolulu and stayed at Aala Park outside Chinatown, and the rest, nearly 7,000 workers and their families set up makeshift camps in the countryside.
The workers and their leaders were attacked by the press as “un-American” and agitators and racist propaganda and claims were made that the strike was an effort to “Japanize” Hawaii. In the camps, the food was scarce and conditions difficult. Some small merchants, mainly Chinese, extended credit to the strikers so they would not starve.
The workers and their families suffered but held firm for six months, from January through June, even in the face of a great and very deadly flu epidemic in 1920 which killed an estimated 25 to 50 million people around the globe. About 150 people were estimated to have died in the makeshift strikers’ camps at Aala Park and elsewhere during the strike.
The strike was defeated by July 1, 1920. The Filipino workers’ alliance with the Japanese strikers had ended earlier and the Japanese consulate in Hawaii was urging Japanese workers to give up and go back to work. The plantation owners spent $12 million to break the strike. The Workers’ Federation of Labor raised and spent $600,000.
Due to extreme racist attacks on the Japanese and their leaders, and the passage of the Japanese Exclusion Act of 1924 preventing any new Japanese immigration to the U.S. and Hawaii, the Japanese labor organizations became less active for the next two decades.
But the Filipino workers under Manlapit would try again, in the Filipino strike of 1924. Pablo Manlapit would be subject to legal prosecution and deportation for his continued courageous efforts to help Filipino sugar workers improve their working and living conditions. We’ll share the story of that strike and its union leader Manlapit in the next issue.
Hawaii Workers Center
DR. ARCELITA IMASA is a practicing family physician and the secretary of the Hawaii Workers Center’s Executive Committee of the Board. She grew up in the Philippines before migrating to Hawaii with her family more than a decade ago.