Filipino Workers’ Role in Hawaii’s Labor Movement Part 2

by Dr. Arcelita Imasa

Dear Readers,

Our last column shared some important history concerning Filipino workers and unionization in Oahu. This prompted Ray Catania and Mike Miranda, Hawaii Workers Center volunteers, to share this story of the 1924 Filipino sugar workers strike on Kauai.

It was September 9, 1925. Hanapepe, Kauai, was the site of the massacre of 16 Filipino striking sugar workers and the death of 4 sharpshooter deputies recruited by the Hawaii Sugar Planters Association. The Hawaii-wide sugar strike was led by Pablo Manlapit and the Higher Wage Movement.

The workers were striking for an 8-hour workday and $2 a day as payment for their backbreaking labor. The sugar bosses refused to listen. The Filipinos were the lowest paid of all the sugar workers; they had the worst housing, lacked decent medical care, and had no chance for social or economic advancement.

The mainstream media and the more affluent saw them as pool hall hustlers, cockfighters and angry young men who were quick to settle conflicts with a knife. They were on the bottom rung of the social ladder. But their struggle was more than economic–it was for dignity, respect, and justice.

Most of Kauai’s sugar plantations were not affected by the strike. The fear of losing one’s job and getting evicted was a real possibility for the workers. The employers played the ethnicities against each other by paying them different rates, with Filipinos getting the least.

The plantation owners also took advantage of the cultural and language differences between the Visayan, Ilokano and Tagalog workers.  This tactic of “divide and conquer” hindered the workers in uniting.

The Higher Wage Movement had difficulty in organizing on all islands and at every plantation. They had little funding and no sympathy from the hostile mainstream media, some of them owned by then-Governor Wallace Rider Farrington. The Japanese pro-union newspapers, Hawaii Hochi and Hawaii Shimpo, were also ruthlessly attacked by Governor Farrington who was furious about their support for the Filipino strikers.

The strikers and their leaders also faced constant legal harassment and surveillance. On the morning of September 8, 1924, the frustrated strikers took two young strikebreakers’ “hostage” and events escalated.

About 40 armed sheriff deputies and militia moved in to retrieve the hostages. Violence ensued, which lasted into the following days as deputies hunted down strikers in the fields.

Besides the 16 workers killed, many more strikers were injured. Manlapit was blamed for the deadly melee and prosecuted, although he wasn’t even there.

One hundred and thirty workers were arrested and given sentences of one to four and a half years. Manlapit and other leaders were attacked as deranged and violent hotheads trying to create a government of their own.

The “conspiracy” trial and conviction of Manlapit and Cecilio Basan by the Hawaii Territorial Supreme Court put an end to the Higher Wage Movement, but the struggle of workers to form unions and improve their wages and working conditions continued.

In 1946, the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) conducted a successful territory-wide strike and sugar workers won a union and their first contract.

The violence seen in the “Hanapepe Massacre” was the result of the plantation owners’ refusal to address the just demands of the strikers and the owners’ decision to deploy armed militia against them.

The Filipino strikers and their leaders were courageous in the face of bullets, and their efforts laid the foundation for the forming of unions and winning the improved working conditions and wages we have today. We owe them our respect and gratitude.

Hawaii Workers Center

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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.

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