Happy May Day! A Short History of Labor in Hawaii

Shrimp Trucks OahuHawaii has a long history of exploiting labor of the many for the profit of the few. In the days before European contact, the common people, the maka’aina worked the taro patches and fishponds for the chiefly class – the ali’i. And yet, despite the feudal nature of this relationship between worker and master – the labor was not exploited. There was no hunger unless there was famine and no one was left out in the ancient Hawaiian society. The ali’i used their power to take care of the land and provide for the people – it wasn’t perfect but the average Hawaiian needed to work only 4 hours per day to get everything they needed to live and took 4 months off for the festival of makahiki when warfare and work were replaced with celebrations and games.

The exploitation I refer to came after contact. Missionaries established small farms and plantations. The Hawaiian system of responsibility of those controlling the land towards those living on it disappeared and was replaced with the exploitive practice of bosses and workers.

North Shore Soap FactoryWorkers were brought in for nearly a century – waves of migrant workers brought from places where no language was shared and put against each other – the ruthless exploitation of Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, Filipino, Puerto Rican, and other workers was brutal and violent. It was not chattel slavery, but the so called ‘contract labor’ was just a step above it. In some cases wives of some workers were sold to other laborers – stolen from their families and given to others. This was the basis of the vast fortunes of the upper classes in Hawai’i.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that labor in Hawai’i began to organize. The 6-month longshore workers strike of 1949 crippled the Hawaiian economy and turned the tide in favor of workers. For three decades, workers fought bosses to establish fair wages and better treatment. By the 1980s, sugar had become a still hard job but one that provided a living family wage where a worker could buy a house, raise children, send them to college, and retire.

WaipahuIt was then that sugar and large agriculture pulled out of Hawaii – they reversed the victories of the workers and left the Hawaiian economy completely. In less than a decade, big agriculture had left the Hawaiian islands and gone to where labor was less powerful and workers could still be exploited for big profits. The Hawaiian economy was left in a shambles.

Today, tourism has replaced agriculture. Gone are the days when workers could afford to buy a home, send kids to college or retire. Instead, the children of those sugar workers now work as I-9 wage slaves to avoid employers having to give benefits, they work as low paid cleaning and maintenance people, they work as underpaid waiters, drivers, guides, bartenders, or desk clerks. The bulk of most of their wages don’t come from the employer, but from the tipping customer. While there have been some small victories with tourism wages (the big hotel strike in 2018) – mostly, workers have lost. Those who have money have always been fine in Hawaii. Those who do not either move away or become homeless eventually.

Workers in Hawai’i – regardless of industry generally earn 10% less than they would in an equivalent mainland city. They generally pay at least 10% more for rent, food, gas and everything else. Hawaii is paradise – but you only get to enjoy it if you are wealthy, subsidized by the military, visiting for a short time – or if you’ve given up on making it in the capitalist system and have decided to live the life of a homeless person in paradise.

 

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