Between 1920 and 1940, Filipinos, making the greatest sacrifices, led the struggle of Hawaii’s working class for the democratic right to belong to a union and for an end to racial discrimination and the feudal practices of plantation bosses.
When Filipinos first arrived in Hawaii at the turn of the century, they found a colonial backwater dominated by a small elite of haole (white) businessmen whose corporations were known as the Big Five—Castle & Cooke, Theo H. Davies, Alexander and Baldwin, C. Brewer and Amfac.
The Big Five controlled the islands’ economy and politics, following the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom and annexation by the United States in 1898. At the bottom of society were the masses of immigrants and Hawaiian laborers who produced the wealth of the islands.
The plantation system was sharply divided not only along class lines, but also along race and nationality. The Hawaii Sugar Planters Association (HSPA) skillfully practiced divide-and-rule by deliberately recruiting workers of different nationalities and races, and abetting cultural and linguistic differences by housing workers in segregated camps: Pake (Chinese), Japanese, Podagee (Portuguese), Spanish and Filipino. Work assignments and wages were often determined by race.
By the 1920s, the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans—who had suffered bitter defeats in earlier strikes—were leaving plantations for better jobs and pay in Honolulu and other big towns, or migrating to the U.S. mainland. To make up for the loss of workers, the HSPA encouraged the immigration of more than 100,000 Filipinos to Hawaii between 1910 and 1932.
Once the Filipinos arrived, they were distributed among 40 HSPA-affiliated plantations on the islands of Kauai, Oahu, Maui, Molokai, Lanai and the Big Island of Hawaii, drastically changing the ethnic composition of the plantations. In 1915, Filipinos constituted only 19 percent of the work force, the Japanese, 54 percent. By 1932, only 19 percent of the plantation workers were Japanese and nearly 70 percent were Filipino.
Most Filipino workers were from the Ilocos provinces and the Visayan islands. Between 1916 and 1928, HSPA labor recruiters brought 66,436 Filipinos to the islands. Of this number, 37,114 (about 60 percent) came from the four Ilocano provinces of Ilocos Sur, Ilocos Norte, Abra and La Union; 17,799 (or about 27 percent) originated from Cebu, Bohol, Leyte and Negros. About 8,525 reported that they came from Pangasinan and Tarlac. The rest came from 35 other provinces.
HSPA labor recruiters in the Philippines consciously selected uneducated workers of peasant origins. As late as 1930, seven out of ten Filipino plantation workers could neither read nor write. Recruits suspected of having even slight schooling were systematically screened out by the HSPA as potential troublemakers.
Most of the early Filipino immigrants were young men who came without parents, wives or children. From 1920 to 1930, the HSPA brought in 65,618 Filipino laborers, while allowing 5,286 women and 3,091 children to accompany the men. The Filipino male to female ratio was almost 14 to 1.
The social handicaps of the early Filipino immigrants made them ideal candidates for the most arduous and monotonous tasks, such as hoeing, planting and weeding during cane planting and cutting, hauling, loading and fluming during harvest. Their lives revolved around the 10-12 hour work day and the factory mill whistle.
It didn’t take long before the first wave of Filipino immigrants, like the other nationalities before them, began to rebel against the social and economic conditions they found in paradise.
HSPA’s divide-and-rule policy resulted in “blood unionism” among the various ethnic groups. Each group—the Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Hawaiians and Filipinos—fought the plantation bosses separately and without coordination. All strikes prior to the establishment of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) in the 1940s ended in tragic and costly defeat for the workers. The exception was the strike of Filipinos on Maui in 1937 led by Vibora Luviminda, the last of the racially-based unions in Hawaii.
Between 1920 and 1940, Filipinos organized 12 strikes against the sugar barons. The most dramatic and bloodiest of these occurred in 1920, 1924 and 1937. The most important historical figure in Hawaii’s Filipino community before World War II was Pablo Manlapit, the founder of the early Filipino labor movement.
Unlike most Filipino workers, who were Ilocanos or Visayan, Pablo Manlapit was a Tagalog. Born in Lipa, Batangas, Manlapit was five years old when Jose Rizal, the Philippine national hero, was executed by the Spanish in 1896 and eight years old when the Philippine-American War began in February 1898. Manlapit came to Hawaii as a 19-year-old in 1910. He had completed grade school in the Philippines but was somehow able to convince labor recruiters that he was a suitable worker. He was assigned to a plantation on the island of Hawaii but was soon dismissed. He moved to the town of Hilo, where he started two newspapers and ran a pool hall. Later, he moved to Honolulu and worked as a salesman and stevedore.
Manlapit became an interpreter and janitor in a legal office, where he studied law. In 1918, he qualified as a District Court Practitioner, becoming the first Filipino lawyer in Hawaii.
A labor historian wrote that Manlapit was “an eloquent agitator, but an incapable administrator.” For all his faults, Manlapit had charisma, and elderly Filipinos still speak of him with awe and respect.
Mestizo-looking and tall for a Filipino—he was six feet tall—Manlapit tirelessly represented Filipino workers in their grievances against their employers, becoming enormously popular among Filipinos throughout the territory. He also drew the attention and hatred of the HSPA.
In 1919, Manlapit traveled from island to island recruiting members into the Filipino Labor Union (FLU). In 1920, Manlapit and Japanese labor leaders formed the Higher Wage Movement. Following the HSPA’s rejection of their demands for better wages, improved working conditions and equal pay for the same work regardless of race and sex, Manlapit and the Japanese labor leaders asked their respective unions to strike. It was the first time unions representing different nationalities united in a joint strike with a common demand.
Filipinos and Japanese workers left the fields and kept the mills idle in Waipahu, Waialua, Ewa, Kahuku and Waimanalo. At the height of the strike, the HSPA’s hired goons evicted more than 12,000 workers from their plantation housing.
But the strike was broken when Manlapit suddenly pulled the Filipinos out of it due to an apparent dispute with the Japanese leaders. The HSPA took advantage of the split by spreading rumors and intrigues to demoralize the strikers.
The first interracial strike in the history of Hawaii lasted three months, with the HSPA spending several million dollars to crush it. The defeat dealt a severe blow to the Japanese union, and it would be another 20 years before it would again play a central role in Hawaii’s labor movement.
The Higher Wage Movement
After the defeat of the 1920 strike, Manlapit started a new labor organization with the help of George Wright, later to become the English editor of the Hawaii Hochi, the Japanese community newspaper. The HSPA had Manlapit thrown in jail twice and made it difficult for him to practice law. Undaunted, Manlapit continued visiting various plantations to forge the Filipino Higher Wage Movement.
The Movement petitioned the HSPA in 1923 for a $2-a-day, 40-hour work week and an end to abuses. The HSPA ignored these demands. Manlapit appealed to the colonial Philippine government to send a labor commissioner to investigate the working conditions in Hawaii and to mediate between the planters and the Filipino workers. Governor General Leonard Wood appointed former Ilocos Norte governor Cayetano Ligot as special investigator.
Escorted by HSPA officials, Ligot paid token visits to several plantations. In an authoritative statement on the situation of Filipino laborers in Hawaii, Ligot blamed the Filipinos themselves for their troubles. They were too unstable, said Ligot, and had fallen prey to parasitic gamblers and con men who snuck into the plantations to disrupt their otherwise pleasant situation. Management, he said, was doing its best to provide wholesome working conditions and decent wages. He urged his compatriots to give their services wholeheartedly to the plantations to bring honor to the Filipino people. Ligot concluded his report by attacking the activities of Filipino labor leaders, especially Manlapit.
Ligot was only one of many labor commissioners sent by the colonial government in Manila who would work hand in glove with the HSPA against the interest of Filipino workers. While Ligot was discouraging Filipino workers from fighting to get more than their $20 a month wage, his report included a request to increase his monthly salary to $250. Ligot’s subservience earned him notoriety among Filipinos in Hawaii. Filipino old-timers still speak jokingly of “mistake Ligot” when something goes wrong over matters which they have little or no control.
The 1924 Hanapepe Massacre
In April 1924, one month after Ligot’s report was made public, Manlapit called on all Filipino workers to walk out and strike. Twelve thousand Filipinos from 23 of the 45 plantations went on a long, violent and tragic strike that would last eight months.
The strike was doomed from the start. The HSPA again employed its time-tested weapon of divide-and-rule. This time they pitted Filipinos against Filipinos—Ilocanos against Visayans. Ilocano laborers were recruited from the Philippines as strikebreakers. The tragic scene of striking Filipino workers and their families being evicted from their plantation-owned houses and replaced with newly arrived workers from the Philippines was repeated throughout the islands.
Thousands of strikers pitched tents near beaches and sugarcane fields. HSPA agents set up an elaborate spy network to infiltrate strike meetings, sow dissension and break up rallies. The plantation bosses adeptly used bribes as well as actual physical beatings.
What became the bloodiest incident in the history of labor in Hawaii occurred in Hanapepe on the island of Kauai on Sept. 9, 1924. Strikers at the Makaweli plantation armed themselves with guns, cane knives, rocks and clubs and captured two Ilocano strikebreakers. Kauai Sheriff William Rice led a posse to this camp on the banks of a small river just above the town of Hanapepe to demand the release of the captured scabs.
The strikers resisted, and a battle ensued lasting several days. When the smoke cleared, 16 Filipinos and four policemen were dead and scores wounded. At Sheriff Rice’s request, Gov. Farrington sent two machine-gun squads and rifle companies of the National Guard to Kauai. The National Guard restored order, arresting more than 100 strikers. Seventy-six Filipinos were brought to trial, and 60 were given four-year sentences.
Manlapit and Cecil Basan, another prominent Filipino labor leader, were sentenced to ten years, even though the two men weren’t even present in Kauai during the massacre. Years later, one elderly Filipino woman, then a nurse at the immigration station in Honolulu, stated that several witnesses, who had been promised $10,000 each and a ticket back to the Philippines, testified falsely against Manlapit and Basan.
The Hawaii Hochi wrote that Manlapit had been railroaded into prison, a victim of made-up evidence, perjured testimony, racial prejudice and class hatred. Manlapit was exiled from Hawaii and left for California where he stayed until 1932. With Filipino leaders jailed or exiled and their organization shattered, the strike of 1924 continued ineffectively, albeit heroically, for another three months.
The 1937 Maui Strike
Labor activity on the plantations declined until the height of the Great Depression in 1933, when Manlapit returned from his exile. Together with Antonio Fagel and Epifanio Taok, Manlapit formed a new Filipino Labor Union. To avoid a repeat of 1924, the HSPA made a preemptive move by jailing Taok and banishing Manlapit permanently to the Philippines in 1935.
Fagel took the union underground and renamed it Vibora Luviminda. Vibora was the nom de guerre of the Filipino patriot Artemio Ricarte, who fought in the Philippine revolution against Spain and refused to sign an oath of loyalty to the United States. Luviminda stood for Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao—signifying the unity of the Filipinos. In 1936, Fagel brought Vibora Luviminda out into the open and launched a strike at Puunene plantation on Maui. Three thousand Filipinos joined the strike.
With the Depression still at its height, the HSPA hired scabs from the massive ranks of the unemployed. The Philippine Commissioner in Washington sent a wire, as did President Manuel Quezon, to the striking Filipinos calling on them to return to work. After three months, the HSPA negotiated with the union to end the strike, a first in Hawaii’s history. The striking workers won a 15-percent wage increase.
In the midst of the negotiations, however, Fagel was arrested on trumped-up charges of kidnapping a Filipino strikebreaker. Fagel and seven other strike leaders were brought to trial, which dragged on for months. They were found guilty and sent to jail. The Vibora Luviminda, the last of Hawaii’s racial union, then fell into disarray, making the Puunene strike the last racial strike in Hawaii.
The Vibora Luviminda strike of 1937 also marked the first time that haole labor leaders extended strike support to plantation workers. Jack Hall, the founder of the ILWU, who was sent to organize Hawaii’s waterfront workers by the left-wing Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), played a central role in building support for the strike. So did William Bailey, the editor of The Voice of Labor, who was also an organizer of the American Communist Party in Hawaii.
One Big Union
After 1937, the idea of an industry-wide, interracial union began to take hold among plantation and waterfront workers. The plantation-based Filipino community was drawn into the key social drama unfolding in Hawaii—the struggle to build one big union. Taking the lessons from the bitter labor wars waged by Filipinos between 1920 and 1940, the ILWU started its drive to unite Hawaii’s ethnically diverse working class under the slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”
The years following World War II saw epic battles between Hawaii’s workers—led by the ILWU—and the Big Five: the three-month-long 1946 Sugar Strike, the 1947 Pineapple Strike; the bitter six-month-long 1949 Long-Shore Strike and the four-month-long 1958 Sugar Strike. The ILWU won each time.
As the largest ethnic group on the plantations, Filipinos played a crucial role in the outcome of these historic events. The question of victory or defeat hinged on their unity and determination to stand behind their left-wing unions, which often came under intense anti-communist attacks. With the ILWU firmly established as a political and economic force in Hawaii, those in power have had to listen with begrudging respect to the voice of the Filipino plantation workers. Hawaii’s sugar and pineapple workers would emerge as the highest-paid agricultural workers in the world. The lowest paid sugar and pineapple workers in the field earn more than nine dollars an hour. They have comprehensive medical plans, paid holidays and vacation and receive sick and severance pay. They’re entitled to workmen’s compensation if they get injured on the job, and are covered by the state’s collective bargaining law. Hawaii is the only state in which all workers in large-scale agricultural enterprises are organized in a labor union and have been for nearly 50 years.
But the captains of Hawaii’s agribusiness never fully reconciled themselves with labor’s gains. Firms such as Castle & Cooke, Dole and Del Monte have shifted practically all of their sugar and pineapple operations to countries such as the Philippines, Thailand and Costa Rica, where they can pay workers one-tenth of the wages earned by Hawaii’s workers. After World War II, there were 36 sugar and nearly a dozen pineapple plantations employing more than 35,000 workers. Today, there are only four sugar and two pineapple plantations operating in Hawaii, employing fewer than 2,000 people. The decline helps mask the islands’ history of epic labor struggles, a tumultuous past in which Filipinos played a heroic role.
|The editors would like to thank Oscar Peñaranda and Jeanette Gandionco Lazam for pointing out our error: the Hanapepe Massacre happened in 1924, not 1942, as we originally posted. We have made the correction. We apologize for our mistake.|
Dean Alegado was a professor in ethnic studies and director of the Center for Philippines Studies in the School for Hawaiian, Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. He currently lives in Subic, Philippines.
Reprinted from Filipinas Magazine, October 1997.