The State of Aloha

Labor Day is around the corner. It’s more than a holiday, you know. The labor movement was once the most radical movement in the islands. And it can be traced back to a pair of haoles who crashed a homegrown movement on Maui.

Bill Bailey was a real, live, flesh and blood Communist in San Francisco. Having proved his mettle and resistance against police violence at a waterfront strike, the party assigned him to travel out to Hawaii and “do some political work.”

He stepped off the boat in Honolulu with nothing more than a suitcase full of blank membership cards and a few clothes. Like the hippies and free spirits that would follow in his footsteps decades after him, Bailey was a transient.

He found a dingy room off of Queen Emma Street near downtown Honolulu. Then he got red bunting, painted a sickle and hammer on it and pinned it to the wall. He referred to it as the “flag of the working class” and started preaching his gospel to anyone who would lend an ear.

Bailey’s opportunity to stir up trouble came on Maui. Back then, the Valley Isle and the rest of the outer islands were sleepy, tightly controlled rural communities far from the bustling streets of Honolulu. The sugar planters and their intricate organization of interlocking boards ran things. They controlled the police, and paid for special prosecutors to enforce draconian laws designed to keep workers in their place.

Labor unrest on the plantation during Hawaii’s territorial years was marked primarily by loosely organized groups limited to ethnicity. When one group went on strike, the solution for management was simple: bring in another group and pit them against each other.

But things were changing. The largest ethnic group of workers by the 1920s and ’30s came from the Philippines. They were growing to be more and more militant. They even attempted to create a Filipino-only union, but it withered away and died after their leader was deported and sent to California.

The workers heard of the Communists in Honolulu and turned to them for help. Soon enough Bailey and his partner were on Maui ready to stir things up. Together they toured the island addressing crowds of workers nightly. They drew good crowds for 1937. Hundreds came to hear them speak and talk about the plight of working folks in Paia, Lahaina and Haiku.

They gathered in darkness and in the only place where they couldn’t be chased off by the notorious and hated plantation sheriffs and police: the middle of the road. By the end of the week, Bailey’s voice was hoarse. Their islandwide tour lit a fire and the day after they returned to Oahu, Maui’s Filipinos went on strike.

It started at a single plantation. Filipinos turned in their cane knives and demanded a raise. They were evicted from the camp. The strike spread to other Filipino workers in other camps.

When Bailey got word of the strike, he hightailed it back to Maui to keep the strikers busy and prevent demoralization. He orchestrated a mile-long parade, which is considered the first May Day parade in Hawaii. Workers lined the streets in Kahului with colorful and revolutionary signs demanding equality and fair pay.

When a group of strikers detained a fellow Filipino who was afraid to go on strike, the strike leader and eight others were charged with conspiracy for unlawful imprisonment. This wasn’t new. Prosecuting labor leaders was another tactic by employers. The prosecutors were assisted by other lawyers paid for by management.

But this time Bailey reached out and was able to get a left-wing defense lawyer from California. Workers were stunned to see a white lawyer from the Mainland arrive on Maui to defend Filipino strikers. He was hailed as a hero and decked in lei. He went straight to the courthouse in Wailuku (which is now the prosecutor’s office on High Street), presented his license to practice law and took on the case. Ultimately, eight out of nine were convicted.

The strike — which had up to 3,500 strikers at its peak — lasted 86 days. The workers did get a slight pay raise and their union was recognized, but it faded away over time. Bailey, in the meantime, was threatened by the police in Honolulu and quietly left town with his red bunting. His job was done. He had stirred the pot.

His partner, Jack Hall, stuck around and started working hard for unions in Hawaii, but that’s an understatement.

So as we come around to Labor Day 80 years later, let us not forget that radicalism and a good, hard fight against impossible odds are part of our heritage.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”