The State of Aloha
This has been a short workweek because Monday was Labor Day — a day brought to you by and for working people.
The holiday came about in the 1880s after cities industrialized and housed large majorities and populations of wage earners. They lobbied state legislatures to set aside a holiday for them.
In one of the first states to have the holiday — New York — a parade of workers from all stripes proudly wearing their uniforms and regalia of their unions marched through Manhattan in 1882. The festivities ended in lower Manhattan in a park with a massive picnic, speeches, cigars and beer kegs “mounted in every conceivable place.”
Congress eventually passed a law in 1894 declaring the first Monday in September a federal holiday in the District of Columbia and all territories. That meant that when the Hawaiian Islands became a territory in 1900, the federal holiday came along with it. But that’s not to say that the labor movement was welcomed.
While kegs of beer flowed steadily in Manhattan, the labor movement in the islands was opposed by the primarily white elites who controlled the major industries and relied on law enforcement and the press to protect their interests. In stark contrast were the workers behind the movement: immigrants from Asia, Native Hawaiians and poor whites.
A sad and brutal example of the clash between the two groups happened in Hilo 80 years ago. Union dockworkers on the Big Island had been on strike since May. Employers responded by shipping in scabs, or nonunion workers, from Honolulu. The striking workers met them at the dock in Hilo and peacefully protested. The police responded by lobbing canisters of tear gas at the crowd.
At first the shipping company opted to avoid more ugly confrontations by canceling the Hilo route. That is, until the company relented to pressure from the Honolulu Chamber of Commerce.
On Aug. 1, 1938, the ship resumed the route to Hilo. Five hundred union members and sympathizers of the movement assembled at the docks. They carried signs that read “Don’t be a strikebreaker! It doesn’t pay!” and “Help Inter-Island workers win their just demands!”
They weren’t alone. Seventy-three police officers armed with bayonet-fixed rifles, clubs and other weapons were there to meet the peaceful marchers. The protesters sat down on the ground and refused to budge. The police attacked about 15 minutes later.
Gunshots and tear gas filled the air. Unarmed union members scattered. Some jumped into the harbor. Others were able to run away. But an estimated 51 were injured — some so badly that members were permanently disabled.
One worker told the press he’d been stabbed in the back by a bayonet. Fortunately and miraculously, no one died. The Hilo Chamber of Commerce nonetheless defiantly declared that “property rights had been preserved.” That day became known at first as Bloody Monday, but later on it was referred to as the Hilo Massacre.
The affair was not over. A Big Island grand jury convened to investigate the police brutality and not a single indictment came down against the police. A federal judge in Honolulu disagreed.
The grand jury’s finding, he stated, “reads to me more like a policy committee of some civic organization than that of a Grand Jury. . . . It is a matter of public knowledge of the fact that several men were grievously injured by shooting, by stabbing, by broken jawbones or something of the sort.”
Still, no one was prosecuted.
While the Hilo Massacre is remembered by labor and local historians, too many decades have passed for most folks to recall and commemorate the event. Nonetheless, we still have Labor Day with its picnics, parades and, above all, the time off to reflect on the labor movement.
Unions are still viable in Hawaii and have used the holiday to amplify their demands. It is no coincidence that UNITE HERE Local 5 Hawaii marched on Monday in front of the Sheraton at Kaanapali Beach. Like the ILWU 80 years before them on Hilo docks, they carried placards.
These read “ONE JOB SHOULD BE ENOUGH.” In this day and age, they have the audacity to demand that working people — the bartenders, housekeepers and food preparers — should be able to make enough to provide for their families without having to find a second or third job.
The union is doing what it can to put pressure on the hotel to renegotiate its contract with employees. It’s even put it on the boycott list for all to see online. Check it out for yourself at www.fairhotel.org/boycott-list.
The hotel hasn’t interfered with the march — a far cry from what happened in Hilo. And for that we can thank those who were brave enough to join the labor movement in Hawaii decades ago.
* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, now working in the Public Defender’s Office, who grew up on Maui. His email is email@example.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”