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This Day in Labor History: January 20, 1920

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Chinese_contract_laborers_on_a_sugar_plantation_in_19th_century_Hawaii

On January 20, 1920, Filipino sugar workers on Oahu, Hawaii, went on strike to demand higher pay. Japanese workers soon joined them and this multiracial strike led to minimal victory for workers and, even rarer, a cross-racial strike with significant solidarity that helped create that victory.

Hawaii became a target of U.S. imperialism from almost the moment that American missionaries arrived there in the early 19th century. Often from middle class families from the Northeast with close ties to early industrialism, the missionaries wrote home to their families, suggesting they invest in Hawaii. Soon, capitalists like Sanford Dole were dominating the Hawaiian economy, leading to declining power for the Hawaiian monarchy, the displacement of the islands’ indigenous people, and the growth of American imperialism. After the Civil War, the move to get the U.S. government to annex Hawaii grew. In 1893, the planters overthrew Queen Liliuokalani and assumed they would become part of the U.S. But Grover Cleveland opposed annexation and so they had to wait until William McKinley became president. Finally, Hawaii became an American colony in 1898.

All of this required a much larger labor force than the indigenous Hawaiians could provide. So labor contractors began to look abroad to import labor. At the same time, thousands of Japanese were migrating to the United States. Many of them ended up in Hawaii working in the sugar plantations. The Filipinos, which had no tradition of migration to the U.S. while it was a Spanish colony, became a major target for agricultural contractors, especially after the combination of whites in California freaking out about Japanese immigration combined with Japanese imperial ambitions to shut off Japanese migration with the Gentlemen’s Agreement in 1907. With the Chinese Exclusion Act ensuring that no Chinese came into the U.S., west coast and Hawaiian farmers looked to the Philippines for their new source of cheap Asian labor. Smaller numbers of Portuguese also arrived to work in the sugar fields, and native-born Hawaiians also worked there, as well as small numbers of Chinese, Spaniards, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Koreans.

Conditions on the plantations were hard. Until 1900, many of the workers were prisoners. There were also disparate wage rates due to race, with Portuguese and Puerto Ricans receiving higher wages than the Japanese. There was a 1909 strike by the Japanese workers for equal wages. It was after this that the planters started actively recruiting the Filipinos. Workers were often not paid their wages until after the harvest, a common tactic used to reduce labor mobility.

The polyglot plantations worked well for the planters. With the workers divided by ethnicity, cross-racial solidarity, not to mention basic communication, was hard. When one group went on strike, the others were there to use as strikebreakers. But during World War I, conditions got worse. Rising prices because of the war without rising wages led to widespread destitution among the workers. The Filipinos and Japanese began to organize together, although in separate organizations. But by late 1919, the Filipino Labor Union and the Federation of Japanese Labor were working closely together. Led by Pablo Manlapit, a plantation worker who had arrived in Hawaii in 1910, the Filipinos realized they would not succeed without uniting with the Japanese. The Filipinos led the strike, walking out on January 20. The Japanese followed on February 1, although many Japanese workers struck earlier. They demanded wage hikes, an 8-hour day, and regular bonus payments for higher production that would pay 75 percent of it each month, with only 25 percent withheld until the end of the harvest. The planters did grant them the bonus plan but refused to address the other conditions. The workers had already decided that if the planters did not meet all their demands, they would strike. Soon, there were 8300 workers on strike. About 5000 were Japanese and 3000 Filipinos, with 300 from the other nationalities.

The planters responded by evicting everyone from their company houses, over 12,000 Filipinos, of which over 4000 were children. By this time, the Japanese generally lived in independent housing.The Japanese were better prepared for the strike as the union had built up a fairly sizable savings to buy food. The Filipinos assumed their community would feed the strikers but that did not work out well. The Japanese then used their money to help the Filipinos, another example of the cross-racial solidarity that marked this strike. To make things worse, the Spanish Flu whipped through the strike, affecting a lot more people than it usually would have because they were in crowded conditions in tents. About 140 strikers died during the strike.

It was a hard strike. Whites worked with Japanese elites to attempt to undermine the strike. Happening during the Red Scare, the U.S. government worried about radical communist agendas and red-baited the strikers, as well as fearing it as an extension of growing Japanese imperialism that threatened their own imperialist possessions. They tried to split the workers. Rev. Albert Palmer, leader of the anti-strike movement, called it, “a nationalistic Japanese movement, using the Filipinos as tools, but aiming at Japanese control of the sugar industry and the islands.” The Honolulu Star-Bulletin called for racial revenge, writing “Americans do not take kindly to the spectacle of several thousand alien Asiatics parading through the streets with banners flaunting their hatred of Americanism and American institutions and insulting the memory of the greatest American president since Washington.” Said banners had pictures of Abraham Lincoln, as the strikers were claiming Americanism for themselves and comparing themselves with black slaves. Manlapit did call for an end to the Filipino strike on February 9. Perhaps he was bribed. But the rank and file stayed out on strike. About 1000 of the strikers eventually went back to work. And the planters were able to hire 2000 strikebreakers. Still, they lost $12 million during the strike.

The workers finally won the strike on July 1, when the planters agreed to a 50 percent pay raise and greater benefits, although the full pay and benefits would not start for another six months, leading to disappointment to many workers. And in fact, it was only a moderate victory for the workers, as they were suffering serious losses in morale and in keeping labor out of the fields after April 1. Nonetheless, it was a remarkable strike among people who had not worked together in the past.

I borrowed from Moon-Ho Jung, “Revolutionary Currents: Interracial Solidarities, Imperial Japan, and the U.S. Empire,” in Daniel E. Bender and Jana K. Lipman, Making the Empire Work: Labor & United States Imperialism, in the writing of this post.

This is the 207th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Warren Terra

    I thought you might do This Day in Labor History: January 20, 2017, about the inauguration of a deeply anti-labor, anti-worker President noted for his history of stiffing workers and harassing female subordinates.

    • N__B

      That will be a chapter in The Gulag Trumpepeligo.

      • Keaaukane

        The best, the biggest gulag. Gold plated guard towers.

  • Little Chak

    “Americans do not take kindly to the spectacle of several thousand alien Asiatics parading through the streets with banners flaunting their hatred of Americanism and American institutions and insulting the memory of the greatest American president since Washington.”

    Replace “alien Asiatics” with “Mexican illegals” and I can see this same sentence being used in a column at Breitbart.

    • Yep. And some of those women’s march protestors tomorrow might be carrying images of Lincoln! And some of those women might be *gasp* MEXICAN!

  • Bruce Vail

    Great post, Erik.

    The story of the sugar cane and pineapple workers of Hawaii is fascinating.

    ILWU has a lot of good stuff on this in their archives. Twenty years after the 1920 strike, the ILWU would begin to organize these workers — and actually had some success.

    Back then ILWU was organizing cane cutters. Today they are trying organize tourist hotels.

    • Bruce Vail
      • Little Chak

        Thank you, Bruce. And thank you, Erik, for these posts. I know I fall on the side of “we have less hope in stopping automation than we do in achieving popular support for a UBI and international labor standards”, but labor history is really important.

  • Keaaukane

    Great post about a little known part of the American labor movement. There should be a follow up about how all those imported Japanese and Filipino laborers turned on their haole, Republican overlords after Statehood to make Hawaii the Democratic stronghold that it is today.

    • DocAmazing

      The revenge of Queen Lili’uokalani.

  • Pingback: This Day in Labor History: A Digest - Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money()

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