On May 9, 1909, Japanese sugar workers in Hawaii walked off the job in the first major strike action among these workers. It was far from the last and it was a direct challenge to the racialized hierarchy of work the imperialist Americans had erected in their unjustly taken colony.
In the mid-nineteenth century, white American planters discovered that the Hawaiian islands would be perfect for sugar plantations. Missionaries laid the groundwork. Converting souls and moving forward imperialism went together like chocolate and peanut butter. These missionaries usually came from well-off backgrounds and often wrote home to their families that the islands could be a great place to invest. By 1870, the Big Five sugar planters were well-established. In 1893, they overthrew the government of Queen Liliuokalani, expecting to be annexed to the United States. But Grover Cleveland opposed imperialism and it took until 1898 for that annexation to take place.
The native Hawaiian laborers were not a sufficient workforce. There weren’t enough of them, disease had killed many, and others did not want to work on the sugar plantations under any circumstances. So a global labor market developed to fill those positions. Hawaii became a highly diverse place over the next decades, with Japanese, Filipino, Chinese, Puerto Rican, and Portuguese laborers joining the native Hawaiian workers in the fields. The Japanese became the largest population, with 29,000 arriving between 1895 and 1904. But they were at the bottom of the pay scale. They did the same work as the Puerto Rican and Portuguese workers, but were paid less than them and lived in substandard conditions. Splitting workers by nationality and race was an old trick of employers to ensure that solidarity actions did not take place. It often worked. Between inherent suspicions and fear, the inability to communicate, and the racial hierarchy hardening at this time, workers did not often unite across ethnic lines.
In 1907, the Gentleman’s Agreement ended Japanese immigration to the United States. The planters thought this would increase their control over the Japanese workers. Said one plantation executive in a letter to the major planters, “It looks as though we will have better control of Mr. Jap and I am mighty glad of it.” But this was an error. Rather, the Japanese continued to build community ties in Hawaii and wanted greater rights. The planters began to worry that the growth of families and permanent communities placed them under greater threat from worker activism than the temporary, migrant force they had complained about before this development.
By 1908, sixty percent of the workers were Japanese. But they made $5 less a month than the Puerto Ricans and Portuguese. Workers formed the Japanese Higher Wages Association near the end of 1908 to fight for, well, higher wages. They wanted equal payment with the other ethnic groups. They also worried that planters renewed attempts to find immigrant labor could undermine what they have clawed out for themselves, including Japanese grocers and other shop owners in Honolulu and other towns. In fighting for their demands, the JHWA basically combined the labor theory of value with antiracist politics. One pamphlet read:
The wage is a reward for services done which compensates the laborer to the full value of his services. It is unjust to pay laborers less than the real value of his work. If a laborer comes from Japan and performs the same quantity of work within the same period, what reason is there to discriminate one against the other?
JHWA organizers attempted to reach out to the other racial groups, or at least avoid alienating them, by articulating that higher wages for all farmworkers would create a middle class for all workers, not just Japanese workers.
The growers completely refused all the workers’ demands, which included a $22.50 wage per month for all workers, greater spending on religious buildings and schools on the plantations, and an end to wage discrimination. So, on May 9, 1909, the first workers went on strike at the Aiea Plantation. About 7,000 workers around the Oahu plantations walked off the job by June 1, with new plantations joining the strike every couple of days. This was the first major strike in Hawaii’s history. The JHWA had not really organized for a strike. It started spontaneously but the organization attempted to lead it. The JWHA worked hard to make sure the strike remained orderly, without the violence that had marked earlier, poorly organized worker protests. No property was to be destroyed. This laid the groundwork for future actions by the sugar workers, which largely continued along this path.
The pressure on the workers was intense. Their housing was terrible, but it was still housing and moreover it was company housing, meaning the farmers threw them out. 5,000 people needed housing overnight, flooding into Honolulu to find it. The Japanese consul in Honolulu urged workers to return to the job.
The strike officially lasted four months, but as these things usually go, the vast majority of the action was in the early days. Workers, who really didn’t have any options, slowly came back to work at the same terrible wages they already had. There were strong solidarity efforts. Local Japanese merchants donated a lot of goods to the workers and Japanese doctors gave them free medical care. But still, this was tough sledding. The other ethnic groups were not prepared to act in solidarity and were not willing to risk the limited advantages they had over the majority Japanese workers. The strike officially ended on August 5. JWHA leaders were prosecuted and served seven months in prison.
Still, while the strike officially failed, as labor activism often generates, the owners decided to give the workers a bunch of what they wanted over the next several months to forestall further activism, so long as there was no union involved. The racial wage discrimination scale ended. The wage was brought up to $22 a month, only 50 cents less than the strikers demanded. And all the strikers were hired back. They started building new housing, improved the sanitation, and even hired social workers.
But this was also a short-term solution for the planters. In the aftermath, the planters doubled down on the ethnic diversity of the fields, bringing in larger number of Filipinos, for instance. They even tried to bring in Russians, though that failed when the new migrants flat out refused to work in the fields under those conditions. But workers also learned lessons from this strike, as the 1920 strike in the sugar fields pioneered interracial cooperation in an amazing way.
I borrowed from William P. McGowan, “Industrializing the Land of Lono: Sugar Plantation Managers and Workers in Hawaii, 1900-1920,” published in Agricultural History‘s Spring 1995 issue, to write this post.
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