Filipinx American History: A Celebration of Community, Activism, and Persistence

Filipinxs in Hawai’i: Labor, Community, and Resistance

As significant numbers of European and American sailors, missionaries, and capitalists began to arrive in Hawai‘i in the mid- to late-19th centuries, they sought to exploit the resources and fertile soil of the archipelago. Through both economic coercion and political connections, some  of these settlers began to gain control over large tracts of land, inaugurating large-scale export-oriented plantation agribusiness, especially sugarcane, pineapple, and coconuts. Through the displacement of indigenous Kanaka Maoli communities and the exploitation of a low-wage immigrant workforce, the planter class consolidated much political and economic power and influence within the Kingdom, ultimately illegally overthrowing Queen Lili‘uokalani in 1893, and resulting in Hawai‘i’s illegal annexation by the U.S. in 1898. Through the Hawaii Sugar Planters’ Association, the plantation elite--also known as “the Big 5”--implemented an ethnically stratified labor system through the recruitment of waves of migrants from China, Japan/Okinawa, Portugal/the Azores, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Spain and many other places, resulting in Kanaka Maoli people being made into a minority and marginalized in their own homelands. 

Due to landlessness, economic and political instability following the Philippine-American War, and concerted labor recruitment by the HSPA, between 1906 and 1946, over 125,000 Filipinos (predominantly from the marginal Ilocos and Visayas regions)--known as “sakadas”-- migrated to work in the Hawai‘i’s burgeoning plantation economy. While many of these workers were recruited into 3-year contracts, many stayed and raised families in communities across the Hawaiian archipelago. As one of the last major waves of plantation labor migration, Filipinos were often paid the lowest and were forced to work the most difficult and dangerous jobs, as well as experiencing poor living conditions. As a result, many Filipinos began organizing labor unions to advocate for their rights in the workplace. Until the 1930s, most of these unions were ethnically specific (ie for Ilocanos and Visayans) or nationally specific (Filipino-oriented unions), which meant that their organizing was easier to crush with the divide-and-conquer tactics of the HSPA. 

By the late 1930s, multi-ethnic labor unions began to emerge, later consolidating as a territory-wide affiliate of the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union (ILWU). Filipino-Ilocano laborers like Justo Domingo alongside thousands of his fellow multi-ethnic sugar workers formed ILWU Local 142 “United Sugar Workers.” In 1946, 28,000 militant sugar workers (and 47,000 family members) went on strike, joined later by workers in other sectors, eventually successfully breaking the political and economic domination of the “Big 5” and transforming Hawai‘i’s politics and economy forever. 


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