In the midst of an unprecedented public health crisis, International Workers’ Day, or Labour Day, celebrated on May 1 around the world, comes at an important and pivotal moment for labor. As chair for the Filipino American National Historical Society — Hawai‘i State Chapter, Kaua‘i Historical Committee and being involved in the labor movement, I find it critical to juxtapose the 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago, the 1924 Hanapepe Massacre (article on FANHS research in Sept. 9, 2019, issue of The Garden Island), and the current COVID-19 pandemic to illustrate that the relationship between capitalism and labor is not only rife with intense conflict, but we can also learn from labor’s sacrifices. It may be a difficult conversation, but there is no better time than now to talk about the protections that labor needs.
Throughout the United States starting on May 1, 1886, thousands of mostly-immigrant Irish and German workers rallied for an eight-hour workday. A 10- or 16-hour workday and child labor was common in factories, mills and lumber yards at the time. Labor movements sought a day composed of eight hours work, eight hours recreation, and eight hours rest as a means to an end of safer working conditions, healthier employees and stable families.
On May 3, 1886, some strikers in Chicago’s Haymarket Square harassed strikebreakers leaving a factory at the end of their shift. Police officers fired upon the belligerents, killing two. The following day, up to 3,000 people, many of them families, staged a peaceful protest against police violence. As police marched towards protest to disperse the crowd, gunshots rang out and a bomb thrown towards the police exploded, triggering a firefight that left at least 57 officers and civilians dead.
As an homage to those killed in the Haymarket affair, most countries celebrate International Workers’ Day or Labour Day on May 1. However, in 1894, President Grover Cleveland declared the first Monday in September as Labor Day, erasing labor’s struggles.
In 1924, sugar laborers on Kaua‘i struck for several months, demanding equal pay for equal work (pay was race-based on sugar plantations at the time). Picketing Filipino laborers in Hanapepe from Makaweli Plantation Hanapepe allegedly kidnapped strikebreakers, leading to a confrontation with Kaua‘i sheriffs. Gun-carrying sheriffs and knife- and club-wielding Filipinos fought for several hours, resulting in 16 strikers and four sheriffs dead in what would become known as the Hanapepe Massacre.
Surviving strike organizers were convicted of various charges and sentenced to prison, with lead organizers Pablo Manlapit to be exiled to California until 1932 and Cecil Basan (who was not even in Hawai‘i at the time) sentenced to 10 years in prison. The 1924 sugar strike lasted three more unsuccessful months after the Hanapepe Massacre, with strikers not seeing any of their demands for equal pay for equal work met until 1937. Years after the strike, witnesses came forward claiming that several individuals were bribed by the Hawai‘i Sugar Planters Association to give false testimony to convict the labor leaders.
In the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, millions of “essential workers” — doctors, nurses, and first responders — are praised for their service in keeping us safe and restoring us back to health. However, “essential workers” includes a much broader range of professions: fast-food and retail workers, custodians, mail carriers, social workers, government clerks, transit employees, refuse collectors, caregivers and domestic-violence advocates (who are seeing increased demand). These positions are less glamorous, and they are not highly paid. Yet, they report to work not only to earn wages and support their families, but to support their communities and local economies, all while risking their families’ lives as well as their own.
Over 100 frontline medical workers have been killed by the coronavirus in the United States. More than 100 grocery and retail workers and more than 30 transit workers died in April. Detroit public transportation driver Jason Hargrove died of the coronavirus less than two weeks after he complained of coughing passengers and inadequate safety procedures and personal protective equipment on his bus. A cluster of 30 employees were infected at two McDonald’s restaurants on Hawaii Island.
In contrast, over 20 million workers deemed non-essential are sheltering in place and awaiting unemployment benefits that will likely arrive late due to overburdened government computer systems. Many people in the United States live paycheck to paycheck, with one missed pay period leading to either devastating credit-card debt or some degree of poverty. The CARE Act offers some reprieve with expanded eligibility and an extra $600 a week for four months. Labor’s struggle in the COVID-19 pandemic is not an outwardly violent one as in Haymarket or Hanapepe, but it is class warfare on the largest scale in recent memory.
When this pandemic ends, our success will be measured by not only public-health metrics, but also what we have done for all workers — essential and non-essential. Will it be just empty praises, roadside banners and free meals? Throughout history, labor’s sacrifices have left us a myriad of lessons to improve on humanity. We must not bury any history if we want to survive.
Michael Miranda is the chair (volunteer) of the Filipino American National Historical Society — Hawai‘i State Chapter, Kaua‘i Historical Committee, which is releasing a book in 2021 on the Hanapepe Massacre. Its research has inspired a documentary on the event.