ILWU Oral History Project Part XVII
Service, Strength and Solidarity
Ah Quon McElrath Reviews her Remarkable Career in Hawaii
Edited by Harvey Schwartz
This month we feature a recent discussion with Ah Quon McElrath, an esteemed union pioneer in Hawaii who served for many years as the social worker for Local 142.
I was born in 1915 at Iwilei on Hawaii’s capital island, Oahu. Iwilei was the location of the world’s largest pineapple cannery, some oil companies, a tannery, and a fertilizer company. My mom and dad came from China. Dad came as a contract laborer, but didn’t stay on the sugar plantations long. He did anything and everything: drove a hack, was a carpenter, ran a store, and even made okolehao, the Hawaiian version of moonshine.
My parents had seven children who lived; two others died in child birth. My father died when I was five. We did everything we could to survive. We lived near the beach where we picked kiawe beans and dried bones to sell to the fertilizer company. My brothers shined shoes and sold newspapers. There was no gas stove, so we would find firewood to get our outside stove going. We lived by kerosene lamps. We didn’t have electricity.
All of us started working in the pineapple canneries when we were 12 or 13 years old. There were no child labor laws then. I packed and trimmed pineapple and picked eyes out of the so-called jam. I worked in the cafeteria, which was supposedly the gem of jobs, because you made 27 1/2 cents an hour as against 18 cents an hour packing pineapple. In season we worked 12 hours a day. That was how we supported the family and got back to school during the fall.
Education was extremely important to me. I felt it was a window to the world, and that being able to read, write, and speak English–my first language was Chinese–offered special opportunities. I became the editor of the school paper in intermediate school and decided to concentrate my efforts on learning the English language well.
I went to the University of Hawaii during the period of the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. The cause of the anti-fascist side affected many of us. We felt we had a part because we boycotted Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. I also joined an activist group called the Inter-Professional Association in those pre-World War II years before the ILWU came to Hawaii in strength.
In 1938, Jack Hall, who eventually became Hawaii’s most famous ILWU organizer and the union’s Regional Director, was arrested during the Inter-Island Steamship Navigation Co. strike by the Inland Boatmen’s Union. I remember when somebody came to our Inter-Professional Association meeting and announced, “Jack Hall has been beaten!” That IBU strike culminated in the August 1, 1938 “Hilo Massacre,” when police gunfire wounded 50 pickets.
Early in the game I met Bob McElrath, who I married in August 1941. He later became the ILWU Information Director for Hawaii. I met him through Jack Hall in the latter 1930s when I was helping Jack with his organizing newspaper, Voice of Labor. I would put labels on and do some corrections of stories because I’d worked on newspapers through intermediate and high school and the university. Sometimes those guys didn’t have any money. I’d go out and buy them stew and rice. Although I was volunteering, I’d had five jobs when I was a senior in college, and I’d put away a few dollars. So when those guys needed a meal I always had a little money with me.
During World War II, union organizing stalled in Hawaii when the military declared martial law. But in early 1943, Bob, who had been working on the waterfront repairing ships, set up the independent Marine Engineers and Drydock Workers Association. That was when I helped him organize the tuna packers. Because Bob’s was the only union set-up going at the time–Jack Hall was then working for the Hawaii Labor Department–Bob was on the front lines.
Those early cases of organizing, which I went through with Bob, to me were definitive of a lot of things that followed with the organizing of the ILWU in Hawaii at the end of the war on as broad a basis as occurred. People saw what Bob had done and began to ask, “Why can’t we get the same things?”
The ILWU’s success in organizing thousands in 1944 came about because exploitation was perceived by the two major ethnic groups, Filipinos and Japanese, and because the ILWU was able to use the leaders in the ethnic work camps to sign up people without the bosses knowing about it. We knew the ILWU was a union that was devoted to non-discrimination, and that there was no need for us to repeat the mistakes of earlier organizers, who in past decades created associations of only Japanese, Filipinos, or whatever group it might be. So we set up one union made up of all ethnic groups under the ILWU.
A good deal of what I did early on was as a volunteer. I’d had experience as a social worker with the Department of Social Security even before the attack on Pearl Harbor, but during Hawaii’s April 1946 tidal wave crisis I was not employed. I volunteered my services to the union to do the investigations of need, because the entire union was collecting money to give to families that suffered a death or the loss of a home or personal belongings. I also worked with families to get them to understand what it meant to help each other in times of disaster.
This was the prelude to what needed to be done during the long ’46 sugar strike, which was a major test for the ILWU in Hawaii. I did a lot more work then by getting recipes from the Dept. of Health for the soup kitchens, visiting the kitchens, and talking to the families about how important it was for the kids to continue school and about what arrangements we could make with creditors and the parochial schools.
Another crisis started in 1947 when Ichiro Izuka published a red-baiting pamphlet that was inherently a move to separate out various ILWU groupings so they would become independent unions. This move failed, but we felt a great need to close ranks. When the Izuka pamphlet came out, we still had a number of locals devoted to sugar and to industrial groupings such as pineapple and miscellaneous trades.
We decided that for the strength of the union and its members it was better to have one consolidated local. Then we could send out the same message to all units that we would have solidarity in political action so people would have an opportunity to come together and discuss what it was that concerned them in their various industrial groupings. That’s how we eventually became Local 142 in a consolidation process that began in 1947 and concluded in 1951. We ended up with one big local of longshore, sugar, and pineapple, plus, later, the supermarkets, hospitals, and hotels.
In 1954, I was hired as ILWU Local 142 Social Worker. The union had moved into the area of negotiated medical plans, pension plans, later on dental plans, and a whole slew of social legislation that required the interpretative work of a social worker. Because I had done volunteer work during the 1946 tidal wave and the ’46 sugar and ’49 longshore strikes, the local’s leaders realized that a social worker could perform valuable services, including things elected officials could not do.
As social worker I ran an educational program. I talked to members about things they needed to know beyond collective bargaining, like how to access services available from private and public agencies. During the 1960s and 1970s, there was much educational work to equip our members to get help when a fellow worker did not come to work, was erratic in behavior, or got drunk all the time. It may be that the nature of problems has changed, but there would still be that need for us to help our members, especially now with the closures of sugar plantations.
Lobbying the state legislature was also part of my social work for the union. I worked for increases in public assistance, and I used to testify for the ILWU about human services issues. Of course, some of the things we did at the legislature were more forward in terms of social legislation than any union could usually hope for. We helped push through a little Wagner Act for Hawaii’s agricultural workers in 1945, and later on improvements in workers compensation and unemployment insurance as well as a Temporary Disability Insurance (TDI) act. These were exciting things that went to the nub of the existence of working people and their families.
The ILWU was also successful in providing inexpensive housing for our members. For just one example, at Waipahu, on the island of Oahu, we were able, by forming into a private non-profit housing organization, to get federal funds to build a cluster of homes for individuals of low income as well as seniors so they could rent homes in public housing.
The union, too, was always involved in community activities. One of the last things I was able to do before I retired from the ILWU in 1981 was to get a six million dollar community development block grant for refurbishing the infrastructure and the homes at the Ewa Plantation village on Oahu. The idea was to make sure people in the future would still know what it was to live in a plantation community.
Looking back, it is clear that what the ILWU accomplished in Hawaii was truly remarkable. In a short time we raised wages two and three times what the workers had received before, and we gave them a measure of control over their working lives. The Republicans and the sugar and pineapple growers had held unchecked power for decades. Then along came this little union, and it was able to upset them and disperse that economic and political power. Never before had this happened in Hawaii.
Despite recent problems, our union remains determined. One of the good things to come out of the recent attempt by some of our hotel employers to freeze our wages and take away a lot of our benefits has been a renewed consolidation of our solidarity. The union has picketed these organizations and our members have said, “We will not give back, we will not go for our taking a bigger bite of the health care premiums, nor will we go for a cutting of benefits in our plan.”
Finally, there is much value to teaching our younger members the history of the ILWU. This would reinforce and enhance the contributions their forebears made to building a stable economy in Hawaii. It would also give to young people a way to get rid of the stereotype of the so-called Asian mentality, which is an inability to get together to fight concentrated power. The other reason why it is important to learn history is the old thing about not repeating the mistakes of the past. By learning our history we can develop new ways in which to enhance our personal lives as well as the collective lives of working people.