David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Trouble in Paradise: Hawaii's Sugar Workers Fight for a New Life
by David Bacon

HILO, HAWAII (9/24/95) - Most visitors to Hawaii's big island play in the big resorts, hanging like jewels on the lips of old lava flows where they plunge into the sea. Until the first white colonizers cut them all down, in the days of the China trade a century ago, sandalwood trees used to climb these slopes from the beaches up towards Mauna Kea. Today, on the coast of this dry side of the island, golf courses are carved into the rock amid the ancient temples and enormous fish ponds, built with lava stones in ancient times by Hawaiian craftsmen, so skillfully no mortar was ever used.

But this poetic view, with its dramatic juxtaposition of the ancient and modern, sees only half of the island - that part of it which has been made over to accommodate those who come from outside, who stay awhile and then leave. And like all Hawaiian islands, the big island has its dry side, and its wet one. They are very different.

The wet side of the big island, where the clouds pushed by trade winds dump their rain, is the land of sugarcane. This is the side which became a huge, sugar-producing machine for better than a hundred years. And the people who built and worked in that machine - immigrants from China, Japan, the Philippines, Portugal and elsewhere - are those who joined the native Hawaiians to create the unique population which is Hawaii. It is the only state where white people are the minority, and where most people are immigrants from Asia, their descendants, and native Hawaiians.

For them, Hawaii has been the land of aloha, but also the land of backbreaking work. Work cutting cane. Work in the mills. Work on the docks loading sugar.

Today, along the north Hilo coast of the big island's wet side, hope and desperation fill the small towns of sugar workers. Sugar mills are closing. One by one, the great landed families who over a century ago transformed Hawaii's native kingdom into paternalistic cane plantations, have sold out. While workers watched the mills age, the machinery rust, and the harvest shrink every year, mill owners became investors in everything but sugar - from resorts to shopping centers.

The plantation era is ending. In seven years, the state's sugar workforce has shrunk by more than half - from over 5000 to 2100 workers, and from 12 to 6 companies. More closings are just months away.

In its heyday, from the middle of the last century to the middle of this one, when sugar and pineapple were the kings of the Hawaiian economy, the plantations gave work to tens of thousands. The people of the islands, especially outside of Honolulu, are largely the descendants of those workers.

This is not a good time in Hawaii to lose a job. The hotels and resorts, which replaced agriculture as an economic engine in the last two decades, are cutting back as tourists look for newer and cheaper destinations. The end of the cold war is shrinking the military as well, the islands' other big employer.

Yet the end of the plantation system also brings the chance for a new kind of agriculture, and the possibility of change for those who once chopped cane and tended the mills' crushers and boilers. New cooperatives and community organizations are springing up, hoping to transform workers who once worked the land as wage laborers into farmers with a stake in the land itself.

At Hamakua Sugar north of Hilo, which closed a year ago, two-thirds of the sugar workers are Filipinos. They are the last wave of immigrants to work their way into America through the cane fields, following the Japanese and Chinese before them. Half were born in Hawaii - the first wave of Filipino immigration began in the 1920s. For these long-time residents, agriculture has always meant sugar or pineapple plantations. But many current workers are more recent immigrants, born in rural Filipino villages. For them converting cane fields into smaller cooperative plots holds memories of a kind of agriculture they left behind - the small farms of the Philippines.

"We have to save our community," says Maxi Diaz, membership director for a new farmers' coop and wife of a mill foreman who put 27 years into Hamakua Sugar Company. Diaz shares the Filipino heritage of many Hamakua workers, but like many of them also, she is a mixture of nationalities - Filipina, native Hawaiian and Portuguese.

Diaz is resigned to the fact that "we will never go back to the days of sugar." But, she says, "we can become something more than what we were. We worked the land all those years for the company. Maybe now we can work it for ourselves." After Hamakua Sugar brought in its final harvest last year, it left over 400 families without work. Ten years ago, it employed more than twice that number.

Workers lost more than a job when it closed. The small sugar communities of Hawaii have always been company towns. Everyone living in them worked for the mill or depended on it. The company built the housing. It sponsored the sports leagues. It paid for medical care.

Although the companies had a paternalistic philosophy, these benefits were not free. After organizing their union in the 1930s, Local 142 of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, sugar workers struck the mills again and again, until their contracts made them some of the most highly-paid farmworkers in the world.

When Hamakua closed, all this came to an end. The company declared bankruptcy, owing Steve Diaz, Maxi's husband, over $40,000 in unpaid severance and vacation, and similar amounts to other workers. Company houses were never very fancy, often just shacks, but closure meant that repairs and maintenance ended. The land itself wound up in the hands of bankers and the state government. And with no contract, no employer and no work, the union no longer had the tools it used in the past to hold workers together.

In its place, community associations were organized in sugar camps and towns in the districts of north and south Hilo, Pahuilo and Honokaa. The union helped workers form a non-profit housing foundation to win public funds for maintaining and upgrading camp housing.

But housing without income will not sustain the families of the Hamakua coast. Some workers got jobs in the resorts an hour's drive away across the island. Successful organizing campaigns by local 142 have brought the union into the resorts, but there is no paternalism there. This year the big hotels announced that they want to end medical care for the families of employees, and the union has taken to the island's radio stations to warn of its intention to fight. And according to Mel Chang, editor of Local 142's newspaper, Voice of the ILWU, the resorts never absorbed more than a small fraction of the workers displaced from sugar. "It's really a different kind of work from what people did all their lives," he says. While a few maintenance mechanics have transferable skills, other workers don't.

For many families on the coast, therefore, the cooperative is their hope for the future. "We have to use this crisis as an opportunity," declares Yoshito Takamine, the coop's president. Takamine was division director of local 142 for many years, and then spent two decades in Hawaii's state legislature. "This is the first time land could become available for anything except sugar plantations."

The coop has been able to wrest away 1800 acres of Hamakua Sugar's 25,000, from the state and the banks who inherited the company land. It hasn't been easy, because the banks, the state and new owners don't favor breaking up the huge cane fields, especially for a project organized by the workers themselves.

One hundred forty families belong to the coop, half of whom are former sugar workers. It's open to anyone who can pay the $100 lifetime membership. Sugar workers receive priority in joining the coop's projects, which include growing papayas, ginger, taro, drasina, coffee, and macadamia nuts, among other crops.

Ben Mahilum, a coop leader and retired University of Hawaii agronomist, emphasizes that sugar workers need to start growing crops like vegetables, which can give them an income quickly while they plant crops like coffee and papayas, which take longer to mature. The land also needs to be rehabilitated. Sugar not only exhausted the soil, but left residues of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. "In 8 to 15 years, we can establish an organic, sustainable system, replacing crops like potatoes, onions and garlic, which are now imported from the mainland," Mahilum says. Eventually, crops like cut flowers and foliage plants for nurseries, which grow faster in Hawaii than anywhere else in the U.S., can generate up to $100,000 per acre.

By emphasizing crop diversity and sustainable agriculture, the sugar workers are finding allies among Hawaii's environmentalists, who are a growing political force on the island. Already the Green Party has elected Keiko Bonk-Abramson to the island's county government, where she used her swing vote between Democrats and Republicans to become mayor. Sugar workers have been the traditional base of the Democratic Party on the island, but some are frustrated. Faced with an unprecedented state budget deficit, Governor Ben Cayetano, Hawaii's first Filipino-American governor, has been reluctant to release funds which could help the displaced workers.

Takamine invited the governor, whose election marks the growing size and influence of the Filipino electorate, to tour the coop. "Sure the state has a budget deficit," Takamine says, "but they have to understand that the workers are desperate and have nothing. They need money now, not next year."

Meanwhile, the coop's first papaya crop is almost ready to harvest. "I see the excitement in people's faces," Maxi Diaz enthuses. "First they told me 'I have flowers!' Then later it was 'I have fruits!' This first year is the hardest, but this is something we can do. And if we don't, there will be nothing here for our children. I have two boys who already can't find jobs, and two younger girls. We need to build something that will give them a reason to stay."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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