Chapter XIX: Assignment in Hawaii
Slowly the waterfront began to operate again. Pier doors were opened to receive cargo as trucks waited in long lines to enter. Ships' smokestacks, which for three months had had a night cap over them, started to belch smoke as firemen and engineers busied about the engine rooms, putting life back into an old friend. The union dispatching halls were crowded with men waiting for jobs to be posted and for the dispatcher to call them out. On the Embarcadero, the sheltering shacks the pickets had built were being ripped down, their lumber returning to just another pile of dunnage alongside the pier. Waterfront landlords and hotel keepers were happy the strike was over. They had not seen any cash for three months. A few more weeks and the men who owed their room bill would make a draw and start mailing the money back from ports around the world.
It was time for me to think of what to do in the immediate future. I found it hard to decide just where I wanted to go. South America? Australia? Around the world? I would have to decide quickly. There was no money left. The soup kitchen had closed down. The hotel keeper was giving me questioning glances, wondering why I hadn't shipped yet. While thinking of possibilities, I received a phone call from the Haight Street Party office summoning me uptown. The Party organizer greeted me. He was quick and to the point.
"Here's the way things are," he said. "we have very little going for us over in the Hawaiian Islands. We've had a comrade there for the past five months, but we hear he has left the Islands; there's no one there to take his place. You have been proposed by several comrades as someone who could do a job over there and establish a permanent Party organization. Now, no one is suggesting you spend the rest of your life over there, just a minimum of six months or until you have a stable, functioning apparatus. You know from experience that the Islands have great possibilities for Party work. There's much poverty and terrible housing, and the conditions on the plantations border on serfdom. It will require someone with a lot of guts and a pioneer spirit. You have all the prerequisites to do the job."
"If you decide to go, remember: it won't be easy. You'll be on your own and there'll be no help from us, financial or otherwise. You'll have to rely on your own resources there. In fact, we won't be able to help even if you get arrested. Money and housing can be found in the Islands if you go after it. We think you can do a good job. Consider it, and let me know in a day or two."
That night I mulled over what he had told me. The challenge was worthwhile. Six months of my life was no big thing. I felt the experience would do me good and, most importantly, I was needed there. The next day I returned to Party headquarters. I was given three or four names. None of these people were out-and-out Communists, but they weren't anti-Communists, either. One of the four owned a small restaurant and could be counted on for an occasional meal.
With 50 blank membership application cards tucked away in my suitcase, I entered the Firemen's Union dispatching hall just in time to accept the engine room yeoman's job on board the SS Lurline. The Lurline was an ideal ship to take. It was one of the fastest passenger ships sailing between San Francisco and Honolulu. The crew ate well, better than on any freighter.
As an engine room yeoman, I had my own little office located on the top deck. I ate in the officer's mess and slept in my own small but comfortable room. The work and responsibilities entailed little physical strength, but rather the use of pen, pencil and typewriter. Records had to be kept and orders for repairs and spare parts had to be typed; crew lists for shoreside officials had to be made out. By all standards it was a nice soft job, clean and comfortable. Under most conditions it would be a job that one would want to hold down for a while. But I knew I must not fall in love with it; I had to get off in Hawaii.
Five days after leaving San Francisco the beautiful sight of Diamond Head loomed on the horizon. The Royal Hawaiian Band played and welcomed the passengers as our ship eased alongside the dock. The scent of sweet-smelling flowers was in the air. Honolulu was a beautiful place.
Now that I was here I had to get off. A rule was in effect that in a place like Hawaii, the possibility to quit the ship existed only if there was a replacement for your job--and it was an emergency. I saw an Isthmian Line ship in the harbor. I got an idea. I told the chief engineer that my brother was on this Isthmian ship and had been seriously injured and taken to the hospital. The doctors told me he may die within a week. I wanted to get off the ship and spend time with my brother. "Okay," said the chief. "I'll make out a voucher and the purser will pay you off. Hate to see you go."
I was stretched out on the warm sands of Waikiki Beach as I watched the Lurline pass on her way to San Francisco. I wondered about the tasks that loomed before me. Life in Honolulu was lived at a much slower pace than on the mainland. The rush to nowhere was almost at a comfortable standstill. Buses and other forms of transportation crept along at a leisurely pace. No one suggested that the speed be increased. It was open-shirt weather. No more heavy coats crushing the body. You could feel the sun's penetrating rays creep into the body and perk it up. The days of cold winds and damp fog were over, at least for a while.
The first couple of nights, I slept in a seamen's mission flophouse while I looked around for a place to stay permanently. I found one for two dollars a week. It was a two-story house a few blocks off Queen Street with coconut trees in front and a hen house in back. Five other tenants lived in the wooden-frame house. It had six sizable rooms. Mine contained only a bed and dresser. I noticed sailors and marines and a soldier come into the house arm-in-arm with the other tenants and I realized the tenants were whores plying their trade. It was an ideal place for me. No one would suspect that a Communist organizer would live in a whorehouse.
I contacted the people I was supposed to reach and the learning process began. Trade unions existed, all right, but most of them were for the elite--plumbers, electricians, bartenders and some other crafts. For the common working stiff there was very little organization. So much had to be done. The problem was where to start--and with what?
The land and most of the industry and business in Hawaii was run and controlled by what everyone knew as the "Big Five": Castle and Cook, Ltd.; American Factors, Ltd.; Alexander Baldwin, Ltd.; Thomas Davis and Company, and Brewer and Company. Anyone working for a living, renting a house, living in a hotel or eating the Islands' food would be doing business in some way with one of the Big Five. They controlled everything but the weather. To get in or out of the Islands, people had to sail with the shipping company of Castle and Cook, which controlled Matson Navigation Company. One airline, the famous "Clipper Ships," used Hawaii as a fueling stop en route to the Orient, but in the main, people and freight traveled on Matson Line ships. Pineapple and sugar cane en route to the mainland sugar mills traveled by Matson; so did all food entering the Islands from the West Coast ports.
To wage a war, one must have an army, and an army must have leaders. Since the class struggle was a war of workers pitted against employers, it was necessary to start at the grassroots level. The problem here was to find the first group that would eventually lead such an army. I had four contacts in Honolulu. One was a young Japanese bank teller, another a teacher at the university, the third a non-practicing lawyer and the fourth an owner of a cafeteria that catered to the armed services. None of them had any influence in any of the unions, but they had one thing in common: their hatred of the ruling Big Five and a fervent desire to see trade union organization come alive.
We sat in the teacher's car atop the famed Poli and peered down into the lush valley below us. we talked of contacts, people we could trust and people who wanted to be a part of a strong organization. The Japanese bank teller gave me two names of longshoremen who worked on the docks. They had tried on several occasions to get something going, and on these occasions they had been fired from their jobs. Now they were leery, yet they could be approached again. He would contact them and ask them to meet with me. The teacher said he knew a number of his students, most of them from the mainland, who were liberal enough to make a donation of a few dollars in the event we could get something moving. The lawyer had long ago attempted to put out a newspaper reflecting the problems of the workers. While it suggested organizational solutions and it was read by the workers, no actions were implemented because of a lack of leadership. He pledged to work with anyone to help reissue the paper if funds could be raised to cover the cost of printing. The cafeteria owner committed himself to help in any way. We planned to meet weekly with the understanding that discovery of our little group had to be prevented. The Big Five had their spies everywhere.
A few days later, two Japanese-Hawaiian longshoremen knocked at my door. We sat for three hours talking about unions and what they had done for the working man and woman, and how important it was to make this "paradise" a paradise for the workers in the true sense of the word. It was obvious to me from the minute the two men sat down that they were apprehensive, as they should have been. They came to listen, and listen they did. I could do no more than outline some labor history, some history of how unions came about because of abuse by employers. No way existed to deal with an employer except through a strong union. They were attentive, especially when I spoke of the gains by other crafts in the American labor struggles. We agreed to meet the following week for another session. They accepted responsibility for bringing at least two other close friends with them.
The following week I was to meet with nine new friends. At this meeting the original two opened up and started to ask questions. For three hours we went around and around, with most questions centering on how unions are formed and operated. The men wanted more of these meetings. They also wanted to start some action against the boss. I urged caution until we were better organized. There was one thing we could do that would help matters: get out an issue of the Voice of Labor.
For the next week we worked on a series of articles. Most of them dealt with the deplorable conditions on the waterfront and in the sugar mills. The articles needed work and had to be put in proper perspective. The school teacher and the non-practicing lawyer solved that problem. Within a week $60, the cost of printing 3,000 copies of the paper, had been collected; the Voice of Labor was revived. Distributing the paper was not a problem; the handful of volunteers accepted the task with glee. There was a good feeling that something at last was being started.
If we were to continue with a bi-monthly edition of the paper, the money to cover the cost of printing had to be guaranteed. When the West Coast ships arrived in port I boarded them and always found someone willing to make a donation toward helping to organize their fellow workers. Union seamen were always ready to help the less fortunate.
One day, as I was preparing to board one of the freighters, a large group of longshoremen came walking down the gangway. Jack, one of my group, was leading them off the ship. When some 25 of them were on the dock, one of the bosses shouted from the deck, "Okay, okay. Come back to work. Let's forget about it." The men started back up the gangway. When Jack passed me he gave me a wink and a smile. That evening he told me that the men in his gang were working their hearts out and requested a break, which the boss refused to give. Jack insisted and the boss fired him on the spot. As he started out of the hold, the rest of the gang followed him. It was a real display of solidarity, but more importantly, the boss had capitulated. This had been the first time that the men had backed each other up in several years. It gave them a feeling of brotherhood and solidarity.
The Islands, despite the outward veneer of calm and lushness, had always reeked with discontent among the working people. Ever since the day the first Bible pounder came ashore and created the fear of God in people with one hand while stealing everything under the sun with the other, people had been struggling to maintain their pride and put food in their stomachs. When the missionaries first came ashore, the people were enjoying easy-going lives with an abundance of fish, coconuts and fruits. The missionaries wasted little time in changing the Hawaiians' way of life.
Sugar soon became Hawaii's main money-making crop. To make a success of this venture, someone had to work from sun-up to sundown in the torrid fields, cutting and gathering cane--back-breaking work. The Hawaiians did not succumb easily to this form of servitude. As one said, "Why should any man be compelled to work from dawn to dusk week after week, performing back-breaking labor for someone else, when the fish were plentiful in the sea and coconuts dropped from trees?" Native labor would refuse to produce or bend to the lash of the whips by the owners who stood over them.
The "planters" had to look elsewhere for their labor. In their search they traveled the far corners of the world. Beginning in 1850 they brought in Chinese, Japanese, Puerto Rican, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Filipino workers, as well as workers from all the island groups in the South Pacific. They preferred workers who could neither read nor write; illiteracy was considered an asset because it made labor more docile. No matter which ethnic group dominated a plantation, however, the fight to improve their working conditions always mushroomed in one way or another. Some of the conflicts resulted in severe reprisals by the planters and strikers were killed as the planters fought to maintain their oppressive rule.
The planters were skillful in the art of "divide and rule." As one ethnic group of workers went on strike, the planters would use another group to break the strike. Groups tended not to trust each other. There were times when unity did extend across ethnic lines, but in the end the planters always succeeded in pitting one group against another. The pages of labor history and struggle in the Islands are replete with terror, murder, beatings, jailings and deportations, all carried out by the planters. Unions were formed and prospered for a while, but the moment they struck against the deplorable conditions, the planters crushed them.
The majority of people working on the plantations were Filipino. The overseers, or "lunas," were Portuguese. It was a classic example of the planters' method of using one group to dominate another. The Filipinos hated the lunas. They rode up and down the fields on horseback and reported any worker who committed an infraction of the rules. The workers were fine or fired for an infraction. I learned after my first week in the Islands that the Filipinos were ripe for organization.
The seamen's unions, like the Marine Firemen, Sailors' Union of the Pacific and the Marine Cooks and Stewards, maintained branches in Honolulu. They were not there to organize the island workers, but merely to safeguard their own interests by supplying crew replacements for their organized ships that stopped off in the Islands. Most of the officials of these unions turned their heads the other way if anyone raised the question of organizing local workers. But the presence of the unions had a psychological effect on the local workers. It made them realize that they too could have a union to bring about good working conditions if they tried.
With a few dollars coming in from ships' crews and some donations from college students, we had enough money for another issue of the Voice of Labor. Ed Berman, the lawyer, stayed up all night putting the finishing touches on the paper. "There's one thing we have to do, and we might as well do it now," he said. "We should put the editor's name on the paper. If it's okay with you, you should be the editor."
"Me? The editor?" I replied. "You're crazy. After all, you do most of the work. Besides, it's your baby."
"You're known on most of the ships that come in here, and you're respected as well. Don't worry; I'll be here to dot the 'i's and cross the 't's for you." Without further argument, I became the editor, with my name on the editorial page.
There were fewer than a dozen small printing firms in Honolulu that would handle the job of printing the Voice of Labor. We would shop around, bargaining over price and time. We found a printer who promised to get the paper out in three days. This printer had been idle for over a week, with no business. After the three days were up, we went to pick up the paper.
"Sorry," he said. "Some hot emergency business came along." He was unable to do the job. He handed us back the copy. What was the "hot emergency business"? He was printing a batch of ink blotters for the Hawaiian Planters' Association.
Back we went to shopping around, and back to more delays. Our next printer found himself deluged with an order for envelopes which had to be printed immediately. The envelopes were for the Tourist Bureau. The planters were using this trick to stop the paper's publication. Often by the time we found a printer, the news in the paper was outdated. These were conditions we had to live with. We discovered that these little printers welcomed our business because they knew that once we left our job with them, they would receive work from the Big Five. One thing it did accomplish was that it increased our awareness that the spies of the Big Five were keeping track of our movements.
Joe Poindexter, the Roosevelt-appointed governor of the Islands and an ex-district judge, was a staunch Democrat and strong Roosevelt supporter, at least on some issues. But when it came to championing New Deal policies, Poindexter was not in the same ideological orbit as the President. The slums in Honolulu were awful and unemployment was high. While Roosevelt was trying to alleviate both problems on the mainland, Poindexter was doing little to improve the situation in his territory.
Berman asked me to interview the governor, since he professed to be pro-labor and surely pro-New Deal. I called his office and made an appointment as editor of the Voice of Labor. "He'll be a hard man to get anything from," Berman said, "but take a jug of booze. He likes to nip the bottle." I didn't take a bottle. I sat down in his office at the Palace. "What," I asked, "are you going to do about the lousy rat-infested slums that the poor people are living in?"
"We're going to take care of that," he replied.
"May I ask when?"
"As soon as we get the funds to build better houses."
"When will that be?"
"I have no idea."
"Do you feel," I asked, "that workers have a right to belong to unions of their own choosing?"
"Of course I do," he said. "My friend in the White House, President Roosevelt, specifically supports the Wagner Act which gives the workers the right."
"Could you make a statement for the paper," I pressed, "advocating and supporting the right of workers to organize and belong to unions?"
"Of course not."
"But you said you supported the Wagner Act."
"That's true," he replied. "But I don't intend as governor to stand up on a soapbox and agitate for workers to belong to unions. You may, but I don't see my office as fitted for that job."
I tried again. "Would you support a strike, say of sugar cane workers, if one occurred?"
"I won't support any strike," he said harshly. "I take a dim view of strikes."
"Do you think the Planters' Association treats their workers fair and square?"
"I find no evidence to the contrary. There are a lot of men who daily seek employment in the mills and cane fields. That should be a good indication that conditions are fair and equitable."
"Would your opinion change," I ventured, "if I laid on your desk case histories of mistreatment of workers and showed you proof of poor working and housing conditions?"
"You know, Mr. Bailey, even in the Garden of Eden one could find some agitators who would never be satisfied. That's the very nature of man. Hell, my wife's a good cook, but there are a lot of times when I don't find meals to my liking. One thing is for sure, I can bet you that for every dissatisfied worker you can come up with, I can find nine that are perfectly happy with their jobs and their working conditions. It's just semantics, Mr. Bailey."
My little group was getting bigger with each succeeding meeting. Individuals reported how they distributed the Voice of Labor and turned in the loose change they collected for it. New names of candidates for the group were submitted for the group's approval; we had long ago agreed to be careful to keep out informers.
There was one thing I had to do to strengthen any organization we tried to build, and that was to build the Communist Party. A few in the group showed promise of making good Communists. They were dedicated, honest and principled. In addition, they had the confidence of the other men in the group. I would have to spend time with them discussing things on a level deeper than just the trade union movement.
I was doing some shopping at the five-and-dime store when I saw some red muslin. I carried home a few feet of it, neatly painted a hammer and sickle on it and pinned it to the bare wall. What I had in mind was attaching it to the lance of the statue of King Kamehameha which stood guard at the entrance of the Royal Palace. Since it was never guarded, it would be easy to walk there on a dark night, climb up on the statue and unfurl it at the tip of the lance. In the meantime I would keep it on the wall. At the next meeting of the group, everyone sat facing the wall where the flag was draped. Several kept staring at it; I could see that it had caught their imaginations. At the end of the session, a few men stayed behind. Jack, the one I felt was a born leader, spoke first as he looked at the makeshift flag. "I don't know too much about that, but what I do know is good."
The others nodded. I sat back down and for the next hour we talked about the Communist Party and its symbol, the hammer and sickle. "Does this mean," asked Jack, "that if the Communists took control of the Islands, the land the missionaries stole from us would be taken back?"
"That would be number one on the list," I replied.
"That's good enough for us," Jack said. In the next three months I would accept 22 applications for the Party.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Two