Celebrating America’s Workers’ Day

Since Labor Day was coming up, last week I went online to do some checking. Basically, the U.S. is one of the rare countries that does not celebrate workers on May 1.

Wikipedia has a great section on the 60 countries that celebrate International Workers’ Day. If you have ever lived in Europe, you are well aware of International Workers’ Day. It is celebrated May 1 and features parades and demonstrations. In the past it was not uncommon to witness violent confrontations between government and workers.

Here in paradise, of course, May 1 is Lei Day and everyone just has a big party. Many unions have parties for their members or a family picnic. The idea of a International Workers’ Day never made it through Congress, so we don’t participate with all the gala events.

International Workers’ Day was dedicated to the workers killed or injured in the Haymarket Market affair in Chicago. It started in 1886 as a protest in the garment industry over disagreements with management’s enforcement of the eight-hour workday.

It was the one incident that made the public feel for the blue-collar worker. For the most accurate account of what happened on that day, check Fossum, J.A., Labor Relations: Development, Structure, Process. McGraw Hill, 8th Ed. 1982.

Hawaii also has a long history of violent labor clashes on all the islands. Hawaii also was home to very powerful labor leaders who brought workers out the dark ages after many military workers returned home. Tommy Trask was one of the most powerful, leading the ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) to control the docks. Meanwhile, David Trask organized the public unions sector under the Hawaii Government Employees Association, which protected all public employee in the state.

Some violent interactions took place in dock strikes, including several on the Big Island, ending in the National Guard being called out and workers being shot. The bitterness from the Haymarket affair and the shooting of workers on the Big Island still generates a lot of hard feelings between management and labor.

Things have settled down a lot in the private sector, while the public sector is still in turmoil, especially the teachers (Hawaii State Teachers Association). Art Rutledge and the Hotel Workers Local 5, also known as Unity House, have settled into a friendly relationship with the hotel industry.

Hawaii has had a stormy past, but faces an uncertain future with many politicians wanting to adopt new collective bargaining laws and limiting benefits for retirement and medical coverage.

So while we celebrate Labor Day, maybe we should take a look back at Hawaii’s labor history and applaud some of the workers’ difficult struggles, sacrifices and accomplishments. Maybe it would be cause to celebrate Labor Day concurrently with Lei Day.

One thing is for sure, Hawaii’s labor history hasn’t been a picnic.