Jonathan Okamura: Lahaina's History Of Labor Activism Should Be Remembered - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at

Government, business and community leaders need to prioritize workers in restoration plans.

Amid the scenes of absolute devastation in Lahaina, I could make out the former courthouse because it is just makai of the huge banyan tree, which has often appeared in the news coverage of last week’s horrific fire. Lahaina and the courthouse have personal significance for me because I was born and raised on Maui and used to visit the town with my family. 

Before I turn to a discussion of what plans and efforts to rebuild Lahaina should include, I would like to share a bit of my family history in the town, which I remember as sleepy, hot and without many tourists. 

I have a family photo taken in the early 1910s outside the Lahaina courthouse, now roofless and just a concrete shell, that includes my earliest Okamura relatives on Maui, who came from Yamaguchi prefecture in Japan. Among them in the photo is my great-great-grandmother Natsu, who arrived on Lanai sometime before 1890 and worked as a domestic at the Hayselden Ranch, now the site of the upscale Lodge at Koele. 

That year she was joined by her son, my great-grandfather Yasoji, and his wife Yasu, and both of them also worked on the ranch, which raised sheep. My great-grandfather would take the sheep to graze on the island and would often stay overnight with Hawaiian families, which is how he learned to speak Olelo Hawaii.

After the turn of the century, Yasoji moved the family, including his two children — my grandfather and grand aunt — born in the late 1890s, to Lahaina where he started a horse and buggy business — Okamura Stables. He also served as an interpreter at the Lahaina courthouse, which may have something to do with why the photo was taken, having become fluent in Hawaiian and English while living on Lanai. 

Lahaina Banyan Court and the destroyed Lahania town are photographed Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Maui. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Lahaina Banyan Court and the Old Lahaina Courthouse, left, following the fire on Aug. 8. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

As for rebuilding Lahaina, discussion has already started on what needs to be done and how much it will cost. But before restoration begins, the people of Lahaina have basic survival needs for food, water, shelter, and emotional care that must immediately be met. 

Once it becomes appropriate to discuss rebuilding the town, I would remind our government, business and community leaders to fully consider the place of workers in any such plans. These discussions may very well happen in the coming weeks because of the urgency of the overall economic situation, including issues of housing, employment, and public education. 

Historically, plantation workers in Lahaina played highly significant roles in developing its economy.

In April 1900, two months before Hawaii officially became a U.S. territory, which meant the end of contract labor, Japanese workers at the Pioneer Mill plantation in Lahaina went on strike. Such a work stoppage was legally prohibited under the contract labor system and was punishable with a fine of a week’s wages, but that didn’t stop the laborers from organizing the strike.

The Japanese mill workers were angry about the deaths of three of their fellow laborers, who were crushed in an accident at the mill. They attributed the deaths to management carelessness, and so refused to work. 

They soon took control of the mill and Lahaina itself, parading boldly about the town under the Japanese flag. After 10 days of such labor agitation, the plantation manager granted most of their demands, including unprecedented $500 payments to the relatives of each of the deceased mill hands and a nine-hour work day for all Pioneer Mill plantation workers.

In the historic 1946 sugar strike, the first multiracial strike in the more than 100-year history of the plantations at that time, labor militancy erupted once again at Lahaina. Although the strike had been settled after 77 days by Nov. 14, preventing a final contract agreement were assault and battery charges against 11 primarily Japanese strikers, who were accused of beating strikebreakers. 

Before and after Aerial photographs of the destruction caused by the Lahaina, Maui wildfire
The smokestack of the Pioneer Sugar Mill shown in an aerial image before and after the Aug. 8 fire. The Japanese plantation workers from Pioneer Sugar staged historic strikes in 1900 and 1946. (Provided:

In a strong demonstration of union and racial solidarity, the Japanese and Filipino workers at Pioneer Mill plantation voted to remain on strike until their fellow 11 “brothers under the skin” were given their jobs back. Their resolve threatened the tentative industry wide contract between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association. 

After difficult negotiations led by labor attorney Harriet Bouslog for the ILWU, the men were allowed to return to work at the end of the year after pleading no contest to the felony charges and receiving suspended sentences.

These historical examples of Japanese and Filipino labor activism in Lahaina should be remembered as the town’s economy is restored. It’s very likely that tourism will continue to play a substantial role in that economy but, unlike in 1900, workers have the right to organize themselves into unions to represent their collective interests regarding wages, working conditions and benefits.

As hotels, restaurants, and other businesses reopen or newly open in Lahaina, our government and community leaders need to remind their corporate owners and managers of those rights, which plantation and dock workers fought for since the 1900s. In several cases, they literally gave their lives for the labor movement, such as the Hanapepe Massacre in 1924 in which 16 striking Filipino laborers and four police officers were killed in a short burst of gunfire.  

Those historical sacrifices by workers are one of the major reasons that Hawaii is the most unionized state in the nation with more than 22% of its workers, primarily public employees, belonging to a union. That figure is more than twice the national average of about 10%, which has been declining since the 1950s.

To ensure that worker rights are fully recognized and seriously taken into consideration, representatives of Unite Here Local 5 of hotel, restaurant, and food service workers, the ILWU, and the carpenters and other unions should have primary roles in rebuilding plans and discussions for Lahaina.

As the discussion turns to how Lahaina should be rebuilt, we should not be concerned about trying to replicate the tourist town it was. The restored Lahaina should have a more diversifed economy. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

A huge restoration project that is ongoing is Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, which also was destroyed in a massive fire in 2019 and was a prime tourist attraction. But while concerted efforts are being made to rebuild the cathedral exactly as it was using the same designs and construction materials, including certain kinds of wood, we should not be overly concerned to replicate Lahaina as the tourist town that it was. 

Instead, restoration initiatives should be first focused on the town’s former residents so that they can eventually return to living and working in their home community. Luring back tourists with new attractions, including upscale hotels, restaurants, and boutiques with fancy Italian names, should be of secondary concern. 

This necessary prioritizing of locals over tourists is evident in the state and federal governments using hotels to provide shelter for Lahaina residents whose homes were destroyed and urging tourists to leave and to stay away from the town.

As devastating and depressing as the natural and human disaster that has befallen Lahaina is, it does provide an opportunity to create a new community for its people. 

The restored Lahaina should have a more diversified economy less dependent on tourism and with unionized jobs and affordable housing for its people. Designing and building such homes for Lahaina residents who have lost their houses can serve as a useful model for the construction of other communities in Hawaii.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at

Latest Comments (0)

Thank you for reminding us of the history of labor here in Hawaii. I am proud to be a union member living here in Hawaii. Solidarity!

hilotime · 1 month ago

The foundation of Lahaina is the 1839 Hawaiian Declaration of Rights and 1840 Luaehu Constitution. Hawaiian heirs should claim their interest in their ancestral lands in Lahaina swiftly.

AHawaiianMan · 1 month ago

Can someone please look into the ongoing tragedy of all the pets that have survived the fires, and are now suffering from lack of food and water, and/or untreated burn injuries? Even the Maui Humane Society is not being allowed in to begin rescue operations!! Why are they and other rescue groups being stopped from going in to respectfully save the living??

Arlenem13 · 1 month ago

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