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The legacy of the Sakadas in Hawaii

From 1906 to 1946, approximately 125,000 Filipinos were recruited by the Hawaii Sugar Planters Association to work in the sugarcane and pineapple fields of the Hawaiian Islands. Less than 25 statewide remain, with four still living one Big Island. All in their 90s, soon they will be all gone but should be remembered and never forgotten.

They were called Sakadas, a word of Spanish origin, meaning lower-paid workers recruited out of the area. In Hawaii, the word is synonymous with these pioneers who came to seek their fate, or “gasat” in Ilocano, for a better life for themselves and their families.

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The first 15 arrived Dec. 20, 1906, on the SS Doric and were assigned to Olaa Sugar in Keaau. With gratitude, for the last five years the Filipino community throughout the state celebrated Dec. 20 as Sakada Day, but this year the coronavirus pandemic has put a temporary stop to it.

About one half of the Sakadas who came to Hawaii returned to the Philippines or moved to the U.S. mainland, and the other half remained in Hawaii and are the original “ramot,” or roots, of the Filipino community, which is now the second-largest ethnic group in the state.

Early on, the Sakadas agitated against poor working conditions that consisted of $1 per 10-hour work day, six days per week. Acting almost single-handedly, they conducted strikes and paid a great price — loss of employment, housing, prosecution and even death, when 16 Filipinos were killed in 1924 in a confrontation with police in Kauai known as the Hanapepe Massacre. It resulted in the jailing and relocation of leader Pablo Manlapit to California and finally deportation to the Philippines in 1933.

The Sakadas instigated three major strikes (1920, 1924 and 1937), all ending in failure, but in 1946 success finally arrived under the leadership of the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union.

On Sept. 1, 1946, the ILWU called a strike and approximately 30,000 workers responded, consisting of 60% Filipinos, 30% Japanese, and 10% others.

Six thousand of the strikers were recent Sakadas transported on the SS Maunawili in four voyages in January, February, April, and May of 1946, departing from Port Salomague in Cabugao, Ilocos Sur. They were recruited as strike-breakers but instead some signed on as union members while on board the ship by or upon arrival in Hawaii by ILWU organizers.

History relates that the strike of 1946 was a seminal event in Hawaii. The ILWU succeeded in forcing the sugar and pineapple industry to bargain collectively for agricultural workers, which was a first in the islands and the nation and catapulted the union not only as a labor force, but as a driver for economic, social and political reforms of the islands.

A turning point was the November 1954 election victory of the Democrat Party over the Republican Party and plantation owners whom controlled the levers of power since the early 1900s. With ILWU support, political leaders like Daniel Inouye, John Burns, Patsy Mink, Yoshito Takamine and many others were elected, and shared governance resulted in statehood and the adoption of health care, unemployment and industrial accident measures favoring all of Hawaii’s working class.

Although the Sakadas were not in key leadership positions, it was their massive numbers in the workforce that ensured the success of the strike, and without their collective participation, it is doubtful that the strike would have succeeded, and if not, we need to ponder what living in Hawaii would be like today.

The Sakadas’ participation in the labor movement in Hawaii, in particular the role they played in the ILWU-led strike of 1946, is their legacy to a grateful Filipino community.

To the greater Hawaii community, please join us today in remembering Sakada Day.

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Agbiag/Mabuhay/long live the Sakadas.

Romel Dela Cruz is a resident of Hilo.

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