All in a Day’s Work

Photo from Center for Labor Education and Research, University of Hawai’i – West O’ahu

Do you remember your first job? For many of us, a first job was something like cutting grass, or babysitting, or a paper route. I remember helping a friend with his paper route when I lived in Texas as a child. I was so impressed that a company trusted this guy, my friend Ryan to deliver “the news,” this guy who could be dared into doing just about any insane, dangerous thing any of his friends, including myself, could think of. But as we would sit and watch wrestling (I was a big fan of professional wrestling back then), we would have all the newspapers spread out in front of us that needed to be delivered that evening or the next morning. We would take into account any expected rainfall so we could decide whether we would use a rubber band or a plastic sleeve for the papers. And as we loaded the papers into a sack for his bike, and as we darted our ways through the neighborhood on our bikes, delivering these papers, doing the work we were trusted to do, we felt something—something wonderful in knowing that we were earning a wage, that we could make our own decisions about how to deliver the papers in the best, most efficient way, and then how we would spend our hard earned money.

Looking back, it strikes me as I stand here today that Ryan never actually shared any of those earnings with me. But part of helping him with his job was so that we would have more time to hang out together, spending the day doing whatever else it was 5th graders in Texas do.

Tomorrow is Labor Day. And if you spend much time listening to the radio or reading newspaper inserts, you’ll know that this is a great weekend to get that new mattress you’ve been thinking about, or maybe that new car. Labor Day sales are everywhere we turn. And for others, tomorrow marks the real end of summer. It’s the day that marks the end of being allowed to wear light colored suits or white shoes, or sandals to formal affairs. For still others, it’s the day that marks the beginning of school.

There are many, many things that Labor Day has come to represent, but the one thing it seems not to represent, not to call to mind for many, is why this is a holiday at all.

Historians have come to agree that it was in New York City in 1882 that the first Labor Day celebration took place.[1] The Central Labor Union in New York was the organizer of this original event, which was to be “a demonstration and picnic.” The form the demonstration took was a parade through the streets of New York City featuring many of the laborers in the city. And then there was a picnic, complete with amusements for all of the families of those who participated in the demonstration.[2] Much of this took place in and around “Union Square” in New York. So as a matter of personal ignorance, I confess that I lived in New York City for about a decade, and I never pieced together the origin of the name of Union Square. I suspect I’m not alone.

This day out for Union families in New York in 1882 was not the beginning of the struggle for justice for workers. No. It was only a celebration of accomplishments. The struggle had been going on for a much, much longer time, throughout much of the world. Including right here in Hawaii.

According to sources at the University of Hawaii, labor, or a day’s work, here, when this land was under the rule of chiefs, had a particular purpose in the way that people lived. In these earlier times, the maka’ainana were the group of people who lived under the rule of the chiefs.[3] Like many agriculture-based societies throughout time, early Hawaiian society was organized among these chiefs who controlled certain lands. The maka’ainana were folks who…well…weren’t the chiefs or the family of the chiefs, so part of the arrangement for living on land under the control of the chief was that each member of the maka’ainana would have their own plot of land to work.

Most people didn’t have enough land to grow all of the different foods that made up the diet a person preferred, so different families grew different things. And then the maka’ainana shared what they had grown with those around them. The labor was divided this way to be sure that everyone would have all they needed. But in exchange for the plot of land, maka’ainana would give six days of labor a month to the chief who controlled and protected the land. Some historians also note that the maka’ainana would fight in wars and battles waged by the chief against others. They also would pay tributes of different kinds from their own lands, like taxes. But the primary basis of the agrarian economy in early chief-controlled Hawaii was really a day’s work. Well, six days’ work.

It was with the arrival of Captain Cook at the end of the 18th century, and all of those who followed him in the beginning of the 19th century, who brought to these lands the chance to trade for manufactured goods. But to receive these goods, those who controlled the land, the monarchy and their chiefs, needed something to trade. Iliahi, which the newly arriving traders called “sandalwood,” was something that grew plentifully on the island and something these new traders and merchants highly prized.

You’ve got something I want.

I’ve got something you want.

That’s how you strike a bargain.

But to hold up their end of the bargain they struck, the chiefs started to send the maka’ainana into the fields to cultivate and harvest iliahi. And with this decision, a new form of economy began to take hold on Hawaii. The production-for-use economy, a system that allowed workers to provide for themselves from their own lands, producing food to eat and to share, a system that required six days a month of labor for the chief, a system that not only allowed for open-hearted, open-handed sharing, but required it—that system ended. And the production-for-profit system took its place.

In this system, goods are produced for sale. And after selling the goods, then the profit from the sale is used to buy yet more goods. In this system, those who stood to profit from iliahi, discovered that demanding more and more of those who were harvesting it for them meant more and more profit for them.

Kamehameha I ruled at these times, and his chiefs began to work the maka’ainana even harder. One observer, part of a journey made by many Christian missionaries arriving in these times, described the scene he witnessed in 1822. He described seeing more than two thousand people, in his words, “coming down from the mountains to deposit their burthens in the royal store houses, and then depart to their homes–wearied with their unpaid labors, yet unmurmuring in their bondage. In fact, the condition of the common people is that of slaves; they hold nothing which may not be taken from them by the strong hand of arbitrary power, whether exercised by the sovereign or a petty chief.”[4]

And so this new system, production-for-profit, churned on. When the iliahi industry faltered and ended after over-harvesting of the valuable trees, the population of Hawaii was left devastated, both in spirit and in numbers. The diseases of European persons were running rampant through a population unprepared to defend itself from them, and the demands of grinding labor on the bodies and the lives of the people led to a drastic shift in the expectancy of life. Estimates of the impact on the population of Hawaii’s original inhabitants, those here before the arrival of European commercial interests, are that from the time that a production-for-profit economy began in Hawaii, with the iliahi trade, and up to the Great Mahele, when Hawaiian lands were parceled out for private control and outright ownership, the number of Hawaiians had been reduced from 300,000 persons in Hawaii upon the arrival of these interests, to just 7,500. And some of those who were left had had enough.

Enduring the changes that the iliahi trade brought, stomaching the indignity of the Great Mahele, a new trade taking hold on the islands was demanding backbreaking, nonstop labor for cultivation: sugar. And the demands of this new enterprise, almost entirely controlled by interests from abroad, were more than some workers could stand anymore. In 1841, just a few years after the first sugar plantation was opened in Koloa, a group of laborers, proud Hawaiians who knew the old ways, the ways of sharing what you were able to grow, of giving six days of labor a month, of feeling the value of one’s own work on behalf of themselves and their loved ones, walked off the plantation.

They stayed off for eight days, demanding an increase of two cents an hour for their labor, but I’m willing to bet you know what happened. The strike didn’t work for the laborers. Though not formally organized into a union, the organization gave the owners of the land a fright. It was not long before the plantation owners had a plan.

Over the decades that followed the initial walk-off on the Koloa plantation, plantation owners found that bringing in groups from all over the world, in sequential waves of labor, provided highly profitable advantages.

With each new wave of labor from a different part of the world, the owners would pay the new arrivals less and less. This had the twin advantages of costing less for labor on the one hand, but on the other hand, it pitted groups against one another, sowing resentment against each new wave of labor for undercutting what a laborer could earn for a day’s work. This formed divisions along perceived lines of race and culture, which kept laborers divided and more easily manipulated.

Throughout these same decades, owners saw the enactment of laws that legalized indentured servitude, which amounted to slavery in practice. But what was once “legal,” didn’t last for long.

In 1900, when Hawaii became a territory of the United States, these labor “laws,” tools of the sugar trade plantation owners used to fund their enterprise with as cheap a labor force as possible, we’re deemed unconstitutional.

For some laborers, when they heard that their indenture was ended, they joyfully and happily walked off the fields forever. But many, especially those laborers who were brought to Hawaii solely to work in the sugar fields, could not. They had no other place to go, no other means of earning a living. Through organized campaigns, the owners continued to pit one group against another for a reason that was becoming more and more important to the owners: preventing unionization.

Throughout Hawaii and beyond, labor was unionizing and making strides, but no organization could take hold on the sugar plantations.

Following the end of World War II, new labor laws made organizing easier, and between 1944 and 1946, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union worked with plantations on Hawaii so well and so strategically that on Sunday, September 1, 1946, Labor Day weekend 71 years ago, workers on thirty-three of thirty-four plantations began to strike. Including families, more that 76,000 people stopped work, and began a 79-day strike of any labor on the plantations.

During that time, those 79 days, a structure formed among and across any perceived barriers of origin or heritage. Every person had a job to do, whether working on a strike committee, preparing food for those striking, or making sure any news about the strike got to every single person who was involved. The open-hearted, open-handed spirit of caring for one another came to life in Hawaii once again and overwhelmed the closed-hearted, closed-handed tactics of the owners.

The strike was successful in the short term, adding significant wages to those working on the plantations, but this combined effort struck a much more important blow. A participatory democratic way of living, of decision making, was coming back to the Hawaiian shores. And it was this spirit, the very lines of communication and understanding forged across perceived racial and cultural lines, that ushered in the pro-Union, labor-endorsed candidates in the local and territorial government elections in what amounted to a revolution in 1954. The successful labor organization on the sugar plantations led directly to the ouster of the Republican, commerce-focused leadership that had been in control of government in Hawaii for generations and generations.

The tools of oppression, attempts to divide and differentiate groups of people, provided the very means by which that oppression would be brought to an end. See, here in his place, in Hawaii, Labor Day is not a celebration of cheap furniture with festooned parades. It is a celebration of recognizing our shared human family, recognizing what is under each one of our skins. It is a triumph of the interconnected web of life we weave together. It is a victory of the democratic spirit pervading the way that decisions and cooperation can lead to a better life for one, and a richer life for all.

Now, we would be mistaken to believe that the rights of farm workers are now carefully and dutifully protected by every employer. We heard today in our story about the need for representing the rights of those who still suffer oppression in this industry. And even those organizations representing the rights of farm workers struggle with issues of patriarchy and privilege. Just this weekend, a documentary about the life of Dolores Huerta, called “Dolores” opens in theaters. Interviews with Huerta leading up to this release show how much work must be done both by these organizations and within these organizations, if justice is truly to be realized.[5]

There can be no doubt about it. We have our work cut out for us. Building that new way toward a shared faith of understanding is only a beginning. But by making that beginning, holding close the inherent worth and dignity of every person, then inviting, welcoming, needing the voices from all corners of every page of the book of life we write together every day, the power the families on the sugar plantations found by working across divisions, involving every single person in the work, is the very power that a Unitarian Universalist way of living, way of understanding, way of working together, will need to thrive.

But this work we do together is not a labor of burdens; it’s a blessing of care

This is not a labor of division; it’s the courage that comes from community.

This is not a curse of discord and strife; it’s a labor of love.

Winding our ways through the streets of the neighborhoods, the roads of the cities, and the highways of the world, we dare ourselves daily to hold the news we hear in the world in one hand, and the news we might offer the world in the other. At our very best, we work as Unitarian Universalists to deliver the good news of welcome, the joyful news of belonging, and the comforting news of loving one another not for who we might be someday, but for who we are right now, this very day.

For the work of welcome, the work of belonging, and the work of love are, for us gathered here in this space together, truly all in a day’s work.



[1] See the Department of Labor website located at, last accessed August 29, 2017.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See the University of Hawaii website located at, last accessed August 30, 2017. This article provides a great deal of the factual information for the sermon, so there are not citations individually throughout. It is recommended that the article be read in its entirety.

[4] Ibid, citing James Montgomery, ed., Journal of Voyages and Travels by the Rev. Daniel Tyerman and George Bennet, Esq. 2 Vols. (London: F. Westley & A.H. Davis, 1881) I:415.

[5] See Last accessed August 29, 2017.

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