I loved last week's winter rains. I found myself one cloudy evening at the intriguing strip of fishing beach across the street from the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, hidden by gnarled sea grape trees.
Cold, gray waves broke onto the rocky shore, covered with a strange assortment of driftwood. In the distance the orange lights of the harbor facilities glowed. This is the spot local people still call Y. Hata for the longtime business that once occupied the corner of Lower Main Street and Waiehu Beach Road, now a market. This confused me when I first moved here. I thought there was a town called Waihata somewhere before Waiehu.
It was at this beach, on Kahului Bay, where rebellious workers staked out a refuge that enabled them to weather Maui's first successful labor strike.
On April 20, 1937, members of the Filipino union, Viboro Luviminda, spontaneously struck HC&S in reaction to word that the method of calculating the pay for cutting cane had been changed, amounting to a wage decrease. Assistant manager Ward Walker told the laborers the company would consider their demands, but they had to go back to work first. Instead, the Filipinos marched to the plantation office and turned in their knives. "If you don't like it, pack your gear and get out," Frank Baldwin, the company's head, told them. When the workers refused, they were dismissed and evicted from plantation homes. The union agreed that married men and irrigation contractors would work while the single men continued the strike.
They set up camp - "Little Manila" - at the beach near Y. Hata. Slowly, the walkout spread until it involved 3,500 workers, including those from Maui Agricultural Co. and Wailuku Sugar Co.
Baldwin, in established industry tradition, refused to negotiate or recognize the existence of the union, saying it was a test case for the sugar industry. "They can tear down the mill, but I won't give in." A hundred deputies, some armed and on horseback, were hired.
Hawaii planters crushed earlier strikes and gave no ground, the most famous of which was the courageous 1920 strike of Japanese and Filipino workers on most Oahu plantations. The eviction of thousands of laborers and their families into hastily setup camps in Honolulu, where many caught flu, factored in the capitulation.
In the Maui strike of 1937, however, for the first time in history Hawaii strikers had powerful allies. National labor laws enacted under President Franklin D. Roosevelt legalized unions, and National Labor Relations Boards were created to hear disputes.
When Antonio Fagel, Viboro Luviminda's leader, was beaten by a plantation guard, attorneys for a new Honolulu-based labor union, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO, filed a charge of unfair labor practice with the NLRB in San Francisco.
The matter did not fall under federal jurisdiction, but Maui's planters took note. They agreed to make some concessions and the strike ended after 86 days. Workers received a 15-cent pay raise and management agreed to meet with their representative in future disputes.
It was the last racial strike in Hawaii, and the first time the sugar industry officially recognized a union. Just think how things might have turned out if there was no safe haven at "Y. Hata."
In 1904 the Kahului Railroad Co., headed by Henry Perrine Baldwin, Frank Baldwin's father, undertook improvements to Kahului Harbor, then essentially an inlet at the mercy of wind and heavy sea.
Dredging began on an 11-acre basin and a 1,800-foot breakwater, "thus making the Kahului Harbor as safe as that of Honolulu." The breakwater meant that steamers could remain in port during inclement weather, instead of having to "go outside."
In 1910, with the approval of the U.S. Army Board of Engineers, construction commenced on "Claudine Wharf," built to accommodate the (notoriously uncomfortable) interisland steamer between Kahului and Honolulu. The railroad ceded the harbor to the federal government that year and the U.S. Congress approved further dredging and extension of the breakwater.
In 1924, per agreement, the territory bought the wharf, and on Dec. 16, 1931, The Maui News reported, "The Kahului breakwater project is completed. . . . There was no ceremony."
The west end of the harbor is still a refuge, sort of a people's park. Canoe clubs use it, Kahului kids use it, fishermen use it, families use it and the homeless do, too. I used to swim there sometimes, until I figured out sharks probably like it as well.
* Laurel Murphy is a former staff writer for The Maui News whose "Keiki o ka 'Aina" column appears each Tuesday. She can be reached at email@example.com.