Ah Quon McElrath

Ah Quon McElrath. (YouTube screenshot of Ah Quon McElrath Project)

The history of labor in this country is chockablock with forgotten heroes, suppressed memories, and unknown soldiers in the class war.  Take Ah Quon McElrath. She is now remembered as one of Hawai’i’s most influential labor leaders, but beyond the islands’ borders, she and her work are all too often relegated to a footnote. As an unapologetically militant Chinese Hawai’ian organizer committed to the intersectional race, class, and gender struggles of the working class, she has suffered the same fate that’s befallen many now barely known lions of labor. As a communist, her politics were too red for the history books, and as a woman of color operating within a white male-dominated power structure, the same social and political barriers she faced in life have followed her to the grave.

When she graduated from the University of Hawai’i in 1938 with a degree in sociology, a bigoted professor convinced her to drop her dream of pursuing an advanced economics degree because: “One, you’re a woman. Two, you’re Oriental.” That fateful incident caused McElrath to lend her prodigious talents to the field of social work and the cause of labor, which proved to be a boon to Hawai’i’s workers and showed how deeply she held her commitment to liberation. The greatest lesson McElrath can teach us now is the importance of organizing across race, class, and gendered lines; embracing diversity as a strength instead of an impediment; and not being afraid to show our true political colors—no matter how much it makes the bosses or the media squirm.

A child of immigrants who settled on “the other side of the tracks” in O’ahu and spent her childhood working in a pineapple cannery to support her family, McElrath was born into hardship, but found power and purpose through the work she did in the interest of others. She approached her long career in labor with a social worker’s eye toward fostering community bonds, building up networks of mutual aid, and caring for peoples’ bodies as well as their minds. Her parents, Leong Chew and Leong Wong See, both came from Zhongshan, China, but arrived in Hawai’i separately; her father was a contract laborer who came over to work, and her mother was a “picture bride” who ditched her intended husband to marry Chew and raise their large family in Iwilei, a former red-light district in Honolulu. Born Leong Yuk Quon in 1915, Ah Quon (a diminutive of her birth name) was a studious child who excelled at English and spent her summers working in the canneries even after she entered high school. Her father died from a ruptured appendix when she was 4 years old, leaving her mother with seven children to support. 

In 1939, McElrath secured a job with Hawai’i’s Department of Public Welfare and continued the labor organizing efforts she’d begun as a college student. During her time at the university, she’d joined the Communist Party as well as an activist group called the Inter-Professional Association, and aligned herself with the antifascist cause as the Spanish Civil War raged overseas. It was a tumultuous time in Hawai’i. The year she finished university, local police faced off against a 200-strong crowd of Inland Boatmen’s Union members and supporters protesting for higher wages and union rights. In what’s now known as the Hilo Massacre, the cops threw grenades into the crowd and fired their riot guns, injuring 50 people, including two children; one man, Kai Uratani, was bayoneted by Lt. Charles Warren. “I remember when somebody came to our Inter-Professional Association meeting and announced, “Jack Hall has been beaten!’” McElrath later recalled. She and Hall, a leader in the Communist Party and head of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 142, became friends while she was in university, and the former school newspaper wonk helped him run the organizing newsletter Voice of Labor.

He also introduced her to a man named Bob McElrath, who would become her husband in 1941 and remained her partner in life and organizing until his death in 1995. Together, they organized tuna packers, steamship workers, and pineapple canners, and became involved in the ILWU after World War II when the lifting of wartime economic measures resuscitated the islands’ labor movement. Led by Hall and operating on the multiracial, multiethnic principles that McElrath and friends had formulated around their kitchen tables, the union ramped up its efforts to take on the sugar barons who controlled Hawai’i’s agricultural economy and wrung enormous profits from its exploited immigrant workforce. Beginning in 1835, a procession of European and then white American colonizers had begun descending upon the islands to buy up land and run enormous sugarcane plantations staffed by contract laborers, who were bound to the land and indebted to the plantation store. (A situation that would’ve been all too familiar to the Appalachian coal miners populating company towns a world away.) The plantation bosses initially hired Native Hawai’ians to work their fields, but quickly decided it was easier to exploit immigrant workers instead, and began importing their labor—first from China, then expanding to Japan, Korea, Portugal, the Philippines, and even as far as Norway and Russia; in 1901, 200 Black workers were shipped in from Tennessee. 

The bosses assumed that ethnic and racial differences would keep the workers separated and prevent them from organizing, but did not factor in organizers like McElrath, who had grown up within multiracial communities. The ILWU identified community leaders within each ethnic or racial group, emphasized interracial and multiethnic solidarity in their organizing conversations, and held meetings in a variety of languages, including multiple Filipino dialects, to build trust. “At the time that our longshoremen and sugar workers began to organize, almost all sugar workers were in what is called segregated camps,” McElrath recalled in an interview with Robynn Takayama. “It was very simple. You are all economically exploited, whether you are Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, or whatever it is…. All of the information that was given to them was, ‘Look, you are exploited. What are you going to do about it?’”

The year 1946 proved pivotal for both McElrath and the Hawai’ian labor movement. In April, a tsunami devastated Hilo and other towns on the Big Island, and she sprang into action. “I’d had experience as a social worker with the Department of Social Security even before the attack on Pearl Harbor, but during Hawaii’s April 1946 tidal wave crisis I was not employed,” she explained in a 2004 interview. “I volunteered my services to the union to do the investigations of need, because the entire union was collecting money to give to families that suffered a death or the loss of a home or personal belongings. I also worked with families to get them to understand what it meant to help each other in times of disaster.”

When 26,000 sugar plantation workers and their families–79,000 people in all—went out on strike that September after the sugar companies refused to negotiate a fair contract with the ILWU, she was there, too, setting up soup kitchens and helping families navigate creditors and the parochial school system. The strike lasted for three months, and shut down 33 of the 34 sugar plantations in the islands for 79 days. It cost the Big Five sugar companies more than $15 million (about $212 million in 2021 dollars) and resulted in huge wins for the workers. “It didn’t make a difference whether you were Filipino, Japanese, Chinese, or whatever it is, they felt that the strike had to be won, and they gave their all in order to win the strike,” McElrath said looking back on the victory. “And for me, this was a magnificent illustration of how people of different colors got together and worked to win the strike.”

McElrath wasn’t wrong when she was quoted in 1977 saying, “Nobody gives the members of the Communist Party any real credit for the magnificent job of organizing they did.” Her experiences of growing up in a poor immigrant family in a multiracial working-class community shaped her politics. Following World War II, she was in good company in the Communist Party, especially in labor circles, though anti-communist sentiment was already widespread on the islands and on the mainland by the time she began working with the ILWU in the 1940s. 

During a grueling 1949 longshore strike over pay disparities between the Hawai’ian and immigrant Asian members of color and white workers on the mainland, she again organized soup kitchens and helped workers with paperwork. She also witnessed the ugly sight of middle-class women crossing the picket lines while screaming anti-union, anti-communist slogans. We, the Women was a group founded by Republican Ruth Black in response to the 1946 strike; its goal was to recruit predominantly white housewives and professional women from elite families to loudly protest outside the ILWW offices, disrupt picket lines, and Red-bait the union in order to chip away at community support for the striking workers and force out its radical leaders. This set them in direct opposition to the ILWU’s highly diverse, working-class Women’s Division Committee and Women’s Auxiliaries, who went toe-to-toe with them during an ill-fated 1947 pineapple workers’ strike and again in 1949. 

For all her efforts, McElrath was blacklisted from the Department of Social Security in 1948, and during the 1950s she was surveilled by the FBI and subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), twice. She refused to apologize for her politics or to back down when pressured. When seven of her ILWU comrades in Honolulu (including her old friend Jack Hall) were arrested in 1951 for allegedly violating the anti-communist Smith Act of 1940, McElrath served as the office manager for the union’s defense committee. “I remember when a lot of my friends would cross to the other side of the street to avoid me,” she told one interviewer. “If you were called a Red at that time, your means of livelihood was taken away from you.” Luckily for her, though, the ILWU was a left-led union that refused to be cowed by Red-baiting. She was hired on as the union’s full-time social worker in 1954, a position she held until her retirement in 1981. 

During her tenure there, McElrath focused on community organizing and advocating for labor, women’s, and immigrants’ rights locally and on a state level; she led educational programs; pushed for social welfare legislation, local infrastructure projects, and universal healthcare programs; and lobbied for—and won—lower housing costs for workers in Waipahu. For 25 years, she led education and social welfare programs for the union’s thousands of members and their families, assisting them in accessing government benefits and advising union leadership on myriad issues. In 1965, McElrath took a short leave of absence to study at the Michigan School of Social Work, and was sent to an Office of Economic Opportunity program at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where she spent three months working on a federally funded health care project in Lowndes County. 

McElrath’s experience in the South inspired her to work more closely with the ILWU’s education director to improve its own programming, and to become even more involved in local political action with the Democratic Party. The union’s efforts on the social, political, and economic front eventually helped to turn Hawai’i blue (which is a little ironic, given how much of her life McElrath spent being called a Red). Even in her retirement, McElrath refused to stop fighting, and spent the rest of her life advocating for and organizing on behalf of the poor, the elderly, and the vulnerable. Later on, she served on the University of Hawaiʻi’s Board of Regents, and was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1988. Ah Quon McElrath died in 2008 at the age of 92, and a team of Hawai’ian filmmakers are currently working on a documentary about her life. 

McElrath was a ILWU diehard, but I bet she’d be impressed by the newest report from UNITE HERE, another ambitious union whose membership is predominantly made up of immigrant workers of color and has a strong presence in Hawai’ian tourism industry. Titled “Come Back Stronger,” it details how the union has managed to bounce back after 98 percent of its membership lost their jobs during the peak of the Covid-19 shutdowns. Knowingly or not, UNITE HERE took a page from McElrath’s book when it mobilized during a disaster and committed time and resources to helping its members navigate unemployment insurance and other government resources, secured health insurance coverage, ran a huge political canvassing operation to elect more worker-friendly politicians, and provided cash and food aid to its members. 

It also managed to organize 15,238 new workers into the union in 77 workplaces, which is a major success story given the heavy toll the pandemic has taken on the hospitality industry. 

With all of the gloomy news coming out about organized labor’s decline, this kind of forward motion is a sign of hope. After all, as McElrath herself once warned us, “The minute the trade union movement leaves out the word ‘movement,’ and thinks only of where it is going for itself, forget it, it ain’t going anywhere.”