Posted on: Sunday, May 16, 2004
Former mill workers move on
By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer
Rego had been one of the big bosses at Waialua Sugar harvesting superintendent when the mill closed eight years ago. Now, at age 68, Rego works two jobs: security guard at the old mill and stock boy at the Brown Bottle, one of Waialua's convenience stores.
Rego sees no shame in cobbling together work when other men his age are enjoying retirement. Life on a sugar plantation taught him that there's honor in putting in a good day's work with your hands.
But plantation values sometimes have been hard to translate for Rego and the others who represent the last generation of O'ahu's sugar workers.
They shut down Waialua Sugar on Oct. 4, 1996, and presided over the death of more than a century of plantation life. Then they began over again in an economy that didn't always appreciate or need the skills necessary to grow and harvest sugar.
"Hard to get jobs," Rego said. "They said I was over-qualified. And I was too old to drive into town with all of that traffic."
International Longshore & Warehouse Union records show that the height of union membership at the mill came in 1948, when the ILWU represented 916 workers.
In the 1950s, Waialua Sugar brought in mechanical harvesting equipment to replace workers who cut sugarcane by hand, triggering layoffs that continued in the decades that followed. By 1983, the number of ILWU workers had fallen to 503.
On Waialua Sugar's last day, only 174 workers remained.
With no more sugar work, some of them went back home to countries such as the Philippines or chased after hotel jobs and cheaper housing in Las Vegas.
"They really scattered," said John Hirota, the former head of Waialua Sugar's human resources department. "They moved into all kinds of different directions."
The state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations offered counseling, job training and placement services. But after 1997, the labor department stopped keeping track of the former Waialua Sugar workers.
The ILWU also offered literacy programs and computer training after the mill closed.
Over time, "we lost track of a lot of people, too," said Joanne Kealoha, the ILWU's social services coordinator.
"Most of them just didn't want a job, they wanted a job in Waialua," Kealoha said. "It was a culture shock for them not just to leave the plantation, but to leave the safety and security of Waialua."
Ray Ramos still lives in Waialua, but had to set out to find new work in town.
At just 35 years old, Ramos sounds like a wise old sugar hand when he talks about the first generation of young people on O'ahu, including his own five children, who won't be shaped by the experiences shared by Ramos, his father before him and thousands of sugar workers who helped build Hawai'i's economy beginning in the 1800s.
"Waialua Sugar was the best thing that ever happened to me," Ramos said as he coached his son's baseball practice recently. "I would love to have my kids experience what I did. Waialua Sugar made you a better man. It made me a better man."
Ramos drove a cane hauler at the mill; his father, John, was an irrigator.
After Waialua Sugar closed, Ramos operated a tractor trailer for a year, worked at BHP Petroleum's refinery, then joined the Hawaii Carpenters Union and now works for Coastal Construction.
At construction sites, Ramos tries to bring the same kind of plantation work ethic to the job.
"Camaraderie, humility," Ramos said. "I try to rub that off on the younger guys. I was proud to be working for a company like Waialua Sugar."
Violeta Vidad misses the daily repetition of the mill whistle announcing the start and end of each workday.
Vidad came to Hawai'i in 1968 from Illocos Norte in the Philippines. She and her husband, Dionicio, eventually both got jobs at Waialua Sugar. They raised their five children in Mill Camp housing.
It took Vidad only five minutes to walk to the mill, where she worked side by side with the same people, surrounded by the constant rumble of trucks hauling sugar cane and the sweet, smoky smell of burning cane stalks.
"You see all your neighbors every day," Vidad said, "because everybody worked plantation."
When the mill closed, Vidad was 50 years old and scared.
"It was a rough time," Vidad said. Financially, "we could not meet the ends together."
She and about 20 other Waialua Sugar workers landed jobs with the Mililani Wal-Mart store. Now it takes Vidad about 30 minutes to drive to her job as a Wal-Mart cashier, where she greets dozens of strangers every day.
"It's every day different different faces, different people," Vidad said.
After eight years, Vidad said, "I'm getting used to it, already."
"Clang... Clang... Clang..."
The sound of a hammer beating on raw metal grew louder.
The mill has been humming again with the noise from a handful of operations that rent out the rusting buildings a couple of surfboard shops, a metal auto fabricator, business incubator, community kitchen, animal feed store.
Jerry and Debora Driscoll moved their Hawaiian Bath & Body natural soap business into the cone-shaped "bagasse bin" that had been used for storing cane pulp or bagasse (pronounced "buh-gas").
Back when sugar was Hawai'i's king crop, Waialua Sugar workers each year tore down and rebuilt the bin that held the bagasse until it was burned in the mill's furnace.
When they reassembled the bagasse bin, the workers welded their names on the floor so the raised letters could prevent the enormous storage containers from cutting into it.
The names 4 inches high and sometimes 2 feet long remain as one of the few tangible legacies left from the last of O'ahu's sugar workers.
"D. Agno ... Steve ... Ebangloy..."
When he steps over the names, Driscoll often finds himself admiring such simple, but effective techniques.
In the next month or so, Driscoll plans to start building a little museum inside his soap business to display some of the Waialua Sugar memorabilia he's come across, such as an old radio, timecards, handwritten logs bound in leather, and one of the mill's original signs.
It's Driscoll's way of connecting to the generations of immigrant families who worked at Waialua Sugar long before the mill closed and pushed them toward uncertain futures. And it's Driscoll's way of sharing what little he's learned so far about the people who no longer work there.
"Just to see it fade away without anybody trying to preserve it all would be a huge loss," Driscoll said. "I couldn't let that stuff go into the Dumpster. This is history. This is the history of this town."
Driscoll has learned a lot about the work ethic of sugar workers from the mill's handful of security guards, including Rego and Rego's cousin, Gerald Rego. When Waialua Sugar closed, Gerald was the plantation's harvesting supervisor, right under his cousin, Ralph.
The other day, Gerald Rego showed up 20 minutes early for the start of his 3:30 p.m. security guard shift.
He's 57 now and spent 30 years working his way up at Waialua Sugar, just like his father, uncle and grandfather before him.
"We were one close family, Waialua," Rego said. "The people believed more in giving than receiving. When sugar closed, a lot of stuff changed. A lot of people moved out. No more jobs."
When the mill was humming, one of Rego's jobs was to supervise the crews that tore down and rebuilt the bagasse bin between harvests.
Before his guard shift began recently, Rego took a minute to walk inside the bagasse bin to see if he could find his own name among the last to be welded onto the floor.
"Francis ... Todd ... Roger ..."
After several minutes without any luck, Rego gave up.
But several days later, Driscoll pulled out a flashlight and searched the floor again.
Finally, Driscoll found what Rego had been looking for.
"R.E.G.O., there it is," Driscoll said. "Yeah. He was here."
Reach Dan Nakaso at email@example.com or 525-8085.