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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, December 13, 2008

She taught us to take risks, take care of others

 •  Hawaii union, social activist Ah Quon McElrath dies at 92

By Bob Krauss
Advertiser Columnist

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

For decades, Ah Quon McElrath was a persistent advocate for the fair treatment of underprivileged people. Her work not only helped shape the local labor movement, but also affected how unions treat members and how the community views its obligations to the poor and powerless.

ADVERTISER LIBRARY PHOTO | Oct. 22, 1996

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This profile of Ah Quon McElrath was written in 1999 by Bob Krauss, who was an Advertiser columnist until he died two years ago.

When Ah Quon McElrath enters the Pearly Gates, expect her to check St. Peter's union card, negotiate for retirement and medical benefits and make sure heaven is a closed shop.

At 83, the diminutive fighter for social justice shows no signs of slowing down.

McElrath is one of the last living players in the important and bloody story of Hawai'i's labor movement. Nearly all of the other legendary names Jack Hall, Harry Bridges, Art Rutledge are long gone.

But McElrath is more than simply a link with history. For more than 50 years, her work has profoundly affected, not only on the way Hawai'i's unionized workers are treated by management, but how unions treat members and their families and how the community views its obligations to the poor and powerless.

For decades, McElrath has been a persistent advocate for fair treatment of underprivileged people.

The daughter of Chinese parents her mother had bound feet McElrath is as spirited now as she was in 1938 when, as a college student, she attended strike meetings of seamen on the Honolulu docks.

Early on, she was vilified as a communist, kicked out of PTA office and accused of depressing real-estate values by moving into St. Louis Heights.

But with time has come recognition of the significance of her contributions, not only to labor, but to Hawai'i.

Today, as a member of the board of regents of the University of Hawai'i and as the recipient of many honors for community service, her list of persisting social injustices is sobering.

What keeps her going?

"There are still people who are poor," she said. "There are still people who need healthcare. There are still people who cannot join unions. There are still people who don't eat. That's what keeps me going."

Among those she sits with on the board of regents is Jack Hoag, former president of First Hawaiian Bank.

Hoag said that although McElrath is on the left in the political spectrum and he is on the right, he has respect for her "zeal for the downtrodden. We have had some interesting discussions about how to raise the standard of living."

Few women in Hawai'i, or men either, have dared plunge into so many controversial causes.

'ELEVATION OF GREED'

During a recent interview, McElrath talked about what it means to take risks such as joining the Communist Party, as she did in the 1940s.

"Taking risks depends on how strongly you believe in anything at all," she said. "How you conduct your life so that it's not oriented only toward yourself but also toward the lives of others.

"I'm appalled at the elevation of greed today in favor of one's self; to make money, have the best home, the biggest car. People don't take risks because they are afraid it will keep them from getting ahead.

"We don't think of others who haven't our opportunities and that, just maybe, we can do something in their behalf."

McElrath became a committed Marxist as a university student in the 1930s when "The Masses," published by the American Communist Party, was on sale at the Dew Drop Inn on 'A'ala Street.

"You are a young person intent on education. Everything new becomes fascinating. Reading things like 'The Masses,' Harpers and The Atlantic Monthly good God, it was a whole new world," she recalled.

McElrath described her college career as a time of intellectual ferment, when a few economics professors in Hawai'i discussed new theories on socialism, communism and capitalism.

She was introduced to the Interprofessional Association in Honolulu, a left-leaning group that included an architect, a medical doctor and early labor leaders such as Jack Hall of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. She would ultimately work with Hall for many years.

She joined the Communist Party because its stand on social issues matched her own. She still considers herself a Marxist. "It makes for an ability not to waffle," she said. "Many people don't have that."

Her career in the labor movement began as a volunteer in college when she helped Hall, later regional director of the ILWU, put out the Voice of Labor newspaper from a small Downtown office.

She was on call during her senior year to give pep talks to dock workers on the waterfront, in churches and in homes.

BECAME SOCIAL WORKER

After graduating from the university in 1938, McElrath took a job as social worker for the territorial Department of Public Welfare, where she later helped set up a union for the social workers. In 1941 she married Bob McElrath, a merchant mariner and another early labor organizer in Hawai'i.

On April 1, 1946, McElrath was on maternity leave when a tsunami hit Hawai'i.

The union took up a collection to help injured members. McElrath volunteered to coordinate union aid with that from the territory and the Red Cross.

She volunteered later that year when sugar plantations went on strike, planning menus and cooking in union soup kitchens.

McElrath was hired by the dock workers in 1954 as the first and only union social worker in Hawai'i to explain newly negotiated retirement and medical benefits to members. She quickly expanded the scope of her work, helping workers with marital, financial and medical problems.

Although she refuses to take credit, it was McElrath who got the union to involve itself in more than hours and wages, to regard each member as part of a family, said Ed Beechert, a labor historian and former University of Hawai'i professor.

"She played a major role in policy, particularly as to how ethnic groups were treated," Beechert said. "And she established the ILWU as a force in the rural community."

Retired union official Eddie Lapa of Waialua recalled coming off the plantation in 1955 to become the dock workers' service director for O'ahu, in charge of a new program aimed at helping union members with social problems. He said McElrath was the heart of it.

"She knew more about benefits than government agencies did," he said. "She could talk any kind of pidgin, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Hawaiian. When she comes into a conference room, as soon as she sits down and talks, we're comfortable.

"She's a terrific lady. She can compete with anybody lawyers, doctors. She's got the mind. We were lucky to have her."

McElrath retired from the union staff in 1981 but continues to express her views on a radio program. She still lives in the St. Louis Heights house she and her husband bought over a neighbor's protest. Bob McElrath died in 1995.

She has two children, son Brett and daughter Gail Long.

McElrath always found time to fight what she viewed as injustice, whether in Honolulu or around the world.

In 1947, she accused the U.S. of imperialism in the Philippines. In 1966, she expressed shock at social conditions in Alabama. In 1973, she recommended streamlining the Aloha United Way. In 1975, she protested a cut in food stamps.

AN IMPOVERISHED START

Ah Quon Chew was born on Dec. 15, 1915, in the Iwilei district of Honolulu.

She was 5 when her father died. He was a jack of all trades, she said, and once was arrested for selling opium.

"My oldest brother had to stop going to school, although he was very bright, because he had to support us," she said. "We all became very self-reliant. We'd go out and pick up kiawe beans and bones and brass to make a living. ...

"I just savored going to school. I loved every minute of it because the entire world was being opened to me. At home, we spoke nothing but Chinese. In school was a fascinating world that was entirely English."

She went to McKinley High School, where she starred on the debating team.

"Can you imagine, in 1933 we debated, 'Resolved that Hawai'i be granted statehood,' " she recalled. "We debated with Roosevelt, the only other (public) high school in town.

"They looked down their nose at us because they spoke better English. We beat the pants off of them. There I was, the lone Chinese girl without any pedigree behind me. We had a lot of fun."

EARLY OSTRACIZATION

Violence during the 1938 Honolulu dock strike was a strong influence on McElrath's life.

She was attending a meeting at the YWCA of the Interprofessional Association when word came that Hall had been arrested and beaten in an elevator by the police.

On the Big Island not long after, the Hilo Massacre occurred, in which strikers were bayoneted and shot by police. She said these acts of brutality hit her hard.

It was why she volunteered to help organize dock workers.

Hall and others were convicted in federal court in 1953 of conspiracy to overthrow the government. The convictions were later declared unconstitutional.

McElrath recalled delivering material for the defense attorney in Hall's trial. On the way, former friends crossed the street to avoid her.

"When we had dinner at home, my kids said, 'Mommy, the kids called us a commie rat. What's that?'

"When we were buying a house on St. Louis Drive in 1952, a woman across the street started a petition to the finance company. The petition alleged that if we bought the house, real-estate values would drop. ...

"Our next-door neighbor told us years later that the FBI asked them to take down the license number of the cars that visited us.

"When I was running for the PTA office, the president objected at a meeting in the school cafeteria. The band was on the stage. My son played French horn, my daughter the clarinet.

"All this stuff was going on about Mrs. McElrath being a communist and how she was a danger to American democracy. My kids had to listen to this bloody mess.

"You gotta be tough. You gotta still believe that what you are doing will advance the human condition. Not that it's done a hell of a lot of good."

Others take a more encouraging view of her accomplishments.

"She's a very bright woman with lots of guts," said Sanford Zalburg, a retired journalist and author of a book on the history of the ILWU. "She's fearless. Anything she's for, she'll fight for to the last drop of blood.

"During strikes, she would go to schools in behalf of union members and ask the school to defer tuition. She'd go to landlords and ask them to hold off on the rent."

Zalburg said she was sometimes more militant than the men who were the union's leaders. As a confident public speaker, she assumed a role as spokeswoman for the union, and Zalburg said even though they may have occasionally disagreed with McElrath, the men were unwilling to cross her.

Zalburg said: "I would say that anyone in town who ever dealt with her came to respect Ah Quon, whether they agreed with her or not."