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Ah Quon “AQ” McElrath (1915-2008), was an intellectual force who gave voice to Hawaiʻi’s working class, and helped power a labor movement based on racial equality that transformed Hawaiʻi from a semi-feudal oligarchy to a modern labor democracy. 

 

Born to immigrant Chinese parents and raised in extreme poverty, she became one of Hawaiʻi’s most influential leaders, helping shape the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) into a powerful force for social change. After retirement from the union, she continued to work tirelessly for social and economic justice. She championed universal health care, education, press freedom, civil and human rights. 

 

Her lifelong leadership in education resulted in an appointment to the University of Hawaiʻi’s Board of Regents.

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AQ the Film

By exploring her life, the Ah Quon McElrath Project documents some of Hawaiʻi’s most important history and demonstrates how one woman’s compassionate determination helped to lift thousands of families out of poverty. 

 

Her remarkable story is inextricably tied to critical historical events. Her life journey encompasses not only the rise of labor unions in Hawaiʻi, but reveals the selfless and heroic sacrifices of a generation of working people. 

 

Her story chronicles the labor movement’s achievement of decent hours, decent pay, safe working conditions, and a voice in the direction of Hawaiʻi's future for working class people.

AQ the film

AQ the film

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Support

Why should I support the AQ Project? 

With your support, we will create a documentary that preserves forever the life story of this extraordinary woman! Through rare and fascinating footage, we will illustrate the struggle of those who labored on plantations, on docks, and in hotels and factories.

 

​ The Project will maintain a robust website that allows free access to the documentary, to our complete interviews for the documentary and other projects, and to our educational materials about Hawaiʻi history and culture. In addition, we will create curriculum materials for classroom use to insure that this important history is not lost in the chasm of time. These components build on three decades of video documentation of Hawaiʻi’s plantation culture and labor history captured by the Center for Labor Education & Research (CLEAR) at the University of Hawaiʻi - West Oʻahu. 

Union actions benefit community-Unlawful Assembly Act, Grand Jury composition
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Union actions benefit community-Unlawful Assembly Act, Grand Jury composition

At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries, Hawai`i like many jurisdictions enacted specific laws aimed at crushing the rising labor movement. These laws restricted rights of assembly and rigged the Grand Jury system to exclude the working class, by creating “Blue Ribbon” jury panels. In advance of the 1909 sugar strike, the Japanese Higher Wage Association was formed by four journalists, Nippu Jiji editor, Yasutaro Soga, reporter Yokichi Tasaka, and Frederick Makino (future Hawaii Hochi publisher) and writer, researcher Motoyuki Negoro. They sought to promote better wages and working conditions for ethnic Japanese plantation workers. As leaders of the movement, these journalists documented oppressive conditions and editorialized for change. As a result, their newspaper offices were raided by law enforcement, they were arrested and charged among other things with “impeding sugar plantation operations”! The four were sentenced to 10 months in prison and fined $300 each. So much for First Amendment rights to freedom of the press! The 1946 sugar strike likewise saw application of these oppressive laws, when picketing workers were charged with crimes under the Unlawful Assembly and Criminal Syndicalism Acts. Jail sentences included felony charges that could result in 10 year sentences! ILWU attorney, Harriet Bouslog, successfully appealed these convictions. In a discussion on a Rice & Roses program (circa 1978), AQ reminds us that this action by the union benefitted both striking workers and the entire community.