Voice for the people

Hawaii Would Not Be The Same Without Ah Quon McElrath, Social Worker, Labor Activist, Eloquent Advocate For The Common Man And Woman. Ah Quon McElrath describes herself as a “little Pake wahine.” But nobody who has ever heard her speak would use the diminutive.

Dan Boylan
Wednesday - December 10, 2008
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Ah Quon McElrath describes herself as a “little Pake wahine.” But nobody who has ever heard her speak would use the diminutive. Her message has always been large - and eloquent.

Last month, speaking to the annual dinner of the Hawaii People’s Fund, she told the throng who had come to honor her: “We have allowed the rampagings of a political economic system that does not care for people who sit in this room. More and more the idea of globalization ... has grown to the point where very little can be done by the individual worker, the individual family.

“And we have also seen lands that are taken away from peasants. Can you imagine, a place like Mexico, where the land has been taken away from the peasants who can no longer grow corn, who can no longer have their tortilla because we feel that automobiles must run on ethanol? Just think of that. We have not thought even of other means of transportation which would take us from point A to point B.”

The 92-year-old social worker, union organizer and activist implored her audience to pressure the new administration and Congress, and tell them that “we will not take this.” She warned “that those of us in the labor movement who face the problem of decreased pensions, who face the problem of no - absolutely no healthcare - who have always faced the problems of discrimination, need to say that this is a problem that we must all take care of.”

McElrath finished with the message her life in unionism had taught her: “(We) must work together. Divided, we will fall; united, we can move ahead.”

As I write, Ah Quon McElrath - the “little Pake wahine” - lies in a hospital bed at Kaiser Permanente’s Moanalua Medical Center. She’s ill with cancer, kidney failure and a variety of other ailments. To a recent query about what ailed her, she shrugged and replied, “What doesn’t?”

During the past three decades, I’ve probably interviewed Ah Quon McElrath a dozen times: for columns in Honolulu magazine and MidWeek, for two documentary films - one completed, one still in progress, and, most frequently, on a variety of topics on PBS-Hawaii’s Dialog and Island Insights.

On the latter two shows, AQ was usually one of four guests. I always felt sorry for the other three. They would, no matter how well-educated or well-spoken, always play a supporting role to AQ. No one I’ve ever interviewed possessed Ah Quon McElrath’s combination of eloquence, commitment, idealism and pure presence.

“She never quit,” says Joanne Kealoha, a social worker who holds the same position McElrath long held with the ILWU Local 142. “She’s always been a fighter. She’s always trying to educate.”

McElrath retired from the union in 1981, but according to Kealoha, she’s remained “the conscience of the union. AQ’s always trying to keep the union on the right course: to maintain its militancy, to preserve its progressive nature. She wants to make sure that people don’t stray from the union’s core mission: the quality of life of working people.

“She’s always seen the individual problems of working people in a larger perspective and tried to affect state and nation policies. AQ helped bring Kaiser Permanente to Hawaii. She lobbied for prepaid healthcare for working people, for prepaid dental care. She’s also been an eloquent spokesperson for welfare rights.

“AQ has advocated for those who had no one to advocate for them.”

Ah Quon Leong was born in 1915 near the beach in the Iwilei district of Honolulu. The neighborhood was hardly exclusive. It included a fertilizer company, a tannery, the Honolulu Gas Company, the world’s largest pineapple cannery, a red light district and a portion of Hawaii’s poorest residents. AQ’s family was included among them.

Her parents “came from China,” AQ told ILWU oral historians in 2004. “Dad came as a contract laborer, but didn’t stay on the plantations long. He did anything and everything: drove a hack, was a carpenter, ran a store and even made okolehao, the Hawaiian version of moonshine.” Along the way, he also spent time in prison - apparently for smoking opium.

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Rest in Peace, dear Fighter for Justice.
We’ll take up your torch, every single day.

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