July/August 2002 IBEW Journal
The isolation of American territories Guam and Saipan has made them an island paradise for unscrupulous employers seeking a work force more than half a world away from the seat of U.S. labor laws. But the labor movement is catching up to the remote Pacific islesand the IBEW has taken the lead in showing workers an alternative to the degradation that was the island norm until recent union victories.
It all started with the 1984 victory of a 60-worker unit at the Micronesian Telecommunications Corporation by Hawaiis Local 1357, which generated high hopes for similar organizing efforts in the Marianas archipelago. But those efforts were stalled when illness forced Local 1357s pioneering Business Manager Johnny Han to step down.
"His vision did not end with the MTCit was only the beginning," said Local 1357 Business Manager Harold Dias, Jr. "Johnny clearly saw the potential and the need for organized labor in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and its neighbor, Guam, despite their distancealmost 4,000 miles away from Hawaii."
Fast forward to 2002. A new generation of organizers in Hawaii revived Hans cause. The team includes Han himself, who is working part-time as an organizer for Local 1357. In January, Local 1260 in Honolulu won an election among 900 Guam workers. That important initial victory could tip the island toward more IBEW representation. The territorys right-to-work law could even be overturned with an increasingly pro-labor legislature. And renewed organizing efforts on Saipan by Locals 1260 and 1357 promise to threaten a status quo where businesses had been operating free of American wage and immigration laws.
But the opposition forces are sharpening their knives for a fight against losing the carte blanche privileges with which they have ruled the islands. The year 2002 promises to be a pivotal one for workers on Guam and Saipan.
Guam: An Overview
A look at a globe shows Guam as no more than a speck in the Pacific Ocean. Its continental neighbors Asia to the west and Australia to the south are a long distance away. The island is an approximate eight-hour flight from Hawaii.
Since World War II, when the United States recaptured it from Japan, Guam has had a dual legacyas a strategically located Pacific military stronghold and as a base of cheap labor within the territorial limits of the United States. Approximately 157,000 people live on the island that measures 30 miles long and between four and nine miles wide.
Guam is the westernmost territory of the United States. It has a distinct culture influenced by native Chamorros, a people of Micronesian descent. The territorial government includes a governor and a 15-member unicameral legislature elected every two years. A non-voting delegate to Congress represents the people of Guam, who are citizens of the United States but cannot vote in national elections.
The island has a service-oriented economy catering mostly to tourists from Asiathough a continuing recession in Japan has hurt tourismand the American military. Andersen Air Force Base on the northern end of Guam is home to a fleet of air-launched cruise missiles and the island hosts three naval bases. Marine and Coast Guard units are also stationed on Guam.
With a mild tropical climate, sea breezes and beaches galore, it could be a Micronesian paradise. But its not. Guam is a hardscrabble island where employers have dictated terms. Yet it could be labors new frontier.
Guam & Saipan: