‘Sparrow’ leaves legacy for workers in Hawaii
Robert K. Hasegawa, former labor leader and one of the "sparrows" who gave Gov. John A. Burns and the Democratic Revolution of 1954 wings, died in March. With him passed into history one more piece of an era that transformed the state's early labor movement and, as a result, the social and political landscape of Hawaii as well.
Bob Hasegawa's political activism in labor and government was fueled by the internment of his father, James Shunzo Hasegawa, during World War II. The elder Hasegawa, an employee of the Hawaiian Pineapple Co. and respected community leader on Lanai, was taken into custody and sent to New Mexico. It was left for Bob, still just a teenager, to move his mother, younger brothers and sisters to Maui. He was an exceptionally bright and eager freshman at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1941 and aspired to a career in medicine or law. He put aside his education to find work to help support his family.
Like so many of his generation, instead of the anger and bitterness one might expect, he joined the Army and was eventually promoted to staff sergeant. Upon discharge he began work as an electrician and joined the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, where his skills as an organizer were soon recognized by Akito "Blackie" Fujikawa, who picked him up as a business representative for Local 1186. In two years Bob was promoted to assistant business manager, and he became executive secretary of the Honolulu Metal Trades Council just as collective bargaining was about to come to the shipyard after President John F. Kennedy's executive order.
He was a natural leader with impressive speaking and writing skills and an astute grasp of labor and political action. It was not long before these talents catapulted Hasegawa to prominence as executive secretary of the Central Labor Council and director of the Committee on Political Education for all the AFL-CIO unions in Hawaii. This was a time when the building trades and other AFL-CIO unions were just beginning to play a major role shaping the postwar economy.
The newly elected Gov. Burns, intent on assembling a strong Cabinet, called upon Alfred Laureta and Hasegawa to lead the state's revamped Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. Though many think of the Democratic Revolution of 1954 as the pivotal moment for the changes that gave birth to our progressive labor laws, it was not until after Burns' election in 1962 that real regulatory as well as statutory changes came to pass. Bob was a Burns man, and he hit the road running, reworking wage and hour laws, unemployment insurance and workers' compensation.
Friends admired and legal adversaries soon discovered that Hasegawa's knowledge and understanding of state and federal labor laws rivaled that of most attorneys. He was perhaps the only nonattorney recognized by the Labor Appeals Board as competent to represent workers' compensation claimants, which he often did pro bono.
Bob returned to the UH campus in 1977 as the first director of the Center for Labor Education and Research. He was a teacher and mentor who earned the respect of students and faculty, many of whom were unaware that he was self-educated.
Tomorrow, on the anniversary of what would have been his 85th birthday, friends are invited to gather for a memorial tribute to the late Robert K. Hasegawa at 12:30 p.m. at the Center for Labor Education and Research, now a part of UH-West Oahu in Pearl City. Call 454-4774 for more information.
William J. Puette is director of the Center for Labor Education & Research at the University of Hawaii-West Oahu.