By WAYNE JOSEPH
Labor Day means many different things to different people, but to me it means an opportunity for social mobility.
My great grandparents were foreign immigrants from Madeira and the Azores who came to Hawaii in the 1880s for a better life.
Part of their dreams hinged on the wages they earned and their ability to make a living wage and that is the tie into Labor Day. For many immigrants, such as my grandparents, it was the ILWU that fought for a living wage for those that worked our plantations.
Today, I honor one such person, who like my parents and I, grew up poor and had a rocky beginning.
Richard Baker never had the opportunity to play prep sports at Hilo High School because it was more important for him to begin working at age 14 to help his family financially.
“My dad was getting into raising cattle so I was able to ride my first horse when I was five,” Baker said. “When I got older I went into bull riding.”
When he turned 14, Baker’s father had a horse fall on him and shattered his leg.
“My dad never got the proper medical attention and from then on would always walk with a sever limp,” Baker said. This 1964 graduate of Hilo High worked on Lujan’s Ranch and participated in rodeos throughout his teenage years.
“My father only had 10 to 15 head of cattle and I worked hard for him and earned some extra money working on Lujan’s Ranch,” Baker said.
Baker’s humble beginnings were at the Hilo Coast Processing Plant which is where he learned about being in a union and what unions can do for workers.
“I started out as the ILWU’s unit editor and learned much from a man named Dave Thompson,” Baker said.
Baker is a true success story, starting out at the bottom of the union hierarchy and working his way up to being the Division Director in charge of the Big Island.
“I didn’t realize how much stress and what an enormous burden it was to be the division director,” Baker said.
Baker tried to relieve some of that stress by taking out a membership at Spencer’s Gym.
“Exercise makes me feel better,” he said. “But with a gym membership I wasn’t’ all that consistent and eventually found that for me there was a better way,” Baker said.
The loss of consistency came as a result of Baker being hit by a car and needing to go through rehab.
“I didn’t need surgery, but it changed the way I did things and it ended up turning into a better way for me,” Baker said.
That better way for Baker turned out to be buying his own home equipment.
“I invested in a treadmill, weight sets, stretch bans and a medicine ball,” he said.
As a result Baker has become more able to work out on a regular basis.
“I will run on the treadmill four times a week and shift into weights on my off days,” he said.
Baker will stay on the treadmill for a minimum of 40 minutes to get a good cardio workout then switch to weight to work his upper body.
Along the way Baker developed kidney stones and had to modify his diet for the better.
“I now drink lots of water, which can be a problem if I’m in a business meeting as I need to take lots of restroom breaks,” Baker said.
This division director tries to eat oatmeal and cereal for breakfast and has reduced his consumption of rice which in return has resulted in some weight loss.
“I will eat more raisins, prunes and nuts to take better care of my body,” he said.
He is also on cholesterol medication which he attributes to heredity.
“Certain things you just can’t avoid as my father had high cholesterol and one of my sisters also has it, but I do what I can through diet as not to make it any worse,” he said.
Baker retired from the ILWU on June 1 of this year but is looking to stay active through retiree organizations which work towards maintaining benefits.
“I am currently working with the Hawaii Alliance for Retired Americans to see how we can join together for the betterment of all retirees,” Baker said.
“I may have retired from active service with the ILWU but the battle continues to bring equal opportunities for all our citizens and retirees. The retirees are the most vulnerable group as their fate is left to politicians,” Baker said.
On this Labor Day, I salute all those working hard for the advancement of working people everywhere.
This was the true meaning of setting aside a holiday once a year in appreciation of those that labor to make this county great.
Richard Baker is just one of many people that has dedicated their lives to the labor movement. And Baker hasn’t abandoned the fact that it is necessary to take care of his body first to ensure that he can take care of others.
And someday should you happen to see a retired HSTA member jogging the streets of East Hawaii, remember to say “woof” and never shy away from “Running with the Big Dog.”
Email Wayne Joseph at firstname.lastname@example.org.