Last fall, readers of Travel & Leisure magazine named the island of Maui the “World’s Best Island.” “Surprise, surprise,” sighed Condé Nast’s editors—this was the fourth year in a row Maui won the title. For the tourists who flock to it from across the globe, Maui represents a tropical paradise where “bliss comes naturally.” The island’s combination of lush rain forest, stunning mountains, warm sands, and cool breezes is truly remarkable. But tourists come not only to escape cold cities for warm beaches; they also come to escape the pressures of the rat race for a week of Polynesian therapy—to wear leis, to see hula and luau, and to be enveloped in the easygoing nature and warm welcome of island life. As one travel brochure puts it, “from the moment you set foot on these exceptional islands, you are overcome with a feeling of well-being. Everywhere you go, people are smiling and relaxed.”
But what is the World’s Best Island like for the people who make the beds, cook the meals, and carry the bags—and whose culture is the stuff of others’ fantasies? While the local culture may appear idyllic—and is, in fact, warm, informal and easygoing—the work is hard. The cost of living in Hawai’i is almost one-third higher than on the mainland. In the town of Wailuku—Maui’s working-class county seat, far from the resorts—the American Friends Service Committee estimates that a single adult with one infant needs to make $18.64 an hour, forty hours a week, fifty-two weeks a year, just to meet basic needs. As a result, many workers live with large extended families sharing a single house, and almost everyone has at least two jobs. It is not uncommon for housekeepers to finish an eight-hour shift at a hotel and then rush off to another four- or even eight-hour job waiting tables, mopping floors, or pumping gas.
This is the contradiction that lies at the heart of the island’s economy. From a visitor’s viewpoint, Maui is a lush playground, where top suites list for $10,000 a night and the local population offers a welcome respite from the cold realities of life on the mainland. The hotels and travel companies plugging Hawai’i’s laid-back beauty are making handsome profits. But behind the scenes, the people who care for the guests, and whose warmth and beauty are featured in hotel advertisements, are struggling to make ends meet. In 2000-2001, this contradiction led to a series of labor demonstrations focused on union contract negotiations. At the center of this gathering storm is the Royal Lahaina Resort, Maui’s fifth largest hotel, where Hawai’i’s biggest union faced off against the head of the state’s largest travel company, Pleasant Hawai’ian Holidays.
The outcome of hotel labor negotiations will affect virtually every family on the island. Maui’s economy has seen a transition from traditional Hawai’ian farming to large-scale capitalist agriculture and finally to ...
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