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This Day in Labor History: November 17, 1946

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On November 17, 1946, Hawaiian sugar workers organizing with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union ended their 79 day strike, winning a partial victory after costing planters at least $15 million and changing the nature of labor relations in Hawaii for good.

From the beginning of American domination over Hawaii, well before it was annexed to the nation as a colony in 1898, sugar firms had run the islands. By 1900, the Big Five sugar companies were well-established and they continued to run the island’s economy for many decades. The terrible conditions of the sugar plantations had led to many labor movements in the decades before World War II. Going back to 1889, whites in Hawaii were happy to lynch Japanese organizers. The 1909 strike led to some limited gains for workers, but no real change in the power structure on the islands. A 1920 strike saw some rare interracial cooperation in the exceptionally diverse labor force, but again, the situation did not fundamentally change. By 1946, the planters ran a $160 million industry and workers earned all of 24 cents an hour. The ability to organize was halted at the end of 1941 with the martial law implemented after Pearl Harbor, but the relaxing of those restrictions beginning in 1943 once again opened the door for labor organizing.

Seeking to expand its reach after World War II, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union tried to organize the multiracial workforce of Hawaii, particularly the 28,000 workers in the sugar fields. The ILWU, headed by the radical Harry Bridges, had won huge gains in the 1930s and through World War II, based on an extreme form of union democracy. In theory, the ILWU believed in a racial democracy as well, but this was often more at the level of international leadership; locals in Portland and Los Angeles were known for their intense white supremacy, though in the Bay Area, there was more commitment to this. Anyway, Bridges certainly believed in it. Expanding from their longshoreman base, they started organizing the sugar workers. It won an extremely limited contract in 1945 which only covered a few workers and which expired at the end of August 1946.

The ILWU also faced a very real challenge to its interracialism. Wanting more labor, the planters used a clause in the Tydings-McDuffie Act that allowed them to import some temporary from the Philippines. 6,000 workers and 1,300 family members entered in the first months of 1946, framing the strike by the undermining of already existed labor there in both the sugar and pineapple fields. This caused increased tension. Some of it came from World War II concerns–how would Filipino workers interact with the Japanese-American workforce given what they had just suffered? But mostly it was just racism against Filipinos. The ILWU’s point was that workers would never win in Hawaii without an interracial platform, as hard as that would be in reality.

The ILWU built toward the strike. It sent worker leaders to the California Labor School (recently renamed from the Tom Mooney Labor School) in San Francisco, an early attempt to build radical organizing training camps. Those workers learned a ton about organizing and came back to the plantations. On September 1, 1946, the workers went on strike. They wanted an 18.5 cents an hour raise to a minimum wage of 65 cents an hour. They wanted a union shop, seniority recognized in the contract, no discrimination against union members, and an end to all the vestiges of plantation control over workers that had existed since American colonization. There were also demands around housing, medical care, and old-age pensions, which had previously been up to individual plantations and was often substandard on all three issues.

Out of the 34 major farms in Hawaii, workers struck on 33 of them. The workers set up their own police force to ensure that no one would damage company property, nor engage in other behavior such as gambling that would give the companies an excuse to bust the strike. The ILWU had workers establish committees to keep the workers busy. Some were on committees to play music and engage in other performances. Others were on hunting and fishing duty to help feed the strikers. The ILWU also did a good job setting up rice imports from the U.S. mainland to help with food after the companies forced the local merchants to no longer stock rice, which given the heavily Japanese and Filipino workforce was an intentional blow against their culture.

A big piece of the strike revolved around the long history of racism in the fields. The ILWU brought this up again and again–the history of racial division, how planters played one group off against the other, how without standing in solidarity by race, workers would never win. Moreover, it had to build connections between the different islands, which was not always easy to do. Oahu was the center of the strike, but it was not going to win if the other major islands weren’t organizing as well. They were able to get significant support on Kauai and the Big Island, significantly helping them win.

Really, this strike was about as seamless as one can ask for. The workers were banned from picketing the farms, so they engaged in parades through the towns and cities. They also had a strong political gain and elected 35 candidates to various offices earlier in November that were pro-worker, even though 1946 was a terrible year for labor electoral politics. Since most companies had off-loaded former company housing onto landlords by this time, the union made deals with the landlords to not evict the workers. Ultimately, this led to a big but not complete victory on November 17. The workers received a 19 cent an hour raise, the work week was reduced to 46 hours, and other concessions were also made by the planters. But the ILWU did not win total recognition. After all, farm workers were excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act, so the union had to operate under the old, unfair rules.

By 1947, the wins in the sugar industry expanded to a new organizing in the pineapple fields to organize the 20,000 workers there. The aftermath of this strike was the robust anticommunism that dominated the labor movement through this period. Hawaiian authorities demonized the ILWU as commies led by that evil lefty Harry Bridges. This was aided by a disaffected communist leader named Amos Ignacio who came out in 1948 claiming that the union was controlled by the Communist Party. But this really was racial resentment by the Portuguese leaders angry that the Japanese were now running the union. Still, anticommunism would continue to dominate the aftermath of the 1946 strike for many years to come.

This post borrowed in part from Moon Kie-Jung’s 2006 book Reworking Race: The Making of Hawaii’s Interracial Labor Movement.

This is the 376th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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