On May 21, 1945, Hawaii passed the Hawaii Employee Relations Act, extending collective bargaining rights to agricultural workers. This critical expansion of the Wagner Act started laying the groundwork for including more workers under the umbrella of American labor law. It also helped bring in the greatest labor victory in Hawaiian history the next year.
Agricultural work has always been among the most brutal forms of labor in the United States. Most African slaves were forced into this labor, in tobacco, cotton, sugar, and many other crops. While northern whites deified independent agricultural labor through their free labor ideology, after the Civil War, growing mechanization and consolidation slowly made lives harder for farmers, something that their domination by railroads only made worse. The Populists revolted in the South and on the Great Plains over the denial of their independence, but were unable to turn the tide. Moreover, agricultural labor remained heavily racialized. In the West, farm owners supported the importation of waves of Asian immigration and the only carveout to the 1924 Immigration Act was for Mexicans to cross the border for southwestern farms. Southern sharecropping was predominantly though not exclusively Black farmers. The Bracero Program created a new round of labor exploitation of Mexican farmworkers in 1942. When times were tough, white farmworkers could be hired, but they were treated with the same levels of exploitation and violence if they tried to organize as Black or Mexican or Japanese farmers. And when the Roosevelt administration pushed for the National Labor Relations Act, the only way it was going to get through the Senate was if farmworkers were excluded from all its protections because southern senators were not going to vote for a bill that gave Black sharecroppers rights.
In Hawaii, the story wasn’t so different than the rest of the country. Although taken over as an official colony in 1898, the sugar planters had effectively controlled the islands for twenty years before that. Like other employers, they actively recruited waves of immigrants to become cheap labor on the plantations and made sure to diversify that labor to create inter-racial conflicts. There were Native Hawaiians, Portuguese, Puerto Rican, Korean, Chinese, and especially Japanese workers. There was plenty of organizing too, often leading to the same kind of violence we saw on the mainland.
So by World War II, the condition of farmworkers was still about as bad as it had been for the half-century prior, at least. In Hawaii, a lack of demand during the Depression had led to the end of migrant laborers and in fact, the sugar planters paid for the deportation of thousands of Filipinos in 1932. Citizenship rates among farmworkers rose from 15.9% in 1930 to 31.4% in 1936, which the planters mistakenly believed would undermine labor radicalism. The New Deal brought federal regulations to the plantations as well. The Agricultural Adjustment Act mandated a minimum wage for female farmworkers at least 75% that of men while the Social Security Act, while not directly applying to farmworkers due to the same racial politics as the Wagner Act, created new uniform standards of employee record keeping. Many young workers, often the children of farmworkers, left for Honolulu, Hilo, and other cities.
Organized labor also increased its power in the islands. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), led by the radical Australian immigrant Harry Bridges, brought a new militancy to the Hawaiian labor movement. Although successful organizing of the docks would have to wait until after World War II, its efforts in the late 30s, along with other CIO unions, created new labor power in the colony that began to have legislative impacts by World War II. The ILWU wanted to organize sugar too. It had a huge upswing in 1945, winning 132 out of 138 union elections, not only on the docks, but in sugar, pineapples, railroads, and other industries. It was becoming a power in Hawaii. And it wanted a big successful industry-wide sugar contract in 1946.
In 1939, a territorial senator from Kauai named J.B. Fernandes introduced what became known as the Hawaii Employee Relations Act, or Little Wagner Act as it was popularly known. Fernandes was part of labor’s political strategy. Led by Jack Hall, a seaman, journalist, and Communist involved in organizing Hawaii, the goal was to strip the planters’ domination over the islands by getting workers and their allies elected to their territorial legislature, including Fernandes, the son of a former farmworker and a small business owner himself. The Kauai Progressive League defeated the planter candidates in 1939. Union legislators did not have the power to pass this bill in 1939. But it built power, kept electing people to office, and finally, in 1945, the latest version of the HERA passed. Moreover, it covered the agricultural workers that the National Labor Relations Act did not cover. Providing for collective bargaining, this transformed the reality of work in the islands.
Now that the ILWU had the mechanism to get a union contract, it started working toward a big contract. It wasn’t that hard to organize the farmworkers at this time. Disgusted with money taken out of their paychecks for poor housing and mediocre healthcare, they wanted control over their own lives. Management, on their heels, agreed to not evict any workers from company housing as the union threatened mass action if it did. With all their old tactics–such as kicking workers out of their houses, beating or killing organizers, etc.–were not illegal or impossible, all the companies had was to hope to wait out the workers. But the workers were now part of a national organization who had real labor attorneys and negotiators. It was a new and different day. The workers went on strike in November 1946. The workers stopped irrigation, beating three supervisors on a Maui plantation who tried to do it as scab labor. The union won an easy victory. The strike technically went 125 days but that was because the police arresting eleven workers for assault and battery in Lahaina led to a vote by their fellow workers to continue the strike until the charges were dropped, which threatened the whole settlement. But the workers won that too, after the judge gave them small fines and suspended sentences. Workers won most of what they wanted and the ILWU was able to break down the ethnic divisions that had long helped the planters divide workers.
There were many fights ahead for Hawaii workers, but the combination of a smart long-term political strategy with concrete legislative aims and intensive organizing from a radicalized union won the biggest gains Hawaiian workers had ever experienced.
I borrowed from Edward D. Beechert’s Working in Hawaii: A Labor History to write this post.
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