Home / General / This Day in Labor History: October 25, 1949

This Day in Labor History: October 25, 1949

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On October 25, 1949, longshoremen in Hawaii won a 177 day strike that got them union recognition, the most important thing a newly organized set of workers can achieve. It also established the principle of unionism in Hawaii and was a decisive blow against the power of the sugar planters over the Hawaiian working class.

The 1930s saw a huge organizing success among west coast longshoremen. The longshoremen union on the east coast, the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) was notably corrupt and ineffective, but west coast workers revolted against this, as well as the dominance of employers over their lives. The 1934 San Francisco strike led by the Australian radical Harry Bridges not only led to the rare general strike in American history, but it forced the government to mediate the crisis and give the workers most of what they wanted. Bridges split with the ILA and created the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) in 1937. This was a radically democratic union where workers in individual ports had a tremendous say over the policies they fought for. This could lead to any number of things–some of the locals were strongly anti-racist and engaged in transnational solidarity efforts over racial inequality and others (especially in Portland and Los Angeles) were dedicated to white supremacy. Bridges’ attitude was that it was not for him to intervene in the affairs of locals, no matter how much he liked or didn’t like their positions.

One of the things this radical workplace democracy did was appeal to a broad swath of workers and the ILWU began to spread. One of those places was Hawaii, which was still an American colony at this time. Longshoremen saw that west coast comrades made a lot more money than they did, even though they worked in the same industry and for the same employers. There were union pay rates on the west coast that had raised compensation to $1.82 an hour. In Hawaii, longshoremen only made $1.40.

Organizing with Bridges at the helm, the longshoremen demanded equal pay rates. The employers refused, offering $1.52 instead. Their justification was the usual canard that pay rates should be determined based on local standards rather than universal wages within an industry. Usually, this has been used by employers to justify lower wages in the South or to say that they can’t pay higher wages in the North because southern workers labor for cheaper, but in this case, it was a useful strategy for them in Hawaii too.

Well, workers found this unacceptable. On May 1, that workers’ holiday that Harry Bridges knew very well, the longshoremen in Hawaii walked off the job. About 5,000 of them struck. They engaged in the kind of smart unionism that gains workers support–they could have shut everything down in Hawaii, but that would have brought all Hell against them and probably backfired, regardless of what some syndicalists with their general strike fetish say. Instead, they agreed to unload all military cargo, food, medicine, supplies, mail, and other stuff that everyday people needed. They required public support to win and Hawaii’s labor history to this time was filled with oppression of workers and the forces of order doing whatever was necessary to crush them when they acted. So public opinion would be critical.

The forces of order did strike back of course. They imported strikebreakers from Asia, not telling them they were coming to break a strike. They had workers arrested, including twelve on May 28 for overturning cars, which happened as the workers tried to stop the scabs from unloading the ships. Local newspaper editors said this was communism and that Bridges was serving the interests of Joseph Stalin, having brought Bolshevism to Hawaii. A May 17 rally brought 10,000 workers to Kapoilani Park, demanding federal mediation to the wage battle. But the employers refused this very reasonable demand, saying that “employer rights” allowed them to set the wages they wanted. Rich white women started a counterpicket that trolled the ILWU as communists and brought brooms to sweep the communists back into the ocean.

By July 16, there was little sign the strike would end. Another 96 workers were arrested for not allowing the scabs to work. The governor had created a mediation board but it was completely in the pocket of the employers and the workers overwhelmingly rejected the pathetic offer given by the board. In late July, a few hundred longshoremen actually stormed the officers of Hawaii Stevedore Limited, the scab organization that brought workers in, and destroyed it, with several people getting hurt and 34 strikers arrested.

Finally, the territorial governor of Hawaii issued the Dock Seizure Act in August, which took control over the docks. Then judges issued an injunction prohibiting picketing at the docks. So strike over, workers lose, right?

Wrong.

That’s because the solidarity actions of the ILWU kicked in. The union declared all cargo coming from Hawaii to be scab cargo and refused to touch it. So the shippers could move goods to San Francisco or Seattle or LA or Portland but there it would rot on the boats. This level of solidarity gave the workers a tremendous advantage. This is the crux of transportation strikes. Ultimately, they have greater potential power than most other industries because they can shut down the entire economy. And that’s what they did in Hawaii.

The Big Five sugar companies and their subsidiaries had a lot of wealth and a lot of power. But they ultimately still needed to make money. They could hold out for a long time but they weren’t going to hold out forever, as it turned out. The sugar was rotting. The unwillingness of the ILWU to ship anything to or from Hawaii meant that other basics were getting scarce. Meanwhile, the workers, desperate as they were, held together due to smart organizing actions such as creating hunting and fishing committees that gave workers something to do and helped feed so many workers and their families.

So the Big Five sugar companies finally caved. Bridges walked in, got his union recognition, and got a 21 1/2 cent raise. It wasn’t quite pay equality, but it was a big win nonetheless and laid the groundwork for future wins to eliminate that differential. They came to an initial agreement on October 23 and on October 25, the workers voted for the deal.

The power of the big sugar companies over Hawaiian workers would never be the same. But they definitely wanted revenge. Right-wing forces in Hawaii were very strong. They had ILWU leaders investigated for violating the Smith Act. Seven were arrested in 1951 and some of them remained locked up all the way until 1958.

This is the 459th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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