The State of Aloha

News on the labor front is usually bad for labor. Take Mark Janus, for example. Janus works for the state of Illinois. He’s not a member of the local public-employees union and got tired of paying a fee to the union that pursues matters affecting wages, hours and conditions of employment — a whopping total of $45 deducted from his paycheck. He sued the union.

And now the Supreme Court of the United States took his case and last month the justices of the high court heard his lawyers argue that paying the union violated his First Amendment right to disassociate with them. The union’s take is very different. If Janus can opt out, he’d be a “free rider” that gets the benefit of the union without having to pay.

The last bastion of powerful organized labor is in the public sector. Public-employee unions worry that if nonunion employees like Janus can opt out, collective bargaining is in peril. Given the right-leaning composure of the Supreme Court, the union is expected to lose. A victory for Janus would directly impact Hawaii and 22 other states that have similar laws.

Oh, how far we’ve fallen.

The same week the Supreme Court held the hearing on the oral arguments for the Janus case marked the 103rd birthday of Hawaii’s Jack Hall. He originally came from Wisconsin and graduated from high school in Los Angeles in 1931. As his country was crushed beneath the weight of the Great Depression, Hall hitchhiked to San Francisco and became an able-bodied seaman and joined a radical union.

The union sent him to Hawaii in 1935. The territory was rough for organized labor. Union activity was pretty much against the law. Workers were usually racially separated and pitted against each other by a strong oligarchy working hand-in-glove with local government.

Hall stuck it out. The tall, gangly haole earned the trust of local organizers and remained in Hawaii for another 40 years. His aim was simple: organize workers. He represented a new kind of union, a union that was not limited to racial background, skill sets or traditional divisions. This was a big union designed to represent all working people: the International Warehousemen’s and Longshoremen’s Union.

Hall spread his message through small, radical newspapers and countless meetings held in secret — usually on country roads at night beyond plantation property. He spread the message of solidarity and class consciousness.

“Know your class and be loyal to it,” he would often say.

Employers on the other side didn’t back down easily. He often was the target of smear campaigns and even criminal prosecutions. In 1953, he was ordered to appear before the infamous House of Un-American Activities, a standing committee associated with the Red Scare and hysteria. He refused to answer their questions.

He was also prosecuted for the radicalism of his youth. A federal judge found him guilty of advocating the overthrow of the American government and sentenced him to five years in prison. He appealed and the Supreme Court — the same institution that is expected to gut public-employee unions — reversed the conviction.

But by then the anti-red hysteria had subsided. Hall soon became a politically active kingmaker in the islands. He advocated for liberal policies, statehood, and his reputation and stature of the ILWU grew. His organizing efforts spread from the docks and ports to the sugar and pineapple plantations.

He oversaw the union and advocated for a liberal agenda in Hawaii’s early years after statehood. “Things here are in good, boring shape,” he declared. Eventually Hall moved to San Francisco in 1969, where he had been tapped to run the ILWU’s international operations.

Hall died of a massive stroke in 1971 at the age of 55. Flags were flown at half-staff across the islands. Longshoremen closed the ports of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego for 24 hours. Workers on the West Coast, in Hawaii and in Canada took a pause to honor the man who did so much for them. To this day, some ILWU contacts have a paid holiday for “Jack Hall Day” on Jan. 2, the day of his death, or Feb. 28, his birthday.

So what happened? How did labor get in such bad shape? Perhaps things will get better. Just one week after Janus’ ominous oral argument in Washington, the governor of West Virginia caved to public employees.

Teachers in all of the state’s 55 counties went on strike, which is against the law there. They flatly rejected the state’s 1 percent wage hike and closed the schools for nine days. It was a remarkable and rare showing of solidarity. The governor and the Legislature gave in and signed off on a 5 percent wage hike. Now, talks of a similar walkout are starting in, of all places, Oklahoma.

Perhaps this is the time to recall the fighting spirit and backbone of Jack Hall.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”