The State of Aloha

Seventy years ago, dockworkers and stevedores in the islands wanted a raise. Shipping is the key to Hawaii’s economy. Cargo is loaded onto boats at industrial ports like Los Angeles or Oakland and travels across the Pacific to Honolulu or Hilo, where it’s unloaded.

It was tiresome and difficult labor. Carrying sacks of sugar, fertilizer and other cargoes made workers strong. In 1949, Mainland workers, who were usually white, were paid 32 cents more than their Hawaii counterparts, who were overwhelmingly Asian or Hawaiian.

The local union, the now-famous International Longshore and Warehouse Union, wanted parity with Mainland workers and felt that it had the solidarity and strength to get the raise.

The employers flatly refused. They even refused to arbitrate the matter. And so on May 1, 1949, stevedores went on strike against the shipping companies. Of course, the shipping companies were all owned in part by larger companies who ran the sugar and pineapple plantations and hotels. A strike against the shipping company was also a strike against the big companies that ran the islands.

One newspaper would later declare that this strike was “among the significant happenings of the 20th century” next to statehood and Pearl Harbor.

It didn’t take long for opponents to attack. Elites running the territory felt something more sinister than a labor dispute was afoot. After all, 1949 was a banner year for Communists worldwide. On the isolated and empty steppes of Kazakhstan, the Soviet Union successfully detonated its first atomic bomb. That made it the second country to achieve nuclear weapons. Mao Zedong’s Red Army banished nationalists to the island of Taiwan and the most populous country on the planet was firmly under his control.

Employers saw the stevedores as agents of the Communist Party. Three days into the strike, the Honolulu Advertiser published an anonymous letter addressed to Joseph Stalin. More followed.

The “Dear Joe” letters were caustic screeds against the union. They sarcastically praised Stalin for running the strike from Moscow, hurting businesses, and slowing down the plantation economy.

When Harry Bridges, the ILWU’s national leader, came to the islands, the newspaper announced that “Not since the day Kamehameha landed from Molokai, Joe, would Hawaii have been able to welcome such a complete and absolute dictator, who has almost secured the power of life or death, the well-being, or lack of it, of every citizen, alien, or national, in the palm of his callous-less hand.”

Turned out that Laurence Thurston, the paper’s publisher and descendant of missionaries who carried out the overthrow of the monarchy, wrote every Dear Joe letter.

The strike dragged on for months. Workers banded together and formed soup kitchens. They collectively hunted and fished to feed their families.

The results of the strike were felt everywhere. Industrialists that supplied goods to the territory were helpless to stop it. Even the president got involved. Harry Truman sent a personal message to the strikers asking them to back down and let commerce in the islands resume. They refused.

Small businesses in the islands failed. By August, the islands had food shortages. Bakeries were closing up without flour, butter and supplies. Food shortages affected the raising of chickens, eggs and dairies. Tons of sugar bound for refineries on the Mainland were left untouched and losing value with every passing day.

Employers were getting nervous. Violence between strikers and strike-breaking labor erupted. Four months into the strike, sugar companies got the territorial government involved.

On Aug. 6, the territory passed the Dock Seizure Act. The government acted swiftly and started loading ships and primarily sugar for the companies. The ILWU was prohibited from picketing.

The workers stood fast. Although the Hawaii docks were functioning again (at the taxpayers’ expense), workers told their fellow unions on the West Coast that the cargo from Hawaii was “hot.” The government may have been able to load the ships, but unloading them on the Mainland was another matter entirely. Mainland unions refused to touch the cargo out of solidarity with the Hawaii workers.

The strike lasted another three months before the employers finally gave in and started to negotiate with the ILWU. The workers went back to the docks in October. After six grueling months, the strike was a victory for the union. The employers agreed to a wage increase comparable to the Mainland.

It was evident to anyone paying attention that a small group of dedicated workers could withstand the fury and might of powerful people, the media and the government. For many, 1949 proved to be the beginning of the end of the old oligarchy that overthrew the monarchy and ran the islands like a colony. In many ways it was the start of modern Hawaii.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”