1949: Hawaii Longshoreman Strike

1949: Hawaii Longshoreman Strike

Longshoremen in Hawaii were paid less than other longshoreman in the United States. They struck to get an equal pay rate, and were out for 177 days.

Hawaiian longshoremen win 177-day strike in Hawai'i', 1949

By 26 January 1949, negotiations between the International Longshoreman’s Worker Union (ILWU) and the longshoreman employers had reached a standstill. Leaders Jack Hall, Harry Bridges, and Louis Goldblatt negotiated for pay raises for the Hawaii longshoremen. Workers were aware that longshoremen on the west coast of the U.S., who were employed by the same company and loading/unloading the same cargo, were being paid $1.82/hour whereas the Hawaii longshoremen were only being paid $1.40. Employers insisted that wages should be determined by local conditions; thus Hawaiian wages were not equitable to west coast wages.

Employers determined that a 12-cent pay raise was fair, but workers declined the offer. Hall, Bridges, and Goldblatt urged employers to voluntary arbitration. This would require employers to submit the wage dispute to a fair and impartial third party for a wage decision. Employers did not want to involve a third party deeming it unfair and limiting of the power of management and their right to manage.

On 1 May 1949, the workers began a 177-day-long strike. Five thousand longshoremen stopped work and closed off all goods to Hawaii. Though they went on strike, workers agreed to unload military cargo, food, medical supplies, perishables, and mail so that no one could be harmed by the strike. The Big Five companies of Hawaii – Alexander & Baldwin, C. Brewer, Castle & Cooke, American Factors, and Theo. Davies – owned all of the smaller companies these longshoremen worked for. To replace these workers, The Big Five brought poor people from other countries, such as China, Japan, and the Philippines, to work in the strikers’ place.

Four days after the strike began, newspaper editor Laurence Thurston, a union buster, began a daily column entitled, “Dear Joe.” In the column, he wrote letters to Joseph Stalin asking him what was next in the advancement of communism in Hawaii. Thurston was attempting to show there was an international conspiracy between the union workers and communist Russia. Trade unionist Bob McElrath was essential in debunking fallacies spread by the “Dear Joe” column, the employers, and other opponents. He was a good researcher and exposed employer books and secret meetings. He spread news nightly by a broadcast on the radio, which kept the union informed.

Strikers gathered in Kapoilani Park on 17 May 1949. These ten thousand strikers called for the end of the strike. They demanded that employers submit the wage debate to arbitration. Still, the employers refused, continuing to insist that arbitration was unfair to the employers’ management rights.

On 28 May 1949, twelve striking stevedores were arrested for “upsetting automobiles.” The picket line obstructed the vehicles ability to pass to the pier in order to retrieve goods from ships. As a result, stevedores were charged with first malicious injury, which was then highway obstruction because the stevedores had committed no violence.

Several upper class white women began a picket demonstration against the longshoremen in front of the ILWU headquarters on 31 May 1949 and became known as the “Broom Brigade.” The women picketed strikers and organized to alleviate the influence of ILWU on workers in order to stop communism from taking root in Hawaii. They viewed the ILWU as a communist group who was trying to infiltrate the government by first gaining support of the workers on the island.

The Governor of Hawaii, Ingram Stainback, appointed a fact-finding committee to provide recommendations for a strike settlement over a seven-day hearing. Goldblatt warned others that the committee would give a settlement that was preapproved by the employers. The committee recommended a 14-cent wage increase. On 30 June 1949, 1620 strikers voted on the proposal: 149 voted to accept the offer, while 1,467 voted against the proposition. The union rejected the 14-cent proposal.

The Broom Brigade continued spreading rumors that ILWU and other unions were communist and patrons of Russia. They started passing out leaflets listing the names of suspected communists. They used other red-baiting and hysteria tactics to try to end the ILWU’s strike.

In July of 1949, industry owners created Hawaii Stevedore Limited (HSL), which hired people to work despite the on-going strike. These workers became known as scabs. HSL hired scabs in order to break the strike and continue work and ship services. On 16 July 1949, police arrested 96 Hawaiians for forming a picket line that would not allow scab workers to begin working on Pier 29.

On Pier 9, workers formed a picket line in order to block trucks carrying cargo unloaded from the ship “Hawaii Citizen”. Police arrested 104 protesters at Pier 2 for "disorderly conduct." Pickets were charged with restraining people with force or violence. However, the picketers had committed no acts of violence, so the charge changed to obstructing a public highway.

In late July 200-300 men stormed the offices of the scab organization, Hawaii Stevedore Limited. A violent response followed which led to strikers, scabs, and police inflicting injury upon one another. Twenty-four people in all were injured. Police arrested 34 strikers and charged them with assault and battery.

Due to the spread of anti-Communist propaganda from the daily “Dear Joe” editorials and the Broom Brigade, the government of Hawaii created the Dock Seizure Act on 6 August 1949. The territory seized the docks and took over stevedoring services in order to break the strike.

When the ILWU men lost control of the docks, they named any cargo being loaded out of the territory as “hot.” This signified that the cargo was loaded by scabs and should not be unloaded by others. In solidarity with the Hawaiian longshoremen, 6,000 longshoremen in Northwest continental U.S. refused to unload “hot” cargo so as to not support the strikebreaking.

On 15 August 1949, the attorney general was granted a court order that kept ILWU men from picketing at the docks. To protest the court order, two of the strike leaders picketed at the docks in hopes of gaining the attention of the Supreme Court.

By late September, there were more jobless people than ever before, food prices rose by 6%, and 500,000 tons of sugar remained undistributed leaving a $60 million deficit.

In the beginning of the strike, The Big Five were large enough not to be affected by the strike. However, after four months of striking, four of the Big Five owned stock in companies that had started losing money because of the stall in sugar industry shipment. All were beginning to feel the effects of the strike as missing goods, like embalming fluids and medical bandages, were starting to wear on people’s lives.

Union soup kitchens worked to feed struggling strikers and their families. Strikers formed "scrounging committees" and hunting and fishing committees that helped to feed people each day—150 people for two meals a day. Parades every day helped keep morale high.

On 5 October 1949 union leader Harry Bridges announced that he had negotiated a settlement with the employers of the longshoremen off the record. He negotiated a 21-cent raise for workers.

Employers disagreed with the wording and said they only agreed to a 14-cent raise that would be applied immediately but with an additional seven cent raise that would avoid possible further strikes; the additional raise would take effect on 28 February 1950.

Finally, on 23 October 1949 the final terms of the settlement were agreed between industry owners and union strikers.

The settlement angered opponents of the union, such as the Broom Brigade and newspaper editors. The victory for the ILWU was seen as surrender to "union Reds." Red-baiting continued for many years. The House Un-American Activities Committee was sent to Hawaii on 7 October 1949 to investigate all the strikes that had started to occur frequently in the 1940s. This culminated in the arrest of the Hawaii 7, seven prominent leaders in the ILWU and other union reformers, on 28 August 1951 under the Smith Act. The Smith Act allowed for the arrest of anyone who conspired against the American government through teaching to over throw it.

The government released all seven by 1958.

Sources:

"1949 Dock Strike." 1949 Dock Strike. N.p., n.d. Center for Labor Education and Research Web. 19 Mar. 2013.
"Jack Hall: On The Right Side Of The Fence By Dick Meister." Jack Hall: On The Right Side Of The Fence By Dick Meister. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Mar. 2013.

McElrath, Ah Quon. "Race Relations and the Political Economy in Hawaii." The Ethnic Studies Story: Politics and Social Movements in Hawaiʻi: Essays in Honor of Marion Kelly (1999): 74.

Rice, and Roses. "1949 Dock Strike Part 1." DOCUMENTARY ."1949dockp1." 1949dockp1. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Mar. 2013.

Rice, and Roses. "1949 Dock Strike Part 2." DOCUMENTARY ."1949dockp1." 1949dockp1. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Mar. 2013.

Holmes, Michael (1994), The specter of Communism in Hawaii, University of Hawaii Press, ISBN 978-0-8248-1550-9

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy:

Alexis Dziedziech, 18/3/2013

Published for the Global Nonviolent Action Database

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