In 1935, as part of the New Deal initiatives, Congress passed the Wagner Act legalizing workers’ rights to join and be represented by labor unions.
In Hawaiʻi, business was dominated by the Big Five: Alexander & Baldwin, C. Brewer, Castle & Cooke, AmFac and Theo. Davies. Nearly everything of significance, from banks to shipping lines and sugar plantations to newspapers, was tightly controlled by the Big Five.
One third of the population of the islands was living on the plantations, with seventy percent of the people directly dependent on plantation economy.
The Hilo Longshoremen’s Association was formed on November 22, 1935, when about 30 young longshoremen of almost every ethnic and racial origin common to the territory agreed to join forces and organize all the waterfront workers regardless of race or national origin.
By the summer of 1937, with the help of the longshoremen, Hilo had the following unions: Hilo Laundry Workers’ Association, Hilo Longshoremen’s Association, Hilo Canec Association, Hilo Clerks’ Association, Hilo Railroad Association and the Honuʻapo Longshoremen’s Association.
By 1938, during the height of the Great Depression, labor discontent escalated over low pay and poor working conditions. Negotiations were underway between the unions and employers on two major issues: 1) parity or equity of wages and conditions with the West Coast workers; and 2) the closed or union shop or some kind preferential hiring arrangement.
But Hawai’i employers were committed to fight the issue of wage parity or mainland wage standards in every industry as a matter of principle.
The Hilo Longshoremen’s Association struck against the Inter-Island Steamship Navigation Co.
The Inter-Island Steam Navigation Co., Ltd. had been controlled since 1925 by Matson Navigation and Castle & Cooke, the days before commercial airline transport between the islands. Its ships carried virtually all passenger and light freight traffic.
After three weeks of striking, the unions had decided to fall back somewhat and draw their line at the return of the two larger ships, the SS Waiʻaleʻale and the SS Hualalai.
Inter-Island scheduled another return of the Waiʻaleʻale to Hilo Harbor. Expecting confrontation, the night before the scheduled arrival, nearly 70-Police officers and special volunteer deputies began to assemble at the wharf to be sure that the union men would not get there before they did.
They had a small arsenal of 52-riot guns with bayonets, 4-Thompson sub-machine guns, tear gas grenades and an adequate supply of ammunition including both buckshot and birdshot cartridges for the riot guns.
In addition, the Hilo Fire Department was assigned to dispatch a pumping truck and enough firemen as might be needed to repulse the marchers with water hoses.
In addition to the official police force that was assembling, the Inter-Island Navigation Company had also prepared a squad of its own ‘specials.’
The Waiʻaleʻale was expected around 9 am on August 1, 1938. Some of the longshoremen started to gather as early as 6:30 am, and by 8:30 the majority of the unionists began to arrive.
Over two hundred men and women belonging to several different labor unions attempted to peacefully demonstrate against the arrival of the SS Waiʻaleʻale in Hilo.
Without any specific order, the crowd formed up and began to march down singing as they went, “The more we get together, together, together; The more we get together, the better we’ll be!” While in the back the women were singing, “Hail, hail the gang’s all here.”
They were met by a force of police officers who tear gassed, hosed and finally fired their riot guns into the crowd. In the scuffle, at least 16 rounds of ammunition were fired: seven birdshot and nine buckshot.
When it was over, fifty people, including two women and two children, had been shot; at least one man bayoneted and another’s jaw nearly broken for speaking up for his fallen brother.
In the confusion and uncertainty of the moment, the remaining, uninjured unionists left the docks Monday afternoon and the Waiʻaleʻale was unloaded without incident. But that night a rally was held at Moʻoheau Park which was attended by a huge crowd.
Reminiscent of the violence unleashed in the West Coast Strike four years earlier, the Hilo shooting closely paralleled the San Francisco police attack of July 5th that had left two strikers slain and a hundred others wounded.
The West Coast event had been called Bloody Thursday; here, they were already calling August 1st Hilo’s Bloody Monday.
The strike was soon settled.
A Grand Jury found: “That evidence is not sufficient to warrant an indictment against any person or group of persons”. The union subsequently filed a lawsuit for damages, which they lost.
Lots of information and images here are from Hawaii-edu and The Hilo Massacre: Hawaii’s Bloody Monday, August 1st, 1938 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, Center for Labor Education & Research, 1988.)