In 1951 in Washington, DC, Jack Kawano (former President of ILWU) gave a US House Congressional Committee On Un-American Activities details on the Communist Party activities in Hawai’i. Kawano stated, in part:
I am not a Communist. However, I was a member of the Communist Party. I joined the Communist Party because some individual Communists were willing to assist me inorganizing the Waterfront Union.
I decided to quit the Communist Party because I found that the primary existence of the Communist Party was not for the best interests of the workingman but to dupe the members of the union, to control the union, and to use the union for purposes other than strictly trade-union matters.
The Communists play rings around the rank and file members of the union and their union’s constitutions, by meeting separately and secretly among themselves and making prior decisions on all important union policy matters, such as the question of strikes, election of officers, ratification of union agreements, the question of American foreign policy, and all other important matters of the Union.
Primarily all of these decisions are made on the basis of what is good for the Communist Party and not what is good for the membership of the union.
In 1934, on the water front, when I was first employed there, there was no union; and in order for one to get a job and be able to hold on to it, it was almost an impossibility unless he brought gifts and bribes to his foreman.
Discrimination, favoritism, no job security, low wages, speed-ups, dangerous working conditions were all part of a daily routine. The workers’ need for a union was so great that it was not funny.
In October 1935, when the West Coast Firemen’s Union opened a hiring hall in Honolulu, and later when the same hiring hall was shared by the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific, the officers of both the Firemen’s Union and the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific paid for and reserved a small space in the same hiring hall for an organizing committee.
This organizing committee was headed by Maxie Weisbarth, who was then agent for the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific, and Harry Kealoha, a member of the Marine Fireman, Oilers, and Water Tenders Union at that time.
The first organizing drive among longshoremen was launched by Weisbarth and Kealoha, aided by others like Charlie Post, and so forth. However, I did not join the union at that time because they did not permit workers of oriental descent to become members of that organization.
I joined the Longshoremen’s Association of Honolulu in November 1935, when the organizers changed their policy and made it possible for workers of oriental extraction to become members of the union.
Several organizational meetings were called, and they were fairly well attended. However, then efforts in organizing was defeated when the water-front employers offered Thanksgiving turkey to the workers on Christmas, and the workers were told that the turkey was a present to them from the company, and if they did not listen to the radical agitators from Sailors’ Hall they would be getting better things from the company in the future.
I was one of the few who ignored the company’s advice, and continued my membership in the union until I got fired in 1936. I was not fired long before I talked my way back on the job.
When I was reemployed, I got fired again because the company found that I did not quit the union. This time I was fired until the end of the 1936-37 Pacific coast maritime strike, which ended in February 1937.
At the end of that strike, with the aid of some members of the sailors’ union and the firemen’s union, I managed to get my job on the water front back again.
So I went back to work on the water front in early February 1937. However, because I could not get transferred to my former sugar gang, I left the water-front job in July 1937 to work full time as a water-front organizer for the union without pay.
Organizing in those days was very difficult. I used to talk to workers on then way to and from work; visited them at their homes and talked to them; signed up and collected dues from some of them; but because we were not able to show any encouraging results, these people gradually dropped out of the union.
I used to borrow Willie Crozier’s p. a. system (public-address system) to organize mass meetings along the water front in the mornings.
I used to make leaflets and distribute them among workers on the water front in the mornings and afternoons.
But because the employers had organized a company union, sports clubs, and so forth, to divert the attention of the workers elsewhere, and because they used the leaders of this company union to discriminate and threaten organizers and members of the union …
… and because through their company union they raised the wages from 40 to 50 cents during the 1936-37 strike, we were never able to get the majority of the employees into the union at any one time during those days.
This situation continued from 1935 on until we finally got organized and won our first agreement on the water front in the spring of 1941.
There were many enthusiastic organizers in the beginning, but as time went on, and no organizational results showed, these organizers and union leaders gradually dropped out of existence. Some of these organizers and leaders were: Maxie Weisbarth, Harry Kealoha, Edward Berman, Levi Kealoha, Jack Hall, to mention a few.
However, Frederick Kamahoahoa and I kept plugging until we finally organized the water front with the aid of some of the more active union men on the water front.
Some of the more active union men who played an important part in assisting us organize the water front were Takeshi Yamanchi, Chujiro Hokama, Kana Shimiabakuro, Naoji Yokoyama, Kiheji Nishi, Daniel Machado, Jr, Francis Perkins, Ben Kahaawinui, Lefty Chang, William Halm, William Piilani, John Akin, Solomon Niheu, and a few others.
While we were organizing, there was a strike of sugar workers on the Puunene plantation in 1937. The strike lasted for 2 to 3 months. When the strike began, Maxie Weisbarth sent a man by the name of Ben Shear from Honolulu to assist the sugar workers in their strike and to help them along. The idea was to try to get them to join the HLA, Honolulu Longshoremen’s Association.
These plantation strikers and their leaders seemed to be very interested, but because we were not able to give them any substantial financial assistance the strikers decided to stay independent from HLA and did not affiliate themselves with HLA, Honolulu Longshoremen’s Association.
Just about the same time the longshoremen in Port Allen, Kauai, went on strike. They demanded recognition of their union, adjustment of grievances, and better wages.
Ben Shear, who was at that time in Maui, was pulled out from Maui, and he, together with George Goto, was assigned to go to Kauai and assist the strikers in Kauai. Ben Shear and George Goto did a great deal in building up the strength of the longshore union in Port Allen und in Akukini.
Meanwhile, Bill Bailey, a Communist, was sent from Honolulu to Maui, to assist the strikers there. He stayed with the strikers until the strike, was finally settled without any written agreement, and as a result of that the Plantation Union was broken after the end of the strike.
Now comes my first Communist meeting. The first Communist meeting that I attended was held. I believe, in the room on Emma Street near Beretania Street occupied by William Bailey.
I was escorted to this meeting by Edward Berman, who was at that time a nominal organizational head of the union in Honolulu. At this meeting, Bailey gave a lecture that lasted anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour.
He issued us membership cards in the Travelers’ Club, otherwise known as a Communist card. He told us that as long as we carried that card we would be respected by all good union men from the mainland, and we could count on Harry Bridges to help us. He also asked us to volunteer in the Spanish Loyalist Army, but no one volunteered.
From what I understand, [the Travelers Club] was a membership book signifying that you are a member of the Communist Party. I understood there is a slight difference between those people who carry Communist Party book offshore and inshore.
In this case it was an offshore group, and it was impossible for them to belong to one unit, because seamen travel all over the country, so to make them eligible to attend meetings wherever they go, in every port, they have one unified card system, and I think that was supposed to be this Travelers’ card system.
A man carrying a Travelers’ card from New York would be eligible to attend a meeting in Honolulu, and vice versa.
[At the meeting,] the general trend of thought was like this – that the bosses are no good; that workers can live without the bosses, and we should try to get rid of the bosses by forming an organization and fighting the bosses, first through the union and later through the revolution, or something like that.
I think everybody signed up in the Communist Party through the Travelers’ Club who attended that meeting ….
[Kawano noted, as a union organizer, he attended a Communist Party school stating,] Around the latter part of the summer of 1938, Jack Kimoto [an Japanese language interpreter and the one who set up the Communist Party in the Islands] urged me to consider going to San Francisco to study labor economics at one of the special schools conducted by the Communist Party of the USA in California.
He told me that it was only a 5-week course, and that I could learn a lot, and I would be able to do a more effective job of organizing after I returned from school. …
The following year, 1939, Ichiro Izuka and Jack Hall also attended a Communist Party school in California. They went from Honolulu. Robert McElrath also attended the school, from California, but by using Hawaii’s credit.
Oh, it wasn’t only Kawano who told of the Communism-Union link …
Dan Inouye noted in his 1967 biography, “No one with any sense of political reality denied that there were probably some Communists in the ILWU. … There were those who felt that the Democrats’ Party, by logical extension, was also controlled by Communists.” (Dan Inouye (former US Senator); reported by Borreca, Star Bulletin)
“Later, in 1975, Governor John Burns, who in the 1950s was a Democratic Party organizer and delegate to Congress, would reflect that perhaps there were Communists within the union …”
“‘Every guy in the ILWU was at one time or another a member of the Communist Party of America. This is where they got their organizational information and how to organize, and how to bring groups together and how to create cells and how to make movements that are undetected by the bosses and everything else. … I know what they were about. I said this is the only way they are going to organize.’” (John Burns (former Hawaii Governor); reported by Borreca, Star Bulletin)
To be clear, neither Kawano nor anyone else said all union leaders and members were communists.
But, as Kawano stated, “In view of the world situation, where our country is at war with communist forces in Korea, I cannot see myself assisting Communists or community in any way, particularly when you consider them to be enemies of our country. Therefore, I feel I owe it to my country to bring to light all I know about Communist activities in Hawaii.”
Read Kawano’s full testimony here (all here, except the Borreca quotes, are quoted from his testimony):
After Kawano’s testimony, seven Hawai‘i residents – Jack Hall, John Reinecke, Dwight James Freeman, Charles Fujimoto, Eileen Fujimoto, Jack Kimoto and Koji Ariyoshi were arrested under the Smith Act in August 1951.
They were charged with conspiracy for their communist way of “thinking.” They were called the ‘Hawaii Seven’ and they were convicted and sentenced to prison. They appealed.
The Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco overturned the convictions on January 20, 1958 on the basis of a previous Supreme Court decision that the abstract teaching of communism did not constitute conspiracy to overthrow the government by force as defined by the Smith Act. (Tagaki-Kitamura)