Hawai‘i is an exceptional case in American labor history because of its workforce made up of mostly non-white and immigrant workers.
The sugar planters increased the labor supply as needed to decrease labor’s demands. The major sugar planters grew into five big companies that eventually dominated the Islands’ economy.
Alexander & Baldwin, American Factors, Castle & Cooke, C Brewer and Theo H Davies before long constituted a power in the islands that controlled virtually all business and commercial as well as public employment opportunities.
Over the years in successive waves of immigration, the sugar growers brought to Hawai‘i 46,000 Chinese, 180,000 Japanese, 126,000 Filipinos as well as Portuguese and Puerto Ricans, each one used generally to offset the bargaining power of its predecessor.
“It was advantageous to have on your plantation groups from different ethnicities so that if one of them got it in their mind to strike that you would still be able to get things done by the other groups,” says William Puette, the Director of the Center for Labor Education and Research at the University of Hawai‘i – West O‘ahu.
“That obviously, they didn’t admit to this but it laid the groundwork for them to be able to have one group pitted against the other by making sure that they didn’t play well together.”
Hawai‘i’s labor unions during this period were organized based on ethnic groups. Sugar planters pinned these distinct groups against each other by difference in wages, hiring more workers from different countries, and used the Portuguese as a model minority.
Hawaii’s workers attempted strikes since the beginning of the sugar industry beginning in the 1800s. Some of the more significant in size occurred in 1909, 1919, 1924, and 1937.
In 1935, President Roosevelt, as part of his New Deal legislation, passed the Wagner Act giving workers the legal right to organize unions that could demand employer recognition. (UH West O‘ahu Center for Labor Education and Research)
Some unions were able to win small gains, but most strikes were broken and workers were forced to return to the plantations with harsher treatment. (Martinez)
Hawaiian officials expressed harsher anti-union attitudes by undermining the National Labor Relations Board, canceling union contracts, and threatening workers.
Employers froze wages to show that employees would not be hired in other locations. In addition, anti-Japanese hysteria after the bombing of Pearl Harbor deepened discrimination on the islands.
Blake Clark, a professor at the University of Hawaii, wrote in 1942, “A great many mainland Americans believe that most of the Japanese in Hawai‘i are hiding around in the canefields, ready at a signal to leap out and stab us in the back.”
Intimidated Japanese Hawaiians, who made up a significant portion of plantation labor, halted organizing. Police on the islands jailed anyone who did not follow the laws and ILWU membership froze to about 900 from the start of war until 1944.
Pent-up rage made workers receptive to ILWU organizers, due to the difficult conditions of life. Living quarters were more compressed as shacks “averaged less than 500 square feet for a family of five, with as many as eight persons living in a room of about 100 square feet,” and most homes lacked indoor plumbing.
When families requested maintenance of their housing or working facilities, managers deducted the cost from their pay. Controversy also spread about children on plantations in Hilo, working and missing school days.
The timing was ripe. Union organizers mobilized on the islands by speaking to workers’ grievance, as union power surged following the war. Workers from different ethnic and national backgrounds were soon convinced to join the union with each other.
Members of the ILWU went door to door to explain the need to unite under their union and strike in order to gain better wages and working conditions. Union bulletins, newspapers, voting ballots, and contracts were printed in each of the workers’ native languages.
The Sugar Strike of 1946 began on Labor Day. It was the first strike to ever shut down Hawai’i’s powerful sugar industry. More than 26,000 plantation workers and their families went on strike for nearly three months, closing all but one of 34 plantations across the island chain. (HPR)
The strike succeeded in changing the balance of power between workers and the plantation. In collective bargaining, the ILWU secured benefits such as housing, medical, pensions, and wages, as inherent rights for workers instead of privileges granted as favors by plantation owners.
“The politics of Hawai‘i would never be the same after that. And certainly labor relations would not be the same after that,” says Puette.
“Leadership in all the different areas would not be the same because you started to see the rise of people from the different ethnic groups, not just Japanese, but Filipinos, and everybody else which you wouldn’t have seen without that landmark strike of 1946.”
Based on the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, noting Union affiliation of employed wage and salary workers by state, 2019-2020 annual averages, Hawai‘i ranks #1 in 2020 with Percent of Employed – Members of Unions (23.7%) and Represented by Unions (25.7%). New York is #2.