Hawaiian sugar strike of 1946

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The Hawaiian sugar strike of 1946 was one of the most expensive strikes in history. This strike involved almost all of the plantations in Hawaii, creating a cost of over $15 million in crop and production. This strike would become one of the leading causes for social change throughout the territory.[1]


By 1835, massive plantations began to grow in large scales on the islands[where?]. To keep up with the increasing demand for labor, the plantation owners[who?] began to import workers in 1865. Immigrant workers and their families flooded in from China, Korea, Portugal, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Japan. Company recruits were extremely selective in their choosing of workers. Educations was of no value to them,[citation needed] and conditions in Hawai’i where no better. The companies owned all living quarters and stores nearby the plantations, keeping the workers isolated from the rest of the island. All of the camps were racially segregated adding further isolation of the workers. The companies also had close ties with the utility companies and government officials. To help keep wages low, the companies would pay all utilities, health care, fuel, and more. Their relations with the government[which?] also kept legislation in favor of the workers from passing. The field managers were all armed, would ride on horseback carrying whips, and would follow the workers relentlessly. With such poor living condition, low pay, demanding labor, and harsh oppression, strike would often spring up. However, because of the heavy segregation, the strikes mainly consisted of one ethnicity[which?] and were extremely unorganized, thus always doomed to fail.[2] Fortunately, massive change and organization was right around the corner. In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act was passed, allowing for legal union organization in United States territories. Soon after the passing of the law, labor activists began to enter Hawai’i to help organize its workers. On August 1, 1938 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), along with several other unions, organized a strike protesting for better wages and a union shop against launderers, auto dealers, warehouses, and vessels. Out of the 200 peaceful protesters that gathered, 50 of them were injured in attempts by police to make them disband. When tear gas, bayonets, and hoses failed, the police resorted to using firearms on the unarmed protesters. This tragic day became known as the “Hilo Massacres” or “Hawaii’s Bloody Monday” and led to further organization around the islands.[3]

The strike[edit]

After the Pearl Harbor bombing in 1941, martial law was declared on the islands. This halted labor organizing in its tracks by freezing wages, suspending labor contracts, prohibited employees from switching to new employers, and by causing a major influx of military personnel who were paid more doing the same jobs than the original workers. Discrimination was also a leading cause for stagnation in organizing movements. All community sports teams, clubs, and organizations were dismantled. Only one athletic club, the “Surf Riders,” remained because its name was in English. This group became a cornerstone for the community and worker organization.[2] By 1943, martial law was lifted and community and worker organization resumed. Union organizers had each camp assign a leader. Once one was identified, they were then recruited and organized even further. Whenever a president of one group was elected, the elected vice president was then required to be of a different ethnicity. This way there was no majority, everyone felt as though they were being equally represented, and everyone learned to work together. This electoral standard was just one of the many techniques used for uniting the community.[4] However, organization was not easy. Although the National Relations Labor Act ensured workers their right to organize, it did not specify ways or means of enforcing that right. Employees had to meet in secret. Oftentimes after dark and even in bathrooms where they would pass cards under the stalls. When being perused, workers would have to seek refuge on US property where the Hawaiian police could not arrest them. The workers found endless humor in these simple maneuvers. Whenever someone was arrested before or during the strike, the union would provide lawyers for legal representation.[2] In 1945, the union had finally presented itself in full light. They had achieved their first industry wide contract earning a 43.5 cent per hour minimum for all employees. To the workers, the minimum wage was a good start, but it was nothing compared to what was to come.[2] In order for the leaders of the worker community to learn how to better represent the wants of their fellow employees, a committee of 10 was selected to go to the main land and attend the California Labor School. There they learned about labor laws, how to conduct strikes, how to maintain relations with the workers and the companies, and much more. These students would go to other strikes around the west coast to see other worker leaders and unions in action. They would ask them how to organize, feed the strikers, keep up moral, and negotiate. All of what they learned in the states would serve to be extremely useful in the coming months.[2] Because of the martial law that was enacted during World War II, the companies face major labor shortages. Once it was lifted, they resorted back to the old tactics of recruiting poor, uneducated, immigrant workers; this time mainly from the war torn Philippines. However, what the companies didn’t expect was for there to be union representative working on the boats that were used to ship the new workers. This allowed the union to recruit new members before the boats even docked. Most workers stepped off the boats with union cards in hand, ready for a new and better life. For those who did sign up just yet, they were quickly persuaded otherwise in the camps. Workers went from door to door telling them that this wasn’t just for them, but for their children too. Soon enough, everyone was ready. (Melanie Hicken, Business Insider, “Most Expensive Strikes in History”. Feb. 29, 2012.) In 1946, the union made its new demands. They wanted a 65 cent per hour minimum, a 40-hour work week, a union shop, and for the perquisites (the system used to keep wages low by providing health care, fuel, utilities, etc.) to be in cash. The workers knew the importance of the perquisite system. They knew that the only way to gain full control from the companies was to end it. With demands being so high, the company gave the counter offer of 50 cents per hour minimum, a 48-hour work week, cash for the perquisites, and no union shop. Unsatisfied, the union called for a strike. On September 1, 1946, 33 out of 34 of the sugar factories went on strike, over 25,000 employees, and picket lines went up to keep scabs out.[2] Years of preparations and organizations began to mobilize. To keep strikers from damaging company property, a union police force was created. This police force also prohibited gambling. A transportation unit would move the worker to where they need to go. Several moral and entertainment committees were made where they played music, movies, performances, and several other programs. A hunting and fishing committee was also established to help feed the strikers. In an attempt to cut off the strikers, the sugar companies made agreements with rice companies to no long sell rice in stores. The ILWU had to import rice from the states for them. When police kept the strikers from picketing, they would go on parade through the cities on the islands. Most importantly, the union leaders organized the strikers that could vote to help gain political support. In the 1946 local elections, 35 union supporting candidates were elected to office, thus putting an end to the republican control. All attempts of red bating by the companies fail miserably and laws were passed to help the workers rather than the employer.[2] Because so many employees were no longer receiving wages, the unions made deals with the land lords to keep the workers in their shacks. They threatened that if anyone was evicted, they would all march down to city hall for them to provide for. During the entire strike, not a single worker was evicted.[4] Finally, after 79 days the strike ended on November 17, 1946. With 19 cents per hour more (depending on paid wages), a 46-hour work week, and end to the perquisites system, the union declared victory. Though they didn’t get the union shop, the workers still rejoiced in the respect and recognition that they had earned.[2]


No longer would they be harassed by armed managers on horseback in the fields. However this prosperity would not last as long as the strikers had hoped. One-by-one, the sugar factories and plantations began to shut down. By 1996, only 3 plantations remain, employing only 2,000 people. The once strong and thriving communities of the workers are now declining in size and rising in crime. With an increasingly tourist based economy rather than production, decedents of the 1946 strikers have had to search for jobs elsewhere. There is no sign of improved conditions for the Hawai’i sugar industry in the future anywhere.[2] Important People Jack Hall: Arrived in Hawai’i in 1935 to help organize unions. By 1946, he became director of ILWU. Harry Bridges: A union organizer who was a leading target for the companies red bating. Harriet Bouslog: A union lawyer. She was 1 of only 17 women between 1888 and 1959 to be admitted into Hawaiian practice. Links for Related Information http://www.ilwulocal142.org/new159/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=123:history-made-the-ilwu-the-ilwu-in-turn-made-history&catid=41:history&Itemid=82 http://www.apwu.org/laborhistory/03-3_hawaiilabor/03-3_hawaiilabor.htm


  1. ^ Melanie Hicken, Business Insider, “Most Expensive Strikes in History”. Feb. 29, 2012.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Rice & Roses presents “1946: The Great Hawai’i Sugar Strike” 1997.
  3. ^ The Hilo Massacre: Hawaii's Bloody Monday, August 1st, 1938 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, Center for Labor Education & Research, 1988). http://www.hawaii.edu/uhwo/clear/Pubs/HiloMassacre.html
  4. ^ a b Frank Thompson, “Breaking feudal power in Hawaii (some historic interviews).” Page 24.

Melanie Hicken, Business Insider, “Most Expensive Strikes in History”. Feb. 29, 2012. Rice & Roses presents “1946: The Great Hawai’i Sugar Strike” 1997. The Hilo Massacre: Hawaii's Bloody Monday, August 1, 1938 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, Center for Labor Education & Research, 1988). http://www.hawaii.edu/uhwo/clear/Pubs/HiloMassacre.html Frank Thompson, “Breaking feudal power in Hawaii (some historic interviews).” Page 24