Labor Actions Changed Hawai`i Work Life

Workers toiled in hot sun to harvest cane.

Workers toiled in hot sun to harvest cane.

Before World War II, Hawaii was run by an oligarchy for the benefit of the plantations which had brought in thousands of workers and created a unique multicultural social structure. Workers were housed in plantation villages called “camps,” and many of their needs, from medical care to kerosene for the stove, were provided by the plantation.

Early in the 20th century, workers began to strike in an effort to gain better wages and more autonomy. Their efforts were suspended during the war, when all jobs and wages were “frozen,” and it would have seemed unpatriotic to challenge the existing power structure.

Once martial law was lifted in 1944, however, union organizers got to work. They broke the back of the “perquisite” system in 1946 with the first territory-wide sugar strike. Workers sought higher wages, rather than plantation-provided homes in camps where many of the old and relatively primitive houses did not have indoor plumbing.

The shipping strike of 1949 is perhaps the best remembered of all the strikes in Hawai`i history. Longshoremen struck over a wage increase, leaving full ships tied up at Kahului Harbor and stopping harvests in the cane fields as raw sugar piled up in local warehouses.

When the strike finally ended 177 days later, millions of dollars had been lost, businesses had gone bankrupt, and the entire Territory had suffered. For the rest of the century, rumors of a dock strike would send consumers scurrying to stock up on rice and toilet paper.

They also, in many cases, benefited from the sacrifice and labor of those who risked everything to improve the lot of workers in the future. It wasn’t easy to strike against an employer who controlled not only your job but your house and most of the rest of your life. We owe them a lot!

(Adapted from Island Life 101: A Newcomer’s Guide to Hawai`i.  Happy Labor Day!)

4 thoughts on “Labor Actions Changed Hawai`i Work Life

  1. Char Mansfield

    Mahalo, Jill, for this labor history lesson. So appropriate for Labor Day!

    • Jill

      We owe a lot to those people in the early labor movement, not just in Hawaii but across the country.

  2. Jane

    I remember my maternal grandmother talking about that strike. She still spoke in awe of how scary a time that was. Yes, they were very brave with lots of conflicting emotions, affections, and loyalties.

    • Jill

      It was a tough time. People who struck risked not only their jobs but their houses!

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