Hawaiians strike against Inter-Island Steam Navigation Company Limited, 1938

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Timing
Time Period:  
4 February
1938
to
15 August
1938
Location and Goals
Country: 
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii
Location Description: 
Hawaii was not yet a state in 1938. The strike was based out of Honolulu but people from Kauai and Hawaii participated through solidarity actions.
Goals: 
To get better wages and working conditions

To make industry owners agree to having a Union Shop

 

Hawaiian workers attempting to organize unions in the 1920s and 1930s faced enormous difficulties. They met stern opposition from an alliance of plantation owners and large companies, including the Inter-Island Steam Navigation Company. Hawaiian workers were also divided into various ethnic groups, which made it easy for the companies to use a policy of divide-and-rule.

After mass pressure on the U.S. government from the state-side industrial workers in the 1930s, the U.S. Congress passed the Wagner Act in 1935. This Act legalized unions and guaranteed most workers’ right to join them.

On 22 November 1935 an activist from California, Harry Kamoku, organized Hawaii’s first multi-racial union: the Hilo Longshoreman's Association. In 1937, the union joined the California-based International Longshoreman's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU) but opened its headquarters in Hawai'i'.

The unions wanted workers in Hawaii receive equal pay to those in the West Coast of the United States. They also demanded that union shops, or closed shops, be accepted by company owners to ensure that employers would not take advantage of their workers by making sure all non-union workers joined a union. They also wanted to close the gap on hours worked: West Coast workers worked five days a week while Inter-Island workers worked six or seven days a week with inconvenient and irregular hours.

In 1938 the Hilo Longshoreman’s Association (HLA) targeted the Inter-Island Steam Navigation Company Limited to get better wages and working conditions and accept a union shop.

In their first action the workers stopped unloading cargo from the company’s four steamers, The SS Humuula, SS Hawaii, the SS Waialeale, and the SS Hualalai in Honolulu, Oahu on 4 February 1938.

The union tried negotiating in March and April of 1938 with Inter-Island and got nowhere, despite the sound economic condition of the company. The company then laid off about 150 dock workers between April and May, and initiated a public relations campaign to sway public opinion.

After another month of talks in May, union representatives walked out of the negotiations and set up pickets and a strike starting 27 May in front of company piers. The pickets protested the company’s inflexibility.

Inter-Island followed up with full page advertisements in local newspapers denouncing the “closed shop” proposal.

For the next three weeks, the strike continued while Inter-Island strengthened its ties to other island corporations, toughening its resistance to the workers. Inter-Island began to hire non-union replacement workers in order to break the strike. There were enough scabs to keep two of the ships in complete service; a third ship, the SS Waialeale would be put back in service on 6 July 1938.

By July 1938, Inter-Island was debating whether or not union strikers should be allowed back into the positions they held pre-strike. Throughout this time, the strikers grew increasingly frustrated. There were a few incidents of strikers beating taxi drivers who drove scabs to work.

Then came a report that on 7 July that there was an attempt to blow up the SS Waialeale. The company blamed the workers. This discredited the unions in the eyes of the press and larger public.

In response, union leaders worked hard to set stricter guidelines and rules about public behavior.

On 19 July full cargo service to Kauai, Maui and Hilo was restored on the SS Waialeale. The steamer became the focus of union attention. In Hilo, Harry Kamoku reached a “gentlemen’s agreement” with the local Inter-Island manager three days after the steamer returned to service. The manager agreed that the SS Waialeale would not return full cargo service to Hilo; it would deliver only its mail, passengers, and some automobiles, in return for union members not demonstrating at the pier.

The steamer left Hilo with 500 tons of cargo still loaded on board.

On 27 July in Kauai, 150 longshoremen showed solidarity with Inter-Island workers from Honolulu and demonstrated when the SS Waialeale docked in Nawiliwili.

The Hilo Chamber of Commerce intervened, demanding that a full shipment be made to Hilo. The SS Waialeale was in fact scheduled to dock in Hilo Bay on 1 August 1938.

Harry Kamoku was watching from early in the morning for the steamer. He spotted it off Pepeekeo point. Kamoku spread the word and by 8:30 am the majority of the unionists began to arrive. About 200 protesters came in all. Police told the workers they were not allowed to board the ship or approach any closer.

The crowd began to march to Pier 2, where the ship Waialeale would dock, while singing, "The more we get together, together, together; the more we get together, the better we'll be!" In the back of the crowd the women were singing, "Hail, hail the gang's all here."

They approached the police-drawn "dead line," beyond which police would physically attempt to halt marchers. As the protesters arrived at the “dead line,” police threw 12 tear gas grenades into the crowd. The crowd broke a part; a few ran away while others threw the tear gas back at police officers.

The remaining protesters reassembled and again walked toward Pier 2. Police prepared to shoot sea water at the marchers through fire truck hoses. Firemen sprayed the marchers with water but did not manage to make them back down. They succeeded, however, in clearing the tear gas out of the air and cooling the gravel in front Pier 2 down, making it easier for marchers to reach the ship.

Workers sat down in place, refusing to leave the area. They used this time to prepare to move toward the ship once more. Police warned the protesters that they would use force if necessary. Protesters responded by fanning out into a semi-circle in front of the ship. Police mirrored their action in order to deter them.

The head police officer ordered his men to change their ammunition from the larger buckshot to the less harmful birdshot. Only some officers heard the command; many continued with their buckshot ready.

A lieutenant approached a member in the crowd and demanded that he leave. The man stood his ground. The lieutenant stabbed the man in the back with his bayonet when he refused to move. Another man in the crowd tried to defend the stabbed protester. The lieutenant stepped up to him and hit him with the rear end of his gun. At about 10:20 am, the head officer ordered the policemen to fire at the crowd. At least 16 rounds of ammunition were fired: seven birdshot and nine buckshot. Two women and two children were shot in the process. The firing lasted for about 5 minutes.

The Inter-Island strike ended two weeks later on 15 August 1938. While the strike failed to achieve their goals, the strike, what became known as the Hilo Massacre succeeded in strengthening unionization and instilling in the people an urgency to fight for their rights. In that way the strike led to future strikes on the islands.

Research Notes
Influences: 

West Coast workers' wages and working conditions (1)

Sources: 
Holmes, T. Michael. The Specter of Communism in Hawaii. University of Hawaii Press, 1994.

The Hilo Massacre: Hawaii's Bloody Monday, August 1st, 1938 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, Center for Labor Education & Research, 1988).

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Alexis Dziedziech, 25/03/13