Interracial Coalitions and the Hawaiian Sugar Strike of 1946

Laborers loading sugar cane on carts, 1917

Alongside the rapid growth of American capitalism in the late 1800s into the 1900s, workers during this period organized themselves across the country to improve their lives. Trade unions in Chicago held massive rallies and strikes calling for eight-hour work days. The Industrial Army Movement, including workers from Portland, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, marched on Washington D.C. in the midst of an economic depression. Labor strife was no exception on the Hawaiian Islands. Sugar plantation laborers held a pivotal strike in 1946 considered “the most successful strike in the history of agricultural labor in the United States.”[1]

Hawaii is an exceptional case in American labor history because of its workforce made up of mostly non-white and immigrant workers—particularly of indigenous Hawaiian, Filipino, Japanese, Chinese, and Portuguese descent. A group of five families, from American, German, and English backgrounds, dominated the economic and political circumstances on the islands. The “Big 5,” as they were known, owned the sugar estates and all resources needed to produce finished products such as food, hardware, and shipping supplies.[2]

Sugar owners lacked a workforce and incentive large enough to attract migration of workers from the U.S. mainland to the islands. Thus, contract laborers were recruited from other countries to build a multi-ethnic workforce. In 1922, “2,533 Portuguese, 16,992 Japanese, and 18,189 Filipinos” made up about 85% of the sugar production workforce.[3]

Plantation workers with clothing to protect skin and prevent centipedes from entering

Before the successful labor strike in 1946, 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.[4] However, Hawaii’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. 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.

Growing cohesion between labor leaders from the U.S. West Coast and Hawaiian Islands led to a crucial turning point for Hawaiian laborers. The Matson Navigation Company, a Pacific-wide shipping service based in Hawaii, scheduled back and forth exchanges of products and workers between the West Coast and Hawaiian Island posts. These exchanges proved crucial to Hawaii’s “de-isolation” process. Hawaiians heard about the 1934 Waterfront Strike in San Francisco and maritime workers’ reputation as “probably among the world’s best organizers back then because of the nature of their travels and the people they came in contact with.”[5]

West Coast union members also knew about class struggles and racial discrimination in Hawaii, indicative in their newspapers. For example, information circulated about the Massie Case in 1931, which some called the “Pacific reenactment of the Scottsboro Nine case.”[6] A white woman accused two men, one Japanese and another of Chinese-Hawaiian descent, of molestation. Like the Scottsboro Boys’ case, the episode was heavily criticized as an example of racial discrimination, especially since a previous Hawaiian case sentenced a white man with light punishment after killing two Asian men.[7]

The years in between World War II saw immense repression for labor organizing on the islands. Hawaiian officials expressed harsher anti-union attitudes by undermining the National Labor Relations Board, canceling union contracts, and threatening workers.[8] 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 Hawaii are hiding around in the canefields, ready at a signal to leap out and stab us in the back.”[9] 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.[10]

Pent-up rage made workers receptive to ILWU organizers, due to the difficult conditions of life during the interwar period. 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.[11] 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, located on the main island, 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.[12]

Although the ILWU spoke to their essential needs, membership also grew as they learned that others around them were committed to the union. For example, when a worker needed funds to be bailed out, Shiro Hokama gave four-thousand dollars and recalled, “‘We were part of ‘them’ now.”[13]

Hawaiian unionized workers during this period were able to sustain unification with each other based on an understanding of class. Considering past tensions caused by nationalism among different groups, the ILWU’s “No Discrimination” campaign attracted members. For example, their article in The Dispatcher gave a brief history of how importation from various countries exploited laborers in Hawaii, which concluded with, “Let us all unite to work collectively, regardless of race, color, creed, or other differences.”[14] Similar messages were widely distributed and accounted for the education of workers in building their movement.

As the ILWU organizers were indeed planning for a general strike, many workers were concerned about food. Participation among union members in gathering food and meeting together to share food became a sustaining drive before and during the significant strike. Local farmers gave meat and vegetables in exchange for labor, such as cleaning or repairs. In addition, community kitchens were set up on each camp to provide meals for everyone with Japanese, Filipino, Portuguese food, or a mix of all three.[15] As Avelino Ramos recalled, “You had from Malasadas to Portuguese ladies who’d do all their baking […] and Japanese sushi […] it was really really a luau […] we as kids, I know we enjoyed that.”[16]

As union membership grew, the sugar planters expected a coming strike. The Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association began recruiting workers from the Philippines as a way to stir racial divisions. The HSPA allowed families to travel with laborers while offering to pay for ships and medical supplies. They also promised wages equal to other workers and a paid ticket back to Manila at the end of their contracts. The plan was very similar to the Bracero Program, an agreement made between Mexico and the United States, since the HSPA hoped to quell labor organizing by importing workers without citizenship.

Their plan, however, did not maneuver around the ILWU’s agenda. Union members, especially Filipino workers with ties to the incoming laborers from the Philippines, convinced them to join. Then, “many of the contracted Filipinos stepped onto the docks wearing a union button.”[17]

The cohesive building of solidarity among Hawaiian plantation workers through the ILWU led to work stoppage in August 1946. Beginning on Labor Day with parades and rallies, about 26,000 workers participated in the strike.[18] Besides plantation workers, ILWU dockworkers on the islands and on the U.S. mainland coasts shut down the flow of sugar and supplies. As the strike became a major success in stopping production for the Big Five, members stopped picketing on the plantations and moved to mass picketing at managers’ homes.

The strike improved the material conditions of Hawaiian workers. The union bargained for a thirty-five cent wage increase and a ban on foreign contract labor. Other features were implemented such as “a nondiscrimination policy, a formal grievance procedure, increased sickness and vacation allowances (six to nine days) […] seniority preferences, pensions, and severance pay.”[19]

At large, the strike became a predecessor to significant developments in Hawaiian history. Since the mid-1800s, sugar bosses maintained their positions on the islands by emphasizing differences among their workers and blocking coalition building. However, the ILWU’s “one big union” vision assembled a unified front that did not blur racial lines, but appreciated differences and highlighted class struggle as their common denominator. The successes of the 1946 sugar strike ultimately transformed Hawaiian laborers from semi-feudalistic conditions toward industrial wage-laborer statuses. Strong unionization also continued to represent immigrant laborers in the public sphere by supporting pro-labor legislation and establishing the Democratic Party on the islands in the 1950s. The process of unionizing workers for the historic sugar strike of 1946 brought tumult to the oligarchic families in Hawaii who had gone unchallenged for almost a century.

Miyako Martinez is an aspiring scholar earning a MA in history at Cal State Los Angeles. She is particularly interested in racial constructions, labor, and social movements in the U.S. 


[1] Valdés, Organized Agriculture and the Labor Movement Before the UFW, 146.

[2] Dionicio Nodín Valdés, Organized Agriculture and the Labor Movement Before the UFW (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011), 109.

[3] Moon-Kie Jung, Reworking Race (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 61.

[4] Valdés, Organized Agriculture and the Labor Movement Before the UFW, 122.

[5] Schwartz, Solidarity Stories, 242.

[6] Gerald Horne, Fighting in Paradise (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2011), 18.

[7] Horne, Fighting in Paradise, 18.

[8] Valdés, Organized Agriculture and the Labor Movement Before the UFW, 125.

[9] Blake Clark, “Japanese in Hawaii,” The New Republic 107, no. 11, California State University, Dominguez Hills Archives and Special Collections (1942): https://cdm16855.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p16855coll4/id/8455.

[10] Jung, Reworking Race, 107.

[11] Horne, Fighting in Paradise, 86.

[12] Jung, Reworking Race, 164.

[13] Schwartz, Solidarity Stories, 258.

[14] J. R. Robertson “‘Divide and Conquer’—That’s Bosses Race Line,” The Dispatcher 4, no. 8 (1946): 16, http://archive.ilwu.org/?page_id=348.

[15] Valdés, Organized Agriculture and the Labor Movement Before the UFW, 139.

[16] Avelino Ramos, interview by Harvey Schwartz, Labor Archives and Research Center, May 9, 1996

[17] Valdés, Organized Agriculture and the Labor Movement Before the UFW, 134.

[18] Valdés, Organized Agriculture and the Labor Movement Before the UFW, 136.

[19] Valdés, Organized Agriculture and the Labor Movement Before the UFW, 144.

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