The Great Hawai‘i Sugar Strike
Rice & Roses
September 1996 marked the 50th year since the Great Hawai'i Sugar Strike that in large degree forever changed the islands economically, politically, and socially. Under the leadership of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU) About twenty six thousand sugar workers and their families, 76 thousand people in all, began a 79-day strike on September 1, 1946 that completely shut down 33 of the 34 sugar plantations in the islands. The 1946 sugar strike brought an end to Hawai'i's paternalistic labor relations ushering in a new era of participatory democracy both on the plantations and throughout Hawai'i's political and social institutions.
Our special hour-long Rice & Roses documentary includes interviews with surviving strikers and their relatives and friends from all the islands who organized the food-kitchens and support committees and an array of never-before-seen photos and artifacts from a two-year research project conducted by the Center for Labor Education and Research.
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Why was the 1946 Strike so important?
Before 1946, Hawai‘i's economy, politics and social structures were completely dominated by a corporate elite known as the Big Five (Alexander & Baldwin, American Factors, Castle & Cooke, C. Brewer, & Theo. Davies). The leaders of these factor companies exercised absolute control over Hawai‘i's plantation workers and the majority of the islands multi-ethnic workforce. The 1946 strike forever changed the balance of power between workers and the plantations. No longer would living and working conditions be set unilaterally by the plantation owners or their parent corporations. Nor was the lesson lost on the workers outside the plantation either. As sugar workers were now successful in challenging the plantations, so too would all the other employers often subsidiaries of one of the Big Five now be brought to the bargaining table to improve their wages and working conditions.
The 1946 sugar strike was monumental both in terms of the numbers of people involved and the issues at stake. Never before had all the sugar workers of every ethnic group joined together in the same labor organization. Previous efforts of the workers to organize had been easily smashed because of a lack of worker solidarity across ethnic lines. Japanese workers belonged to their own higher wage association just as the Filipino sugar workers had their own union. Bitter lessons were learned from the unsuccessful 1909 and 1920 Japanese strikes and the 1920, 1924 and 1937 Filipino labor movements which failed because of ethnic unionism. Longshoremen before them had learned that labor solidarity was the only way to achieve real success against such odds. With a new style of leadership, ILWU in Hawai'i led a campaign to organize workers of all races into a single labor union. Never again would workers be divided and conquered because of ethnic antagonism. This strategy of ethnic solidarity was successful but it was not easy. A concerted effort to include the concerns and issues of all Hawai`i's workers, to communicate in every language was necessary for the multi-ethnic union to succeed.
The legacy of the great Hawaiian sugar strike of 1946 is the success we can see today of Hawai‘i's multi-ethnic workforce to bridge ethnic differences and build trust based on worker solidarity. Hawai'i's diverse workforce united in 1946 and began for the first time to form a single working class culture, unique to Hawai'i.
Like today, the issues of housing, medical care, pensions and wages were key issues for the 1946 sugar workers. Previously the quality of housing, medical care and old-age pensions depended upon the whim of individual plantations. As a result of the 1946 sugar strike, the ILWU negotiated a new era for labor relations, establishing these important issues as contractual rights of workers, rather than as favors the plantations could wield to force worker compliance. Thus, the 1946 sugar strike is an event whose impact reaches beyond the sugar fields, into the lives of every worker in Hawai‘i.
Importantly, the role of the neighbor islands in the 1946 sugar strike was tremendous. Concentrated, community-based organizing made these communities a special place in the history of Hawai'i's working people. The 1946 strike was the first island-wide sugar strike, the first industry-wide shut-down in Hawai'i's history. The strength of the 1946 sugar strike and the community organizing it built upon was so solid on the neighbor islands, especially Kaua'i and Hawai'i, that it soon became the bedrock of a new political order.
The active support and involvement of union, family and workers throughout Hawai‘i, made this strike a success. Appropriately, the history of the 1946 sugar strike is the history of community organizing all members of the community including wives and children. The success of the strike built upon the support of not just workers, but workers' families, both relatives who had left the plantations and children themselves only a few years from working for the plantations. The story of the 1946 sugar strike includes soup kitchens, morale committees with talent nights and dances, community garden, hunting and fishing parties, bumming committees to solicit from stores and other supporters, baseball teams through which organizers like Major Okada met and solicited new members.
The 1946 strike is recent enough that many adults have a recollection of the events. But our young people and even many adults in their 20s and 30s have neither memories, nor access to their history in regards to this important event that changed the way workers and employers in Hawai‘i interact not only sugar workers, but all workers. The legacy of the 1946 sugar strike is larger than sugar. Its legacy is the formation of a multiethnic community force working together to address social and political problems. Community organizing not only won the 1946 sugar strike, it also laid the foundation for political change including the Democratic Revolution of 1954.
The 1946 sugar strike is an element of our past firmly embedded in our present selves. It is a catalyst for many social and political changes that we have completely incorporated into our sense of community. Dignity for working people; a living wage for our families; a multi-ethnic community working together for social change, meeting the challenges of the future head-on. Labors history is everyone's history. Hawai'i has a proud, vigorous labor history that addresses the lessons our young people must learn today how do you work with others to improve your community?
For more information, check out these two videos from CLEAR's video library:
Videos of these programs and many other programs describing Hawai'i's unique labor history are available for borrowing within the State of Hawai‘i pursuant to our "Borrowing Policy" -all of which may be found on our Video Library page.
CLEAR is still seeking the assistance of any and everyone who was involved in or has photos or memorabilia of any sort from this landmark historical event. O'ahu residents can call CLEAR at 454-4774 and leave a message (or email) for Dr. Puette. Neighbor Island residents can call the local offices of the ILWU [Kaua‘i - 245-3374; Maui - 244-9191; Hawai‘i- 935-3727]