Attorney fought for underdogsBy Mary Adamski
ATTORNEY Harriet Bouslog, a feisty advocate for ILWU strikers and other working people at a time when it was unpopular and unpolitic, is credited with playing a part in changing Hawaii from a near-feudal society led by powerful landowners.
The flamboyant labor lawyer was involved in landmark legal battles in the 1940s and 1950s that led to broadened ethnic representation on juries and the abolition of the death penalty here. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld her own exercise of freedom of speech after she was disbarred by the territorial government for remarks that allegedly disparaged the court system.
"Her defense of labor at a very, very critical time made a tremendous difference in terms of Hawaii's labor relations policy. She set the stage for industrial relations, for when we began to seriously talk about collective bargaining and mutual respect emerged for both parties," said Joyce Chinen, associate sociology professor at the University of Hawaii West Oahu campus. Chinen talks about Bouslog's contributions in her Peoples of Hawaii class, and said women's studies and labor history classes also discuss the lawyer, who died last year at 85.
Florida-born Bouslog was the rare woman lawyer when she was admitted to the Hawaii bar in 1941. After working for the International Longshore and Warehousemen's Union in Washington, D.C., during World War II, she was recruited to return to Hawaii in 1946 to defend 400 union members charged under a century-old law against unlawful assembly and riot for their picket line activity.
She combined all the cases into what was the first omnibus civil rights suit in Hawaii, claiming that the law was unconstitutional. She kept the cases from going to trial and the charges were eventually dismissed. In the 1949 ILWU dock strike, Bouslog challenged the mostly Caucasian makeup of the grand jury that indicted Asian workers, which led to reform in the constitution of jury.
"I'd call her a premature civil libertarian," said Ah Quon McElrath, retired ILWU social worker. "What she did laid the model for subsequent actions in civil liberties and self-determination. She had the kind of creative intellect that led her to interpret the law very differently.
"She took on the power of the Big Five -- that is what was so magnificent about what this woman did," McElrath said. "She stuck to her guns in the interests of the working people, of civil liberties, basically of the underdog ... at a time when very few establishment attorneys would."
The islands were swept up in post-World War II fear of Communists and Bouslog again took the unpopular and not politically correct side. She was part of the defense team for the "Hawaii Seven" who were convicted under the Smith Act of conspiring to teach the violent overthrow of the U.S. government -- convictions later overturned by a federal appeals court.
Bouslog and her law partner Myer Symonds represented the underdog throughout their 30-year association which ended in 1979. That year they were presented the Allan F. Saunders Award of the American Civil Liberties Union for their defense of constitutional liberties.
McElrath said, "Very few attorneys would have handled the cases they did, because the time of real battles in favor of civil rights had not begun."