Hawaii’s World

By A.A. Smyser

Thursday, April 29, 1999

Dock strike
50 years ago
was wrenching

IN 53 years with the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, I never went through a more community-wrenching period than the dock strike that began 50 years ago Saturday -- May 1, 1949 -- and lasted until Oct. 7. The Pearl Harbor attack unified the community. The dock strike polarized it.

The start was calm enough, but tensions grew the longer supply ships were blocked from all islands. Food hoarding began. Supplies diminished. Construction and other businesses slumped. Workers having nothing to do with the docks were laid off or put on part-time. Prices rose. Toilet paper was a famous item in short supply.

At the Star-Bulletin we experienced a double whammy. The size of our papers shrank along with our newsprint supply. Our income was sharply cut when three principal department store advertisers canceled ads to protest our advocacy of an arbitrated settlement. The ILWU, which called the strike, wanted arbitration but the dock employers distrusted it.

The Honolulu Advertiser, our opposition paper, sided solidly with the employers. It spread periodic "Dear Joe" letters across the top of page one. These really were editorials moved to page one as a manifestation of the intense emotion over the strike.

"Dear Joe" had a double entendre. Ostensibly the letters were to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin from a Hawaii Communist. They told him Hawaii was being disrupted just as planned. The real target, however, was Joseph R. Farrington, then publisher of this newspaper and also Hawaii's delegate to Congress.

The ILWU had endorsed Farrington's re-election in both 1946 and 1948. It did so primarily based on Farrington's and the Star-Bulletin's all-out fight for statehood for Hawaii. On this issue, the Advertiser was dragging its feet. The "Dear Joe" editorials took the position that the ILWU was Communist-led, the strike had international overtones and the Star-Bulletin was an accomplice.

Later, Jack W. Hall, regional director of the ILWU, swore he had not been a Communist after 1950. He probably was one at the time of the strike, along with other union leaders.

It became quite clear later they had joined the Communist Party only because it was one of the few organizations to offer them help in organizing labor. The National Labor Relations Board's representative in Hawaii, a disillusioned former Communist, told me he told Hall something like:

"Jack, you never can be a good Communist. You have a conscience."

By July 1949, there was hardly a person in Hawaii not personally affected by the shortages and emotionally involved with one side or the other. It was complete community polarization, partly ethnic.

A "Broom Brigade" of broom-brandishing women favoring the employers picketed the Star-Bulletin and jammed the office of Gov. Ingram Stainback. About that time, he did a wise thing. He named a fact-finding board to hold public hearings and make recommendations. This worked like a safety valve as witnesses publicly vented feelings.

The strike dragged on but with less tension. The territorial Legislature voted to seize the docks. Some relief ships came in. Finally a solution was hammered out including the 14-cent-an-hour raise recommended by the fact-finders plus an extra seven cents the following February.

Even with the strike over, unemployment continued to climb, in part because of sugar and pineapple mechanizations to pay union-won benefits. It got close to 20 percent before the Korean War broke in mid-1950 and revitalized military operations here.

A.A. Smyser is the contributing editor
and former editor of the the Star-Bulletin
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.

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