Hawaiʻi Workers and Labor Day

With determined effort, labor unions organized to change policies and conditions for workers. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act allowed union membership in the U.S. In 1937 the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (I.L.W.U.) organized in Hawai‘i. A diverse group of workers joined the union: Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, Puerto Rican, Korean, and Filipino.

The annual celebration of the economic achievements of U.S. workers occurs on the first Monday in September. Americans first celebrated the holiday in New York City in 1882. After violence related to the Pullman railroad strike and political efforts, President Grover Cleveland established a federal holiday in 1894.

The Lyman Museum preserves labor union documents within the records of four sugar companies: Kohala, Hāmākua, C. Brewer and Hilo Coast Processing. The Archives is open for research by appointment. Learn more at https://lymanmuseum.org/archives/research-collection/.

Japanese workers lived in thatched homes in Nikai Camp, Wainaku, ca. 1892. Improvements and standardization in worker housing occurred with the rise of labor unions.
Hawaiʻi Island laborers using mules to carry sugar cane to the flumes, ca. 1900. The first immigrant laborers arrived after the passing of the Masters and Servants Act in 1850. Early contracts offered transportation and basic needs in exchange for specified years of service. Workers often found their working circumstances difficult.
Filipino investigators met with Hilo Sugar Company manager, W. L. S. Williams, at the Waiakea Mill Store, ca. 1927.
The International Longshore Workers Union from Olaʻa participated in a parade in Hilo in 1946 (Photo by Yasuki Arakaki).
Labor strikes in the 20thcentury led to improvements for workers. In 1938 the I.L.W.U. confronted the Inter-Island Steamship Company, citing the pay of West Coast workers. On August 1, 1938 conflict erupted when 200 unarmed protestors marching to the wharf. They were met by 70 armed police officers. When the officers began shooting, 50 workers were injured. Residents called the incident “Bloody Monday.”
Companies and unions created documents like this 1966 Agreement Between Paauhau Sugar Co. and I.L.W.U. Local 142 to address benefits, discrimination, grievances, hours and overtime, housing, seniority, and wages. Companies also maintained lists of union members, arbitration deals, and contracts.