International Longshoreman's and Warehouseman's Union

The International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU) that developed from the longshore industry of the Pacific Coast played an important role in Hawai'i's economic and political life particularly during the leadership of labor organizer Jack Hall who sought to influence the Democratic Party under John Burns.

Early Union History in Hawai'i

The ILWU has an extensive history in the West Coast longshore industry in the United States. Although a few unions were established in the nineteenth century, only in 1902 were longshoremen loosely affiliated with the American Federation of Labor's International Longshoremen's Association (ILA). However, most returned or lost their charters within a few years. Eventually in 1909, a loose federation was established and by 1910 the longshoremen decided to re-affiliate with the ILA. Prior to the establishment of the ILWU, a number of unions existed in Hawai'i primarily in the utility, shipping, and printing fields. However, union membership only totaled about 500 in 1935 as a result of the economic control wielded by the Big Five. [1] By 1937, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) promoted collective bargaining and one year later these early unions affiliated with the West Coast ILWU as separate locals. Eventually workers formed four territory-wide locals: Local 136-Longshore and Allied Workers of Hawai'i, Local 142-United Sugar Workers, Local 150-Warehouse, Manufacturing & Allied Workers, and Local 152-Pineapple and Cannery Workers. Eventually union membership grew to 10,000 but the establishment of martial law during World War II froze jobs and pay and union activity was curtailed by labor restrictions. Subsequently union membership declined to only 4,000 or less during the first years of the war although an estimated 25,000 to 35,000 temporary workers on O'ahu were members of mainland unions. [2]

In the spring of 1945, the legislature passed the Hawaii Employment Relations Act, popularly known as the "Little Wagner Act," that extended collective bargaining rights to agricultural laborer. Under its provisions, representatives of the sugar industry and the ILWU signed the first agricultural labor contract ever negotiated in Hawai'i by free collective bargaining. It gave a seven-cents-an-hour increase in pay to 20,000 sugar workers who included Japanese laborers, provided for collective bargaining, and specified hours and working conditions. By 1947, union leaders estimated that the majority of their 40,000 members belonged to the ILWU with other individuals belonging to the National Union of Maritime Cooks and Stewards, the American Communications Association, and the American Federal of Labor. While only twelve labor contracts existed in 1943, by 1947 there were 156 in existence in 116 separate business enterprises.

Jack Hall and the ILWU

The growing strength of the ILWU can in part be traced to the leadership of Jack Wayne Hall, a labor organizer who arrived in the Islands in 1935. In 1944, Hall was named the first regional director of the ILWU and worked tirelessly to overcome the racial barriers that traditionally had separated Hawai'i's workers on the plantations. Hall constantly reminded workers that "An injury to one is an injury to all." [3] The ILWU in Hawai'i actively courted the multiracial plantation and dock workers despite the suspension of one ILWU unit in Stockton, California, that refused to work with a Japanese American. Working together with ILWU leaders including Harry Bridges (who was later married to Noriko Sawada "Nikki" Bridges) the ILWU in Hawai'i became mobilized for workers' rights. In 1946, in the first major sugar strike after the war 21,000 workers on 33 plantations struck for 79 days resulting in a change from the system of perquisites—benefits augmenting wages—to one of cash payments. Following the strike, the ILWU numbered 30,000 members, a significant increase from 900 three years earlier and was by far the most powerful union in Hawai'i. In 1952, the territory-wide locals merged to form a single, consolidated Local 142 to promote economic and political cooperation among workers.

The economic strength of the union became reflected in its political influence as the union became involved in the democratic party under the leadership of John Burns. According to Hall, "We simply believe that laboring people should have their say on how our government is run and what laws our legislative bodies enact." [4] Under the leadership of Hall, the ILWU began endorsing candidates including Burns who ran for delegate to Congress and later governor of Hawai'i. However, after a particularly contentious longshore strike in Hawai'i in 1949 to raise wages up to the West Coast level that lasted for 177 days and resulted in shortages of foodstuffs and supplies and 17 percent unemployment, negative sentiment started to grow against the ILWU. As a result of the fear of communist influences within the union, in August 1951 Hall and six others were indicted and eventually convicted under the Smith Act on charges of conspiring to teach and advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government by force. Charges against Hall and his co-defendants were reversed five years later by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals but the ILWU was not immune to the fear of communism in America.

ILWU and the Present

With the growing mechanization of the sugar and pineapple industries as well as waterfront operations, there has been a significant decline in union membership. The number of sugar workers dropped from 50,000 in 1932 to 23,000 in 1947 and later to 4,888 in 1990. The statewide longshore work force of 2,066 at the time of the 1947 strike dropped to 1,202 by 1970, and finally to 740 in 1990. With mechanization inevitable, the union has worked actively with employers during this labor transition. Beginning in 1952 the ILWU began to work out agreements to make it attractive for older workers to voluntarily retire. Separation pay and repatriation allowances enabled older Philippine workers to return home with sizable sums before normal retirement age as part of a pioneering program that preceded other West Coast longshore agreements. To cope with longshore layoffs due to mechanization and containerization that began in the early 1960s, longshoremen and other clerks were flown to other islands and Pacific Coast ports where jobs were plentiful This labor loan program still operates. According to one observer, "The workforce was shrunk from the top instead of cut from the bottom." [5] In 1969 Robert McElrath succeeded Hall as regional director when Hall moved to California as ILWU vice president in charge of organization and McElrath would be replaced in June 1978 by Thomas E. (Tommy) Trask.

Despite these changes the ILWU can still boast of a long history of helping Hawai'i's workers. Working with other unions such as the United Public Workers, HGEA, and AFL-CIO, the ILWU initiated or supported legislation on civil service, education, and taxation and promoted culture and the arts. It actively encouraged economic development, tourism, agriculture, and conservation. It also advocated no-fault insurance, programs for the elderly, child-care, youth services, as well as consumer protection and immigrant services. It continues to advocate on behalf of Hawai'i workers and play a role in the Islands' electoral politics.

Authored by Kelli Y. Nakamura , University of Hawai'i

For More Information

Beechert, Edward D. Working in Hawaii: a Labor History . Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1985.

ILWU website.

ILWU Local 142 website.

Jung, Moon-Kie. Reworking Race: the Making of Hawaii's Interracial Labor Movement . New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

Schwartz, Harvey. Solidarity Stories: an Oral History of the ILWU . Seattle: University of Washington Press, c2009.

Zalburg, Sanford. A Spark is Struck! Jack Hall & the ILWU in Hawaii . Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii, 1979.


  1. Gwenfread Allen, Hawaii's War Years: 1941-1945 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1950), 377.
  2. Allen, Hawaii's War Years , 377.
  3. Visions of a Man: Tommy Trask & the ILWU (Aiea, Hawaii: Island Heritage Publishing, 1991), 9.
  4. Sanford Zalburg, A Spark is Struck! Jack Hall & the ILWU in Hawaii (Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii, 1979), xi.
  5. Visions of a Man , 11.

Last updated May 14, 2024, 4:07 p.m..