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Hawaii’s Labor Story

Fighting in Paradise: Labor Unions, Racism, and Communists in the Making of Modern Hawaii
Gerald Horne
University of Hawaii Press
336 pages
$28.99

In this deeply researched portrait of Hawaii’s plantation era zeitgeist, Dr. Gerald Horne, Professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston intimately details Hawaii’s transition from a conservative citadel to the liberal bastion it remains to this day.

It was in the 1930’s when a powerful labor movement–one that would play a huge part in shaping the politics of modern Hawaii–began on the docks with Hawaii’s stevedores. Although a few small unions had existed already, it was the International Longshore and Warehouseman’s Union (ILWU) that organized laborers slaving under the iron fist of the “boss haole elite” corporations known collectively as the “Big Five.”

Recognizing the fact that management was intentionally pitting racial groups against each other, the ILWU organizers worked to build bridges, solidify relations and unite workers. Once organized, through a series of strikes the workers were able to usher in a new era; they negotiated for higher pay (and benefits), laid the groundwork for the Democratic Party to take hold, and even helped promote the eventual statehood of Hawaii.

Labor organizers like Aussie-born Harry Bridges and Midwesterner Jack Hall are elaborately profiled. Accused of being Communists–although their affiliation to the CP remains questionable to this day–these Leftist radicals were loathed by their Right-wing elitist counterparts who would often go to great lengths to discredit them in the media.

Other local and transplant radicals of the time are similarly profiled; including Jack Kawano, a pre-ILWU labor organizer in Hawaii; Koji Ariyoshi, founder and editor of Honolulu’s first Leftist newspaper the Honolulu Record; and African American poet/writer Frank Marshall Davis, who would eventually come to know and reputedly mentor a young Barack Obama.

Anyone interested in how far Hawaii has come in terms of racial equality and labor rights would be hard-pressed to find a more informational read. Although Fighting in Paradise reads like a text book at times, the power of the information therein–workers banding together to take on their oppressors–is as relevant today as it was then.