Until statehood, Hawaii was ruled economically by a consortium of corporations known as the “Big Five”: C. Brewer and Co. , sugar, ranching, and chemicals, founded in 1826; Theo. H. Davies & Co. , sugar, investments, insurance, and transportation, founded in 1845; Amfac Inc. (originally H. Hackfield Inc. -a German firm that changed its name and ownership during the anti-German sentiment of WW I to American Factors), sugar, insurance, and land development, founded in 1849; Castle and Cooke Inc. (Dole) pineapple, food packing, and land development, founded 1851; and Alexander and Baldwin Inc. shipping, sugar, and pineapple, founded in 1895.
This economic oligarchy ruled Hawaii with a velvet glove and a steel grip. With members on all important corporate boards, they controlled all major commerce, including banking, shipping, insurance, hotel development, agriculture, utilities, and wholesale and retail merchandising. Anyone trying to buck the system was ground to dust, finding it suddenly impossible to do business in the islands.
The Big Five were made up of the islands’ oldest and most well-established haole families; all included bloodlines from Hawaii’s own nobility and ali’i. They looked among themselves for suitable husbands and wives, so breaking in from the outside even through marriage was hardly possible. The only time they were successfully challenged prior to statehood was when Sears, Roebuck and Co. opened a store on Oahu. Closing ranks, the Big Five decreed that their steamships would not carry Sears’s freight.
When Sears threatened to buy its own steamship line, the Big Five relented. In the end, statehood, and more to the point, tourism, broke their oligarchy. After 1960 too much money was at stake for Mainland-based orporations to ignore. Eventually the grip of the Big Five was loosened, but they are still enormously powerful and richer than ever, though these days they don’t control everything. Now their power is land. With only five other major landholders, the Big Five control 65 percent of all the privately held land in Hawaii.
Why was the 1946 Strike so important? Before 1946, Hawaii’s economy, politics and social structures were completely dominated by a corporate elite known as the Big Five (Alexander & Baldwin, American Factors, Castle & Cooke, C. Brewer, & Theo. Davies). The leaders of these factor companies exercised absolute control over Hawaii’s plantation workers and the majority of the islands multi-ethnic workforce. The 1946 strike forever changed the balance of power between workers and the plantations.
No longer would living and working conditions be set unilaterally by the plantation owners or their parent corporations. Nor was the lesson lost on the workers outside the plantation either. As sugar workers were now successful in challenging the plantations, so too would all the other employers often ubsidiaries of one of the Big Five now be brought to the bargaining table to improve their wages and working conditions. The 1946 sugar strike was monumental both in terms of the numbers of people involved and the issues at stake.
Never before had all the sugar workers of every ethnic group joined together in the same labor organization. Previous efforts of the workers to organize had been easily smashed because of a lack of worker solidarity across ethnic lines. Japanese workers belonged to their own higher wage association just as the Filipino sugar workers had their own union. Bitter lessons were learned from the unsuccessful 1909 and 1920 Japanese strikes and the 1920, 1924 and 1937 Filipino labor movements which failed because of ethnic unionism.
The great strike of 1946 started with a new premise of organizing workers of all races into a single labor union. Never again would workers be divided and conquered because of ethnic antagonism. This strategy of ethnic solidarity was successful but it was not easy. A concerted effort to include the concerns and issues of all Hawai’i’s workers, to communicate in every language was necessary for the multi-ethnic union to succeed.
The legacy of the great Hawaiian sugar strike of 1946 is the success we can see today of Hawai’i’s multi-ethnic workforce to bridge ethnic differences and build trust based on worker solidarity. Hawai’i’s diverse workforce united in 1946 and began for the first time to form a single working class culture, unique to Hawai’i. Like today, the issues of housing, medical care, pensions and wages were key issues for the 1946 sugar workers. Previously the quality of housing, medical care and old-age pensions depended upon the whim of individual plantations.
The 946 sugar strike negotiated new labor relations establishing these important issues as contractual rights of workers, rather than as favors the plantations could wield to force worker compliance. Thus, the 1946 sugar strike is an event whose impact reaches beyond the sugar fields, into the lives of every worker in Hawai’i. Importantly, the role of the neighbor islands in the 1946 sugar strike was tremendous. Concentrated, community-based organizing made these communities a special place in the history of Hawai’is working people.
The 1946 strike was the irst island-wide sugar strike, the first industry-wide shut-down in Hawai’i’s history. The strength of the 1946 sugar strike and the community organizing it built upon was so solid on the neighbor islands, especially Kaua’i and Hawai’i, that it soon became the bedrock of a new political order. The active support and involvement of family and workers throughout Hawai’i, made this strike a success. Appropriately, the history of the 1946 sugar strike is the history of community organizing all members of the community including wives and children.
The success of the strike built upon the support of not just workers, but workers families both relatives who had left the plantations and children themselves only a few years from working for the plantations. The story of the 1946 sugar strike includes soup kitchens, morale committees with talent nights and dances, community garden, hunting and fishing parties, bumming committees to solicit from stores and other supporters, baseball teams through which organizers like Major Okada met and solicited new members. The 1946 strike is recent enough that many adults have a recollection of the vents.
But our young people and even many adults in their 20s and 30s have neither memories, nor access to their history in regards to this important event that changed the way workers and employers in Hawai’i interact not only sugar workers, but all workers. The legacy of the 1946 sugar strike is larger than sugar. Its legacy is the formation of a multiethnic community force working together to address social and political problems. Community organizing not only won the 1946 sugar strike, it also laid the foundation for political change including the Democratic Revolution of 1954.