Brewer and Co. , sugar, ranching, and chemicals,founded in 1826; Theo. H. Davies & Co. , sugar, investments, insurance, andtransportation, founded in 1845; Amfac Inc. (originally H.
Hackfield Inc. -aGerman firm that changed its name and ownership during the anti-German sentimentof WW I to American Factors), sugar, insurance, and land development, founded in1849; Castle and Cooke Inc. , (Dole) pineapple, food packing, and landdevelopment, founded 1851; and Alexander and Baldwin Inc. , shipping, sugar, andpineapple, founded in 1895. This economic oligarchy ruled Hawaii with a velvetglove and a steel grip. With members on all important corporate boards, theycontrolled all major commerce, including banking, shipping, insurance, hoteldevelopment, agriculture, utilities, and wholesale and retail merchandising.
Anyone trying to buck the system was ground to dust, finding it suddenlyimpossible to do business in the islands. The Big Five were made up of theislands’ oldest and most well-established haole families; all includedbloodlines from Hawaii’s own nobility and ali’i. They looked among themselvesfor suitable husbands and wives, so breaking in from the outside even throughmarriage was hardly possible. The only time they were successfully challengedprior to statehood was when Sears, Roebuck and Co.
opened a store on Oahu. Closing ranks, the Big Five decreed that their steamships would not carrySears’s freight. When Sears threatened to buy its own steamship line, the BigFive relented. In the end, statehood, and more to the point, tourism, broketheir oligarchy. After 1960 too much money was at stake for Mainland-basedcorporations to ignore.
Eventually the grip of the Big Five was loosened, butthey are still enormously powerful and richer than ever, though these days theydon’t control everything. Now their power is land. With only five other majorlandholders, the Big Five control 65 percent of all the privately held land inHawaii. Why was the 1946 Strike so important?Before 1946, Hawaii’s economy, politics and social structures were completelydominated by a corporate elite known as the Big Five (Alexander & Baldwin,American Factors, Castle & Cooke, C.
Brewer, & Theo. Davies). The leaders ofthese factor companies exercised absolute control over Hawaii’s plantationworkers and the majority of the islands multi-ethnic workforce. The 1946 strikeforever changed the balance of power between workers and the plantations. Nolonger would living and working conditions be set unilaterally by the plantationowners or their parent corporations.
Nor was the lesson lost on the workersoutside the plantation either. As sugar workers were now successful inchallenging the plantations, so too would all the other employers oftensubsidiaries of one of the Big Five now be brought to the bargaining table toimprove their wages and working conditions. The 1946 sugar strike was monumental both in terms of the numbers of peopleinvolved and the issues at stake. Never before had all the sugar workers ofevery ethnic group joined together in the same labor organization.
Previousefforts of the workers to organize had been easily smashed because of a lack ofworker solidarity across ethnic lines. Japanese workers belonged to their ownhigher wage association just as the Filipino sugar workers had their own union. Bitter lessons were learned from the unsuccessful 1909 and 1920 Japanese strikesand the 1920, 1924 and 1937 Filipino labor movements which failed because ofethnic unionism. The great strike of 1946 started with a new premise oforganizing workers of all races into a single labor union. Never again wouldworkers be divided and conquered because of ethnic antagonism.
This strategy ofethnic solidarity was successful but it was not easy. A concerted effort toinclude the concerns and issues of all Hawai’i’s workers, to communicate inevery 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 seetoday of Hawai’i’s multi-ethnic workforce to bridge ethnic differences and buildtrust based on worker solidarity. Hawai’i’s diverse workforce united in 1946 andbegan for the first time to form a single working class culture, unique toHawai’i. Like today, the issues of housing, medical care, pensions and wages were keyissues for the 1946 sugar workers. Previously the quality of housing, medicalcare and old-age pensions depended upon the whim of individual plantations.
The1946 sugar strike negotiated new labor relations establishing these importantissues as contractual rights of workers, rather than as favors the plantationscould wield to