Red-Baiting in the Islands: The Trial of the Hawaiʻi Seven

#195 in the Moʻolelo series

Of all the strikes up to that point, the 1946 sugar strike brought an end to Hawai‘i’s paternalistic labor relations. The Great Dock Strike of 1949 was also pivotal in that it solidified the ILWU in Hawai‘i which was central to unionism in general. The 171 day strike struck a blow to the unequal pay Hawai‘i workers received, which was significantly lower than their West Coast counterparts for the same work. Local workers were making $1.40 an hour compared to the $1.82 being paid to their West Coast counterparts. The local press opposed the Union and its leadership as “communists” controlled by the Soviet Union. This “red-baiting” drove public sentiment against the strikers. The strike was finally settled with a wage increase that brought the dock workers closer to, but not equal to the West Coast standard, but the employers were now on the defense and had to take unions seriously.

It was in this context that the trial of the “Hawaiʻi Seven” took place under the auspices of the Smith Act. Written by Rep. Howard W. Smith of Virginia, the Smith Act:

Broadly written, the Smith Act forbade any attempts to “advocate, abet, advise, or teach” the violent destruction of the U.S. government. Meanwhile, the government apparently initiated prosecutions against many communists for their political beliefs, triggering First Amendment concerns. [It began to be used against purported communists, particularly in the union movement.]

In 1941 the first prosecutions — leaders of the Socialist Workers Party in Minneapolis — were carried out under the Smith Act.

A. Thompson

Following a pattern seen on the continent, the Smith Act was used against seven union activists, including Jack Hall in 1952. On the trail of the Hawaiʻi Seven, the Honolulu Record noted:

The “Hawaii Seven” Smith Act case which dragged on for nearly seven years was brought to an end by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals this week as the convictions wore reversed by a three-judge court. 

The longest and hardest fought case in the Territory’s history lasted seven and a half months from late 1952 to the summer of 1953 in the whipped up atmosphere of cold-war McCarthyism. 

The case sharpened the dividing line in the community, between the ILWU and the Big Five employers and their allies. The ILWU quickly mobilized to support Jack W. Hall, its regional director, who was picked up in an early-morning arrest, along with six other defendants. 

The arrests came when sugar negotiations were in progress and on the day of the arrest, the ILWU sugar negotiating committee came to the Federal building to hold a conference with Hall, who was held in custody there. 

The arrests came when 750 ILWU pine workers were on strike on Lanai. 

The two dailies, The Star-Bulletin and The Advertiser, historic exponents of the Big Five line, tried the defendants in their news and editorial columns. 

The Smith Act prosecution here followed the national pattern.

One year after these “Communist conspiracy” trials, Union contracts finally protected workers from repercussions from political activity.

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