“Know Your Class”

When Jack Hall died, flags were flown at half-staff throughout Hawaii, longshoremen closed West Coast ports for 24 hours and thousands of others in Hawaii and along the west coast of United States and Canada also stopped work to show their respect.


That was 36 years ago. Yet Jack Hall, one of America‘s greatest labor leaders, is still remembered fondly by many working people. In Hawaii, where he was regional director of the International Longshoremen’s  and Warehousemen’s Union, many ILWU members will have a paid holiday on Jan. 2, the date of his death. Others will have a holiday on the Feb. 28th anniversary of Hall’s birth.


It would be hard to exaggerate Jack Hall’s importance. He was the primary leader in the efforts by the ILWU and others that transformed Hawaii from a feudalistic territory controlled by a handful of huge financial interests into a modern pluralistic state in which workers and their unions have a major voice.


As Former Gov. John Burns of Hawaii said, Hall brought about " the full flowering of democracy in our islands."


Hall’s first job was as a sailor in 1932. He sailed to the Far East, where he saw grinding poverty which sickened and angered him and, he later recalled, "determined which side of the fence I was on."


Hall landed in Hawaii four years later, a tall, skinny 26-year-old sent by the Sailors Union to help striking longshoremen win union recognition. He soon emerged as a leader of the longshoremen and later as a principal leader in organizing sugar and pineapple plantations.


Virtually all phases of life in the islands were controlled by five powerful holding companies, popularly known as "the Big Five," that owned the plantations. Workers, purposely segregated by race and ethnicity, lived in company housing on the plantations where they worked, bought their food and clothing in company stores there, and had little choice but to do what the bosses told them to do, at pay of less than 50 cents an hour.


The battles waged by Hall and his fellow organizers to overcome the employers’ absolute domination of their workers’ lives often got brutal. There were beatings, an attempt on Hall’s life, and a great furor over Hall’s admitted political radicalism.


At one point, Hall was convicted of "conspiring to overthrow the government by force and violence." That was thrown out by a federal court, but only after a long and costly legal battle by the ILWU.


Hall, a tough, plainspoken, hard-drinking man, talked with the workers endlessly about the obvious need for them to join closely together in a single union,. He spoke to them individually and often in meetings that were held in secret, outside the closely guarded plantations. He told the workers over and over that they could not achieve the unified strength necessary to overcome exploitation if they continued to remain apart because of racial and ethnic differences.


"Know your class," Hall told them, "and be loyal to it."


Finally, by the mid-1940s, the ILWU managed to organize workers on the plantations,  as well as on Hawaii‘s waterfronts. That gave the ILWU a powerful role in Hawaii‘s economy that led the union quickly to a major role in Hawaii‘s political life as well.


Hall helped put together a union political league that became one of the most important political forces in Hawaii and the most racially and ethnically mixed such group anywhere. The union league helped break 50 consecutive years of Republican control of the State Legislature, which led in turn to passage of major pro-labor legislation that would, to  this day, be unheard of in most other states, and to the passage of some of the nation’s most progressive laws in a variety of other fields.


Plantation and longshore workers are still the backbone of the ILWU in Hawaii, but Hall long ago led the union into just about every industry in the islands. Bakers, factory workers, auto salesmen, supermarket clerks and a wide variety of other workers, especially including hotel workers and others in Hawaii‘s ever-expanding tourist industry – all those, and more, now carry union cards.


Their union membership is a guarantee of economic and political rights and rewards, of dignity and self-respect and the chance to determine their own destinies, a guarantee of an effective voice on the job and in their communities. It’s a guarantee of fair and equal treatment that their forbears could only imagine.


That’s the remarkable legacy of Jack Hall.


Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based writer who has covered labor issues for a half-century.  Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com


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