Know Your Class

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(Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor, politics and other matters for a half-century.)

When Jack Hall died, flags were flown at half-staff throughout Hawaii, longshoremen closed the ports of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego for 24 hours, and thousands of other workers in Hawaii and all along the west coasts of the United States and Canada also stopped work to show their respect.

That was 40 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 had 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 director of organization for the ILWU and one of its two vice presidents when a stroke killed him in 1971 at age 55 in San Francisco. But it was not what he had done during the previous 18 months in the drafty, run-down headquarters presided over by the legendary Harry Bridges that made Hall extraordinary.

Rather, it was what Hall had done before then in Hawaii, where he served for more than a quarter-century as the ILWU’s regional director. He was the key leader in bringing industrial democracy to Hawaii, transforming Hawaii from virtually a feudalistic territory controlled by a few 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 that 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. Hall 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 extremely powerful holding companies, popularly known as “the Big Five,” that owned the plantations. The workers, Japanese, Filipino, Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, Puerto Rican and others, were purposely segregated by race and ethnicity to keep them from acting jointly. They 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 exactly 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.

The strike was the only weapon available to the workers. But when workers of a particular nationality struck to demand union rights, they’d be replaced immediately with workers of another nationality.

Hall, a tough, plainspoken, hard-drinking man, talked with the workers endlessly about the obvious need to bring them 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 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 in turn led to passage of the most progressive laws of any state and helped make the ILWU as dominant in Hawaiian life as were the Big Five plantation owners before the coming of the union.

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

Union membership is their guarantee of economic and political rights and rewards, of dignity and self-respect and the chance to determine their own destinies, of an effective voice on the job and in their communities, of fair and equal treatment their forebears could only dream of.

Jack Hall left a truly remarkable legacy.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor, politics and other matters for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 250 of his recent columns.