Labor History in 2:00

June 19 - The Fight to Free the Hawaii Seven

June 19, 2021

On this day in labor history, the year was 1953.

That was the day 26,000 members of the ILWU in Hawaii walked off the job.

Their strike was a four-day protest against the witch-hunt convictions of the Hawaii Seven.

Many docks and plantations immediately shut down.

Stevedores refused to load military cargo headed to the war in Korea.

At the height of the McCarthyite Red Scare, union militants continued to be the primary targets of the anti-Communist hysteria. 

Longshoreman leader Jack Hall and six-codefendants had just been tried and convicted under the Smith Act.

The ILWU denounced the trial and verdict as a frame-up.

It was the ultimate move to bust the increasingly powerful union on the islands.

The ILWU had come under heightened surveillance after successfully organizing stevedores and many sugar and pineapple plantations. 

The real trouble began after a long and bitter dock strike in 1949.

Then Nebraska Senator Hugh Butler proclaimed the island to be firmly in the grips of a Communist attack. 

HUAC arrived the next year to investigate the ‘Red Situation.’ 

In August 1951, the FBI conducted early morning raids to arrest the Seven on charges of violating the Smith Act.

The arrests came just as the ILWU threatened a sugar strike, having reached an impasse in contract negotiations.

During the trial, it was clear the Seven were being tried not for anything they did, but for allegedly being part of a vast and secret conspiracy.

The proceedings had the quality of a show trial, designed more to terrorize the public and labor movement, than to prosecute any actual crime.

Their convictions were finally overturned with the landmark 1957 Yates decision, which rendered much of the Smith Act unenforceable.

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