1947: Smith Act and the Hawai'i 7

In 1946, an interracial movement of workers struck across the Hawaiian islands in an event known as the  Great Sugar Strike.  They struck to have the right to unionize under the ILWU, to collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions. But because of unlawful assembly and riot statutes passed in 1850, 400 strikers were arrested.

The Territorial period of Hawaiʻi was a very difficult time to unite workers because the sugar barons created an oligarchy that controlled many aspects of the power structures in Hawai’i.  Before 1946, there were many separate instances of workers striking throughout the islands, but they were often sabotaged by different strategies of the plantation owners to divide the workers by ethnicity and class, and to bring in saboteurs during strikes.  William Crozier, a member of the Territorial House of Representatives, stated:

"Any working man who tries to organize and bargain collectively to better the condition of himself, wife and children is looked upon as a Communist, a radical, a socialist, and a red.  The employers discharge men for joining unions in Hawaii."

Harriet Bouslog and Myer Symonds were brought to Hawaiʻi by the ILWU to represent the arrested workers. They were able to overturn the Unlawful Assembly, Riot and Conspiracy statutes, as well as overturn convictions of striking employees of the sugar corporation Alexander & Baldwin. 


Bouslog and Symonds also represented the Hawaii Seven--Jack Denichi Kimoto, Charles K. Fujimoto, Mrs. Charles Fujimoto, Dwight J. Freeman, John E. Reinecke, Koji Ariyoshi and Jack Hall. The Hawaiʻi Seven were individuals who were supporting worker’s organizing. But, they were charged under the Smith Act, "a federal law that made it a criminal offense to advocate the violent overthrow of the government or to organize or be a member of any group or society devoted to such advocacy" (Britannica).  

The Smith Act became a tool for McCarthyism, a campaign set up by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy to profile and imprison those who promoted the communist ideology as traitors to the U.S.  Communism threatened U.S. political elites because it threatened the capitalist system they profited from. 

Bouslog stated at a Honokaa speech

"There is no such thing as a fair trial at a Smith act case. All the rules of evidence have to be scrapped or the government canʻt make a case, they just make up rules as they go along."

Even the bar association and judiciary suspended Bouslog from practice for speaking out against the Smith Act. It was not until a judge wrote that the 5th Amendment did not apply to congressional investigations that witnesses were able to come forward, leading to the Smith Act being held unconstitutional.  The unlawful assembly statutes prohibiting labor organization was also declared unconstitutional. 

Harriet Bouslog and Myer Symonds made waves in the sugar-baron-influenced courts. They brought a sense of morality to the law and the courts, to stand up against the unequal powers that exploited workers for profit. She also called for the people in society to end the stigmatization of unions in Hawai’i.  Her leadership gave courage to workers to collectively stand up for their interests and to organize for their rights to collectively bargain with their employers for higher wages and improved working conditions.