History of UPW
The United Public Workers union in Hawaii grew from a small group of Hilo road workers in 1944 to become one of Hawaii’s major unions.
Early on, the UPW was part of a social movement designed to bring more economic and political resources to Hawaii’s working class families. The movement was spearheaded by the International Longshoreman’s and Warehouseman’s Union (ILWU), which fought to organize workers on pineapple and plantations controlled by Hawaii’s “Big Five” corporations—American Factors, Castle & Cooke, Theo H. Davies, Alexander and Baldwin, and C. Brewer and Co.
Plantation workers lived under a system in which the plantation provided workers with housing and medical care—a system that wasn’t conducive to labor organizing. Workers who organized in opposition to their pay and working conditions were often fired and blacklisted, and strikes were broken by evicting strikers and their families from their homes, arresting leaders, and bringing in strikebreakers of a different race. Against all odds, a majority of plantations and waterfront workers was eventually unionized. By mid-1946, 20,000 of the 24,000 sugar workers had joined the ILWU.
The beginning of UPW
The success of the ILWU prompted the Hilo County workers to organize as a group that would become the United Public Workers. The main issue for the group was the lack of work for per diem workers, who were often hired for only five or 10 days a month.
When the group asked the ILWU for help in organizing, the ILWU asked the United Public Workers of America (UPWA) to recommend an organizer who could come to Hawaii. The UPWA dispatched Henry Epstein, an aggressive young organizer who had already made a name for himself in Chicago.
Regarded as the father of the UPW in Hawai‘i, Epstein led blue-collar public workers on strikes and marches through the 60s and 70s, a time when collective bargaining was not allowed. Under Epstein’s leadership, the UPWA adopted a territory-wide character, effectively raising issues on behalf of county workers.
But there were many difficulties to overcome. Dozens of businesses sponsored full-page ads portraying the ILWU and unionism in general as anti-American and dangerous to the economy. The newspapers began to carry editorials “red-baiting” both the local and national ILWU leadership. Hard-hitting attacks were also made against Epstein and the UPWA.
Success on the Neighbor Islands
The UPWA was initially more successful in organizing on the neighbor islands. On Hawaii, Maui, and Kauai, ILWU leaders encouraged county workers to join UPWA, and often accompanied the UPWA organizers on their organizing tours. Another factor in UPWA’s success on the neighbor islands was the treatment of workers there. County workers were paid less than their counterparts on Oahu, with Kauai county workers paid the least. Most of the workers organized during this period were county road workers who were constantly threatened with layoffs.
UPWA Functions as a Unit
By the end of 1949, the local units of UPWA began to function as a unit. The union had three Territory-wide conferences where union representatives from all units discussed issues that concerned the union and passed resolutions. The Culinary and Service Workers Union (CSWU) also became an autonomous division of the UPWA, with units organized at several hospitals, including Queen’s, Leahi, Wilcox, and Kapiolani Maternity Hospital.
The UPWA’s growth during the 1950s occurred in the face of heightened difficulties for the labor movement overall. The UPWA—and ILWU—was expelled from the CIO early in 1950 on charges that both unions’ international leadership was communist dominated.
The first Big Island unit organized outside the Department of Public Works came in 1951 and involved ward attendants at Puumaile Hospital.
Organizing Oahu: The Last Frontier
On Memorial Day 1953, Max Roffman arrived in Hawaii for the purpose of organizing the Oahu division. Roffman came at the request of Epstein, who was looking for someone with experience organizing in urban areas. Conditions for organizing were difficult. Not long after arriving, Roffman, too, was accused of and condemned in newspaper editorials for being a communist.
The Oahu division’s first unit was established in the city’s refuse department, where the main issues affecting members were favoritism and lack of job security.
In late 1953, the Hawaii UPWA voted to disaffiliate with the International UPWA, and dropped “America” from its name. Because of the intense red baiting directed at UPWA International, the International had recommended that all local chapters disaffiliate. Some of the major newspapers carried editorials insinuating that the name-change typified the union’s un-Americanism.
Collective Bargaining for Public Employees
During the 1960s, the UPW reached new organizational heights and continued to provide its membership with quality service. By 1971, membership had grown from 3,850 in 1960 to 8,400.
For years, the UPW and other unions had pressed the State to enact a collective bargaining law for public sector workers. That movement culminated in 1970 with the passage of Act 171, the Hawaii Collective Bargaining Law for Public Employees, which provides public employees the right to elect an exclusive bargaining agent to negotiate an employment contract with the executive branch.
Soon after the law was passed, the UPW joined the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union (AFSCME). The Charter granted UPW by AFSCME gave the UPW jurisdiction over state and county blue-collar, nonsupervisory positions and working foremen, and nonprofessional hospital and institutional workers excluding white-collar workers.
In 1981, UPW State Director Henry Epstein retired and Gary Rodrigues was elected as successive State Director.
Strength in Solidarity
In the 1990s, as the only union in Hawaii that has both public sector and private sector members, UPW successfully served its membership in public and private sector contract negotiations, and in improving member benefits. UPW also played an important role in fighting against privatization. The culmination of that struggle was a union rally at the State Capitol on April 19, 2000, with more than 5,500 UPW members from both public and private sectors participating.
The UPW Under Trusteeship
In 2002, a U.S. Court found UPW State Director Gary Rodrigues guilty of more than 100 counts including embezzlement of UPW funds. Later that year, AFSCME International placed the UPW under trusteeship. The following year, the UPW elected new state officers. They included State Director Dayton Nakanelua, State President Steven DeCosta, and State Secretary-Treasurer Faye Hanohano-Kaawaloa.
In 2004, the trusteeship was terminated.