Hawaiian’s Pilots Celebrate 75 Years as ALPA Members

By F/O Michael Davis (Hawaiian), Chair, Master Executive Council Communications Committee
Hawaiian DC-3 First Pilot Bruce S. McBride.

This October, Hawaiian Airlines pilots marked a historic milestone: the 75th anniversary of their first union contract as members of the Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l. That agreement in October 1948 was a landmark achievement for Hawaiian’s pilots, their first foray into collective bargaining, and represented the culmination of a long arc of union organizing, both in Hawaii and across the aviation industry.

Hawaiian’s legacy of unionization stretches back three quarters of a century, to a time when steamships still dominated interisland transport and the territory of Hawaii was still more than a decade away from securing U.S. statehood.

The carrier that became Hawaiian Airlines originally began service in 1929 as Inter-Island Airways, at the time just a minor subsidiary of a larger steamship operator, the Inter-Island Steam Navigation Company. The initial operation had a dual mission: providing sightseeing flights as well as limited passenger service between the Hawaiian islands.

Following a dozen years operating mainly amphibious Sikorsky-38s and -43s, the company pivoted in 1941 to the brand-new Douglas DC-3 and rebranded its operations as Hawaiian Airlines.

Hawaiian Airlines DC-3s on the ramp at Honolulu International Airport.

Union organizing was a contentious, and occasionally dangerous, venture throughout the 1930s and 1940s on the Hawaiian islands. Economic power was concentrated in the hands of an oligarchical “Big Five” group of corporations, and racial tensions meant that worker groups were frequently divided and pitted against each other.

Particularly relevant to the Inter-Island pilots of the era was the organization and strike of 500 Inter-Island shipping crewmen against the pilots’ parent company, Inter-Island Navigation Company, in May 1938. In a rare demonstration of collective action, the Inland Boatmen’s Union (CIO) and the Metal Trades Council (AFL) elected to come together and strike for a new contract. Those efforts tragically culminated in violence when peaceful fellow unionists showed up in Hilo, Hawaii, on Aug. 1, 1938, to demonstrate in support of the striking workers. They were met by 70 police officers, who proceeded to shoot tear gas and riot guns at the demonstrators. Fifty of the union members who were shot were hospitalized. The event came to be known as the Hilo Massacre. Eventually they succeeded, and a contract was signed in June 1941.

Just as the union efforts within the company and throughout the Hawaiian islands were gaining traction, however, world events intervened. The December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor sent the then-territory of Hawaii into a state of martial law. Among the many strictures imposed by the military at the time, labor contracts in the territory were suspended, workers were required to receive permission from their employer before changing jobs, and wages were frozen at their December 7 rates. Beyond that, military-age men were now recruited into the war effort. All these barriers put an effective hold on any labor action until the war’s conclusion in 1945.

After World War II ended, veterans returned home, and economic concerns again came to the forefront. Workers resumed their organizing efforts across the country, and the labor movement that had begun during the Great Depression had now accelerated again in the postwar years.

Back on the U.S. mainland, ALPA was beginning to flex its collective bargaining muscles. Of particular note was its role in the U.S. airline strike by ALPA-represented Trans World Airlines (TWA) in November 1946. That strike eventually culminated in binding arbitration and a new agreement for the TWA pilots.

Hawaiian’s pilots now found themselves at the confluence of growing labor efforts in both Hawaii and the airline industry. By the late 1940s, Hawaiian’s operation, which began with a single Bellanca Pacemaker and a handful of pilots, was now a 50-plus-pilot operation flying DC-3s between the islands. Those pilots decided it was time to join the unionization movement that had been outlawed for much of the decade.

In early 1947, shortly after the TWA strike concluded, Hawaiian pilots invited ALPA onto the property to begin negotiations on their first agreement. Capt. David Behnke, ALPA’s president, declared in July 1947 that he’d be flying out in a few weeks to secure an agreement for the Hawaiian pilots, who were “already organized,” he said at the time, and just needed the professional help that ALPA could provide. Ultimately, the negotiations opened in October 1947, with Karl Ulrich, ALPA’s senior negotiator, taking the lead.

Those first negotiations didn’t progress at nearly the speed that the negotiating team anticipated, and Ulrich had to return to ALPA’s headquarters empty-handed in November 1947. By January 1948, ALPA made the decision to file for mediation. After pursuing mediated talks over the ensuing months, the impasse was sufficiently large that, by April, both the mediator and ALPA’s lead negotiator departed the islands without a contract. Hawaiian’s president cited an inability to “get together” on wages.

Eventually the talks resumed and, on Oct. 22, 1948, the 55 Hawaiian pilots ratified their first contract agreement, raising the base pay for “first pilots” to $360 per month (roughly $4,500 in today’s dollars) and securing their position as official ALPA members.

Hawaiian pilots review contract terms.

While official ALPA recordkeeping dates the Hawaiian pilots’ induction into ALPA to their first contract signing in October 1948, the pilot group’s relationship with ALPA began over a year before that agreement was signed, and was the product of a labor movement that started nearly 20 years earlier.

After 75 years, following generations of Hawaiian pilots building on that initial success, Hawaiian’s pilots signed a new collective bargaining agreement this year that pays widebody captains more per hour than those initial DC-3 captains earned in a month in 1948.

“It’s amazing to consider that, when that first contract was signed, none of our pilots were even alive,” said Capt. Larry Payne, the pilot group’s Master Executive Council chair. “It’s a good time to pay respect to the Hawaiian pilots and volunteers who came before us and be grateful for all their diligent efforts on our behalf.”

As ALPA’s third-longest-tenured members, Hawaiian pilots are proud to be carrying that legacy of collective bargaining to the present day, following the path of union solidarity paved by their forebears more than three quarters of a century ago.

The 1949 Hawaiian new-hire class.

This article was originally published in the December 2023 issue of Air Line Pilot.

Read the latest Air Line Pilot (PDF)