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The Strike That Shook San Francisco and Rocked the Pacific Coast
July 5, 2014 marks the 80th anniversary of “Bloody Thursday”, July 5, 1934, a day that shook San Francisco. The events that day inflamed the working people of San Francisco and the Bay Area. They made the great General Strike of 1934 inevitable and they set in motion a movement that would transform the western waterfronts.
On May 9, 1934 West Coast longshoremen struck, shutting down docks along 2000 miles of coastline, including all its major ports: Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, San Francisco, San Pedro, San Diego. The issues included wages and hours: the longshoremen wanted $1 an hour, the six hour day and the thirty hour week. They wanted union representation. But above all they demanded the abolition of the hated shape-up and its replacement with a union hiring hall. The strike would last 83 days.
The San Francisco longshoremen called the Embarcadero “the slave market” – there, each morning at 8 am, workers would gather, as often as not desperate for any opportunity to work. Many more would gather than were needed, some would be skilled, “regular men”, others transients, then all grades in between. The hiring boss, the petty dictator on the dock, would stand before them; he could take any man he wanted, reject anyone he pleased. This was an ancient system. Henry Mayhew, the well-known Victorian investigator, wrote this of hiring at the gates to the London docks in1861: it was “a sight to sadden the most callous, to see thousands of men struggling for only a day’s hire; the scuffle being made the fiercer by the knowledge that hundreds out of the number there assembled left to idle the day in want.” The shape-up was abolished in London in 1891, in the aftermath of the great 1889 dockers’ strike there, but was still in place in 1934 in New York, also San Francisco, where the shippers insisted conditions demanded it. Profits depended, they explained, on the fast turn-around, but the sea, the tides, and traffic limited planning. Still, “the ship must sail on time”; they clung tenaciously to the system, casual labor and the shape-up. The leaders of the dockers’ union, the racket-ridden International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), in 1934 very much in the doldrums, agreed. Joe Ryan, ILA “President for Life” supported it, even after World War II. The men despised it, a precarious, cruel system that placed them at the bottom of the hierarchy of industrial work. .
On the docks, conditions were crude, the longshoreman’s work changed little one generation to the next; cargo, no matter how rough, was loaded and unloaded essentially by hand, by gangs of men who relied chiefly on physical strength and skill and cooperation. The employers, however, insisted they were all “unskilled”, “human machines”, no matter what job they did. They were required, the late historian David Montgomery wrote, “to push or pull enormous weights, aided only by the most elementary inclines, pulleys, winches, and screws and above all their own teamwork.” This conditioned their outlook and consciousness and created a common outlook, an outlook that might extend even into the crowded waterfront neighborhoods. Survival depended on cooperation and a sense of this identity, hence the common appellation, longshoreman.
The strike, right from the start, was solid. In San Francisco, the shippers best hopes, however fanciful, were dashed on May 13 when city truck drivers voted unanimously not to work on the docks, this despite the opposition of their leaders. Teamsters followed suit in Seattle, Oakland and Los Angeles; with that the prospect of success with strikebreakers vanished. That same day, sailors and firemen voted to strike and they were followed by cooks and stewards, then masters, mates and pilots, thus making it a maritime strike. On May 15, for the first time in history, not a single freighter sailed from a Pacific Coast Port.
The employers, increasingly desperate, were led by the Industrial Association, a San Francisco equivalent of the National Association of Manufacturers, then leading the battle to maintain the open shop: “The United States is an Open Shop Country.” They were joined by the like-minded of the Pacific Northwest, as well as those from LA where the authorities were determined that Los Angeles remain an anti-union citadel. At a June 5 meeting, 100 San Francisco business leaders voted “to place the full responsibility” for the conduct of the waterfront strike in the hands of the Industrial Association, in cooperation with the ship owners.” They, in turn, engaged the city’s authorities, the police, then even a reluctant federal government in secret preparations to the break the strike by force. Their plans included organized vigilantes, who would contribute to the exceptional brutality of the conflict.
The press, hysterical, denounced the strikers as “vultures” who fed upon the plight of the poor city. The Central Labor Council passed a resolution condemning “communists” among the maritime strikers. The first, the best hope for an early finish was to be found, then, not amongst the employers. Rather it was in conservative leaders of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), above all, Joe Ryan of the ILA. On May 24, Ryan, dressed in splendor – a pin striped, tailored suit, painted tie, diamond rings – strode into San Francisco, to announce that the only issue was recognition by the employers of the ILA as the waterfront union. Then, on the 28th he announced an agreement, signed by his Pacific Coast officers: disputes over wages and hours would be sent to arbitration. “The employers shall be free to select their men.” The press proclaimed victory and announced the strike over.
Yet, that very day longshoremen and their supporters clashed with police on the Embarcadero. The police broke up the crowds of pickets, first with clubs and tear gas, then with sawed off- shot guns. The next day Ryan appeared before the longshoremen, still seething, to sell his agreement; hailed with insults, boos and profanities (in several languages), he was howled down. Thousands of longshoremen unanimously rejected his settlement. The same happened in Portland and Seattle.
The die then was cast; the Industrial Association would open the port by force. The Association formed a trucking company, assembling a fleet of trucks and hiring warehouses, then hiring employees. The trucks would be unarmed, but Police Chief William Quinn assured them “every available police officer will be detailed to the waterfront to give the necessary protection.”
Wednesday was the Fourth of July; the Association paused, fearing what might happen to the mobs of spectators celebrating along the Embarcadero. Thursday was fog-laden; that morning heavily armed police, 1000 strong, lined up to escort a column of red trucks moving toward the Embarcadero. These were filled with strikebreakers, hired to re-open the port. In front of them were thousands of pickets, led by longshoremen, then in the fifty-seventh day of their strike.
They were joined by thousands more, sympathizers, hundreds of them Teamsters, still honoring the longshoremen’s picket lines. Huge crowds filled the side streets, others hung from widows and rooftops in anxious anticipation of the certain battle to come.
“The Battle of Rincon Hill” began at 8 am. Rincon Hill, then still a working class neighborhood, was a slum. It was home to more than a few longshoremen and their families, workers who still lived where they worked. Some of its shacks were remnants of the 1906 earthquake. It stood just near the western anchorage of the Bay Bridge, then being framed with great towers of orange steel. And to the south, miles of industrial waterfront.
The strikers charged the police lines, only to be driven back by tear-gas and then live ammunition. They built make-shift barricades; they threw rocks, bottles, bricks. They returned the tear gas canisters. Charging mounted police overran them.
The fighting went on all morning. In the afternoon it spread to Market Street, where crowds of spectators assembled to watch the action, hundreds of them pressing on to a footbridge at the foot of Market. Then at three o’clock, the strikers surged down Mission Street, attempting to seize the waterfront just to the south.
“The strikers,” in an eye-witness account, were described as “coming from everywhere with fresh loads of iron and stone. They swarmed the Embarcadero, outnumbering the police…
“The police answer was gas and still more gas. Volley after volley crashed into the closely packed mob, searing flesh, blinding, choking…
“When the ranks broke, mounted police drove in with clubs, trampling those who could not get out of the way. The sirens screamed, and carload after carload of police and plainclothes-men armed with more tear gas and shot guns swung into action…
“The superior technical equipment of the uniformed forces was too much for any human flesh, regardless of numerical superiority. The Embarcadero was cleared of strikers. There remained the broken windows, scattered glass rocks, spikes empty shot gun shells, and drying blood…”
The newspapers reported two dead, sixty-seven injured, some critically, just that one afternoon. The dead were Howard Sperry, a longshoreman and war veteran, and Nick Bordouise, a culinary worker, a member of the Cooks Union and the Communist Party. The police had won the day. That same afternoon Governor Frank Merriam declared a State of Emergency and ordered the National Guard to the waterfront. The newspapers, again, declared the strike finished.
One battle lost was not, however, the end of the war. Still, the widespread police campaign of terror and the rise in vigilantism had taken its toll. That night’s reports from the Embarcadero recorded “knots of pickets, grim sadness, defeat, in the stoop of their backs and in their faces.” Harry Bridges, the young Australian who emerged as strike leader, expressed the mood: “We cannot stand up against police, machine guns and National Guard bayonets.” The Bridges’ story is well-known. The young Harry Bridges (16), son of an Australian real estate broker, had left home and gone to sea, inspired in part by reading the stories of Jack London, and there became a union man. He landed in San Francisco in 1920, soon thereafter beginning work as a longshoreman. Briefly, he was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW); by the 1930s he was known as a plain speaking, militant who consistently championed the cause of the rank-and-file longshoremen. He joined the group that put out the Waterfront Worker, a mimeographed sheet that sold for a penny; it was written by sailors and longshoremen and featured articles on hiring, working conditions and the bosses. In February 1934, a West Coast rank-and-file convention was held; no paid officers could attend. They agreed on a series of demands, including an end to the shape-up, to be replaced by a union hiring hall. They set a strike date. Bridges would become president of the San Francisco ILA in 1935; he helped lead the West Coast longshoremen into the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in 1937, became its first president as well as West Coast chairman of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. His entangled, problematic relationship with the Communist Party often defined him, fairly and unfairly.
In 1933, however, Bridges was still an independent or independent enough not to join the “red” Maritime Workers International Union (MWIU). Instead, he joined the revived ILA, as did longshoremen in their thousands. He chaired the strike committee. 1933 was the year that American trade unionism was reborn, a revival of monumental proportions; workers joined or rejoined unions in, literally, the millions. Coal miners returned to the United Mine Workers in such numbers as scarcely could be counted. On June 17, in a single day after Roosevelt signed the National Recovery Act, 80 per cent of Ohio miners signed up; the organizer expected the balance to be signed up by the end of the week. The story was the same for garment and textile workers; so with the unorganized in the mass production industries. And also for the working classes of San Francisco.
The San Francisco strikers were not alone, far from it; they too were products of the times. This severely limited what the shippers could do. In the first days of the strike, four hundred Oakland longshoremen had stormed the city’s piers, driving out police and strikebreakers. Portland strikers attacked a ship housing strikebreakers; in the course of battle, they threw policemen into the river and beat others. The Seattle ILA leadership opposed the strike, and stood aside while strikebreakers worked the port. But to no avail – a “flying squadron” of 600 Tacoma longshoremen, joined by fellow workers from Everett and Seattle (“all of the militant men we could find”) invaded the waterfront. At one point 2000 men battered down pier gates, drove the police aside and halted all work. In San Pedro, the port stayed open, but it took more than 500 arrests; strikers there were arrested, kidnapped and beaten. A twenty year old longshoremen, Dick Parker was shot by an LA cop, then serving as private security for a strikebreaking firm; Parker had joined the ILA only the day before. He was the first of half a dozen to die in the course of the strike. Thousands would be arrested, more thousands beaten.
Solidarity with the striking maritime workers was already widespread; it deepened in the course of the conflict and came to extend far beyond the piers and the waterfront neighborhoods. Thus the killing of the two San Francisco strikers aroused a massive outpouring of sympathy with the strikers. Over the weekend, the bodies of the two strikers killed lay in state at ILA headquarters where thousands filed by to see and honor them. The longshoremen pressed the city for the right to hold a funeral procession on Market Street; this was allowed, if the ILA would promise to keep order.
The morning of July 9, a huge crowd gathered at the ILA Hall on Steuart Street. A brief service was held, the caskets were lifted onto open trucks, and the procession began. The novelist Charles Norris (the brother of writer Frank Norris, The Octopus, A California Story) described the funeral procession:
“It was a spectacular and stirring sight, as thousands of men and women, to the solemn cadences of Beethoven’s dirge, silently followed the dead and the attendant trucks piled high with wreaths and floral tributes… With measured step the vast procession of mourners marched up the main artery of the city…
“Side-walks were lined with women, children, and sober-faced men of every walk of life. Hours passed and still the column moved onward…
“A great hush lay over the line of march, broken only by the rhythmic tread of trudging feet. Tramp-tramp-tramp, on the workers plodded, bareheaded, no talking, not even a cigarette. Tramp-tram-tramp, grave and grim, on they came, there seemed to be no end to the procession…
“There was no break in the march; there was no halting or hesitation. A solid river of men and women who believed they had a grievance and who were expressing their resentment in this giant demonstration.”
This great march made the general strike, until then at best a threat, inevitable. A partial general strike, in fact, was already in effect. On the Wednesday, Teamsters packed the Dreamland Auditorium; they ridiculed their president, Michael Casey and chanted, “Bridges! We want Bridges!” They voted unanimously to strike at 7 am the next day. By the morning of July 12, twenty unions had voted to strike. On the Friday, the Central Labor Council, having resisted stubbornly for so long, finally met to consider the general strike. In a tumultuous gathering, 115 unions were represented. After hours of wrangling the motion was put: “This convention requests all unions which have voted in favor of a general strike to walk out Monday at 8 a.m. and also requests all those unions which have not voted to hold meetings immediately and take action.” It passed: 63 in favor, 3 opposed, 49 not voting. The Council then created a committee of 25 to organize and lead the strike, but comprised of conservatives, all people who had opposed the strike. Bridges, in a gesture, was only added later. The objective of the council, of course, was to defang, restrict and limit the strike, that is to end it as quickly as possible.
The authorities responded with a “Red Scare,” unanimously the newspapers declared the strike to be a “Communist Plot” – the Hearst Examiner denounced the strike as a “revolution.” The Los Angeles Times wrote, “What is actually in progress there is an insurrection, a Communist inspired and led revolt against organized government. There is but one thing to be done – put down the revolt with any force necessary.” The Mayor appointed a committee of 500 businessmen to orchestrate the response. The Chief of Police deputized 500 new policemen and allotted $60,000 for purchasing munitions. Rumors were spread that a communist army was set to invade the city. Vigilantes, led by American Legionnaires, unleashed a reign of terror; union halls were ransacked, soup kitchens destroyed, the offices of the Western Worker looted. There was a pattern: “a line of cars filled with men in leather jackets drew up; they invaded the quarters, smashed windows, wrecked the furniture, threw typewriters into the Street and beat up the occupants. The police invariably arrived just after the vigilantes had left and promptly arrested those who had been beaten.” Similar raids were carried out throughout the West.
Nevertheless, on Monday morning, the strike was all but 100% effective. Some 130,000 workers had left their jobs; exceptions, as in the 1919 Seattle General Strike, were Milk and Bakery Drivers, and those who maintained medical and hospital services. A union committee decided: electrical workers who supplied light and power were also exempted, as were ferry crews on the Bay. The nonunion department stores, hotels and offices and markets remained open. Almost all else was closed.
Still, the strike at once began to come apart. AFL President William Green disowned it. The conservative local leaders began maneuvers to undermine it. The Strike Committee insisted that all the issues be submitted to federal arbitrators, though not because they believed arbitration would win what the longshoremen wanted. Bridges held out for the hiring hall but lost. And by Thursday the strike was finished, as one by one the union leaders reestablished their authority. By this time even the Teamsters had voted to return. There was little to celebrate. Bridges told the sailors, in an appeal that they all return together, “I think the longshoremen is ready to break tomorrow…They have had enough of it…The ship owners have got us backed up… we are trying to back up step by step… instead of turning around and running.” The longshoremen themselves then voted to accept arbitration, only Everett in Washington State dissenting. On July27 the dockers unloaded mail from the Makara, an Australian freighter, the first to be worked in nearly three months.
The outcome of the strike, in the most immediate sense, then, was at best inconclusive. Many considered it a defeat. William Crocker, the San Francisco banker was jubilant, “Labor is licked.” The longshoremen had opposed arbitration; they had little faith in the National Longshoremen’s Board. But the government’s Board held hearings in San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Los Angeles that August and September. In October it issued its award: it fixed the basic wage rate at $.95 an hour, $1.40 for overtime. It established a six hour day, thirty hour work week. Saturdays, Sunday and legal holidays were made overtime days.
On the crucial issue of the hiring hall, the Board ruled: “The hiring of all longshoremen shall be through hiring halls maintained and operated jointly.” But “the dispatcher shall be selected by the International Longshoremen’s Association.” Longshoremen were to be dispatched “without favoritism or discrimination” because of “union or non-union membership.”
Victory. The men, however, already knew it. Oddly enough, they realized it at once, well before the Board’s findings. The strike had empowered them, it had illuminated their courage. Well before the October agreement, the longshoremen had underway a campaign that would utterly transform working conditions and relations on the West Coast. The unions were made more democratic; racism was challenged; their chief weapons, solidarity and direct action. In the years before the war, they fought incessantly; they detached themselves from the New York gangsters who ran the ILA. and they founded a new union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union ILWU) and affiliated with the industrial unions in the Congress of Industrial Organizations. They came to see themselves – far from the “wharf rats” of before – rather as “The Lords of the Docks”, proclaiming, immodestly, “We are the most militant and organized group of workers the world has ever seen.” All this, they did, from the bottom up.
The struggle, then, had just begun. In the next years there would be hundreds of strikes on these docks, countless disputes.
Here is one account:
On “…every dock the gang elected from among themselves a so-called gang or dock steward… There were endless disputes, some resulting in “job actions” on the part of the workers or quick strikes (“quickies”) localized to one dock…
“Suddenly in the midst of unloading a ship, the longshore gang would walk off, causing the stubborn employer sailing delay, considerable additional expense, and general irritation…
“The employer called the union hiring hall for another gang, which came promptly enough, but as likely as not pulled another “quicky” an hour later; and so on till the employer yielded to, say, a demand that the sling load be made two or three thousand instead of four thousand pounds.”
There were hundreds of such actions in the months to follow.
The strike empowered the longshoremen, and along with them a generation of working people.
The general strike and its aftermath raise many issues for the historian: what were its origins? was it a communist strike? why the employers hysteria? how to explain the Board’s findings? could the workers have won more? is this of any relevance today?
These are well beyond the scope of this brief celebration of the strike and the longshoremen who led it. In any case, there are no easy answers here. The federal government, for example, had its own agenda, and this was not workers’ power. It was, however, more far-seeing than the industrialists, who, in any event, opposed it all, that is, the unions, the New Deal, the reorganization of American capitalism. The Roosevelt administration believed that the chaos of the industrial system had to be reined in, regulated. It believed it could succeed in doing this, in alliance, when possible, with the conservative leaders of the AFL, then the CIO, including those in the San Francisco Labor Council, whom they never doubted. It understood that the strike was not in fact a “communist plot,” also that “smashing” the strike it might have unintended consequences.
“The history of longshoremen,” wrote the late historian E.J. Hobsbawn, is filled “with dramatic events and personalities…great triumphs as well as tragic defeats… the longshoremen are powerful workers.” The 1934 longshoremen’s strike was a display of this, and it was above all “a great triumph.” Properly understood, the San Francisco General Strike and the uprising on the Pacific Coast needs placing in this history, but also in the tradition of syndicalism, that is, the tradition of direct action, mass movements, immigrant strikes, labor wars and rank-and-file rebellions that have repeatedly exploded the conservatism and complaisance of this country. The strike was not a communist strike, a handful of party members notwithstanding, although cults of Bridges, the union and leadership have distorted this history, exaggerating triumphs and disguising failings. And neither were the other strikes of 1934 revolutionary strikes, even those led by revolutionaries. The bolshevized socialism of the thirties rarely was successful in penetrating the rank-and-file of the workers’ movements and the new unions, never in the long run. It longshoremen’s strike was, however, a radical strike, a very radical strike, a mass strike led by rank-and-file workers, relying, as they so often have, on themselves alone. It was, in one sense, a festival of the oppressed. It showed the courage of workers, of ordinary people, it was an example of the power of workers, their ability to organize, their capacity for solidarity.
Could more have been won? Possibly, the strike marked just a first stage of the 1930’s rebellion. Are there organizational questions left unanswered. Certainly.
Since the thirties, the waterfronts of the world have been utterly transformed. Gone are the gangs and the mean waterfront streets. Today containerized cargo travels across the seas on great ships, then across continents on computer-guided, satellite tracks “intermodal” rail bridges. The volume and speed of these systems is astonishing, so rapid that the freight deposited on the huge docks of Los Angeles and Long Beach can be deposited in distribution centers in hours, on display on the shelves in days, just in time for the nation’s consumers.
Waterfront workers are often crane operators and truck drivers. The work remains difficult, dangerous. The longshoreman’s numbers have deminished; ongoing automation threatens those who carry on the work. They are exposed, as few others are, to the naked market forces of modern capitalism. Today, their union is again embattled; their enemies now, giant multinational shipping corporations and the industries they serve. Still, longshoremen are not without resources of their own. One source is their inheritance, the legacy of the Great Strike. And, they occupy, still, a strategic, highly sensitive position in the world’s commerce, a link in a multinational chain that promises its customers not just transportation, but fast, on time delivery.
ILWU members in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles will remember the 1934 strikers at ceremonies on Saturday, July 5, 2014.
(This article draws heavily on Irving Bernstein, Turbulent Years, Bruce Nelson, Workers on the Waterfront and Jeremy Brecher, Strike, and I thank them. The conclusions, such as they are, are mine.)
Cal Winslow’s newest book is E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left (Monthly Review Press 2014). He is the author of Labor’s Civil War in California, (PM Press, 2012 (second edition, revised and expanded), editor of Waterfront Workers, New Perspectives on Race and Class (Illinois, 1998), His latest book is a collection of the writings of Edward Thompson, E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left (Monthly Review Press, 2014).and an editor of Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt From Below during the Long Seventies (Verso, 2010). He is co-editor of West of Eden, Communes and Utopia in Northern California (PM Press, 2012). He is a Fellow at UC Berkeley, Director of the Mendocino Institute and associated with the Bay Area gathering, Retort. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org