What Obama Should Learn From the 1934 Waterfront Strike

Receive any emails about “organizing for change” or “taking action” recently from the Obama White House?  In the President’s mind the Americans are a people fallen into complacency, one that simply needs to be reminded to “get involved.”  In fact, he seems to believe that he has been fighting the good fight against organized money, intransigent Republicans, and a venal media on his own earning the gray hair to prove it.  Why can’t we just get involved, he seems to muse?  His policy ideas—which have recently taken on a refreshingly populist tone on economic matters—have not played out in legislation nor have they yielded much on the economic front for the vast majority of Americans.  Why then does Obama feel the need to say he is fighting for workers (though achieving little) while holding back on allowing them to fight for themselves?  Roosevelt passed the NIRA and Johnson achieved the Voting Rights Act that were both freighted with powerful means for regular people (and both felt the counterstroke of the political right.)  But what new instruments has Obama given workers to organize or make demands on their own terms?  Without political instruments to organize, the conservative forces will be ready to muster their own tools—as they have done in the past.

Right about now 79 years ago the largest general strike in American history was falling apart in San Francisco.  True, it only lasted about three days.  But the eighty-three day West Coast maritime strike—begun May 9, 1934—that preceded it catalyzed a unity and solidarity among working people not seen since the rash of unionization of the 1880s.  California’s reactionary governor, Frank Merriam, had sent 30,000 National Guardsmen to break the strike on the Embarcadero, later receiving campaign contributions from the shipping interests.  San Francisco’s Mayor Angelo Rossi had Red-baited, encouraged vigilantism, and busted up radical schools and union headquarters.  Even Berkeley’s college football team, under the scab incubator Coach Bill Ingram, came out as strikebreakers in order to keep in shape on the shore.  The workers seemed to have everything against them—the state, the city, the police, the National Guard, the Hearst press, and California’s powerful and organized interests.  Yet, the unity of seamen, longshoreman, cable car operators, and workers of all crafts and trades eventually won better conditions, control over hiring halls, and improved pay.

Can much be learned from such a flash of organized solidarity?

If so, the stories have been rigorously and beautifully documented for some time, told by historians like David Selvin and Charles Larrowe and journalists like Mike Quin.  Meanwhile the diversity and uniqueness of progressive unions like the ILWU have been detailed by thoughtful historians like Harvey Schwartz and Bill Nelson.  I won’t attempt to recapitulate their amazing tales.  But the moment of 1934 was a truly radical one, worthy of reflection in our present affairs.  In one instance I recently found in the ILWU’s San Francisco archive, in the February of 1933 at a meeting of the newly organized local of the International Longshoreman’s Association, a thirty-two year old Australian longshoreman on relief, Harry Bridges, began speaking up for what was denounced as “Red” notions of worker-democracy and rank-and-file unionism.  Before a crowded hall the future union leader said, “The [idea that the]best policy to pursue is to keep the men working in all ports… and that all the difficulties will soon be settled…We have had quite enough of that.  I don’t think we want that; that is something we should steer clear of from now on.  Now, I don’t think either that many of these delegates here want to follow that procedure any longer.  We have followed it long enough.”

Time and again it has been shown that working people, if offered the chance, have a pesky propensity to unite and fight together.  The waterfront workers wanted a hiring hall, better conditions, and more money.  There were some things they would not arbitrate, while on others they could compromise.  Tens of thousands of others had their own beefs in 1934—but Roosevelt’s political savvy in passing the NIRA was that he had offered them the instruments to fight their own battles.  The self-determination and self-reliance we hear so much about from the right was actually allowed for by one of the country’s most liberal presidents.  And it took politics, specifically the passing of laws like Taft-Hartley (1947) to dismantle the hard-fought rights of the 1930s.  More recently, it has taken the swallowing the lies of ratbags like Bill Clinton to weaken working people and help produce today’s shameful inequalities.

Democracy as a way of life in the economy, especially in the workplace, had been off the table since the end of World War I.  The employer attacks on unionism from 1919-1922 had crippled unions, almost destroying the AF of L.  Conservative leadership and racism had eaten unions from within but after fourteen years of corporate rule and speculation and a crash times had changed the conditions.  By the summer of 1933 strikes were on the rise across the American continent.  The avalanche had already begun when Roosevelt’s National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) was passed which included section 7a that specified collective bargaining rights for unions.  Roughly 812,000 strikes occurred in 1933 while only a quarter of that number occurred in 1932; thousands of places like Toledo, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Terre Haute, Perkin, and the entire West Coast erupted in struggle.  From the shopfloors to the docks people had, in Bridges words, followed the employers’ path “long enough.”

Yet, something has certainly changed today:  our constitutional political arrangement (so often called “democracy”) that inspired worker organization has been “hacked,” according to Al Gore.  In his surprisingly powerful new book The Future he admits that “[N]ot since the 1890s has U.S. government decision making been as feeble, dysfunctional, and servile to corporate and other special interests as it is now.  The gravity of the danger posed by this debasement of American democracy is still not widely understood.”

The union evangelism of the 1930s is over while the corporate power that preceded it has only concentrated and gained strength since the financial collapse of 2007-8.  And nostalgia or commemoration about the gains of 1934 seems sweet, even lame in an economy with so many unorganized workers.  However, one story—of two salesmen peddling their wares during the West Coast strike—seems most relevant to the world in which we live.  True, it is lesser known, more cynical, but all the more necessary to understand considering the present deformity of American politics by corporate cash.

The general and maritime strike of 1934 was not just opposed by the state and business interests, it was attacked by tools provided by private enterprise, specifically, two gas and armament companies whose agents spent the 1930s shuttling about the country procuring revolvers, gas ejectors, gas mortars, submachine guns, shotguns, bullet proof vests, armored cars, sickening gas, vomit gas, grenades, and weapons to any employer or agency with enough dough to pay for them.

Two salesmen became the tools of industrial reaction:  Ignatius McCarty from Lake Erie Chemical and Joseph Roush from Federal Laboratories, were in such fierce competition for police and corporate dollars that one of them offered to forego his commission simply to spite his competitor.  Sales made to police (paid for by corporations) had been done before.  Captain Hynes, leader of the notorious FBI-backed “Red Squad” of the Los Angeles Police Department, paid cash for his orders.  Salesman McCarty wrote to the home office explaining, “Labor difficulties are in the making all over the country…it looks to me like the year 1934 may be a very beautiful one for all our men.”  McCarty later wrote to Lake Erie, “The cops here, when they hit a man over the head, are not satisfied unless he goes down and a good split occurs.  Our clubs are too light for this purpose.  Should you contemplate making them heavier, advise.”

While William Randolph Hearst’s bulldog Francis Neylan had organized the press against the “Bolshevik” trade unionists in order to break the strike, these opportunistic salesmen were indefatigable in their efforts to red-bait and terrify businessman for the single purpose of closing deals.  They even accompanied the strikebreaking police on the picket raids.  “Horsecops,” as longshoreman and ILWU stalwart Hank Schmidt memorably referred to the mounted police in his oral history, were equipped with gas masks (as were their steeds) and the very salesman that sold police the gas accompanied them on union raids.

Joseph Roush later testified in the Lafollette Committee hearings which investigated strikebreaking activities in the 1930s.  He was described by a Waterfront Employers Union secretary as a “peppy little salesman,” who had arrived at the W.E.U.’s headquarters at the Matson Building on Market Street in San Francisco with a bag chockfull of gas grenades.  For some months he had also been servicing the SFPD’s arsenal, gratis.  Not that police weren’t doing favors for him as well.  The Berkeley police stored his equipment in their vault, a kindness for which Roush awarded them with riot guns.  Roush had hoped that his favors for police Chief Quinn would get him a large contract.  But his competitor, McCarty, outmaneuvered him and snookered the Chief into buying from him, too.  But even in those dark depression days, money for putting down “the mob” was plentiful.  Roush continued his effort and was rewarded for it.  He messaged home about his time fighting back the pickets in “demonstrations” of his equipment:

I started in with long-range shells and believe me they solved the problem.  From then on each riot was a victory.  During the middle of the day we gathered in all available riot guns that I had ad long range shells and proceeded to stop every riot as it started…I might mention that during one of the riots, I shot a long-term projectile into the group, a shell hitting one man and causing a fracture of the skull, from which he has since died.  As he was a Communist, I have had no feeling in the matter and I am sorry that I did not kill more.

In fact the man that Roush shot, a twenty-six year old unemployed longshoreman named Engle, did not die.  Nor was he ever a Communist.  However, Roush’s efforts were praised by his boss and circulated among the other company men as exemplary work.  Engle, meanwhile, spent the rest of his days in Michigan going in and out of comas and consciousness while suffering dizzy spells and headaches with a one and a half inch suppurating hole in his head.

Roush’s nemesis, McCarty, sold $5,500 worth of equipment on May 13, 1934 while Roush delivered $18,000 worth of gas equipment in July.  When the men discovered that the police and employers were selling to one another’s competitor, there were threats of going public about corporate-financing for police strikebreaking equipment.  But once the bills were paid, little was disclosed until Congress began asking questions during the LaFollette Committee.  Paranoia about “Communists,” a small but active element on the waterfront, had possessed the employers.  T.G. Plant, head of the WEU and a close affiliate of Roger D. Lapham, President of the American-Hawaiian Company and later the city’s jolly mayor, had two desk drawers full of clubs and cartridges.  Plant’s secretary, who was pushed by his employer to work 130 days without a break during the strike, was charged with distributing the new weaponry.

The salesmen cleverly played on the fears of the business class.  In testimony before the LaFollette Committee, Roush admitted that he was instructed by his bosses to show newspaper clippings about the loss of plant property to his prospective clients and “thereby use that information as a lever to secure sales.”  With just a “small investiture in our equipment,” Roush would tell the industrialists, damage to property could be judiciously avoided.

Roush summarized to the Committee the corporate strategy:  “Trouble would occur,” his boss announced, “[and]that we should take advantage of it; that where law enforcement groups could not purchase we should try to raise funds either through public subscriptions or by calling on private individuals ourselves; to keep in constant contact with corporations; and in general take advantage of the trouble that, according to the Fed Lab officials, would take place due to the administration and the laws which it had enacted—calling specific attention to the NRA section 7a which Mr. Young, President of Federal Laboratories, said would give us more business than any other single thing.”

The fact that thousands of workers took to the streets in the 1930s to fight for better pay and improved working conditions is well known with anyone interested in American labor.  But Roush’s story should be better known, especially to those interested in how corporations buffalo, hoodwink, and terrify workers and effectively use muscle to keep them pliant.  After Federal had spent years water-bugging it’s agents from strike to strike—making sales from Detroit to the Imperial Valley—Roush went to Mexico to look at new possible commercial outlets.  But he fell ill.  After fifteen days of what he called “pneumonia” and “semi-delirious conditions” he was hospitalized in San Francisco.  One other salesman stopped to visit but Roush’s boss, even though he knew that one of his top salesmen was in the hospital, did not drop in with a get-well card.  Roush suspected the axe to fall fairly soon.  It came as the next correspondence he received was a letter from his employer notifying him that his work had been unsatisfactory.  The letter went on to describe that Roush had not carried on his business in a way that his superiors approved of and that they had come to “the parting of ways.”

The irony of a man who had spent his career destroying efforts to improve workers rights, being fired for getting sick, is too delicious and delightful to go unnoticed.  Roush told the LaFollete Committee, “I was to be very careful in my statements to law-enforcement officials as to my connection with the company.” He also was told to pay his own hospital bills and any other bills incurred during his illness.  If he did this he might—maybe—be considered for a future position.

However, Roush said he was instructed by his doctor to be inactive for an entire year, maybe two.  The company in no way compensated him for his illness or helped him back on his feet despite the bounty he brought in from the strikes of 1934.  “I had been loyal to them,” he complained to the committee, “had taken all commissions and in turn had spent them to bring in further business.  To be dropped when I was lying in a hospital was not, to my way of thinking, a fair way to treat on who had given time and energy, as I had, to them.”

Roush was forgotten and the depression spluttered on, slowly improving through the New Deal until the mobilization of war.  Some historians have called the 1930s a “pentecostal era” for unions.  Today, regressive laws, globalization, strikebreaking firms, scum attorneys, fickle politicians, security agencies, off-shoring, corruption, the decline of industry, and the liquid state of the digital age economy have made similar gains for organization impossible, reducing unions to a shattered condition bordering on irrelevancy.  Yet, the lesson for President Obama and his Democrats is that the efflorescence of unionism in the 1930s did not flower from a void, it was cultivated through politics.

Why President Obama has not pushed policy allowing workers to “take action” themselves is a mystery.  Without new means of worker organization, the only actions that are effectively taken in an effective, organized manner are by the corporate powers that employ tools like Roush and McCarty.  President Roosevelt knew that he was not smart or powerful enough to fight all battles himself, so why try?  Obama and his team must learn that operating websites and email blasts as an appendage of the Democratic Party is not as efficient a tool—even though it is easier—as allowing workers to struggle for their own rights and demands.   Americans will need to decide, and soon, whether or not they want workplace democracy of the kind radical scholars like Richard Wolff and David Harvey have called for.  They will also need to determine how best to respond to the globalized economy—collectively or individually.  The gains of the 1930s offered new possibilities that were eventually outflanked by organized power and labor complacency.  But the lesson of 1934, as well as being one of hope and inspiration for the power of politics to catalyze social change, also teaches the lesser known phenomenon of the power of business to profit, even from (or especially from) the politics of the moment.

The pessimists of our age—whose penultimate doomsayer is the political philosopher John Gray—will argue that nothing can be done to undo the ravages of the crushing neoliberalism of the last thirty years.  In his newest book, The Silence of Animals Gray writes that our age is similar to the 1930s in that both feature “global dislocation and involved geopolitical shifts.”  But today, he writes, there are no mass movements—fascist, Nazi or communist—and the crisis “cannot be overcome by collective action” or any kind of decision.  Instead “there will be a shift of scene, an alteration in the global landscape that no one can foresee or control, as a result of which difficulties that are presently intractable will be left behind.”  To act at all is part of he calls a foolish faith in progress.  Perhaps.  Even the socialist Oscar Wilde admitted that “the secret of life is suffering, it is what is hidden behind everything.”  But I am with philosopher Simon Critchley in his critical assessment that Gray’s political cul-de-sac is what Nietzsche once called “European Buddhism”—a disguise for passive nihilism, an excuse for doing nothing in the face of injustice.  Just because the lives of workers cannot be perfected does not mean they cannot be improved.  This argument, boring and time-consuming as it is, will need to be fought as well.  If there is hope for American politics in its current form Obama and his side of the aisle, if they are savvy enough can, through actual political decisions, outdo the tools of power—personified by men like Roush and McCarty—by giving American workers the political tools they need to fight for themselves.

Brett Warnke received his BA at Indiana University and his MA from the New School for Social Research. He can be reached at brettwarnke@gmail.com