Remembering the 1934 San Francisco Dock Strike 

In commemoration of “Bloody Thursday”, July 5, 1934

     The urgency of this post has risen, as they say, to the top of the queue.  In light of recent Supreme Court decisions, we cannot assume that union membership, among other rights that we assumed were safeguarded as a matter of legal precedent, will continue.  If we must again engage in the struggle for worker rights, then struggle we must.  

     Why should we remember history?  Well, for one thing, not to repeat it.  For another, history tends to be cyclic—major themes or motifs recur, and historical knowledge aids us in understanding and addressing them as they arise.  To name one, there is the labor struggle.  Not that it has ever gone away, but it seems to be reappearing with a new urgency.  The strike is back in style as employers compete for workers, who have developed a new-found voice in articulating their demands for fairness—just compensation and working conditions. 

     The old story has become new again.  Worker solidarity is again “in the air” after a period of declining commercial and industrial union membership.  This has been triggered by the demand for workers and accompanying offers of increased pay and benefits.  Unionization efforts at Starbucks and Amazon are high in the public consciousness, but they are not the only ones.  After workers in an Oklahoma Dollar General store quit en masse over dangerous working conditions and low pay, their workers all across the country are organizing, including a march on a shareholders meeting (where some of them are actually shareholders). 

     Resistance is back in style.  One hears the statement that management “wants to deal directly with its employees”.  If this means to threaten, coerce, and otherwise exercise arbitrary control over the working lives of their employees, no thanks.  Unfortunately, the instances of fair treatment are outnumbered by coercive actions.    

     A revitalized union movement owes itself, in part, to the increasing concentration of wealth on the part of billionaire owners and the increasing disparity of incomes that have added fuel to the fire.  Whether unionized or not, the current state of worker rights and benefits owes a great debt to the labor struggles of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Much can be learned from a study of the renowned 1934 San Francisco dock strike.

     For many years San Francisco and Oakland have been considered union towns.  The concentration of shipping and industrial businesses made it natural that organizing attempts would take place. Several years back I attended a conference in San Francisco’s Mission District.  In an adjacent room was an extensive display devoted exclusively to the 1934 Dock Strike.  I was drawn to the dedication and commitment shown by the presenters to memorialize an event which happened more than seventy years before.  Many in the Bay Area, including descendants of the original strikers, cannot and will not forget its importance and look to it as a seminal event in the struggle for worker rights.  Current workers take power from it as the labor movement continues. In that critical year, 1934, the fuse was lit when worker dissatisfaction reached critical mass and longshoremen stopped work.  The Longshoremen’s strike, like those of autoworkers and farmworkers to come has assumed a  legendary status.   

     The 1934 West Coast Longshoreman’s Strike, also known as the 1934 West Coast Waterfront Strike, lasted for 83 days, beginning on May 9 when longshoremen in every West Coast port walked out.  Its peak occurred with the death of two workers on “Bloody Thursday”, resulting in the San Francisco General Strike which stopped all work for four days and led to a final settlement. As a result, all West Coast ports were unionized.  Along with major strikes in other industries, it led to the rise of industrial unionism, led by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).  This was preceded by several strikes and unionization attempts, including those by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Communist Party in the 1920s.

     What were the conditions that led to the strike?  In short, the harsh and inhumane treatment of workers by the ship owners.  At the beginning of each work day, private contractors would choose workers for that day, forcing men to beg for work and pay kickbacks to hiring agents.  The union which represented them was an employer-controlled company union, so the longshoremen had few alternatives. New hope arrived with the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 as workers began to organize. They formed Local 38-79 of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), demanding recognition, a six-hour workday, a thirty-hour workweek, and a pay increase. A radical faction of longshoremen led by Harry Bridges demanded further that the daily hiring procedure be replaced by a union hiring hall. When ILA officials negotiated an agreement that left out the hiring hall, rank-and-file members of Local 38-79 suspended their president.      

     Unable to win their demands, longshoremen throughout the Pacific Coast region went on strike on March 9, 1934.  This reached its climax on “Bloody Thursday”, July 5 with the killing of two and injuries to several others.  The three main demands of the union were: a coastwide contract, a closed shop (mandatory union membership for employment), and a union (as opposed to a company) hiring hall.  Working conditions included more men on each gang and lighter loads. Two attempts by the Roosevelt administration to broker a settlement were rejected.  The Teamsters Union was not wholehearted in its support, although several members refused to handle “hot cargo”—goods which had been unloaded by strikebreakers.  On July 8 the Teamsters membership voted to strike, over the objection of its leaders. The strike grew to 150,000 workers.  The International Longshoremen’s Union (ILWU) continues to honor Bloody  Thursday, shutting down ports every July 5 and honoring those who died.  The ILWU has frequently engaged in shutdowns to support political actions, continuing its tradition of activism. 

     Not to be deterred, business leaders formed an alliance of industrial, banking, shipping, railroad, and utility firms called the Industrial Association of San Francisco.  A public relations campaign was launched, calling the strike was a Communist plot. Historians have proven this to be false, although some strike leaders were either members of or sympathetic to the Communist Party.  The ILWU continues to be a powerful and effective voice today. The intensity of that long-ago struggle pointed the way for those who were to follow.  

     The tragic fact behind human progress is that so much of it is built upon blood.  Unionization and workers’ rights are no exception.  We must remember that, in 19th century America, unions were illegal.  Professionals such as teachers were forbidden to form unions until well into the 20th century.  Unionization has always been met with resistance, then and now.  Close on the heels of the ILWU strike was the 1937 strike at Ford, accompanied, predictably, by violence against workers by Henry Ford’s hired goons.  The 1960s farmworkers strike was long and hard, initiated by those who were the least powerful, but bound together by their solidarity.  Over the ensuing years, the union effort became one not only for working conditions and compensation, but for basic pesticide safety, even as fields were sprayed while workers were present.  This has led to California’s pesticide regulations being the most comprehensive of any in the nation. 

     The late Cesar Chavez identified the march and the boycott, along with the strike, as powerful forces.  What moved the UFW negotiations off dead center?  The worldwide grape boycott brought the growers to their knees.  Those who support workers today should not forget this: don’t spend your money where workers are underpaid, union representation is denied, or where working conditions are unsafe.  Don’t cross a picket line to shop if you agree with the workers; demands.  It is really as simple as that.  “Voting with your dollars” can achieve amazing results, and it is so easy to do.  It is also a moral choice.

     We celebrate the American Revolution on the Fourth of July, but revolution is no picnic.  Those who supported the American Revolution were considered traitors.  Religious adherents,  Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, and others were (and are) persecuted and killed.  Slaves were punished if they complained or escaped.  Strikes were put down with violence.  Conciliation, as we have so often seen, is not always a virtue.  Conflict is the watchword and it is for us to decide, in the words of that old mineworkers song, “Which side we you on, which side are you on?”      

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s