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This Day in Labor History: May 9, 1934

[ 42 ] May 9, 2012 |

On this date in 1934, longshoremen on the West Coast walked off their jobs, beginning of the largest strikes in the history of the region and helping feed the move toward industrial unionism that transformed American labor in the 1930s.

Labor relations on the docks of San Francisco were horrible. Employers established hiring halls in many cities but in San Francisco men had to come to the docks each morning and raise their hands in hope of getting chosen to work. The “shape-up” shamed workers, bringing out everyone who needed any kind of a job everyday, creating a huge labor surplus and lowering wages to nearly nothing. As labor historian Irving Bernstein said, “Aside from slavery itself, it is difficult to conceive of a more inhuman labor market mechanism than the shape-up.” The shape-up meant that the employer picked the workers every day, thus opening the door to kickbacks, favortism, and corruption. The workers despised the shape-up with every bone in their bodies.

It is also hard to overstate how difficult the labor of longshoremen was. Essentially, as a longshoremen, you carried and moved heavy items all day at incredible speed, which only increased with the advent of new technologies and “competitions” between crews that employers created, perhaps for their own sick amusement and certainly to increase profits. It was not uncommon for workers to drop dead on the job from exhaustion.

The leader of the strike was Harry Bridges. An Australian immigrant from a political family, Bridges took to the ships as a teenager. Arriving in the United States in 1920, he quickly became involved in labor work. In 1921, Bridges was in New Orleans during a maritime strike, where he joined the picket line, became a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, and was arrested. He left the ships in 1922 and settled in San Francisco to work on the docks. He married in 1924 and became a relatively consistent worker for the next 12 several years, although he was briefly blacklisted for his labor work. Bridges became a well-known radical among the longshoremen, publishing a newspaper he and his fellow radicals handed out to workers on the docks. In 1933, the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) began an effort to organize the San Francisco dockworkers and Bridges became a leader in that struggle. People debated for years whether Bridges was a paid communist agent, but he was certainly a radical who openly rejected capital and truly detested corporations. His willingness to work closely with communists would later cause him great problems but this bothered few longshoremen in the 1930s.

Harry Bridges

Bridges and other radicals began preparing for a major West Coast strike in 1934. Although the international leadership of the ILA was quite conservative, Bridges and his allies effectively outmaneuvered them to gain control of the workers by organizing on the ground; when the ILA negotiated an extremely weak agreement with employers, membership widely rejected it and Bridges vaulted to union-wide prominence. The union now had three essential demands: a union hiring hall, a closed shop, and a coastwide contract, as well as smaller demands like a pay hike. When the employers rejected the demands, longshoremen up and down the coast walked off their jobs on March 9, 1934. President Roosevelt tried to mediate the strike, but workers rejected two attempts, demanding full victory.

The center of the strike was the Bay Area and especially San Francisco. On May 15, 2 workers were killed by company thugs at San Pedro and violence occurred in Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland, and Portland. Angered by the strikes, the companies decided to reopen the San Francisco port and committed to using violence to see it happen. On July 3, fights broke out between workers and policemen when businessmen driving trucks rammed through the picket lines to the docks. Although Independence Day was quiet, July 5 saw a shocking display of violence. Police attacked the strikers, firing tear gas into the picket lines and then leading a mounted charge of horsemen. Workers fought back with stones, forcing the cops to retreat. Three times the two sides battled, with no clear victors.

That afternoon, a cop fired a shotgun into the crowd at the strike kitchen, hitting 3 strikers, 2 of which died. One of the deaths was a striking longshoremen, the other an unemployed community member volunteering at the kitchen. The workers quickly reorganized around Bloody Thursday, using the martyrs as inspiration. That evening however, California governor Frank Merriam called in the National Guard to open the docks. In response, Harry Bridges called for a general strike. On July 14, the general strike began, notably including the Teamsters, whose notoriously pro-business corrupt president Dave Beck had been hated by the left for twenty years by this point. Beck opposed the general strike, but Bay Area locals walked out anyway.

The general strike lasted 4 days without violence. Support was broad in San Francisco. The strikers allowed food deliveries and many small businesses voluntarily shut down in support. The major downside of the general strike was that it took control over the longshoremen’s struggle away from the longshoremen themselves. Because the general strike was controlled by the local labor council and not Bridges, it meant that although the action was radical, the leadership became far more conservative. The General Strike Committee called the strike off on July 17 and recommended that workers accept arbitration. Bridges opposed this and that evening, the California National Guard and pro-business vigilante groups launched a frontal assault upon the ILA and its supporters. They blocked off major streets, arrested everyone they could find, destroyed the ILA faciltiies. One ACLU lawyer was severely beaten. In Hayward, a scaffold was constructed in front of City Hall that read “Reds Beware.”

The conservative General Strike committee and the vigilante crackdown forced the longshoremen back to work, but the aftermath and the arbitration proceedings turned out pretty well for them. Smaller strikes popped up all the time over workplace conditions and the employers began to grant many concessions. The arbitrator gave the ILA effective control over hiring, ending the shape-up, along with a 95 cent an hour pay increase, which was pretty huge for 1934. Harry Bridges became the most powerful labor leader on the West Coast and enemy #1 for capitalists. Because of his immigration status and communist ties, much of the rest of his life would be spent in legal battles. I’ll have a fuller post on Bridges later in this series, but he was expelled from the CIO in 1950 during the purges of the communists that destroyed the CIO’s effectiveness during the McCarthy Era. Also, in 1958, Bridges remarried, this time to a Japanese woman. They got married in Nevada specifically because it had an anti-miscegenation statute that they wanted to challenge.

This is the 25th post in this series which I guess is some kind of mild milestone. Other events I’ve covered include the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 and the Haymarket Riot of 1886.

Comments (42)

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  1. Western Dave says:

    Reading about Bloody Thursday in 1988 or 1989 in Irving Bernstein’s The Turbulent Years I came across an eyewitness description from an oral history that was done years later. It was from a worker who later served at Iwo Jima. He said that San Francisco that day was worse.

    • Jim Lynch says:

      Rest assured that “worker” never set foot on Iwo. It’s a preposterous assertion.

      • Alex says:

        I agree. Given the extreme casualty rate in Marine rifle companies, the comparison is absurd. 23,000 killed or wounded.

        • wengler says:

          Police mobs attacking unarmed people point blank is much different than armed combatants destroying each other often from afar.

          • Alex says:

            Seriously?

            Why don’t we just go all in and compare it to the fucking Holocaust?

            • Erik Loomis says:

              Christ….this isn’t me making the comparison or Irving Bernstein–it was a man who was actually at both. It was a veteran of Iwo Jima making the comparison.

              • Alex says:

                It was a man who claimed to be at both in an oral history.

                Just based on the absurdity of his statement, I have to doubt one of his sincerity, honesty, or sanity.

                • Erik Loomis says:

                  Yes, because being unarmed and shot at is clearly not nearly as scary as being armed and shot at.

                  I feel like this is a bunch of people who like to read about World War II saying comparing anything to Iwo Jima is impossible.

                  Well, for this one man, he was. I think we have to respect his opinion on the matter. It’s not an objective fact that being at San Francisco in 1934 was scarier than being at Iwo Jima. But for this one person, it was. And that’s not completely impossible or anything.

      • Erik Loomis says:

        Well exactly one of us was at both and he said it so I think we have to respect that.

        • Jim Lynch says:

          Respect? Respect what? It’s a fucking preposterous thing to have said.

          Your bullshit detector needs a tune-up, EL.

          • Erik Loomis says:

            Right; I guess Irving Bernstein’s does too….

            • Jim Lynch says:

              I detect a note of sarcasm in your response, Eric.

              A simple question then: to which USMC division was the worker attached to on Iwo Jima? “You can look it up”.

              Bernstein surely posed that question during his interview. And if he didn’t, he effectively undermined the credibility of that assertion, right?

              • Western Dave says:

                The fact that he was armed at Iwo Jima and not in SF might have had something to do with it.

                • Jim Lynch says:

                  Rosenthal, eh? As he was a very modest and intelligent guy, his comparison boils down to having made a transparent exaggeration for the sake of making a point. Here’s another account by a different author:

                  “As he tried to take photos of the rioting he got caught up in the fighting. As Rosenthal latter told Charles Larrowe, the biographer of one of the strike leaders, “he was stoned by the strikers, tear gassed by police, and beaten so badly that he was hospitalized for a week.” Needless to say, he was one of the many witnesses that did not have fond memories of that day”.

      • Western Dave says:

        Found the anecdote in question. The source is Joe Rosenthal, the guy who photographed the flag raising on Iwo Jima. So he was there. p. 279. I can’t get the whole quote from google books but it’s my memory that’s faulty. Rosenthal was caught between the strikers and police. He was “stoned by strikers, gassed by police, and beaten so badly he was in the hospital for a week.”

        • AlexD says:

          Rosenthal? That makes a little more sense. Rosenthal was a non-combatant photographer at Iwo Jima, who took the iconic picture of the flag raising 5 days after the landing. And apparently caught in the middle of a police riot during the SF strike. Being in the middle of a melee might very well be much scarier than a photograhic assignment in a war zone.

          Interpreting that as “SF was worse than Iwo” is sheer fucking lunacy.

      • Daniel says:

        The “worker” at Iwo Jima and Bloody Thursday was in fact Joe Rosenthal, who took the most famous photograph of WWII- GIs raising the U.S. flag over the island.
        Joe was at Iwo Jima and at the 1934 SF strike as a photographer, not a combatant. He was unscathed at Iwo Jima, but shot, beaten, and bruised by police in Frisco, so, for him, Bloody Thursday was a much scarier experience.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      I saw that too reviewing Bernstein’s work for this. Thought about quoting, but I actually forgot when I was writing it today.

    • Daniel says:

      The “worker” at Iwo Jima and Bloody Thursday was in fact Joe Rosenthal, who took the most famous photograph of WWII- GIs raising the U.S. flag over the island.
      Joe was at Iwo Jima and at the 1934 SF strike as a photographer, not a combatant. He was unscathed at Iwo Jima, but shot, beaten, and bruised by police in Frisco, so, for him, Bloody Thursday was a much scarier experience.

  2. Jim Lynch says:

    My aunt was good friends with a bodyguard of Bridges. She was a member of the Sailors Union of the Pacific, too, shipping out of San Francisco’s merchant marine hall. She actually shipped out during WW2, and, being the generous and kind-hearted soul she was, allowed an acquaintance to live in her apartment (in beautiful North Beach) while she was at sea. When she returned, living space being hard to come by in wartime San Francisco, the SOB refused to vacate. My aunt was upset, but she also had a lot of friends. Enter Bridges bodyguard, who quickly convinced the interloper to pack his bags and hit the road. And by “quickly”, I mean within 30 seconds. It’s one of my favorite family stories.

  3. dilbert dogbert says:

    One of my mom’s friends was a secretary in Bridge’s union as was asked to join the communist party. She declined and went on being a secretary.

    The interesting story about Bridges was the deal he signed with the shippers where they got automation and he got lifetime jobs for the current members and pensions. Not sure the above is wholly accurate but it is what I read somewhere decades ago.

  4. Alex says:

    Yes, because being unarmed and shot at is clearly not nearly as scary as being armed and shot at.

    No, because being beat or even shot by a cop is less scary than being captured by the Japanese, and after being tortured, having your severed penis and balls shoved down your throat so you choke while bleeding to death. Which is how some Marines were found.

    Sometimes I marvel that someone can write so intelligently on one subject, and so not-intelligently on another.

    • No, because being beat or even shot by a cop is less scary than being captured by the Japanese, and after being tortured, having your severed penis and balls shoved down your throat so you choke while bleeding to death. Which is how some Marines were found.

      I think we can safely assume that this particular Marine was not one of those.

      • Western Dave says:

        One marine. Ralph Ignatowski. And the penis thing was added later as far as I can tell. And nobody mentioned balls in any of the accounts I found.

        • AlexD says:

          Oh, so it was just his penis that was severed and shoved down his throat, after being tortured? Hell that’s not as bad as a beating from a cop!

          Are you out of your mind?

          And no, it was not a singular event.

          And this argument: which was worse, Iwo Jima or SF 1934 — is beyond completely fucking insanity.

          • Western Dave says:

            Alex,
            I don’t think anybody is arguing that. But for folks who were generally unused to violence (and would later become quite conditioned to it) I think their first exposure stuck with them. Of course, SF was going to seem worse to Rosenthal he was so badly beaten he was in the hospital for a week afterwards.

            • Alex says:

              Well, sure. Photographing a combat zone is different than being in the middle of combat and being literally blown into little pieces. SF may very well have been a worse experience for him as an individual, but to extrapolate that to the experience of the combat troops is absurd.

    • JL says:

      How hard is it to understand that different people have different experiences of different events? Maybe this guy did experience SF as being scarier/worse for him than Iwo Jima was. Probably safe to assume that he wasn’t one of the Marines that you’re talking about. That doesn’t make his experience wrong, or one that would be a majority view.

      • Alex says:

        How hard is it to understand that different people have different experiences of different events? Maybe this guy did experience SF as being scarier/worse for him than Iwo Jima was. Probably safe to assume that he wasn’t one of the Marines that you’re talking about.

        What’s wrong is extrapolating that experience into a general statement. Heck, for the children of a Konzentrationslager commandant, the Holocaust may have been a pleasant experience within their walled compound. That doesn’t mean we can generalize on that experience.

  5. cpinva says:

    i’d have to disagree with this:

    As labor historian Irving Bernstein said, “Aside from slavery itself, it is difficult to conceive of a more inhuman labor market mechanism than the shape-up.”

    with slavery, odious an institution that it was, the owners had a vested financial interest in keeping their slaves in decent enough shape to work. employer’s had no such interest in the 1930′s. clearly, i’m in no way suggesting that slavery was better, simply pointing out that, absent that vested financial interest, employer’s had even less reason (than they already did) in concerning themselves with the personal welfare of their employees. they (laborers) could literally drop dead on the job, and their corpse would be simply moved out of the way, and be quickly replaced by another low paid individual, with no financial harm to the employer.

  6. bobbyp says:

    “with slavery, odious an institution that it was, the owners had a vested financial interest in keeping their slaves in decent enough shape to work.”

    I agree with your remarks, but the above snippet is not quite right. Slave owners in the Caribbean were notorious for working their slaves quickly to death. In relation to the immense wealth of the rum trade, slaves were cheap (unlike in the NA colonies).

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Right, it depended on the place and the financial status of the plantation owner. In some places, it made sense to keep slaves away. In others, the owners couldn’t care less.

      • AlexD says:

        One of the distinct features of capitalism is its efficiency, based on a market. From the perspective of labor, this has not always been a blessing. The laborer is subject to the vicissitudes of the market to which the slave was never subject; it is possible that the unregulated market wage (or absence of work) will starve a laborer’s family, while the slave is property which the owner has an imperative to preserve not as a human being, but as a form of wealth or currency.

        European historians have argued that some serfs were better off as serfs than as free labour, particularly where their rights as serfs included rights to homestead and subsistence, and those same rights were later subject to rents and market prices in a market economy. Similarly, scholars have argued that some freedmen were exploited more ruthlessly as sharecroppers than they were as chattel.

  7. bobbyp says:

    Great job, Erik. Wherever did you come across that photo of Bridges?

    Many today whine about those few longshoremen left operating those big dockside cranes making $100k/year.

    My response is: Don’t whine. Organize. :)

    • AlexD says:

      One of the reasons longshoremen and marine clerks have such lucrative jobs is because Harry Bridges was not only a gifted organizer, but also a capable and foresighted labor leader. He saw early on that containerization was a technological force that could not be stopped. Rather than try to impede it (like the ILA did) he sought to make the best possible deal for the ILWU while he still had bargaining power. He agreed to the inevitable reductions in longshore labor which would result from containerization in return for taking more clerical and warehouse positions into the union, preserving jobs by creating walking bosses and other positions, and basically trying to leverage the union’s unrealized potential to impede technological progress into more and better union positions in the future. The ILWU has retained its leverage and remains a capable and effective representative, possessing a potent strike threat and real bargaining power. He realized that he had to fight at times, but that at others mere belligerency would weaken rather than strengthen the union and benefit its memebers. A truly visionary leader.

  8. [...] (typeof(addthis_share) == "undefined"){ addthis_share = [];}On May 16, 1934, a mere week after longshoremen in San Francisco walked off the job and roiled the west coast, truckers in Minneapolis went on strike in an action that would lead the way for the Teamsters to [...]

  9. [...] Massacre April 30, 1894–Coxey’s Army May 4, 1886–Haymarket Riot May 9, 1934–Longshoremen strike begins in San Francisco May 16, 1934–Minneapolis Teamsters Strike May 19, 1920–Matewan Massacre May 30, [...]

  10. [...] May 9, 1934: Longshoremen strike begins in San Francisco [...]

  11. […] to point to a the most militant moment in American history, I’d choose the spring of 1934. Huge strikes roiled San Francisco, Minneapolis, and […]

  12. […] to strike. 1934 saw some of the greatest militancy in American history, with major strikes in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Toledo, and the textile plants in New England and the South. This growing labor […]

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