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This Day in Labor History: May 9, 1934

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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 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 May 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.

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