The Waterfront and General Strike

The Waterfront and General Strike

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On May 9, 1934, International Labor Association (ILA) leaders called a strike of all dockworkers on the West Coast, who were joined a few days later by seamen and teamsters — effectively halting all shipping from San Diego, California to Seattle, Washington for more than two months. San Francisco became the scene of the strike’s most dramatic and widely known incidents, luridly described in one headline as, "War in San Francisco!"San Francisco indeed saw violent industrial strife. Gruesome confrontations took place in the streets, with police gunfire wounding some unarmed strikers.By order of the General Strike Committee, saloons and liquor stores were closed, but 19 restaurants were allowed to remain open. Scribbled signs and placards in the windows of many small businesses read: "Closed Till The Boys Win," or "We're With You Fellows... Stick It Out," or "Closed Till The Longshoremen Get Their Hiring Hall," or "Closed. ILA Symphathizer."An eerie quiet settled over the acres of buildings affected by the strike. The clatter of commercial activity gave way to a whisper of voices on the docks.Highways leading out of the city bore a continuous stream of expensive cars carrying well-to-do refugees to distant sanctuaries.The media aggravate tensionWith shared motives, newspapers and commercial radio of 1934 San Francisco "hammed it up." Truth evolved into distorted and invented daily events — colored in propaganda — worsening the violence that actually existed.They described the event as a "Bolshevik revolution," fabricating visions of agitated packs of wolves, torches in hand, prowling through the city streets.Pedestrians bought copies of newspapers whose headlines trumpeted mayhem of apocalyptic dimensions. Many of them barricaded their doors and jittered in anticipation of chaos.Every few hours, the newspapers issued blazing extras announcing, "Big Strike Broken!" The strike was not over of course, and there was no reason to think that it was. Citizens of San Francisco were cleaning out newspaper stands in hopes of finding an end to the madness.Bloody ThursdayOn the morning of July 5, 1934, 1,000 police officers attempted to clear picketers from the waterfront so that strikebreakers could do the work of the striking dockworkers. In the ensuing riot, two strikers were killed and 64 people were injured.Gangs of vigilantes roamed the city, smashing halls and homes where Communists were known or supposed to gather. More than 450 persons were packed into a city jail built to accommodate 150.In another confrontation, two strikers were killed, with 109 people wounded by the San Francisco Police. A mass funeral march of 12,000 men behind the victims' coffins four days later, and the general strike that followed, effectively shut down both San Francisco and Oakland.The governor calls in the troopsCalifornia Governor Frank Merriam finally requested federal intervention, which initially deployed youngsters from the local National Guard unit.Along the Embarcadero and in front of the National Guard Armory, anxious teenaged soldiers wearing steel helmets and awkwardly fitting khaki uniforms paced up and down, fingering heavy automatic rifles.Soldiers on the waterfront were later augmented by 390 additional guardsmen, including 250 men of the 184th Infantry from Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Napa, and 140 men of the same regiment from San Jose. Those additions brought the total militia command on duty there to nearly 2400.The men were briefed with direct orders: "Shoot to kill" in the event of an attack; if orders were not followed, they would be subjected to a court martial. Young soldiers were ordered to fire shots over the heads of strikers armed with bricks; other attempts to break up the massive crowd resulted in more ruthless "bullying and skull cracking" by the guard.A once economically diverse city was now scattered by bayonets, and destitution festered. Pedestrians ran for shelter from ricocheting bullets slamming into window glass.The general strikeIn July 1934, the ILA responded to the events of "Bloody Thursday," and the federal government's involvement, by calling for a general strike — asking members of other unions to go onto the picket line in support of the dockworkers. The laboring population laid down its tools in a citywide general strike.Virtually every union in San Francisco and Alameda county joined in the strike, which began on July 16 and continued for four days. The widening strike alienated public opinion, but also demonstrated the strength of united labor.The unions settleThe original waterfront strike was resolved when federal arbitrators granted the ILA most of its demands. In the aftermath, a letter was released by Edward Vandeleur, president, and George Kidwell, secretary of the General Strike Committee, on July 15, 1934:

"What are the ends to be attained in this strike movement?Correction of wages, hours or working conditions? Only in specific cases and in reference to certain definite union groups. The overwhelming cause which has forced San Francisco's men and women to leave their work is the unified and almost overwhelming attack of certain employer groups upon labor's rights to organize in their own unions and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.Now this placed in the hands of business leaders and industry owners a vast new power which, unchecked, in irresponsible hands, would have resulted in an overwhelming and unbearable penalty against the nation as a whole for the advantage of the few, to consumers in prices pyramided under monopoly, to labor in wage levels crushed down by unified monopolistic action. To prevent top-heavy development, the government has planned a system of checks and balances in the new industrial scheme: protection of consumers through federal institutions in their behalf, and protection of the rights of labor by actively supporting the workers' rights to organize into trade unions to bargain with united employers.Thus the National Industrial Recovery Act, the legal statutes of the United States under which practically all employers of America now operate, affirms the rights of unionization in words which no intelligent and fair-minded person can mistake."

A Terrible Anger: The 1934 Waterfront and General Strikes in San Francisco

David F. Selvin, A Terrible Anger: The 1934 Waterfront and General Strikes in San Francisco. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1996. 272 pp. $26.95 (paper), ISBN: 0814326102.

Reviewed for EH Net by Lawrence W. Boyd, Center for Labor Education and Research, University of Hawaii.

A Terrible Anger is a narrative history of one of three massive strikes which occurred in 1934 which led to independent trade unions, organized on an industrial basis, becoming fully legal organizations in the United States. The other strikes, the Minneapolis Teamster’s strike and the Toledo Autolite strike shared similar characteristics. In each case militant trade union members, led by radicals, launched strikes for union recognition against intransigent employers who were members of bitterly antiunion employers’ organizations and who were in turn supported by political allies, police forces, and ultimately national guard troops. This is not an unusual story in American history, what was different was the unions involved emerged as clear winners in these often bloody confrontations. The end result was a massive restructuring of the United States’ labor market which has only recently begun to be re-restructured. Thus this book comes at a time when it might be useful to revisit the origins of legal labor unions in the United States.

What is useful about A Terrible Anger is that it retells a somewhat familiar story from a somewhat different perspective. Previous histories of the San Francisco strikes have focused on the leadership of the strikes and the role of communists or socialists in the strikes. Thus, this story can also be found in Labor’s Untold Story by Richard Boyer and Herbert Morais (Pittsburgh, 1955, 1980) or in Harry Bridges: The Rise and Fall of Radical Labor in the United States by Charles P. Larrowe (Chicago, 1977). Selvin seeks to “record the impulses that led to organization and conflict, to see those developments in relations to their roots in the labor movement, and to review whole the tactics and strategies, the policies and programs that undergirded the real and enduring significance of the strikes” (p. 10).

What evolved in San Francisco was a series of conditions in which longshoremen and sailors had no voice in their job conditions. The work by its very nature was transitory and “casual.” When a ship was loaded, or unloaded, the work was done and the employees were let go and then rehired when another ship docked. Although casual laborers, they were paid more than those with steady jobs. The way work was distributed, however, became a major grievance.

Some workers worked extremely long hours for short intense periods while others got very little work. Larger shipping companies with steady operations offered some employees “almost steady” labor in what were called “star gangs.” Harry Bridges, who eventually became the central leader of the strike and the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) was a member of a star gang. These gangs got most of the work, “the best jobs, the best hatches, and the longest shifts.” Fear of losing their jobs kept them quiet about work conditions.

As one longshoremen recalled, he left San Francisco at 7:00 a.m., worked all day, and returned home at 3:30 a.m. with orders to report to Alameda again at seven the next morning. As he said “So I never showed up. It was just too much . . . you work up a terrible anger against the employers.” (p.39) The people who determined which employees would work were called walking or gang bosses. Given the surplus of employees relative to jobs it was almost inevitable that they could on occasion demand kickbacks or commissions for hiring individuals. Naturally, these conditions led to the central demand of the strikes union hiring halls where work was awarded based on seniority. This was also the major sticking point in the negotiations and was ultimately the central issue which needed to be resolved during the general strike.

A central part of this story is the violence which occurred during the strike. Several workers were killed during the strike. When two longshoremen were killed and a third wounded in what could be described as a police riot, a mass funeral set the stage for the San Francisco general strike. Basically the city was shut down for four days as a result of this strike. Unions voted to walk out in sympathy with the longshoremen and they were joined by large numbers of workers not affiliated with any unions.. This elevated what had been a serious, but local strike, to national and international attention.

In tracing the roots of the violence which erupted in the course of the strike Sevlin asserts the following, “Strike violence is almost invariably the product of a clash between two, sharply conflicting powerfully asserted rights.” (p. 92) This strike pitted the employers’ right to “unfettered use of his property” against the strikers’ assertion of “a proprietary interest” in their jobs. They did not quit their jobs but withheld their labor in order to “concentrate attention on their grievances and to negotiate some amelioration.” (pp. 92-93) This is one of the more interesting points raised by this history that underlying these massive labor struggles were two conflicting property rights regimes.

Selvin is the only historian of this period whom I have been able to find who makes this assertion. (Others approach this as an issue of management’s right to direct the workforce following union recognition). Selvin’s point is a logical one in that the legal doctrine underlying most employment law in the United States is “employment at will.” Employers have the right to hire and fire without explaining why they make their decisions. One exception to this doctrine is workers covered under union contracts. Under these contracts employers must demonstrate “just cause” for terminating an employee. (Another exception, of course, is tenured faculty). Unfortunately this statement is not footnoted and is simply asserted. Was this the view of the strikers? Or are there other sources for this statement?

A second question is why these strikers, and the others during this year, were largely successful while historically most, if not all strikes which reached this level had previously failed. Sevlin cites two interesting points. One, as might be expected, is that the Roosevelt administration was unwilling to intervene on the side of the employers to the same extent previous administrations had. As Sevlin points out this does not appear to have been a foregone conclusion.

Roosevelt was on vacation during the general strike and the “acting president,” Secretary of State Cordell Hull, along with Attorney General Homer S. Cummings thought the National Guard and the U. S. Army should have be used to put down the strike. The Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, told them that she felt it was, “unwise to begin the Roosevelt administration by shooting it out with working people .” (p. 179). She also suggested that the President be consulted. Roosevelt, fishing in the Pacific, suggested that an offer to arbitrate be made in his name- an offer which was eventually never made. In any case what can be said is that the federal government did not effectively intervene on the side of employers.

Second, Sevlin points to the tactics employed by the leaders of the general strike. The strikers involved never resorted to out and out violent resistance during the strike. They met attempts to move strikebreakers or cargo with mass demonstrations and stones, but they did not riot. Their cause, especially in the aftermath of the shootings and the funeral for the dead strikers, was taken up by other unions and employees in a general strike. The general strike itself was a protest against the intransigence of the employers and the violence directed against the strikers. It was of limited duration and had the clear and limited aim of bringing the waterfront employers to accept arbitration of unresolved issues such as the union hiring hall. Unlike European general strikes, launched in efforts to achieve political power, this general strike was a mass protest aimed at changing the violent direction of the waterfront strikes. In this it was brilliantly successful.

A word should be said about the style of the book. Those who like their narrative histories to have a beginning, a middle and an end will be disappointed by this book. Sevlin’s first chapter begins with the funeral of the strikers and then moves on to beginning, middle and end. I found this to be somewhat irritating. A second problem, at least for those of us used to reading scholarly works, is the purple prose he at times uses. As an example of this in describing the funeral of the striking workers he writes, “Above the clamor of that strike-turbulent summer of 1934, the silence was a wrenching cry of pain and anger.”(p. 11) I found some of the prose and the structure of the book to be difficult to wade through in order to get to the relevant story.

Perhaps the primary value of this book is that it gives one an insight into the turbulence of the period and that this turbulence was not simply the result of socialist and communist leadership. Rather it reflected a mass radicalization of large numbers of people who came to believe in the necessity of workplace reforms that gave them a greater voice in their employment. Further, they believed that these reforms could ameliorate the harsh conditions of the Great Depression and extend democracy into another sphere of American life.

As to the overall value of this book, I quite naturally found myself referring back to Colin Gordon’s, New Deals (New York, 1994), and found that A Terrible Anger gave me a deeper understanding of many of the points Gordon makes. Examples of these include the administration of Section 7A) of the National Recovery Act (NRA) Codes the role of NRA director, General Forest Johnson the chaos within the Roosevelt administration during the National Recovery Act period and the increasingly narrow options management faced concerning labor relations during this period.

(David F. Selvin was the editor of Northern California Labor and author of A Place in the Sun: History of California Labor, The Other San Francisco, and The Thundering Voice of John L. Lewis.)

Lawrence W. Boyd Center for Labor Education and Research University of Hawaii

Lawrence W. Boyd is the author of “The End of Hawaii’s Plantations: Back to the Future?” in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, March 1996.

The Waterfront and General Strike - History

Pier 80 along Islais Creek in 1997: site of the city's unused container facilities.

Herb Mills, former Secretary-Treasurer of Local 10, ILWU, speaks about the container

Interview by Chris Carlsson and Steve Stallone, 1996

Herb Mills and Peter Brown working in the hold of a ship, c. 1960.

In an effort to address the rise in mechanization in the 1950s, the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) entered into negotiation with the Pacific Maritime Association about a contract that would protect the economic and physical security of the workers, while new technology was implemented at the ports. This 1960 deal came to be known as the M&M Agreement (Mechanization & Modernization), and signified union submission to a technologically-designed speed-up of work, as well as a new stratification of the longshoring workforce. The agreement provided an impetus to change San Francisco from a maritime and manufacturing city to a white-collar metropolis, but at the cost of the industry that had founded it.

San Francisco was primarily a maritime port during its first century as a city. The famous Barbary Coast of the 1800s and its associated saloons, boarding houses, and gambling parlors was the home to a shifting population of stevedores, sailors, merchant marines, etc. In 1921 a five-year push by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce to break union power was finally consolidated when a longshore strike was violently suppressed and a company union (known as "The Blue Book") came to dominate the waterfront workers. The famous General Strike of 1934 led to a new wave of working class militancy. Three years later, west coast longshoremen left the International Longshore Association, based on the east coast, and created the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU), cementing a foundation for a new era of worker strength in San Francisco.

Longshoremen unload the hold of a ship, 1950s.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

While the government brought case after case against union president Harry Bridges from the 1930s to the 1950s, trying to nail him as a communist, to deport him, and so on, the workers in the ILWU firmly controlled the labor process along the waterfront and managed to establish some comfortable practices. The men had struck again and again to prevent slingloads from exceeding 2,100 lbs., and by the late '30s were under much less pressure to increase productivity. Eight-men crews were the norm, even though most situations didn't need more than two or four men at a time, so the work crews developed the 4-on, 4-off system, wherein at any given moment during the workday, four men would be sitting around drinking coffee and playing cards while the other four actually worked.

By the early 1950s the union itself had agreed to discourage such feather-bedding, but larger pressures were beginning to make themselves felt. Shippers were demanding lower costs from the shipowners and the unions. Shippers without sufficiently large loads were beginning to use intermediate freight stations, which soon established the methods of large-scale containerization, a technological change which drastically altered the relationship of living human labor to the quantity of goods being shipped.

Longshoring before the container on San Francisco's waterfront, utilizing pallets, cranes, winches.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

Bridges and the other ILWU leaders began to openly discuss an about-face on mechanization, a process that had been resisted consistently until then. A union investigation into the situation in 1957 concluded "Presently it seems possible for the union to negotiate a contract embracing the full use of labor-saving machinery with maximum protection for the welfare of the workers." They sought a contract which would ensure no speed-up when a new machine was introduced that machines would not create safety hazards that dock-workers wouldn't be thrown out of the industry that the workday would be cut while take-home pay stayed the same that pensions and other benefits would be improved and that if mechanization reduced the amount of available work, dockworkers would be guaranteed their weekly take-home pay nevertheless.

From 1958 to its conclusion in 1960, the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association negotiated intensively over the terms of what came to be known as the M&M Agreement (Mechanization & Modernization). Bridges and his colleagues had realized that they could only resist technological changes through guerrilla warfare for so long, and that ultimately it would lead to a showdown. Isolated from a larger labor movement, ignored or harassed by the government, and pressured by the rank-and-file to acquire health benefits, pensions, etc., the ILWU leaders concluded an historic agreement that saved shippers and the industry approximately $200 million during the 1960-66 contract period, and guaranteed longshoremen of that time wage increases, job security, increased benefits and pensions, and a large retirement bonus, equalling approximately $29 million in additional wealth for the workers.

In fact, under the M&M, longshoremen increased their wages, men over 62 were given early retirement bonuses of $7,920, and all medical, dental and pension benefits increased. But younger workers were sharply critical, with over a third voting against the deal. The writer Eric Hoffer, who was then a longshoreman, said "This generation has no right to give away, or sell for money, conditions that were handed on to us by a previous generation." A common complaint graffitied in piers and waterfront warehouses was that the speed-up was back with the M&M as slingloads increased dramatically -- Bridges Loads they were called.

One San Francisco longshoreman even got up in a 1963 union meeting and said:

"Brother Bridges has been saying for years that when the newspapers begin saying good things about him, it's time to get the recall machinery in motion. Brothers! That time has come!"

The speaker was censured by the local's executive board at the next meeting, and when that was in turn reported to the rank-and-file, they hooted down the board's move derisively.

Break bulk cargo hoisted to the dock.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

Longshoreman moves sacks of sugar with forklift, c. 1960.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

With the port doing a booming business throughout the early 60s, in large part due to the Vietnam War, the longshoremen found an accumulation of $13 million in their M&M fund by the 1966 end of the contract. After a few proposals were kicked around, the union voted to pay out $1,200 bonuses to all 10,000 full-time longshoremen on the Pacific Coast. A new agreement dumped the 35-hour week guarantee, but increased lump sum retirement bonuses to $13,000, increased wages and benefits. Meanwhile the Port of Oakland across the bay invested heavily in the new container cranes. Oakland also had the space to accommodate large storage areas and was conveniently served by direct rail and road lines from the Central Valley and all points north, south and east.

In 1971-72 the ILWU engaged in the longest strike in West Coast history, a strike whose issues are still debated today. But one of the main issues at the outset was the rise of "steady men" (via clause 9.43 in the collective bargaining agreement) to run the new container cranes. By the time the months-long strike was called off, the agreement was not much different than what was offered at the outset, with the union workers failing to stop the divisions among their own members.

By the mid-1970s, the San Francisco waterfront had been largely abandoned as too little, too slow, and too inefficient. A brief flurry of old-style longshoring accompanied the earliest days of consumer goods from China, but that, too, was soon supplanted by containerized shipping to Oakland to Long Beach and Los Angeles in southern California, and Seattle in the north.

In hindsight we can see that the M&M deal struck by the ILWU was the essence of an arrangement between capital and labor in the 20th century U.S. The union bargained away control over technological change in exchange for payment to the existing workforce and its retirees. Ultimately it agreed to become a much smaller labor aristocracy, although one could argue that the union had no choice under capitalist modernization.

This agreement was the turning point in San Francisco's economic history. After a hundred years of maritime, trading, and manufacturing in the city, San Francisco began its turn in becoming a headquarters city, a popular tourist destination, and a service sector capital. Regional planning, begun in earnest during WWII, led to new transportation grids and decentralization of blue collar industries. The ILWU's formal agreement to cooperate with a great technological leap in their work killed the San Francisco port and its jobs, and led to thousands fewer jobs in the large ports of today. It also signaled a willingness to submit by San Francisco's last bastion of serious labor resistance, the strikers of 1934. When the ILWU supported Joe Alioto for mayor in 1967, and went on to have leaders appointed to the Redevelopment Agency by Mayor Alioto, they completed their transition from acquiescing to enforcing the plans of the local and national elite.

Containers in Oakland, 2013.

ILWU representative Wilbur Hamilton was appointed to the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency in 1968 and soon after got the job of project manager for the Western Addition A-2 project, the SFRA's largest neighborhood clearance plan. Hamilton gave a black , pro-labor face to the essentially white racist "slum clearance" plan devised in the boardrooms of downtown San Francisco.

Hamilton became the Executive Director of the SFRA in 1977. An ILWU organizer, Rick Sorro, was appointed to Mayor George Moscone's Select Committee on Yerba Buena Center in March, 1976. The ILWU, while less ardent than the SF Building Trades Council, the SF Central Labor Council, and the Teamsters Joint Council, had been supporting the South of Market redevelopment project called Yerba Buena Center, which was to include a new Convention Center. Ironically, this redevelopment plan came largely at the expense of retired longshoremen and other port workers who inhabited the old neighborhoods which were designated "blighted" in order to facilitate eminent domain clearance by the Redevelopment Agency. (See Western Addition Blues)

The Waterfront and General Strike - History

San Francisco's maritime strike, which began May 9, 1934, tumbled out of control when the Industrial Association, made up of employers and business interests who wished to break the strike, and the power of San Francisco unions, began to move goods from the piers to warehouses.

The first running battles between unionists and police began Tuesday, July 3, 1934. There was a lull during the July 4 holiday when no freight was moved, but disturbances picked up again Thursday, July 5, 1934 – known as "Bloody Thursday."

This is the San Francisco News' coverage of the first day of the rioting – July 3, 1934.

The area where the rioting took place is now the heart of San Francisco's Multimedia Gulch.

Trucks Overturned and Cargoes Dumped Into Streets:
Industrial Association Moves Loads Off Piers at Rate of 10 an Hour.

To the accompaniment of widespread rioting, fist fights and popping of tear gas guns and bombs, the Industrial Association of San Francisco carried out its promise today to begin moving freight from the waterfront piers, blockaded since May 9 by the marine strike. About a score of persons were injured severely enough to require hospital treatment.

Two men were shot and slightly wounded, a half dozen motor trucks were turned over and many persons suffered burning eyes from the gas.

But through it all, trucks moved at the rate of about 10 per hour from the McCormick Steamship Co.'s pier to a warehouse two blocks away.

That was because an area of several blocks, in which are the pier and the warehouse at 128 King st. where goods are being delivered, was kept free of strikers.

But on the outskirts of this area bellowing crowds of strikers and sympathizers were hurtling rocks at policemen, fighting through clouds of tear gas and damaging and overturning trucks.

Police used their clubs freely and mounted officers rode into milling crowds. The strikers fought back, using fists, boards and bricks as weapons. Rioting was widespread but was centered in the area surrounding the Southern Pacific Depot at Third and Townsend sts.

Several shots were fired in a battle near the railroad station. One bullet struck Eugene Dunbar, union seaman, in the left ankle. He was dragged out of the melee, tended by members of the crowd until an ambulance arrived and removed him to Harbor Emergency Hospital.

A stray bullet crashed through a window of the Bank of America branch at Third and Townsend, felling Berton Holmes, 24, a teller. He was cut over the left eye.

The Industrial Association announced no cars would be moved tomorrow, "because of the holiday."

One of the bloodiest bits of fighting occurred near the King st. warehouse. Suddenly the strike pickets broke through the police lines and surged around a pile of bricks. Soon the air was filled with missiles. Inspector Jerry Desmond went down, a cut over one eye. Asst. Inspector Cornelius was struck in the head. Officer John LaDue was struck in the leg with a brick.

Police Chief [William J.] Quinn led his men in person. He had a narrow escape when a brick crashed through the side window of his car, missing him by inches.

Another rock crashed through the windshield of a car driven by Sergt. Thomas McInerney as he was hurling tear gas bombs. Showered with glass, he escaped injury.

Another riot broke out at Second and Townsend sts. Police charged the crowd, but it did not move. The officers resorted to tear gas. Members of the mob, coughing and choking, picked up the smoking grenades and hurled them back into the police lines.

Windows of nearby buildings were crowded with onlookers. The gas began filtering through the windows and those watching the riot fell back, tears streaming from their eyes.

Police have a consignment of the new nauseating gas used so effectively in eastern riots, and Capt. Arthur DeGuire, head of Harbor Station, threatened to put it to use unless the rioters quieted down.

Another crowd tried to break through police lines along Second st. They streamed through South Park toward Third st. Police met them and drove them back slowly.

Trucks anywhere within blocks of the guarded area suffered, strikers mistaking them for machines moving cargo from the docks.

Several strikers jumped on a truck at Third and Harrison sts., cowed the driver, and a companion, and started slitting its cargo of rice bags and dumping them into the streets.

At Third and Minna sts., they stopped the truck, beat the driver, Rex Hoffman, 21, Sacramento, and his companion, Bill Brooks. Both men escaped.

Later, at Harbor Emergency Hospital, where they were treated for cuts and bruises, Hoffman told police he was employed by the J.S. Smith Trucking Co., Sacramento, and was delivering a cargo of rice to the Phillips Milling Co., 38 Drumm st., and had no connection with the strike.

H.E. Foster, president of the Phillips Company, sent a protest to Mayor Ross, charged the truck was on a peaceful mission to Sacramento. Strikers had contended the truck came from the vicinity of the King st. warehouse.

R.T. Custi, 4049 Third st., was driver of another truck, and was employed by the Phillips Mill Co., Drumm st. Strikers slugged him, split open the rice bags, spilling their contents.

Another truck was stopped at Second and Townsend sts, and precipitated the rioting there. Strikers tried to tip it over, but were driven back.

Strikers attacked another truck on Third st. near Townsend and swarmed all over it. Ropes around a trailer were cut and the windows of the cab were smashed before tear bombs began dropping among the rioters.

Still another truck was halted and overturned at First and Harrison sts.

Later, police were rushed to Fourth and Townsend, where two more trucks had been attacked and overturned.

These two trucks, one empty, the other loaded with empty boxes, were heading away from the Embarcadero toward the Hockwald Chemical Co. Part of the crowd chased the drivers, who escaped.

Gasoline and oil were oozing from the motors of the overturned machines. The crowd surged forward, men shouting, "Set the damn trucks on fire." Police drove them back. Time passed and the crowd began gathering again. When 1000 men were present, the mob rushed the trucks, began trying to tear them up. Police charged, driving them back again.

The mob was blocking streetcars and mounted police tried to clear a path so that passengers could be escorted to cars on the other side of the crowd. Bricks began to fly through the air. Finally a policeman drew his gun and opened fire over the heads of the crowd.

Police fired shots again in the same vicinity when strikers began to hurl rocks at them over a passing freight train.

Several false alarms were turned in and the screaming of sirens from fire trucks added to the pandemonium. The Industrial Association blamed strikers for it.

Three men were arrested for turning in the alarms.

While this was going on, matters were proceeding peacefully enough in front of Pier 38, for strikers could not get within several blocks of the pier.

It was at 1:24 p.m., more than an hour behind schedule, that the first movement of cargo began.

The big steel doors of the pier rumbled up and two trucks emerged. One was a closed affair, loaded with auto tires. The second, which had an open body, was half filled with sacks of cocoa beans.

Twenty feet from the pier a line of police radio cars had been driven end to end across the Embarcadero, forming a complete blockade.

Two men were on each truck, a driver and a helper. They looked scared.

Behind the trucks were six policemen mounted on motorcycles. They swing in around the two machines as they turned south on the Embarcadero, heading for the warehouse.

A block away, in front of Pier 32, 1000 strikers swayed against police lines, shouted jeers and cures.

Fifteen minutes after they had left the two trucks returned peacefully to the pier. Their progress had been unimpeded while riots were going on on the outskirts of the closed area.

As the two empty trucks swung into the pier, three more loaded ones set out for the warehouse. Only a police radio car escorted them.

The trucks continued to shuttle back and forth– carrying bird seed in addition to tires and coca beans.

A serious accident was narrowly averted when a fire engine came roaring down the Embarcadero. Police saw it coming and hurried to the line of cars blockading the right of way, getting two of them out of the path just as the fire engine shot through, its brakes screaming.

The biggest crowds of picketers were held in check at Second and Townsend sts., and in front of Piers 30 and 32. More than 1000 men had gathered at the former spot and fully 2000 at the piers.

Smaller groups were halted at First and Brannan and at the [Mission] Channel.

Clearing of the area began two hours before the scheduled hour of opening. One striker tried to object while police were moving the crowd back. Five officers grabbed him and hustled him into a waiting police car.

At noon, the hour scheduled for the first truck to move, the atmosphere grew electric. Motorcycle policemen kicked up the stands on their machines, threw one leg over the saddle. Foot patrolmen outside the dock and in the cleared area gripped clubs and riot guns more firmly.

But the hour passed and the tension relaxed somewhat.

Meanwhile, the joint marine strike committee had sent out a plea to all unemployed members of every labor union to come down and join the picket lines, no matter whether they were on strike or not. The committee claimed several thousand answered the call.

At dawn groups of strikers had begun to gather on the Embarcadero across from the pier. The numbers grew as the day progressed.

On King between Second and Third sts. were two piles of bricks left by a construction company. Uniformed officers stood guard over each pile, although, when the trouble started they were unable to keep the mob from them.

A score of police were stationed north of the pier. As large groups of strikers began arriving from I.L.A. headquarters they were turned back or broken up into smaller groups.

Despite a plea from Police Chief Quinn that they stay away from the waterfront, crowds of curious also assembled on nearby vantage points.

Highlighted against the ominous background of today's activities were the following developments late yesterday and overnight:

Stating that the job of keeping order on the waterfront was "up to the police," P.W. Meherin, president of the State Board of Harbor Commissioners, declared he would make no request for special policemen to guard the docks.

"If police find they can't take care of the situation, they can inform me and I'll take it up with the governor," he said.

In Sacramento, Gov. Merriam said he had no intention of calling the National Guard at present, and would act only if requested by city officials or if state property is endangered.

Gov. Merriam said he may cancel engagements to review an Oakland parade and speak in San Francisco tomorrow if the strike trouble becomes too serious.

"It may be necessary for me to stay here, in the office, where I can be reached quickly," he said.

Mayor Rossi called a conference yesterday to discuss the situation. Informed that the national Longshoremen's board expected important advice from Washington this morning, he requested the postponement.

The advices have not arrived, the President's board said.

The mayor continued active today in efforts to avoid trouble. He conferred for some time with Edward Vandeleur, president of the San Francisco Labor Council, and admitted he was attempting to reach the strikers through organized labor. He also said he had been in touch with both sides in the dispute, but had not yet conferred with members of the President's board.

Later, the mayor issued a statement, appealing for both parties to acquiesce to the latest arbitration appeal of the President's board, urging there be no violence and calling upon citizens to stay away from the waterfront.

Decision of the State Harbor Commissioners not to employ additional dock guards came after a conference with police officials.

"We're not in the police business," said Mr. Meherin. "If we hired a large group of special policemen, some one would have to train them, organize them, command them. Our regular wharfingers and collectors are special policemen and their duty is to protect the docks. I'm not going to request special policemen to reinforce their numbers. If police can't handle the situation, and the docks are actually endangered, the next move would be up to the governor.

Michael J. Casey, president of the Teamsters' Union, who said yesterday that the teamsters "would not break strike for anybody," was asked if they would handle goods moved from the docks after they had been delivered to the warehouses.

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," he answered.

Lee J. Holman, who organized a right-wing union of striking longshoremen, called upon the membership to "get back to work as fast as possible, or it will be too late."

"There are a lot of husky young fellows working right now, and they are learning the business fast," he said. "One hundred more members of our union went back to work last night and today. That makes 200 in all now at work and they are making an average of $15 a day."

The General Strike 1926

The General Strike, the only one to take place in Britain, was called on 3rd May 1926 and lasted nine days an historic walkout by British workers representing the dissatisfaction of millions and ushering in the need for change across the country.

On 3rd May 1926, a General Strike was called by the Trade Union Congress in response to the poor working conditions and lessening of pay. This became one of the largest industrial disputes to take place in British history, with millions of people participating in the nine day strike, showing the togetherness and solidarity amongst workers.

There were several reasons contributing to the call for a General Strike. The problems began during the First World War when the high demand for coal lead to a depletion of reserves.

By the end of the war, falling exports and mass unemployment created difficulties throughout the mining industry. This was further impacted by the failure of mine owners to embrace the essential modernisation of the industry as other countries had done such as Poland and Germany. Other countries were mechanising pits in order to increase efficiency: Britain was falling behind.

Furthermore, as the mining industry was not nationalised and was in the hands of private owners, they were able to make decisions such as cutting pay and increasing hours with no repercussions. Miners were suffering: the work was difficult, injury and death was commonplace and the industry was failing to support its workers.

Another factor which worsened the fortunes of the British coal industry was the impact of the 1924 Dawes Plan. This was introduced in order to stabilise the German economy and relieve some of the burdens of wartime reparations, an effective bolster for the German economy which managed to stabilise its currency and re-align itself into the international coal market. Germany began providing “free coal” to French and Italian markets as part of their reparation plans. What this meant for Britain was falling coal prices, impacting negatively on the domestic market.

Whilst coal prices began to fall, they were further impacted by Churchill’s decision to reintroduce the gold standard in 1925. Despite the warnings from the famous economist, John Maynard Keynes, Churchill’s policy was put into practice, a decision that would be remembered as an “historic mistake” by many.

The Gold Standard Act of 1925 effectively had the ill-advised effect of making the British pound too strong against other currencies, adversely affecting the export market in Britain. The strength of the currency needed to be maintained through other processes, such as raising interest rates which in turn proved detrimental for business owners.

The mine owners therefore, feeling threatened by the economic decision-making around them and yet unwilling to concede a declining profit margin, made the decision to cut wages and increase working hours in order to maintain their business outlooks and profit potential.

The miners’ pay in a seven year period was reduced from £6.00 to a miserly £3.90, an unsustainable figure contributing to severe poverty for a generation of workers and their families. When the mine owners announced their intentions to reduce wages further, they were met with fury by the Miners Federation.

“Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day”.

This was the phrase which echoed around the mining community. The Trade Union Congress subsequently backed the miners in their plight, whilst in government Stanley Baldwin, the Conservative Prime Minister felt it necessary to provide a subsidy to maintain the wages at their current level.

Meanwhile, a Royal Commission was set up, under the guidance of Sir Herbert Samuel with the intention of investigating the root causes of the mining crisis and thus finding the best possible solution. As part of this commission, the mining industry was investigated for its impact on families, those who were dependent on the coal industry as well as its possible impact on other industries.

The conclusions drawn from the report were published in March 1926 and provided a series of recommendations. Some of these included the reorganisation of the mining industry with the view of making necessary improvements if applicable. Another included the nationalisation of royalties. However, the most dramatic recommendation which would have far-reaching implications was to reduce miner’s wages by 13.5%, and at the same time advising the withdrawal of the government subsidy.

The Samuel Commission was thus accepted by the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, allowing mine owners to offer their workers new terms of employment with their contracts. This was the beginning of the end for miners who had already been enduring less pay and more work, only to be offered an extension of the working day accompanied by a damning reduction of their wages. The Miners’ Federation refused.

By 1st May all attempts at a final negotiation had failed, leading to the TUC’s announcement of a general strike arranged in defence of the miners’ wages and working hours. This was organised to begin on Monday 3rd May, at one minute to midnight.

Over the next two days tensions built, worsened by tabloid reporting including most notably, a Daily Mail editorial condemning the general strike, labelling the dispute as revolutionary and subversive rather than based on tangible industrial concerns.

As the anger mounted, King George V himself tried to intervene and create a semblance of calm, but to no avail. Matters had now escalated and the government sensing this began to implement measures to deal with the strike. As well as introducing the Emergency Powers Act to maintain supplies, the armed forces, bolstered by volunteers, were used to keep basic services running.

Meanwhile, the TUC chose to limit participation to railwaymen, transport workers, printers and dock workers as well as those in the iron and steel industry, representing other industries which were also in distress.

As soon as the strike began, buses full of strikers were escorted by police, with troops on guard at bus stations in case any protests got out of hand. By 4th May, the number of strikers had reached 1.5 million, an astounding figure, drawing people from all over the country. The startling numbers overwhelmed the transport system on the first day: even the TUC was shocked by the turnout.

As Prime Minister, Baldwin was becoming increasingly aware of the discontent, particularly with the publication of articles championing the cause of the strikers. Churchill, Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, felt the need to intervene, saying the TUC had less of a right to publish their arguments than the government. In the British Gazette, Baldwin referred to the strike as “the road to anarchy and ruin”. The war of words had begun.

The government continued to use the newspapers in order to rally support for parliament and reassure the general public that no crisis was being caused by this large-scale walkout. By 7th May, the TUC were meeting up with the commissioner of the previous report on the mining industry, Samuel, in order to bring the dispute to an end. This was unfortunately another dead-end for negotiations.

In the meantime, some men were choosing to return to work, a risky decision as they would face a massive backlash from their striking colleagues, forcing the government to take action to protect them. Meanwhile, the strike rolled on into its fifth, sixth and seventh days. The Flying Scotsman was derailed near Newcastle: many continued to maintain the picket line. The government was managing to maintain a grip on the situation whilst strikers remained defiant.

The turning point came when the general strike was identified as not being protected by the Trade Dispute Act of 1906, except for the coal industry, meaning that the unions became liable for the intention to breach contracts. By 12th May, the TUC General Council met at Downing Street, to announce that the strike was being called off with the agreement that no striker would be victimised for their decision, despite the government stating it had no control over employer’s decisions.

Special Committee of the General Council of the Trades Union Council, Downing Street

The momentum had been lost, unions faced potential legal action and workers were returning to their place of employment. Some miners continued to resist for as long as November but to no avail.

Many miners faced unemployment for years whilst others had to accept the bad conditions of lower wages and longer working hours. Despite incredible levels of support, the strike had amounted to nothing.

In 1927 the Trade Disputes Act was introduced by Stanley Baldwin, an act which banned any sympathy strikes as well as mass picketing this act is still in force today. This was the final nail in the coffin for those workers who had taken part in one of the biggest events in industrial history in Britain.

Jessica Brain is a freelance writer specialising in history. Based in Kent and a lover of all things historical.

Depression Era: 1930s: “Bloody Thursday” & Other Labor Strikes

Blood ran red in the streets yesterday.
San Francisco's broad Embarcadero ran red

with blood yesterday.

The color stained clothing, sheets, flesh.
Dripping. Human blood, bright as red

begonias in the sun.
A run of crimson crawled toward the curb.
Most of us came to hate the sight of red.
There was so much of it.
-Anonymous witness to "Bloody Thursday," July 5, 1934.

In the U.S. of the 1930s, the color "red" was most commonly identified with the foreign threat of the Communist Party, which presumably wished to destroy all governments and democracy. In reality, U.S. Communist Party members were often concerned with creating better conditions for workers within the capitalist system. After the huge surge of growth in the 1920s and the following crash into the worldwide Great Depression at the beginning of the 1930s, U.S. workers were either losing jobs or being forced to work in appalling conditions for low wages.

Millions of unemployed workers were ready to work at any wage in any conditions, and large corporations used this desperation as a threat to their existing workers to accept horrendous job conditions. U.S. labor organizations strove to protect workers' rights, yet any organizing of workers to effect change was labeled by corporations and their allies as "Red," or foreign Communist attempts to destroy U.S. industries.

The San Francisco and Oakland General Strike of 1934 was portrayed in just such terms, with all major Bay Area newspapers entering a formal agreement to support corporate interests. A strike of Bay Area longshoremen, in conjunction with others all along the West Coast and Hawaii began on May 9, and tensions rose as the shipping companies refused to negotiate. On July 5, 1934, later known as "Bloody Thursday," San Francisco police attacked striking longshore workers and killed two men. A "general strike" of all unions in San Francisco and the greater Bay Area was called shortly after the funerals of the two men.

It was an unprecedented occurrence in U.S. history for a city the size and importance of San Francisco to be completely shut down for four days. Almost all unionized workers of all races had to support the strike for it to last that long however, the newspapers, city government, and corporations claimed that foreign Communist agitators had seized control of the city.

The striking longshoremen in San Francisco prevailed against a concerted mobilization of powerful forces in large part due to their unusual racial politics. Most established labor unions in the United States struggled to keep their membership "white only," and fought against nonwhite labor in general, viewing it as detrimental to white American working men.Whereas Black workers were barred at that time from certain areas, including most docks on the waterfront, the longshoremen labor leader promised that if Black workers supported the longshoremen's strike and didn't work as scabs, Blacks would be allowed to join the union and work at any dock on the West Coast. This stymied the usual practice of strikebreaking using non whites as scabs who were fired as soon as white workers gave in. After the San Francisco longshoremen's strike ended on July 31, 1934, Black workers were admitted into the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union, which also admitted Asian workers.

In 1938, the same longshoremen's union honored Chinese American picketers who refused to load scrap iron on ships destined for Japan's war against China. This type of organizing across racial lines was a hallmark of California's labor movement, and it laid the groundwork for the multi-racial United Farm Workers movement that gained national and international recognition in the 1960s.


11.6 Students analyze the different explanations for the Great Depression and how the New Deal fundamentally changed the role of the federal government. (11.6.4, 11.6.5)

The Waterfront and General Strike - History

The nationwide labor upsurge of 1934 reached its peak in San Francisco. On May 9, 1934, leaders of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) called a strike of all West Coast dockworkers, demanding a wage scale, a “closed shop” (union membership as a requirement of employment), and union-administered hiring halls. A few days later seamen and teamsters joined the strike, effectively stopping all shipping from San Diego to Seattle. Enraged employers, backed by a sympathetic mayor and police chief, used every means available to open the waterfront and protect strikebreakers, whom they imported in large numbers. Working closely with local politicians and the press, the employers set out to convince the public that the strike was controlled by “Reds” intent on overthrowing the government. These scare tactics led to an investigation of employer actions by a Senate subcommittee. Violations of Free Speech and Rights of Labor, the subcommittee’s 1942 report, described the concerted efforts of the Industrial Association, the newspapers, and the San Francisco police to discredit the strike.

The activities and policies of the Industrial Association of San Francisco, described previously, were carried forward without abatement despite the enactment of the National Industrial Recovery Act. However, the control exercised by the Industrial Association over labor relations was weakened in the waterfront strike of 1934. Its activities and those of agencies it had enlisted in its support were put to the test in the general strike which grew out of the longshoremen’s dispute and foreshadowed the ending of employer-dictated labor policies in San Francisco. The employers' association policy revealed in that strike is therefore of considerable significance. It should be noted that the flagrant destruction of many of the records of the Industrial Association, described in the General Introduction to this report, effectively prevented the Committee from obtaining full documentary evidence on the activities of the association.

The aspirations of labor which led to the strike of 1934 were directed from the change in public opinion expressed in the National Industrial Recovery Act. The potentialities of a protected right to bargain collectively were quickly perceived by waterfront workers. As soon as the act was signed, the all but defunct International Longshoremen’s Association burst into activity and met with immediate success. As early as August 31, 1933, the waterfront was beginning to sense its new-found strength, and demands were made by the sailors, firemen, oilers, water tenders and wipers, cooks and stewards for better wages and hours, and for a closed shop. These demands were apparently used to test employer reaction, for although summarily denied, no further action was taken. In October 1933, the longshore union tested its strength against the Matson Line when 400 men struck in protest against alleged discrimination against its members, a practice that had been long endured. It is significant that the dispute was as submitted to arbitration immediately upon the threat of longshoremen to support the strikers and that settlement was effected the same day all, including the four stevedores allegedly discriminated against, were reinstated by decision of the arbitrators. Organization of the longshore workers had meanwhile proceeded along the entire coast and membership was extended to include “checkers, seniors, weighers, lumber handlers, grainmen, and warehousemen employed on the waterfront.”

The first notice that forceful demands would be made by the longshoremen appeared in December when the local voted on the question of participating in a coast-wide strike. Lee J. Holman, then president of the local, stated the longshoremen would demand a 6-day, 30-hour week at a minimum rate of $1 per hour. This action followed an adverse finding on a complaint made to National Recovery Administration officials several months before that the “Blue Book” was a company union. In the meantime, longshore organization had been carried out on a coast-wide basis and in February of 1934, a convention of delegates from all West Coast ports, held in San Francisco, decided to take a strike vote unless wage-and-hour demands were met.“ The Waterfront Employers Union, a federation of ship owners employing much dock labor, refused to meet with representatives of the longshoremen even to hear their demands, until complaint was made to the National Recovery Administration’s Regional Labor Board, whose chairman, George Creel, arranged a meeting on March 5. The two demands of the longshoremen to wit, (1) that the Waterfront Employers Union negotiate for all Pacific Coast ports and (2) that the International Longshoremen’s Association be given a closed-shop agreement, were refused on the ground that the Waterfront Employers Union did not have authority to negotiate for any ports other than San Francisco and that closed-shop agreements were contrary to the National Industrial Recovery Act. A vote was thereupon taken and a majority of members in all the West Coast ports voted in favor of a strike to be called March 23. The Waterfront Employers Union took no further steps to avert a strike, but a few days before March 23, through Thomas G. Plant, its president, informed the public of its position in full-page advertisements in local newspapers. President Roosevelt, however, on March 22, prevailed upon union officials to suspend the strike call pending investigation by an impartial fact-finding body, and as a result the ”April 3 agreement" was signed. Under the terms of this agreement the Waterfront Employers Union accepted the International Longshoremen’s Association as the representative of a majority of longshoremen in the Bay District for purposes of collective bargaining the mediation and arbitration provisions of the proposed shipping code were to be employed in the existing dispute a dispatching hall under joint management was to be inaugurated and the problems of each port were to be considered separately.

Representatives of the district council of the International Longshoremen’s Association met with representatives of the local immediately after the signing of the April] 3 agreement. As a result of this meeting it was insisted that all settlements relating to wages should be coast-wide in effect. Another difference arose over the details of the administration of the dispatching hall. It had been determined that a date should be set after which registration at the dispatching hall was to be ineffective to qualify workers for employment. Employers wished to set this date as early as the preceding July when, it should be noted, the reorganization of the International Longshoremen’s Association was in its infancy and the majority of the waterfront workers were members of the “Blue Book” union. The employers furthermore refused to agree to establish wages on a coast-wide basis. On these issues negotiations deadlocked, and were discontinued on May 5.

A. The Waterfront and General Strikes of 1934

The strike was called May 9, 1934. Once again the employers took steps by way of newspaper advertisements to inform the public of their position before the strike was actually called. These were the forerunners of a publicity campaign waged by employers throughout the strike designed to enlist public support and sympathy. No punches were pulled. The employers painted the strikers in the garb of radicalism. They publicized their own position throughout the negotiations as one of fairness, reasonableness, and conciliation, while the longshoremen were asserted to be arbitrary, unreasonable, and irresponsible. In all this the Industrial Association of San Francisco played an important part and, once the strike had assumed major proportions, it moved to take over the struggle for the employers almost completely replacing the Waterfront Employers Union.

The strike of the longshoremen might have been defeated except for the support given it by other unions, particularly the teamsters, who succeeded in tying up the commerce of the waterfront effectively. Nonunion labor replaced the strikers on the docks to an extent sufficient to keep cargoes moving, but the Teamsters‘ Union, on May 10, began to support the longshoremen, in progressive stages. The first step of the Teamsters’ Union was the passage of a resolution permitting the hauling of cargoes to or from the piers, but not inside them. Three days later, it decided not to transfer cargo to and from the docks. This action congested the docks and forced employers to use the State-owned belt-line railroad, which operated along the waterfront. On May 14, boilermakers and machinists voted a sympathy strike. On May 15, a sympathetic strike was called by the sailors and marine firemen’s union, involving 4,000 men, and 700 marine cooks and stewards took similar action the next day. Ferry boatmen, masters, mates and pilots, and marine engineers first struck against several companies for higher wages and a closed-shop contract, and subsequently the entire local was called out in a body. Not a single freighter left a Pacific coast port “for the first time in history.”

About this time the Industrial Association of San Francisco determined that the controversy was a “community problem” and on May 21, it undertook through a specially appointed committee to handle strike problems on behalf of the “business community.”

Public meetings were held during May, and in June “full responsibility” for the conduct of the strike was officially placed in the hands of the Industrial Association. While it publicly sought to maintain an impartial position, its publicity advisers, the firm of McCann-Erickson, Inc., subpoenaed by the Committee, from the beginning had difficulty in directing its activities in a manner calculated to convince the public that it was truly impartial. In a preliminary memorandum, McCann-Erickson, Inc. outlined the position which it desired the associations to assume:

Since its establishment the Industrial Association has maintained that it does not represent one side or one interest to the exclusion of the other side or interest in any dispute, but rather that it represents the welfare of the community as related to both sides.

In the furtherance of this position it has frequently, and of necessity, followed its own course as distinct from the desires of either or both disputants, and at times has imposed its decisions on both sides alike. This is inevitable, if the Industrial Association is to maintain an actual identity.

In pursuance of its established policy, the Industrial Association will necessarily contact both parties to the present dispute, maintaining its own identity, and earnestly seeking a basis for Industrial Security first of all, from which all matters now in dispute may be settled.

Nevertheless, the public relations adviser in its memorandum of June 12— . . . . was amazed to find a great reluctance on the part of the organization to meet or confer directly with the strikers.

It appears obvious that McCann-Erickson, Inc. desired the association to conduct itself in a manner at least apparently independent of the employers. In a report to its New York office the following appears:

Saturday morning I talked to Boynton along the lines of the attached memorandum . . . [Among] the points I brought up to him were that the Industrial Association, if it is what it pretends to be, is bound to confer with both parties to the dispute. . . . but as [to that] he said that he was doubtful if the steamship people would be willing to have the Association confer with the strikers, inasmuch as they felt it was their fight and they should not be interfered with.

And in a letter dated June 15:

There is unquestionably a great deal of feeling on both sides that this would be a swell time for a complete showdown, and that makes things difficult.

It is significant that the employers sought to compromise the issues on several occasions through international and district officers of the longshoremen after the locals had clearly indicated in May that proposals were to be referred back to the local membership before being accepted. Consequently, the publicity value of continued conferring with Joseph P. Ryan, international president of the longshoremen, was early perceived even though his proposals had been repudiated. A meeting was arranged and Mr. Ryan signed an agreement with employers without referring it to the local membership. Newspapers proclaimed a strike settlement. The locals however, voted to reject the settlement in San Francisco, Portland, San Diego, and Tacoma, but in Los Angeles, where the strike was not effective, the settlement was approved by a small majority.

It may be inferred that the value of the “settlement” had been calculated from an interoffice communication of the Industrial Association’s publicity agent, which contains the following:

The strike settlement blew up yesterday with a loud bang when the Longshoremen unanimously refused to accept the agreement made for them by their International President, Mr. Ryan. They now stipulate they will not settle anything unless all the other marine unions now on strike are included and taken care of.

Under the agreement for the strike settlement, the Industrial Association guaranteed that the ship owners would perform, and several other people, including the Mayor, the head of the Teamsters' Union, and a couple of Federal mediators guaranteed that the Longshoremen’s Union would perform, all of which is in a way rather ridiculous but seems now to serve the purpose. [Italics supplied.]

The real purpose of the employers seems to be clearly reflected in another of McCann-Erickson’s interoffice memoranda, stating in part:

It is unhappily true that a good many of our best citizens feel that this is the time to “fight the thing out,” although it looks very much as if they would come out at exactly the same place whether they fight or not.

Thanks for your telegram. I am enormously concerned about this situation, and most regretful that there is so little sincere determination to settle the strike without violence.

That preparations for a violent struggle were under way was evident from the activities of the Industrial Association, which rented warehouses, purchased and hired trucks and other equipment for the purpose of moving freight from the docks. Considered in the light of other steps taken at the same time by employers in Los Angeles to suspend all negotiations and by officials and employer spokesmen in the other cities affected, to open their respective ports, concerted action to avoid a negotiated settlement plausibly appears to have been determined.

The strikers' response to this activity of the employers was the formation, on June 19, of a joint strike committee in which all striking maritime unions were represented. Provision was made for these union representatives to constitute the negotiating committee for their respective unions. Mr. Plant stated that the Waterfront Employers Union had no jurisdiction to consider the demands of the seagoing crafts. This position was later supported by the Pacific Foreign Trade Steamship Association.

Meanwhile congestion at the docks had increased despite the use of the belt line railroad. On June 23, representatives of the Industrial Association, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, the board of police commissioners, the chief of police and the board of State harbor commissioners (the last, having jurisdiction over the belt line railroad) conferred, and the following day Mayor Rossi of San Francisco issued a statement to the press that plans, necessitating the cooperation of State and local police, were being made to open the port. This release followed one issued by Acting [California] Governor Merriam stating that plans had been made to call out the National Guard to open the port, if negotiations failed. Since all prior negotiations had been fruitless and since the employers had decided “to fight the thing out,” such statements served only to prepare the public for the strife that was to be thrust upon it. In spite of the request of the Longshoremen’s Union to Mayor Rossi to lessen the increasing friction, the Industrial Association made its intention clear:

Nobody is going to move us from this position [to do whatever is necessary to open the port], and nobody is going to get away with any misrepresentation of it.

The Industrial Association drew attention to the violence during the preceding 47 days of the strike, and declared the unions wholly responsible for it. While inferentially charging the strike leaders with violence, the Industrial Association must have been aware that the employers were not guiltless. An agent for McCann-Erickson, Inc. had previously written:

I am reliably informed that the day before yesterday certain ship owners took a crew of men down to the docks, beat up six unarmed pickets, put their men aboard ship, and started her out. I am very glad to say that not a line of this has been printed, and, in fact, very few people seem to know anything about it, and I certainly have not stirred it up, and you can see where we would be if it had busted.

After repeated postponements, the desired show-down began on July 3 when trucking was finally started by the Industrial Association through the Atlas Trucking Co., a company created by the association and manned with nonunion drivers especially for this occasion. The trend of events and possibility of a general strike had tempered the viewpoint of many in official positions, but the Industrial Association was in no mood for compromise. It is reported that the Atlas trucks were driven by unarmed and unaccompanied drivers, assured however, of adequate police protection. Those clashes which did occur were between the pickets and the police, who maintained an open way for the trucks.

On the Fourth of July no trucks were operated, but the belt line attempted to move cargo and was stopped by swarms of pickets. Acting Governor Merriam then called out the National Guard. It is interesting to note in connection with the Governor’s action that the groundwork for his assistance had been laid earlier by the Industrial Association’s public relations counsel. In a memorandum dated June 25, when it was perceived that “events may be expected to take a rapid course,” the following step, among others, was suggested:

State intervention: Arrangements should be undertaken now for an announcement from the Governor, either by newspaper or radio or both whenever we release our decision to move goods across the waterfront. What we need most from the Governor is for him to point out that this is an unusual and outstanding disturbance because it involves the right of the public to use its own, property. It is, therefore, much more than an ordinary strike. There is no difference in principle between refusal to permit use of the waterfront and refusal to permit use of a public street or a highway, which would not have been tolerated for a single day. This is our widest ground for sympathetic appeal, and the Governor is the best man to keynote it with the declaration that he will proceed in his capacity as Governor to protect the public property of the State for the use of the citizens of the State whenever it becomes necessary for him to do so.

Before guardsmen arrived on July 5, a fierce and bloody riot took place between the police and strikers near the longshoremen’s hall, near the waterfront. Two strikers were killed that day and 109 people injured, 65 in the various struggles which surrounded the efforts to move goods. Whatever carefully laid plans had been evolved to win public support were thwarted completely by the killing of the two strikers. A public funeral on July 9, attended by thousands of workers and witnessed by tens of thousands, provided the impetus, according to Mr. Eliel, “that made the events which followed as inevitable as though the human beings involved in the subsequent drama had been moved by vast physical forces over which they had no control.” It is doubtful that the funeral, which Mr. Eliel characterized as a “brilliant and theatric piece of propaganda,” had any effect other than crystallizing public opinion. Events had long proceeded beyond the stage of compromise, for on July 5, the teamsters called a general membership meeting to consider a general strike and on the 6th, the San Francisco Labor Council distributed a bulletin declaring a general strike to be the only effective weapon to force the issue. On July 7, 14 local unions were reported to have taken action to support a general strike and on the 8th, the teamsters voted to strike July 12. On the 15th, 63 of 66 voting delegations (49 others were unauthorized to vote) approved a resolution for a general walkout. The general strike began on the 16th and was terminated by the general strike committee on the 19th. Labor presented a solid front and the usual commerce of the entire bay district was virtually held in abeyance. While no very serious disturbances were attributed to labor, the presence of 6,000 of the National Guard on duty in the Bay Area and augmented police forces in all the cities did not prevent the outbreak of violent attacks upon alleged Communists and radicals at their homes and meeting places by “unknown” vigilantes who always managed to keep one step ahead of the police.

B. The Results of the Strike

The resolution of the general-strike committee which ended the strike was conditioned upon acceptance by the waterfront employers and shipowners of the proposal for arbitration which had been offered by the National Longshoremen’s Board. This was agreed to by the employers the following day, and by the

The Waterfront and General Strike - History


When striking oil workers gathered at Bhola’s Junction in Fyzabad on June 19th 1937 to listen to the Chief Servant, Uriah Butler, little did they know that day would go down in history as the most significant date in the shaping of modern Trinidad and Tobago.

The social, political and economic situation of the working class, whether African-descended or Indian-descended, had not changed substantially for a hundred years since the emancipation of the slaves in 1838.

Trinidad had been a crown colony since the British conquered it from the Spanish in 1797. This means it was ruled directly from London and there was not even pretence at representative government up until 1925, when the first elections were held in the colony of now Trinidad and Tobago under limited franchise.

The 1925 constitution provided for election of seven members in a legislative council which also consisted of six members nominated by the British Governor who generally were representatives of the planters, oil industry, chamber of commerce etc. and twelve government officials. Even so the Legislative council could only recommend laws to the governor who was not bound to accept their recommendations.

Because of the high property and income qualifications, less than seven per cent of the population was entitled to vote. Males over twenty one could vote, but women had to be over thirty and could not run as candidates in the election. The Trinidad

Workingmen’s Association, which had led the 1919 general strike, and which was now under the leadership of Captain Cipriani contested the election.

It is clear that while Cipriani could use the council as a forum for TWA’s demands, there was no real channel for the political demands of the workers to be met. When this is added to the repressive laws against freedom of expression (sedition act, laws restricting cultural expression, laws prohibiting certain literature) and laws prohibiting the formation of trade unions until 1932, it can be appreciated that the working class was subjected to political and cultural repression.

In addition, workers were toiling daily under conditions of extreme exploitation. This exploitation worsened after the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 which affected the entire capitalist world. This led to the sugar workers’ revolt of 1934 and kicked off a period of strikes, hunger marches and demonstrations that climaxed in the general strike and anti-colonial revolt of 1937 which began on June 19th.

FIFTY YEARS OF PROGRESS, a magazine produced by the Oilfields Workers Trade Union, states: “Poverty was the rule rather than the exception, unemployment was, even in those days high. Workers slaved away in the producing fields and in the refineries, under backward and dangerous conditions. The work was hard since there were few machines to ease the burden of labour.

Working hours were long, many injuries to life and limb, and little or no compensation. Housing was a major problem, health services almost non-existent, and malnutrition rife. Wages were next to nothing, some workers only earning seven cents an hour.

In the words of one worker who wrote a heartfelt letter to the "PEOPLE" Newspaper: ‘For years now we have been appealing to them (the management of the Oil Companies> for more wages to meet the Cost of Living and we want to make it known that it is not since the rise in the Cost of Living that our wages cannot meet our need but years before, and now it is worse through the increase in the Cost of Living.”

…The antagonism was heightened by the overt racist attacks on the workers by the white bosses and managers. This attitude was typified in the comment of one manager: “THESE BLACK DOGS ONLY BARK THEY CANNOT BITE." Total Subservience for the working class was the order of the day.”

This period saw the workers who had supported Cipriani since the 1920’s turn away from the “champion of the barefoot man” and seek more militant leadership. Cipriani urged the workers not to take militant action but to stick to constitutional measures under his leadership, but as was pointed out before, the constitution was horribly undemocratic and could not satisfy the cries of the workers.

The general strike in US history: What it is and why it’s still needed

During a protest on the evening that Wisconsin’s state senate passed its notorious union-busting bill, many union members and their supporters chanted “general strike!” They were not just venting about assaults on wages, benefits, and union rights. They were considering what it would take to stop the attacks.

Workers around the world — in the U.S. as much as anywhere — have often found the general strike to be a powerful weapon for improving their conditions or defending their rights. Can those pages from history be today’s playbook for the toilers itching to fight back?

Labor history 101. A general strike encompasses workers from a broad range of occupations and shuts down the delivery of all private and public goods and services in an area, such as a city or state. They usually occur at a time of heightened economic tension, when employers are demanding big concessions from labor, or even trying to destroy unions. Sometimes a defensive struggle of one union can spread as other unions — as well as non-union workers, students, and the broader community — join the fray to express solidarity and broaden the demands of the struggle to include their issues.

Many of these titanic battles have erupted on U.S. soil. The “Great Upheaval” of 1877 started as a railroad strike against wage cuts that spread from the east coast to the Midwest. Entire communities joined in, challenging the power of banks, manufacturing corporations, and even state and local governments. Federal troops pulled out of the South after Reconstruction quelled this uprising. But the nationwide wage-cutting craze was slowed considerably.

During the 1919 Seattle General Strike some 60,000 workers walked off the job in support of striking shipyard workers. Organized by the Central Labor Council, the strike brought city businesses to a standstill. For five days workers’ committees operated everything, from mass strike kitchens to essential services such as hospital deliveries. An historic lesson was taught — the working class can run society. And without the bosses!

In the depth of the Great Depression, in 1934, there were general strikes in San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Toledo. Industrial unionism was proving its mettle, and unions used audacious tactics, including sit-down strikes and roving pickets. When bosses compelled local governments to launch crackdowns or even summon the National Guard, many workers, both employed and unemployed, came to the defense of strikers. It was the ferocity and tenacity of those fighters that pressured Congress to pass the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, establishing the collective bargaining rights that so many are trying to preserve today.

Glimpses of a better world. The strikes above showed working people the tremendous power they have, and inspired them to imagine a better world, where exploitation is not inevitable and unending.

Unfortunately, these lessons are lost on many current labor officials. In Wisconsin, leaders of large teachers and public employee unions have reined in mass protest and put the kibosh on any talk of a general strike, instead focusing all energy into electoral recall campaigns intended to get more Democrats into office.

Embattled unionists and their community allies don’t need another pile of promises from politicians. So what can a general strike deliver?

For starters, such a strike can demand from the government real solutions to the economic crisis. It can declare: “It is time to create jobs for all, insure the survival of poor people, and provide quality public services like healthcare, childcare and education. It can be done — end the wars and tax the rich and corporate profits NOW! And hands off our collective bargaining rights!” When the working class doesn’t show up for work, thereby bringing the economy and all profit making to a screeching halt, these reasonable demands more easily penetrate the pro-corporate skulls of the politicians.

Also, the general strike can unite all the toilers. Public and private sector unions, students and workers, public employees and the people who need the services they provide, the employed and the jobless — all can come together and build solidarity that will last long after the big strike.

Yet the strike cannot achieve everything. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) places great importance on the general strike, sometimes calling it “the ultimate tool of change.” But there is also a crucial need for an independent political voice for working folks. The general strike can’t substitute for organizing a labor party that challenges the twin boss parties, or for building a revolutionary party that can provide the leadership to sink capitalism and put workers at the helm.

Building a weapon of mass inspiration. Concerted action by the whole working class, even in one city, doesn’t just happen. It has to be built for with rabble rousing and education.

A starting place is to spur confidence of rank and filers with job actions such as sick-outs, work slow-downs, picketing, or even one-day strikes. This can also push reticent union leaders to take bolder stands.

Another strategy is to organize for working peoples’ assemblies, described in the adjacent article, which can weld together the varied battalions needed to grow the current upsurge. These are the very folks who would garner the broad solidarity needed to make any strike a success.

Unionists can spice up local union or labor council meetings with education about general strikes. Presentations can also be done at colleges, worksites, and before community groups.

Some material for this already exists. The South Central Federation of Labor in Wisconsin formed an ad-hoc education committee that developed pieces about the basics of general strikes — the labor council in your area could do the same. Or resolutions can be taken to unions, like the one passed by UPTE CWA 9119, Local 1 in California that commits support for Wisconsin workers and any general strike called.

Working people are mad as hell about union busting, the lack of jobs and social services, and the fact that General Electric Co. paid zero in taxes last year. Escalating protests in scores of states, led by public workers, prove that they are ready to fight. Learning about one of the most powerful weapons workers can wield, the general strike, can help prepare them for the battles ahead.

The 1951 waterfront dispute

The Second World War saw an unprecedented expansion of government control over the lives of New Zealanders. Under the pragmatic leadership of Prime Minister Peter Fraser, the Labour government introduced military conscription, industrial manpowering and a comprehensive economic stabilisation system. It also established a Waterfront Control Commission (later the Waterfront Industry Commission) to run the wharves, which were vital to the war effort.

New Zealanders generally accepted the hardships and restrictions of the war years as necessary in the fight against fascism, but after the war many began to demand a greater share in the spoils of victory. Relations between the government, waterfront employers and the New Zealand Waterside Workers’ Union, led by Harold (Jock) Barnes, Toby Hill and Alexander Drennan, were especially tense. As the Cold War between the western powers and the Soviet Union intensified in the late 1940s, government ministers denounced the wharfies’ leaders as ‘communist wreckers’ (although neither Barnes nor Hill was a member of the Communist Party).

The Holmes satchel snatch

Discontent spread beyond the waterfront. The Public Service Association (PSA), led by the capable Jack Lewin, was also pursuing pay demands with increasing militancy. In November 1948 Cecil Holmes, a National Film Unit (NFU) documentary maker and PSA activist, had his satchel snatched from his car outside Parliament, apparently by a member of the prime minister’s staff. The bag contained Holmes’s Communist Party membership card and correspondence about a planned stop-work meeting at the NFU in which he brashly suggested that Lewin should ‘Butter the buggers up a bit’.

The contents found their way to influential union leader Fintan Patrick Walsh, a close ally of Fraser. Walsh sensed an opportunity to embarrass his militant rivals. At Walsh’s urging, the acting prime minister, Walter Nash, released the documents to the press, successfully tainting the PSA and Lewin with the communist smear. Holmes was suspended from the NFU. Although later reinstated, this talented film-maker left for Australia, never to return.

From Labour to National

In February 1949 the Labour government responded to another industrial dispute by controversially deregistering the communist-led Auckland Carpenters’ Union, an ally of the watersiders. Cold War tensions were heightened in August, when the government held a national referendum on the introduction of Compulsory Military Training. Despite the bitter opposition of many in the labour movement, this proposal was comfortably approved by voters.

Labour's 14 years in power ended at the general election in November 1949, when Sidney Holland’s National Party won a sweeping victory. National promised to ease post-war restrictions and confront militant unionism head on.

As unrest mounted on the wharves and elsewhere, the labour movement was divided. In April 1950 the Waterside Workers’ Union and other militant unions quit the Federation of Labour (which was controlled by Walsh) and formed a breakaway organisation, the Trade Union Congress. The stage was set for a dramatic showdown with employers and the National government.

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