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1934 - San Francisco General Strike

In the early 20th Century cargo was bundled in rope nets and crates to be carried by clipper ship across the sea. Loading and unloading ships was difficult and dangerous. It could take up to two weeks to unload a single ship. The work was also impossible to schedule. Remember, this was long before telephone or radio, so no one on shore knew exactly when a ship would come in to shore. Thus, instead of hiring full-time workers, ship owners would hire men only when they needed them, finding them by walking along the docks calling out, "Men along the shore!" This call led to the name "longshoreman" for someone who loaded or unloaded a ship.

But many longshoremen felt that dangerous work with no regular schedule and low pay was not fair. They decided the only way to get better conditions was to band together in a team, to form a labor union, as people in other occupations had done. The first longshore unions along the West Coast were formed in the late 1800s. But, because each port had a different union and these unions didn't really communicate with each other, there wasn't much of a team. When longshoremen in one port went on strike to try to win better wages or working conditions, ship owners could easily send their ships to a different port. In that way, longshoremen were defeated in strikes in 1916, 1919, and 1921.

In the 1930's, in the middle of the Great Depression, the longshoremen tried to unionize again. They went on strike in 1934 to try to win better working conditions and better pay. Under the leadership of their president, Harry Bridges, they created a union that would unite longshore workers up and down the Pacific Coast. Harry Bridges was the president of the longshoremen's union from 1934 until 1977. Harry Bridges never backed away from controversy. In fact, those who knew him like to say he encouraged it. Whether in the union halls or facing government agents he debated with vigor and passion. Win or lose his eloquence and passion led even his most ardent opponents to respect him.

Unemployment was the overriding fact of life when Franklin D. Roosevelt became President of the United States on March 4, 1933. An anomaly of the time was that the government did not systematically collect statistics on joblessness, actually did not start doing so until 1940. The Bureau of Labor Statistics later estimated that 12,830,000 persons were out of work in 1933, about one-fourth of a civilian labor force of over fifty-one million. March was the record month, with about fifteen and a half million unemployed. There is no doubt that 1933 was the worst year, and March the worst month for joblessness in the history of the United States.

But there was another side to the problem. Following the stock market crash of 1929, the Hoover Administration urged and many industries and unions adopted work-sharing. For example, the United States Steel Corporation in 1929 had 224,980 full-time employees. The number shrank to 211,055 in 1930, to 53,619 in 1931, to 18,938 in 1932, and to zero on April 1, 1933. All who remained on the payroll on this last date were part time, and they were only half as numerous as those on full time in 1929.

Massive unemployment had a profound social and emotional impact upon American workers and their families. The movement of population, historically a response to economic opportunity, changed drastically when opportunity dried up. Immigration from abroad virtually stopped. The long-term shift from farm to city slowed significantly and there was, in fact, some reverse migration. The great population movement of the thirties was transiency the worker adrift in a sea of unemployment. People, especially the young, girls as well as boys, took to the road because they could no longer bear to stay home. In the middle of the decade when the dust blew in the Great Plains, wiping out their farms, whole families of Okies, Arkies, and Mizoos migrated west, especially to California. The migrants often made their way to the junk-pile Hoovervilles with their Prosperity Roads, Hard Times Avenues, and Easy Streets. The destitute often lost their homes or farms because they were unable to make payments on mortgages.

In 1933 the economic depression that started in 1929 hit the nation full-force. With the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 workers for the first time had the right to organize and bargain collectively. Union activism swept the country. While 1933 had seen a dramatic growth of unions and many serious strikes, 1934 witnessed an eruption. There were 1,856 stoppages that year, by far the largest number since World War I. Many were accompanied by violence, and four constituted social upheavals in the affected communities. A walkout of auto parts workers at the Electric Auto-Lite Company's plants in Toledo, Ohio, disrupted that city and, in the face of the threat of a general strike, led to the institution of collective bargaining. A series of massive strikes of truck drivers led by Trotskyites in Minneapolis brought on class warfare and forced the recognition of the union. The largest of these strikes took place during the fall of 1934 when 376,000 textile workers in hundreds of mills in New England and the South walked out.

A similar upheaval that started on the docks in San Francisco was the prelude to both a general strike in the Bay Area and to a coastwide maritime shutdown. The result was recognition of the longshore union, led by radical Harry Bridges, and the establishment of collective bargaining. The Sailors Union of the Pacific was formed in 1891 by the merger of two earlier groups, the Coast Seamen's Union (1885) and the Steamships Sailors' Union (1886), both of which were organized to fight for better wages and working conditions aboard merchant ships. Union headquarters are in San Francisco, with branch offices in Seattle, Wilmington CA, Honolulu and Norfolk. The sailors' union had a stormy history up and down the West Coast; because of the key role of the shipping industry, labor activities in one port quickly spread to others.

West Coast longshoremen, who had long suffered their own special kind of depression through chronic job insecurity, now experienced even deeper hardship. Genuine union organization became a matter of survival. The longshoremen once again applied for and obtained a charter from the ILA - but this time they established their organization as a single unit on a coastwise and industry-wide basis, thus avoiding the mistakes of the past. Their demands were simple: a union-controlled hiring hall that would end all forms of discrimination and favoritism in hiring and equalize work opportunities; a coastwise contract, with all workers on the Pacific Coast receiving the same basic wages and working under the same protected hours and conditions; and a six-hour work day with a fair hourly wage.

The union played a key role in the Great Maritime Strike and the San Francisco General Strike of 1934, which closed down shipping from San Diego to Alaska. Local activities included a police raid on SUP headquarters and a battle at Smith Cove between union members and police armed with submachine guns and tear gas, with many injuries. 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.

In July of 1934, when it was clear the longshoremen and their seafaring allies were not going to give up their struggle for justice on the waterfront, the employers decided to open the struck piers using guns, goon squads, tear gas, and the National Guard. Hundreds of strikers - and bystanders - were arrested and injured. On July 5, known as Bloody Thursday, two workers were shot and killed. A total of six workers were shot or beaten to death on the West Coast during the course of the strike.

The Governor declared a state of riot. Strike leaders had refused to allow "hot cargo" to move over the State Belt Line "without molestation," so he accepted "the defi of the strikers," and ordered out the National Guard to preserve order and "protect state property." Under the guns of the troops, "hot freight" continued to move from waterfront to warehouse. If the troops allowed traffic to move, their presence aided the employers; if they did not, they would have aided the men by establishing completely effective picketing. Troops occupied the waterfront-sentries with steel helmets and gleaming bayonets, machine-gun nests, and motorized roving patrols. Admission to the occupied area was by pass. Guards moved about in the ferry building and forbade commuters to loiter on the viaduct.

Rather than breaking the strike, these events galvanized public support, and prompted the unions of San Francisco to declare a brief but historic General Strike to support the longshore and maritime unions and protest strikebreaking by employers and police. By Saturday night, July 14, a general strike seemed inevitable. The general strike was timed for 8 o'clock Monday morning in San Francisco, and Tuesday in the East Bay. But the militant unionists were not in control. Harry Bridges was defeated for the vice-presidency of the meeting formed by delegates from every union in San Francisco, and he was smothered as the only maritime representative on the appointed General Strike Committee of twenty-five. Monday morning no streetcars ran. The streets were filled with pedestrians. Autos were left at home to conserve gasoline. A holiday mood was in the air.

All strikes are more or less justified in Socialist eyes. But those that involve neither a large proportion of the working class nor any broad social or political question are held to be of secondary importance. On the other hand, the "sympathetic" and "general" strikes, which are on such a scale as to become great public issues, and are decided by the attitude of public opinion and the government rather than by the employers and employees involved, are viewed as a most essential part of the class struggle, especially when in their relation to probable future contingencies.

The social significance of such sympathetic or general strikes is indeed recognized as clearly by non-Socialists as by Socialists - even in America, since the great railroad strike of 1894. The general strike of 1910 in Philadelphia, for instance, was seen both in Philadelphia and in the country at large as being a part of a great social conflict. "The American nation has been brought face to face for the first time with a strike," said the Philadelphia North American, "not merely against the control of an industry or a group of allied industries, but a strike of class against class, with the lines sharply drawn. . . . And it is this antagonism, this class war, intangible and immeasurable, that constitutes the largest and most lamentable hurt to the city. It is, moreover, felt beyond the city and throughout the entire nation."

It goes without saying that all organs of non-Socialist opinion feel that such threatening disturbances are lamentable, for they certainly may lead towards a revolutionary situation. Both in America and Great Britain the great railway strike of 1911 was almost universally regarded in this light. The availability of a general strike on a national scale as a means of assaulting capitalism at some future crisis or as a present means of defending the ballot or the rights of labor organizations or of preventing a foreign war, had since the first decade of the 20th Century been the center of discussion at many European Socialist congresses.

The Prime Minister of France, Briand, was long one of the leading partisans of this method of which he said only a few years before he became Premier : "It has the seductive quality that it is after all the exercise of an incontestable right. It is a revolution which commences with legality. In refusing the yoke of misery, the workingman revolts in the fullness of his rights; illegality is committed by the capitalist class when it becomes a provocator by trying to violate a right which it has itself consecrated." That Briand meant what he said is indicated by the advice he gave to soldiers who might be ordered to fire against the strikers in such a crisis. "If the order to fire should persist," said Briand, "if the tenacious officer should wish to constrain the will of the soldiers in spite of all. . . . Oh, no doubt the guns might go off, but it might not be in the direction ordered" - and the universal assumption of all public opinion at that time and since was that he was advising the soldiers that under these circumstances they would be justified in shooting their officers.

Two thousand more soldiers entered the city; armored tanks appeared on the waterfront. There was practically no violence. Long lines of people waited their turn for meals before nineteen restaurants officially opened by the strike committee.

The longshoremen stayed together and they eventually won. Then they were able to work with ship owners and businesses to make longshore work safer for everyone. The general strike in San Francisco demonstrated that the workers will not strand by passively and permit their standards of living to be lowered, their wages cut, and conditions reduced. As a result of a maritime strike in 1934, Harry Bridges emerged as leader of the west coast longshoremen, switching their affiliation from the more conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL) to the more radical Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1937. Other leftist-oriented progressive unions also switched their affiliation, among them the San Francisco and the Seattle Alaska Cannery Workers unions, both of which had large Asian memberships.

The great strikes of 1934 confirmed Senator Wagner in his conviction that the nation needed a new labor policy. The National Labor Relations Board, which worked out a "common law" of policy in its cases, but confronted the same problem of noncompliance by die-hard employers that had destroyed NLB, agreed. Wagner's staff and the NLRB revised the bill and on February 21, 1935, the senator introduced the proposed National Labor Relations Act. Again, there was a sharp conflict over the measure between labor and management; but this time Roosevelt, who did not support it strongly, did not intervene to put it aside. Congress passed the bill with large majorities, and on July 5, the President signed the Wagner Act.

In 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt had appointed Frances Perkins (1933-1945), the first woman ever to serve in the Cabinet. While FDR was governor of New York, Perkins had served as Commissioner of Labor and had developed plans to alleviate unemployment as the Depression deepened. After a 1934 Longshoremen's strike, pressure was exerted on Perkins to have the Bureau investigate Harry Bridges, the longshoremen's leader, to see if he should be deported. Bridges was an alien and an alleged communist. Perkins reluctantly requested the investigation, but immigration officers found no evidence that he was connected with the communist party. There the matter rested until the fall of 1937 when new evidence was produced against Bridges. The Department scheduled deportation proceedings, but when a related case arose in the federal courts Perkins decided to delay the process until that case was decided.

Perkins saw no danger in this postponement, but the following month the House of Representatives formed an Un-American Activities Committee headed by Martin Dies which condemned her for the delay. Perkins refused to resume the deportation hearings until the court case was decided. Dies threatened to begin impeachment proceedings and mounted a campaign against her around the country. An impeachment resolution was introduced in January 1938 against Perkins and two subordinates.

It was a trying, agonizing period for her. The case, and Dies' campaign, were making headlines in a country jittery about the possibility of communist agitation in a period of social instability. She tried to follow her grandmother's dictum of acting, in such circumstances, as if nothing had happened. She even sent Dies a book when he went into the hospital for a few weeks. In February she appeared voluntarily before the House Judiciary Committee. The members were hostile to her but the hearings were conducted with decorum and the chairman complimented her on a good appearance.

The result of the hearings was not a clear-cut thumbs-up or thumbs-down. The good news was that the committee issued a unanimous report finding no grounds for impeachment. The bad news was that there was attached to the report a section of additional views by several members that called for official disapproval of Perkins' conduct by the committee. This section received a great deal of press attention and left the public with the impression that Perkins had in fact been officially condemned by Congress. She was never able to fully clear her name after this. Almost anti-climactically, that summer deportation hearings were held and it was determined that Bridges could not be deported as an undesirable alien.



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