Around 8 o'clock in the morning on July 5, 1934, shop owners in the mission district of San Francisco were opening for business. Bankers and stock brokers were already at work in the financial district. Construction workers were busy building the new Oakland Bay Bridge.
Meanwhile, down near the waterfront, a Belt Line locomotive began nudging two refrigerator cars towards Matson Line docks on Pier 30. 1,000 police prepared to square off against 5,000 striking longshoremen in a pitched battle that would last all day long.
It was the first of two climatic episodes that would forever change the shape of labor unions on the west coast.
1934 may have been the worst possible year of the Great Depression, and labor unions all across the country had their backs to the wall. However, history has shown that when you push the working man into a corner he will stand up and fight against all odds.
The National Industrial Recovery Act that passed Congress a year earlier had opened the door to widespread union organization by declaring that workers had a right to organize. The following spring unions pressed their new-found advantage.
The first significant example was the Toledo Auto-Lite Strike in April. When police began beating an elderly man directly in front of 10,000 picketers the strikers began attacking the police. A fire hose was turned on the strikers, but the strikers took control of the hose and turned it on the police, who were chased into the plant and besieged. At one point the strikers battered down the front gates and an all-out melee took place on the floor of the plant.
A 5-day battle ensued in the streets of Toledo that ended with a complete victory for the strikers.
In mid-May the Teamsters in Minneapolis went on strike and it quickly descended into violence between the strikers and police that lasted all summer long. Both the Auto-Lite strike and the Teamsters strike witnessed the shooting deaths of several strikers and the wounding of hundreds.
"A hired slugger raises his club and slashes at a picket. Down the picket drops as if dead. The fight is on. Phone rings at the concentration hall: ‘Send the reserves!’ Orderly, but almost as if by magic, the hall is emptied. The pickets are deployed by their leaders to surround the police and sluggers. The police raise their riot guns but the workers ignore and rush through them. ‘Chase out the hired sluggers’, is their battle cry. The cowardly sluggers take to their heels and run. The police and strikers use their clubs freely. Many casualties on both sides. The workers have captured the market!"
- personal account of 1934 Teamster strike
These two strikes and the Longshoreman Strike, not the strikes of 1937 as many now think, would define the labor movement for decades to come. They all saw similar levels of violence, but the Longshoreman Strike reached a far more epic climax because of the undeniable show of support from the general population.
The Great West Coast Waterfront Strike of 1934
At the start of 1934 longshoremen on the west coast were either totally unorganized, or had to go through a company union in order to gain employment. Failed strikes during the post-WWI Red Scare had broken whatever independent unions had existed. In the 1923 San Pedro longshoreman's strike, Upton Sinclair was arrested for reading the U.S. Constitution in public. Later on the KKK and American Legion were enlisted to beat the wives and children of the strikers. The strike's defeat would also mark the end of the IWW as an effective labor union.
“There’s another reason why I have gone to jail. And that is that it is the only way I can get anything said in the United States.”
- Upton Sinclair
Despite these defeats, the longshoremen never stopped organizing.
Born in Melbourne, Australia as Alfred Renton Bridges in 1901, he adopted his uncle's name, Harry. Inspired by Jack London's adventure writing, Harry took to the sea at the age of 16.
He arrived in America in 1920, and began work as a longshoreman in San Francisco a few years later. In 1933, Bridges joined the newly rising International Longshoremen's Association and quickly became part of its leadership.
At first, he attempted single-handed to defy the company union that dominated the waterfront. But he found that unless he paid dues to the clique that ran the docks, he would soon be blacklisted and unable to get work on the waterfront. Back in 1919, when longshoremen struck for better conditions and higher wages, the owners had smashed the local of the International Longshoremen's Association in San Francisco. At that time, the union could not secure the cooperation of seamen and teamsters.
The ILA had disintegrated as scabs unloaded the ships and teamsters delivered goods to the pier heads. With the ILA destroyed, the ship owners had decided that perhaps a union had its use - if the employers controlled it. Accordingly, they set up the Longshoremen's Association of San Francisco and the Bay Region (known as the Blue Book Union) and instituted a closed shop - for the company union. The Blue Book ushered in all the abuses of company unionism. Speedup flourished, while breakneck competition between gangs forced longshoremen to load more and more cargo each hour. The strained slings, the absence of safety devices brought an appalling increase in the number of accidents.
To meet the growing rebellion among the longshoremen against the terrific pace, the corporations placed spies on the docks to ferret out the more militant workers for dismissal and blacklisting. Disputes were settled perfunctorily, in a manner designed to place the companies at no disadvantage. Favoritism grew, workers were played one against the other to obstruct unity of action, men were required to pay tribute to the foremen and the Blue Book officials in order to obtain work.
The ILA was controlled by the corrupt East Coast leadership under the direction of Joseph P. Ryan, who opposed progressives and communists. The old guard urged a "reasonable attitude" and compromise with the companies. Bridges and the young radicals suggested a very different approach, and began organizing "slow downs". The demands of the radicals included higher wages, recognition of the union, and a coastwide contract.
"I'm a machine man and I head a machine."
- Joseph P. Ryan
The conservative ILA leadership proposed a "gentleman's agreement" with the companies. Bridges led the membership in rejecting it. The employers offered to arbitrate with the Roosevelt Administration, but remained clear that they would never agree to a coastwide contract. The longshoremen rejected the offer to arbitrate.
For the first time, the employers began to get concerned.
Ryan negotiated with the companies and tried to present a compromise to the rank and file when he visited the Tacoma local. Not only did the membership reject Ryan's compromise, they were outraged.
"We are right back where we started from. Hours, wages and working conditions we have stated our willingness to arbitrate, but the hiring hall is the vital issue. There can be no compromise with dishonor.
"When 95 percent of the longshoremen on the Pacific Coast voted to go on strike, the issue of hiring halls and methods of dispatching the men was the paramount question. The proposition submitted back to us by the employers is not an offer It is an insult to the intelligence of the members."
- ILA spokesman quoted in the Tacoma Daily Ledger
The strike began on May 9, 1934.
Within days, the Marine Workers Industrial Union also walked out on strike. Through some backdoor negotiation, the longshoremen convinced the Teamsters to honor the picket lines.
Although Paul Scharrenberg, head of the Sailors' Union of the Pacific, opposed a sympathy strike, the membership gave him a choice of joining the strike or getting kicked out of office. A week later the sailors presented their own list of demands. Other marine unions began joining the strike.
Bridges helped set up a strike committee with representatives from all the striking unions in California, and an agreement that no one settles until everyone settles. Another strike committee was set up in the Puget Sound area.
The employers were also busy. They brought in strikebreakers and housed them on empty ships or fortified barracks, bringing them to and from work under police protection.
On May 15, strikers attacked a stockade in San Pedro where strikebreakers were being housed. Two strikers were shot and killed by private security.
Nevertheless, all the west coast ports slowed to a crawl. The employers were finally scared.
On the very first day of the strike, a parade of 1,000 pickets was confronted by police at the Embarcadero for violating a no-picketing law. Police clubs were met with fists and eventually descended into tear gas versus thrown bricks.
The strike drug on through May and June with no sign of either side backing down.
On May 30, 250 students gathered for the National Youth Day, an anti-war and anti-fascist occasion. When a young man got up to tell explain why they couldn't parade, hundreds of police attacked them with clubs despite a complete lack of provocation. Sixty-five young boys and girls were hurt, 19 of them hospitalized.. A group of longshoremen who had been watching from a distance were so enraged that they attacked the police with their fists.
Since the crowd varied in dress and age, the police couldn't tell the students from pedestrians just passing by. Thus dozens of people just walking by were attacked and arrested.
The Examiner rushed into print with a blaring extra: “17 MAIMED IN S. F. RED BATTLE.”
The Chronicle said: “Two hundred and fifty communists and police staged a bloody battle yesterday afternoon near the Embarcadero—the second major riot to mark the longshoremen’s strike this week.”
Dave Beck, president of the Seattle Teamsters, and Mike Casey, Beck's counterpart in San Francisco, thought the strike had gone on too long and signed onto Ryan's latest agreement with the employers. Once again the membership overwhelmingly rejected Ryan's agreement, and when it came time for the Teamsters to cross the picket lines according to Beck's and Casey's signature, the Teamster drivers refused. By June 14, the companies could no longer move any cargo off the docks.
At that point Ryan admitted the obvious - that he was no longer a factor in this strike.
Highways leading out of the city bore a continuous stream of expensive cars carrying well-to-do refugees to distant sanctuaries. They were fleeing from bombs and rioting mobs.
There were no bombs.
There were no rioting mobs.
These existed only in the pages of the daily press which characterized the event as a Bolshevik revolution, and conjured up visions of tempestuous throngs sweeping, torch in hand, through the city streets.
On July 3, the companies decided that the stalemate had to end. An effort was made to force some trucks through the picket lines. Fights broke out. The police fired tear gas and began clubbing strikers. A few trucks made it through.
The next day, being Independence Day, nothing happened. Everyone was waiting for Thursday, July 5, for the big showdown when the police would again try to force open the docks.
The Battle of Rincon Hill
On July 5, 1934 at 08:00 just as Mayor Rossi and Governor Merriam had promised, a Belt Line locomotive began nudging two refrigerator cars towards Matson Line docks on Pier 30. A crowd of between two and three thousand strikers tensely watched. In an effort to clear the track police resorted to clubbing strikers who refused to yield. In retaliation strikers began to pelt the police with rocks and bricks. Being outnumbered the police drew back. While scuffle continued a small group of pickets managed to set the boxcars afire. When fire trucks arrived the police turned the high pressure hoses on the crowd then advanced into broken picket ranks, clubbing those who stood their ground, or not.
Meanwhile, further south on the Embarcadero at Piers 38 and 40, trucks from Atlas were being loaded with cargo by scab workers, destined fort a nearby warehouse. Just as had happened at Pier 30 the pickets failed to make way , fighting broke out. The scene soon became a clubbing frenzy being countered by fist wielding longshoremen. Sirens wailed, shots range out from revolvers, shotguns, tear gas and vomit gas grenades. At about nine-thirty strikers were dispersed and began to regroup on Bryant street near Rincon Hill.
In a scene taken straight out of 19th Century revolutionary Paris, 2,000 striking workers began building a barricade on Rincon Hill. Under the direction of Henry Schmidt (who would one day be a union president), they tore up cobblestone from the street, and used bricks from a building recently demolished to make way for the Oakland Bay Bridge.
The police shot tear gas and charged the barricade, but were driven back by a volley of stones and bricks from the strikers. The police rallied their forces and made another charge against the barricade, but once again they were driven back by a fusillade of stones and bricks. So much tear gas was used by the police that they had to send for more supply.
Meanwhile several hundred more strikers had ran towards the barricades from ILA headquarters. As they were running in the open the police began shooting at them.
Bullets from police revolvers spattered against houses on Rincon Hill, imperiling women and children inside.
The police called in reinforcements from the Embarcadero to make a third and final charge on the barricade. This time, with greater numbers and more horses, the police swept the strikers from the barricade, clubbing men into submission along the way.
The strikers set fire to the grass on Rincon Hill in order to cover their retreat. The Battle of Rincon Hill was over.
It was now noon. Almost as if someone blew a work whistle, both sides took a break to tend to their wounded. The strikers withdrew to their headquarters at Steuart Street.
This was to be the location of the climax in violence that day.
The police moved on the ILA headquarters around 1pm. Thousands of police were now positioned against an even larger number of strikers.
Once again fighting ensued. Tear gas canisters along with rifle and pistol fire rang out. The game had become dangerously real, as Harry Bridges watched from his restaurant window. Accounts vary as to how this fateful moment unfolded. However coroner's inquiries seem to bear out the following scenario. A police officer jumped out of a car and taunted the crowd, “If any of you sons of bitches want to start something come on!” He then began to fire at the crowd, dodging around his car like a man shooting birds. As Harry Bridges saw it, the officer wheeled around and shot in three directions.
One striker was killed instantly, one was mortally wounded, Nicholas Bordois and Howard Sperry, and one seriously wounded. All of them had been shot in the back.
The dead and dying men were brought into the headquarters, but the police fired tear gas through a window. At this point someone reportedly called the union hall to ask "Are you willing to arbitrate now?" This forced the strikers out into the street and another melee ensued, while some ILA members threw bricks at the police from the roof.
The rioting swept through the Embarcadero area again. Tear gas cannisters were fired so frequently that they began striking passer-byers in streetcars and in restaurants.
The police withdrew from Steuart Street for awhile.
The General Strike
By 3pm California Governor Frank Merriam had ordered 7,000 National Guard to San Francisco. Federal soldiers at the nearby Presidio were put on alert. The picketers pulled back, unwilling to face off against bayonets.
A pier watchman who obeyed too slowly the sentry's command to halt was bayoneted in the groin; a 19-year-old strikebreaker who inadvertently came within the 50-foot deadline in his speedboat, and an amateur photographer taking movies of guardsmen were shot.
"in case the strikers attack again, that they would first clip their opponents with the butts of their rifles, then bayonet them, and finally shoot them."
- Colonel H. H. Mittlestaedt
The dead men were kept in the ILA headquarters for two days while their comrades gave their respects.
On July 9, it was time to bury the dead. Chief of Police Quinn had forbidden the funeral, but 40,000 men, women, and children turned out for the procession down Market Street anyway. The police wisely let the people mourn their dead.
The funeral procession in front of the entire city had unexpected results. Up until this point the strike was an abstract element in most people's lives. But now there was real sympathy from the public.
No longer able to block the San Francisco ports because of the national guard, the unions only had one more weapon - the general strike. The membership demanded it. Teamsters in both San Francisco and Oakland overwhelmingly voted to strike over the objections of their leadership.
On July 14, 1934, San Francisco simply shut down. All industry (except for utilities) ceased. A few restaurants that registered with the general strike committee opened. Fire trucks and ambulances were allowed to operate without interference. The streets of the financial district, North Beach, SOMA, and all along the waterfront in every direction were empty because people simply stayed home.
The success of the general strike surprised even the strike committee. Non-union trucks drivers joined the strike. Movie theatres, nightclubs and restaurants all closed down with sympathy signs in the windows like: “CLOSED TILL THE BOYS WIN”; or WE’RE WITH YOU FELLOWS.. STICK IT OUT; or CLOSED TILL THE LONG SHOREMEN GET THEIR HIRING HALL; or “CLOSED. ILA SYMPATHIZER."
It was the largest general strike in American history.
The ruling class went bezerk.
"Those who seek the dissolution of the Government shall find no comfort in this community."
- San Francisco Mayor Angelo Rossi
"It is the plotting of such alien and vicious schemers - not the legitimate and recognized object of bona fide American workers - that has intensified, magnified and aggravated our labor problems."
- California Governor Frank Merriam
FDR later recalled that some were urging him to send a battleship into San Francisco harbor to "end the strike".
The people of San Francisco were completely befuddled by the press, which was itself hysterical and which raised the usual Red banner to pass its hysteria over to the masses. "Deliberate journalistic malpractice" is the characterization of San Francisco's editors by the correspondent of the New Republic, Evelyn Seeley.
The Chronicle, for example, went in for rabid expressions like these: "The radicals have seized control by intimidation. What they want is revolution. . . Are the sane, sober working-men of San Francisco to permit these communists to use them for their purpose of wreckage, a wreckage bound to carry the unions down with it?"; while the Los Angeles Times stated that "the situation in San Francisco is not correctly described by the phrase 'general strike.' What is actually in progress there is an insurrection, a Communist-inspired and led revolt against organized government. There is but one thing to be done - put down the revolt with any force necessary and protect the right of ordinary people to conduct their ordinary occupations in security . . ."
The Sacramento Bee informed Mayor Rossi that his program had the united support of the law-abiding citizens and spoke of the strikers as persons seeking to overthrow the government of the United States. The San Francisco Call-Bulletin upheld the "conservative union men [who] have been shouted down by an element bent seemingly on strife and self-aggrandizement." the Oakland Examiner said: "If the small group of Communists, starting with their control of longshore and maritime unions, extend their power over the community of the bay area - and thence into the whole or even part of the State - California would be no more fit to live in than Russia."
The Oakland Chronicle said, "The radicals have seized control . . . The radicals have wanted no settlement. What they want is revolution." The Portland (Oregon) Times said the strikers were refusing the public the necessities of life and blamed "rampant radicalism for unrestrained rule or utter ruin."
Meanwhile things had come to a head in the Puget Sound region as well.
The Mayor of Seattle, Charles L. Smith, and a newly created Tacoma Citizen's Emergency Committee announced on June 15 that they were preparing to open up the ports by force. On June 21 the police and private guards fought a pitched battle with strikers at the Seattle port of Smith Cove. The strikers were driven off.
The following day Tacoma planned to re-open their port, but a Tacoma policeman sympathetic to the strikers alerted the longshoremen beforehand. When the scabs reached the dock they found the gates nailed shut and hundreds of strikers waiting for them.
The strikers disarmed the scabs and sent them back to Seattle unharmed.
Violence continued at the Port of Seattle, but the strikers failed to shut it down. The opposite was true at the Port of Tacoma, where the port remained closed but violence was absent.
Back in San Francisco the press was hysterical, but the complete lack of violence during the General Strike undermined their credibility.
However, there was a solution for that.
On July 17, 1934, the California National Guard blocked both ends of Jackson Street from Drumm to Front with machine gun mounted trucks to assist vigilante raids, protected by SFPD, on the headquarters of the Marine Workers' Industrial Union and the ILA soup kitchen at 84 Embarcadero. Moving on, the Workers' Ex-Servicemen's League's headquarters on Howard between Third and Fourth was raided, leading to 150 arrests and the complete destruction of the facilities. The employer's group, the Industrial Association, had agents riding with the police. Further raids were carried out at the Workers' Open Forum at 1223 Fillmore street and the Western Worker building opposite City Hall that contained a bookstore and the main offices of the Communist Party, which was thoroughly destroyed. Attacks were also perpetrated on the 121 Haight Street Workers' School and the Mission Workers' Neighborhood House at 741 Valencia Street. A police spokesperson suggested that "maybe the Communists staged the raids themselves for publicity".
After the vigilantees had finished smashing up the offices, the police came in and arrested about 400 people total. The jail they were thrown in was only built to house 150.
An ACLU lawyer was kidnapped and beaten. Vigilante activity also occurred in San Jose and Alameda.
The newspapers used the vigilante violence to justify their denunciation of...the strikers. These vigilante raids also scared off all unions who had only recently joined the cause.
The General Strike collapsed.
Even more importantly, by calling for the General Strike, the general strike committee assumed control over the longshoremen strike committee. The general strike committee was far less militant.
Thus when the general strike committee voted to end the strike and force all the participating unions into arbitration, the entire longshoremen strike came to an end.
Both sides declared victory, but it quickly became obvious that power had shifted to the workers. After the longshoremen returned to work there was a rash of disputes, of which the companies almost always caved in. This emboldened the workers and they began to demand more.
The union began making demands, such as the firing of strikebreakers, and the employers conceded. Arbitration ended with the ILA winning a closed shop. The union pressured the companies to accept an ILA-run hiring hall. In the end the ILA won every single demand.
Just as important, the strike had exposed the cowardice and corruption of the AFL-leadership.
Eventually this would mean the west coast ILA would become the independent ILWU.