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When San Francisco longshore workers beat the bosses
War on the docks

August 30, 2002 | Page 8

IN THE recent contract showdown with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), the West Coast port bosses are out to cripple the union--with the aid of President Bush who's threatened to break a strike in the name of "national security."

Unfortunately, union leaders have foresworn any strike action. Some ILWU officials, who are offering to give up hundreds of jobs, are citing that militant leader Harry Bridges gave up jobs in the 1960s. This ignores the ILWU's militant history, including the 1934 strike Bridges led in order to win union recognition in the ports. TODD CHRETIEN explains.

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During the Great Depression, tens of thousands of unemployed workers flocked to the docks, hoping for a few hours' work. The company union, called the "Blue Book," forced workers to line up each morning and beg corrupt foremen for work.

A handful of radical longshore workers in San Francisco set out to turn workers' growing bitterness into the fight for union rights. In December 1932, the Communist Party (CP) began distributing a mimeographed newspaper called The Waterfront Worker. It ridiculed the bosses and foremen, argued against racism, warned against counting on newly elected Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to stand up for workers and argued that the rank-and-file had to organize a fight from the ground up.

Through the paper, CP organizer Sam Darcy drew a group of about a dozen radical workers, including Australian-born Harry Bridges. They became known as the Albion Hall group, named for where they met to conduct study groups and plot union strategy.

Around this time, Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act, whose Section 7(a) declared that workers had the right to collective bargaining. It inspired workers to organize a small wave of strikes for recognition.

FDR made a deal with American Federation of Labor (AFL ) leaders to create federal mediation boards if they stopped the strikes. The AFL complied. And in virtually every case, the boards decided against the unions. These betrayals set the stage for the upsurge of 1934.

Radicals in the Albion Hall group set out to wrestle control over the defunct International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) Local 38-79 in San Francisco. In the summer of 1933, hundreds of workers joined. And when some of them were fired for wearing union buttons, a showdown over union tactics broke out.

AFL officials appealed to the local mediation board to reinstate the workers, but the board sided with employers and even confirmed the old company union. The Waterfront Worker called for a wildcat strike on the Matson docks; 400 workers struck for five days. Although the strike didn't win, Bridges argued, "That was the end of fear and intimidation. From that time on the union was established, it was recognized [by the men], it was in business."

At a February ILA West Coast convention, delegates voted to set a March 23 strike date to fight for higher pay, shorter hours, union recognition and, most importantly, union control over the hiring hall.

The Albion Hall delegates won a resolution ordering ILA officials to put any settlement to a full membership vote. Despite this, national ILA President Joseph Ryan and West Coast union director William Lewis accepted FDR's offer of a mediation board and unilaterally annulled the strike deadline.

The sellout enraged the San Francisco longshoremen, and when Ryan tried to present the board's April 3 decision not to give the union control of the hiring hall, he was jeered off the stage. Next, Harry Bridges took the stage to the wild applause and argued it was time to prepare for a strike.

The next month saw a string of wildcat strikes, which built up rank-and-file participation and confidence. And on April 29, a mass meeting of 1,500 San Francisco longshore workers voted to set May 8 as a final strike deadline.

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On May 9, despite orders by federal mediators and union officials, 14,000 longshore workers followed San Francisco's example and struck every port on the West Coast. The Albion Hall group pressed for the greatest possible rank-and-file participation. Within days, Communist sailors organized strikes on ships, and by the end of the week, 35,000 maritime workers--union or not--had joined the strike, paralyzing the coast.

Bridges was elected chairman of the San Francisco Joint Strike Committee, which organized mass pickets and sent delegations to other unions to urge them to strike in solidarity. The AFL and the federal government tried everything to weaken the strikers' resolve. At one meeting, an AFL official accused Bridges of "acting for the Communists." His attempt at red-baiting was shouted down by the members.

Bridges was working alongside the Communists--because they were working inside and outside the strike to win it. The Communist-led International Labor Defense raised money to bail strikers. And the CP won important support in the local for lowering dues for Black workers and giving them full membership rights if they supported the strike.

This multiracial unity marked a dramatic shift from fights in 1916 and 1919, when racism in the union allowed bosses to convince Black workers to scab.

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As the strike ended its second month in a stalemate, the San Francisco local, led by the Albion Hall group, organized a mass meeting on June 30 to call on workers to prepare for a general strike. On July 5, police attacked pickets, injuring hundreds and killing two. Afterward, some 40,000 workers marched in a funeral procession as police retreated to their barracks.

Despite this growing militancy, the San Francisco Labor Council officials tried to prevent their unions from joining the strike. But on July 8, Teamsters voted 1,220 to 271 to strike. The vote inspired 60 other unions to vote for a general strike.

On July 16, more than 130,000 workers in the Bay Area struck. Workers and their unions now ran San Francisco. Massive strike kitchens fed thousands, and mass pickets patrolled the streets, shutting down scab operations.

Some 3,000 National Guard troops were sent in. While they couldn't replace the strikers and FDR feared that using military force against strikers would aggravate the situation, martial law gave the labor council leaders the excuse they needed to stop the general strike.

The maritime workers held out another two weeks until government mediators promised union recognition. On July 30, the Albion Hall group agreed to return to work--even though total victory was far from ensured--with the idea of launching a string of "quickie strikes."

Two months later, the union won dramatic wage and working condition improvements, a closed union shop and union control over the hiring hall up and down the coast. After the strike, Harry Bridges was elected president of the local and eventually the entire West Coast district.

By proving that rank-and-file action--instead of reliance on union officials or Democratic Party politicians--could win, the CP recruited several hundred longshore workers. One AFL organizer in San Francisco lamented, "Ryan is about as popular here as Roosevelt. And whenever Roosevelt's name is mentioned he gets the bird. The strikers here are redder than any Communist I ever saw."

The 1934 San Francisco General Strike grew out of the conditions created by the worst economic crisis the U.S. has ever seen. Radical leaders patiently built up small networks of militants who combined workers' militancy with political strike tactics that could win when the time was right.

This strike and others that year gave confidence to tens of thousands of workers that they could win if they followed the examples set by the radicals. They set the stage for even larger wave of strikes in 1936 and 1937, which laid the basis for the unions we have today.

It's time to study those lessons again.

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