The battle for the docks

September 21, 2009

The year 1934 marked a turning point for the working-class struggle during the Great Depression, with three strikes in three cities--Toledo, San Francisco and Minneapolis--that showed workers could fight back and win. Clause 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act, passed in 1933, had granted workers "the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing." But workers had to make the letter of the law a reality through their own battles with employers.

Here, Todd Chretien tells how the battle of longshore workers, led by members of the Communist Party, against the tyranny of the port bosses led to the largest general strike in American history.

THE SAN Francisco General Strike in July 1934--or the Big Strike, as it was known locally--developed as part of a West Coast maritime strike that, at its height, involved more than 130,000 workers in the Bay Area and about 200,000 coast-wide, bringing key sectors of the economy to a standstill.

Despite their strategic position in the economy, longshore workers suffered terrible conditions even before the onset of the Great Depression. Essentially reduced to temporary workers, most had to stand in demeaning "shape-ups" every morning, hoping a foreman would pick them for a day's work. This system lent itself to bribery, favoritism and abuse, and pitted workers against one another for jobs.

After the defeat of the 1919 longshore strike, the maritime bosses forced all workers to join a company union, called the Blue Book, and anyone who tried to organize a real union was summarily fired. This set-up meant that union control of the hiring hall became the central demand in organizing on the docks.

Strikers march through San Francisco streets during the 1934 strike
Strikers march through San Francisco streets during the 1934 strike

A generation earlier, the strongest radical political current among longshore workers was the Industrial Workers of the World. But by the early 1930s, the Communist Party was by far the largest radical organization.

On April 24, 1934, the Western Worker, the official West Coast weekly paper of the CP, reported that national membership had increased to 24,500 in the first three months of 1934, up from 8,339 in the first half of 1931. The California party, grew at an even faster rate, from around 350 in 1930 to over 2,000 in early 1934, and party members led dozens of the agricultural strikes of the kind John Steinbeck immortalized in books like The Grapes of Wrath and In Dubious Battle.

According to James Cannon--who was no friend of the Communist Party after being expelled from the CP in 1929 for supporting Leon Trotsky against Joseph Stalin's witch-hunt--the party had "the best disciplined, the most experienced and the largest political cadre in the labor movement."

The CP maintained its relative strength despite a disastrous set of policies mandated by Stalin and the USSR leadership that was called the "Third Period." Beginning in 1928, Stalin declared that the final collapse of capitalism was imminent, and ordered Communists to denounce any non-communist left tendency as "fascist," "social-fascist" or even "left-social-fascist."

CP leader Earl Browder declared that President Roosevelt's New Deal was "comparable to the pre-fascist [stage] Germany in the period of Bruening." In 1930, Browder claimed that AFL unions themselves were "plainly fascist," and leading Communist organizer Dorothy Ray Healey remembered attacking Upton Sinclair's left-leaning 1934 California gubernatorial campaign as "social fascist." Effectively, this policy cut the CP off from potential political allies and imposed unnecessary isolation on what was by far the largest socialist organization in the U.S.

Before Stalin's Third Period declaration, the Communist Party based its trade union work on the idea of "boring from within" conservative AFL unions. The Communist-led Trade Union Education League organized dissident movements within the AFL, arguing for greater militancy and rank-and-file democracy.

This approach was based on Lenin's recommendation in his 1920 book Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder. Lenin argued that the young party had to work within the AFL "in order to win the working class over to our side." He attacked the strategy of forming dual or revolutionary unions to compete alongside traditional unions as "so unpardonable a blunder that it [was] tantamount to the greatest service Communists could render the bourgeoisie."

What else to read

For excellent histories of the 1934 general strike in San Francisco, read Mike Quinn's The Big Strike and David Selvin's A Terrible Anger.

Also see Art Preis' Labor's Giant Step. Irving Bernstein's The Turbulent Years, now out of print, but soon to be reissued by Haymarket Books, offers a detailed retelling of the strike as well.

Sharon Smith's Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States offers an invaluable survey of the U.S. labor movement, with a section on 1934 and its importance for future labor struggles.

The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sit-Downs by Sidney Lens provides a history and analysis of the U.S.'s most significant labor struggles, including the 1934 strike in San Francisco.

Yet in 1929, Stalin ordered the American Communists to do precisely that, deserting the AFL and setting up "revolutionary" dual unions under the banner of the Trade Union Unity League.

IT WAS with this strategy in mind that CP maritime organizer Harry Hynes launched the Waterfront Worker newspaper in December 1932. The monthly mimeographed paper found a ready audience, and circulation quickly increased to between 1,000 and 2,000 copies.

At this point, California CP leader Sam Darcy became more closely involved in waterfront work. He contacted a group of radical rank-and-file longshoremen, including Australian-born, ex-IWW member Harry Bridges, and organized what became known as the Albion Hall group, numbering about 15 longshoremen by the summer of 1933.

Fortunately, Darcy quickly decided to abandon the CP's official dual union policy on the docks, and instead concentrate on recruiting workers into the AFL-affiliated International Longshoremen's Association (ILA). As Darcy put it:

The sentiment for the ILA rapidly developed. Yet there was some tendency among the Communists at that time to organize competitive [dual union] recruiting. The ILA movement was so overwhelming among the men, however, that it would have been suicide to take the handful of militants away from the general stream of the movement. The party, therefore, took a determined stand against it.

By fighting for rank-and-file control inside the ILA, the CP helped turned the radical traditions and growing militancy of waterfront workers into organizational control over their local.

The Albion Hall group contained both working longshoremen and three or four Communist Party members who had only tenuous ties to the industry; its members collectively took over editorial direction of the Waterfront Worker, using it as a organ for the ILA membership drive by the summer of 1933. The Albion Hall militants became the acknowledged leadership of the Big Strike and served as the vehicle through which the CP gained influence on the docks.

After more than a year of patient organizing work, the February 1934 rank-and-file ILA convention in San Francisco provided the clearest example of both the CP's influence in the union and its crucial role in helping rank-and-file longshoremen win control of their union from the conservative AFL leadership.

The San Francisco ILA led a movement to elect only rank-and-file members to the convention, barring any paid official from acting as a delegate. The convention passed Communist resolutions boycotting all ships flying the Nazi flag and called for the immediate release of political prisoners Tom Mooney and the Scottsboro Boys.

Of even greater importance, the convention endorsed resolutions in support of a coast-wide Waterfront Federation to bring together all craft locals in each port, and it appointed a rank-and-file committee, including Harry Bridges, to begin negotiations with ship owners independently of ILA officials.

The February ILA convention also voted to strike on March 23 for a pay raise, shorter hours and, most importantly, union control of the hiring hall. Crucially, the longshoremen adopted a resolution requiring any proposed settlement negotiated with the ship owners by union officials to come before the entire ILA membership for a ratification vote.

NONETHELESS, ILA national President Joseph Ryan and West Coast President William Lewis attempted several times to push through backroom deals that didn't meet the membership's primary demand--namely, union control of the hiring hall.

When President Franklin Roosevelt sent a telegraph to Ryan and Lewis on the eve of the strike deadline urging them to cancel the strike, they complied without calling for a membership vote. The president then appointed a mediation board, and hearings began on March 28.

After a few days of hearings, packed with hundreds of longshoremen, the board went behind closed doors and reached an agreement on April 3. Lewis and Ryan immediately accepted the decision even though it permitted the Waterfront Employer's Union to recognize "any other bona fide group" alongside the ILA, leaving the door open for company unions--and it failed to guarantee a union-controlled hiring hall.

Lewis and Ryan delayed presenting the agreement to the membership for several days while they attempted to line up support. Realizing the longshoremen strongly opposed the agreement at a stormy April 9 meeting, Lewis attempted to pass it off as a joke by waving it in the air, saying, "Well, here's the damn thing I sold you out for." Lewis' humor provoked angry jeers.

Then, according to the Western Worker, Harry Bridges took the floor and, after exposing how the mediation board had evolved into a compulsory arbitration board, moved that the agreement be refused until the union heard from other locals. The members cheered this suggestion, and a motion was made to print thousands of copies of the agreement and circulate them along the waterfront.

Frustrated with useless closed-door bargaining, 1,500 Local 38-79 members passed a resolution on April 23 declaring a strike deadline of May 8. Despite their best efforts to maneuver out of it, Ryan and Lewis were unable to table the motion.

Discussions dragged on for another week, but accomplished nothing. On May 8, six weeks after the original March 23 deadline, ILA President Ryan and Sen. Robert Wagner, the chairman of the National Labor Board, telegraphed other West Coast ports urging ILA members not to strike.

Their efforts failed. By 8 p.m. on May 9, 14,000 longshoremen in San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, San Pedro, San Diego, Stockton, Bellingham, Aberdeen, Gray's Harbor, Astoria and other Pacific Coast ports struck. Sailors and other maritime workers soon joined in, quickly revitalizing their unions.

Although the number of CP members in the ILA remained a tiny minority, the ILA strike committee authorized the Western Worker to be its official paper, and six or eight members of the 75-person ILA strike committee were party members. They emphasized mass membership meetings and made concrete suggestions about organizing into gang committees on the docks, transforming ordinary longshoremen into the real actors in the struggle.

Non-longshoremen Communists frequently addressed the ILA strike committee in connection with activities in support of the strike, such as legal defense, student support and fundraising. Lastly, the party worked closely with sympathetic leaders in the Albion Hall Group, especially Harry Bridges, who, after his election as strike committee president, continued consulting with Darcy throughout the strike. The Communists' aggressive orientation towards strike preparations successfully broke through their isolation from the longshoremen.

In mid-June, Local 38-79 initiated the Joint Strike Committee (JSC), which included five representatives from all the striking San Francisco unions. The JSC quickly became the nerve center for the maritime strike and the movement for a general strike. The ILA rank and file led the JSC, and Harry Bridges was elected to preside as permanent chair by a vote of 25-20.

The strike remained solid throughout May and June, tying up hundreds of ships and bringing commerce to a standstill.

IN EARLY July, the bosses formed vigilante committees, stocked up on tear gas and developed a plan to forcibly open the docks by smashing through the picket lines.

On July 3, fighting broke out when police attempted to escort scabs (including some members of the UC-Berkeley football team) to work on the docks. ILA members and their supporters fought police to a draw, keeping the docks shut down, in what became known as the Battle of Rincon Hill. Thousands of onlookers turned out to watch.

On July 5, San Francisco police raised the stakes when they shot and killed two workers, Howard Sperry and Nick Bordoise. "Bloody Thursday" sparked a massive wave of working-class anger, pushing forward the already growing movement for a general strike.

Paul Eliel, a leader of the Industrial Association of San Francisco, concluded that after the 40,000-strong mass funeral march on July 9, "the certainty of a general strike, which up to this time had appeared to many to be a visionary dream of a small group of the most radical workers, became for the first time a practical and realizable objective."

Worried that the police could not control the union, the governor called in the National Guard and installed machine gun nests on the docks. The overwhelming show of military force gave encouragement to the bosses, and they sent vigilante gangs and police to raid and destroy union and Communist offices, and arrest and beat up strike leaders.

Despite the repression, workers would not be intimidated. Pressured by mounting anger, the San Francisco Labor Council's moderate and conservative leadership appointed a "Strategy Committee of Seven" to investigate the possibility of organizing a general strike.

But the Strategy Committee had no intention of calling a general strike if there was any way to avoid it--it had been appointed, as Darcy put it, "to kill the strike, and not to organize it." Not one of the "Seven" represented any of the dozens of unions that had already declared or voted for strike action, and the Communists quickly tagged it the "Tragedy Committee."

Although Bloody Thursday provided the impetus for the movement for a general strike, the Communist Party and the radical ILA leadership had been actively preparing for it since mid-June. As Darcy recounted:

Our strategy...was to use the Joint Maritime Strike Committee as a base. This committee had 50 members, and as fast as any other AFL local voted for the general strike, they were also asked to elect two members to be added...[W]e hoped to transform [it] into a general strike committee.

On July 7, the Joint Strike Committee convened a meeting of delegates representing most unions in the city. Sentiment to call for an immediate general strike ran high, and CP members had instructions to push for a formal strike resolution.

Yet the JSC deferred to representatives from the Strategy Committee of Seven under the (mistaken) impression that the Labor Council would finally now move decisively towards a general strike. Darcy claimed that confusion surrounding the Strategy Committee's role was so great that even the Communists at the meeting failed to argue against handing strike authority over to the Seven.

The following day, July 8, a mass meeting of Teamsters voted 1,220 to 271 to strike on July 12, regardless of the Strategy Committee's recommendations. After failing to prevent the vote, Teamster President Mike Casey remarked, "Nothing on earth could have prevented that vote. In my 30 years of leading these men, I have never seen them so worked up, so determined to walk out."

The Teamsters' actions spurred 60 other locals to vote for the general strike, and by July 12, 10 unions had already walked out in sympathy with the maritime strikers.

At this point, the Labor Council realized that the Strategy Committee did not have the power to prevent the general strike from taking place. Therefore, late in the evening of July 13th, it announced the formation of a General Strike Committee, consisting of five delegates from every union in San Francisco.

The Labor Council set the first meeting for 10 a.m. the next morning, intentionally making democratic elections of delegates impossible. Labor Council officials stacked the General Strike Committee with paid officials and conservative workers--and in this way, succeeded in capturing control over the general strike movement.

THE MASSIVE anger after Bloody Thursday compelled the Labor Council to call a general strike for July 16. Over 130,000 workers walked out, shutting down virtually all business in San Francisco--the largest general strike in American history.

But the Labor Council leaders used their authority almost immediately to begin undermining it, sending individual unions back to work, bit by bit. The strike was called off after only four days on July 19, before any of the unions' key demands had been met, and leaving the maritime workers to stand alone.

After the first meeting of the General Strike Committee, the CP realized that it had lost the initiative. Darcy estimated that out of roughly 800 delegates appointed to the Committee, "we could really count on only 60 reliable militants."

The Western Worker immediately put out a call for rank-and-file members in all the striking AFL unions to "insist on electing the five [General Strike Committee delegates] in your own local. Elect live-wires--especially militant fighters." The party also distributed a statement by Harry Bridges and a resolution by Local 38-79 calling for delegate elections to the General Strike Committee.

This agitation may have had some effect, but the general strike remained firmly in the hands of union leaders who had done everything in their power up until July 13 to prevent it from ever taking place. Darcy argued that "we were not outnumbered amongst the rank-and-file insofar as sympathetic sentiment went, but...we were hopelessly weak in organizational contact to put the strike into militant hands."

However, if the general strike was cut short, it still scared the maritime bosses enough to force them to submit to binding arbitration for a contract. The longshore workers voted to return to work in late July, but kept up a series of "quickie strikes" every time foremen tried to violate their rights.

By October, New Deal officials granted the union effective control of the hiring hall, a substantial raise to 95 cents per hour and a 120-hour work month (not quite the 40-hour week).

Rather than remain content with their hard-won victory, the west coast longshore workers joined the CIO movement in 1936 when John Lewis appointed Harry Bridges to be west coast director. They used their strength on the docks to launch major strikes in 1936 and 1937 and to lead "the march inland" to spread union power to tens of thousands of workers up and down the West Coast.

Meanwhile, the Communist Party recruited several thousand new members in the aftermath of the strike, transforming it into the dominant radical political force in California during the Great Depression.

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