The Big Strike
By Dick Meister
Special To The Examiner
IT'S the 67th anniversary of what's known in labor lore as "The Big
Strike" -- a remarkable event that brought open warfare to San
Francisco's waterfront, led to one of the very few general strikes in U.S.
history and played a key role in spreading unionization nationwide.
It began in May of the dark Depression year of 1934 when longshoremen
finally rebelled against their wretched working conditions in San
Francisco, then one of the world's busiest ports, and in the West Coast's
other port cities.
Longshoremen were not even
guaranteed jobs, no matter how experienced or skilled they might be. They
had to report to the docks every morning and hope a hiring boss would pick
them from among the thousands of desperate job-seekers who jammed the
waterfront for the daily "shapeup."
Bosses rarely chose those who raised serious complaints about pay and
working conditions or otherwise challenged them, but were quite partial to
those who slipped them bribes or bought them drinks at nearby bars.
Even those who were hired often
weren't sure how long they'd work. They might be needed for only a few
hours or for as many as 18, sometimes even more, usually worked at top
speed and without breaks. Serious injuries were common.
For all that, they were paid a mere 85 cents an hour. That brought the
average longshoreman about $10 a week, low pay even by Depression
standards. What the longshoremen wanted above all was to end the indignity
and insecurity of the "shapeup."
They wanted to decide for
themselves how the dock work should be allocated, with pay and working
conditions determined in negotiations between their union and employers.
The 32,000 dock workers and their leaders -- Harry Bridges, a young
Australian sailor-turned-longshoreman the most prominent among them --
were denounced by conservative union leaders, employers, politicians and
the press as Communists bent on violent revolution. But despite the heavy
opposition, the striking longshoremen managed to shut down every port
along the 1,900 miles of coastline between San Diego and Seattle.
After 57 days, employers, backed by state and local government officials,
issued an ultimatum: Call off the strike or they would bring in
strikebreakers under police escort, in trucks and by rail, to forcibly
open the ports. Which is what employers tried to do on July 5, 1934 -- a
day known in West Coast ports since then as "Bloody
The major attempt was launched in
San Francisco, where nearly 1,000 heavily armed policemen battled several
thousand longshoremen and supporters.
Acrid clouds of tear gas enveloped the combatants. Gunfire crackled.
Trucks were overturned and burned, boxcars set on fire. Shouting,
screaming men grappled, swung clubs, bats and sticks, tossed bricks and
stones. Dozens fell bleeding on the docks and nearby streets.
At day's end, 2,000 National
Guardsmen in full battle-dress, armed with bayoneted rifles and machine
guns, marched in at the governor's order to occupy the battle zone. The
fighting had ceased, but by then two men were dead, killed by police
bullets, and more than 100 were wounded or seriously injured. Some 800
people were under arrest.
Three days later, more than 40,000 San Franciscans joined in a
two-mile-long funeral cortege for the men who had been killed on their
city's docks. They marched slowly up Market Street, eight to 10 abreast
behind the coffins laid on crepe-draped, flower-strewn flatbed trucks.
Nothing was heard save the scrape and shuffle of feet and a union band
playing Beethoven's funeral march.
Public support continued to mount,
until a week later it erupted into a citywide general strike. Emergency
services continued, but otherwise San Francisco came to a virtual
The state was about to declare martial law, but after four days,
government officials and the conservative leaders of the American
Federation of Labor who controlled the city's union hierarchy prevailed.
San Francisco's Labor Council voted to call off the general strike even
though longshoremen remained on strike. The strikers nevertheless scored
one of the most important victories in U.S. labor history.
Victory came through President Franklin Roosevelt, who had ignored the
entreaties of employers and state officeholders to halt the supposed
insurrection. Certain it was waged in support of a legitimate demand for
union rights that employers had unfairly rejected, Roosevelt allowed the
general strike to run its course and then appointed an arbitration panel
to settle the dispute.
The panel granted longshoremen
almost all they sought. Employers were required to formally recognize and
bargain with the dock workers' union, raise pay, establish a standard
workweek and abolish the "shapeup." All hiring was to be done
through union-operated hiring halls, with jobs handed out in rotation so
work could be shared equally.
Soon after that, the longshoremen merged with the warehousemen who worked
closely with them. Their International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's
Union became one of the most powerful, democratic, progressive and
influential of all unions. The longshoremen's victorious struggle to
create the union -- their Big Strike -- was an extremely important signal
to the nation.
It showed what could be done by
workers united in a common cause, however powerful and violent the
opposition. It showed that they could bring a major city to a halt. And it
showed that they could win the crucial rights so long denied them.
Dick Meister, a San Francisco
freelance columnist, has covered labor issues for four decades as a
reporter, editor and commentator