The dock workers strike and San Francisco general strike, 1934 - Jeremy Brecher

Silent funeral procession for workers killed by police, San Francisco, 1934

Jeremy Brecher's history of the 1934 strike of dock workers and the San Francisco general strike it sparked, against casual hiring methods on the docks, which was bitterly opposed by employers, the state and the unions.

With the passage of Section 7A of the National Industrial Recovery Act, which guaranteed the right of workers to form unions, longshoremen in San Francisco, like workers elsewhere, began pouring into the available unions. During July and August, 1933, nearly ninety-five percent of the San Francisco longshoremen joined the International Longshoremen's Association.1 Their greatest grievance was the shape-up, a system of hiring which the longshoremen referred to as "the slave market." Every morning at 6 a.m., everyone seeking a day's work longshoring would crowd along the Embarcadero, where the foremen would pick out those they wanted for the day. The effect was that longshoremen could never count on steady work, had to suck up to or even bribe the foremen, and had to work to exhaustion or not be hired again. Yet the International Longshoremen's Association (I.L.A.) into which they flooded made no attempt to challenge the shape-up.

Consequently the more militant workers began forming a rank-and-file movement within the union. (Its most prominent figure was an Australian, Harry Bridges, and it included many members of the Communist Party.) The rank-and-file movement forced the calling of a West Coast convention in February, 1934, from which paid officers of the union were excluded as delegates, and forced union officials to accept a program they had no desire to fight for: abolition of the shape-up and its replacement by a union hiring hall, with a strike if this was not accepted within two weeks.

Faced with a strike, the Waterfront Employers Association made a somewhat vague offer to recognize the I.L.A. and set up a dispatching hall whose control was not specified. The I.L.A. leaders accepted the proposal, whereupon the membership repudiated it and suspended the local president for being "too conservative."

On May 9th, longshoremen in Bellingham, Seattle, Tacoma, Aberdeen, Portland, Astoria, San Francisco, Oakland, Stockton, San Pedro and San Diego struck, cutting off nearly 2,000 miles of coastland.

The lines of the conflict rapidly began to spread. The employers imported large numbers of strikebreakers - eventually 1,700, many of them recruited from the University of California-to unload the ships. The strikebreakers were housed in floating boarding houses (which were rapidly boycotted by union employees) and thus protected from pickets; those who sneaked ashore, however, were systematically brutalized by the strikers. Strikebreaking would have seriously threatened the strike, but within four days mass meetings of Teamsters in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland and Seattle decided overwhelmingly not to haul goods to and from the docks, thus making the strikebreakers' efforts fruitless; many of the Teamsters joined the picket lines as well. In San Francisco, as much as seventy percent of the Teamsters' work was on the waterfront. The feelings stirred by seeing the struggle of the longshoremen, combined with their own fear that if the longshoremen were broken the Teamsters would be attacked next, gave them strong motivation for sympathetic action. Before long the strike began to idle unrelated industries; lumber mills shut down in Oregon, for example, because they were unable to ship their products.

At the same time, the strike spread to other maritime workers.

As ships came to port, entire crews walked off and joined the longshoremen. By May 21st, 4,500 sailors, marine firemen, water tenders, cooks, stewards and licensed officers had struck. They established a Joint Marine Strike Committee with five representatives from each of the ten unions involved. Breaking a tradition of scabbing on each other, each agreed not to return to work until the others had settled.

Meanwhile, the longshoremen resisted numerous efforts by government and union officials to get them to work without the union hiring hall. At the outset the strike had been postponed at the request of President Roosevelt, who appointed a Federal Mediation Board; the proposal this Board worked out with the employers and West Coast leaders of the I.L.A. was repudiated by the rank and file, who went ahead and struck anyway. Next Assistant Secretary of Labor Ed McGrady, Roosevelt's top mediator, flew to San Francisco and asked the longshoremen to empower their negotiating committee to enter a final settlement; but the San Francisco local voted unanimously to refuse and to require any agreement to be ratified by the strikers themselves. Then Joseph Ryan, president of the I.L.A., flew to San Francisco and announced absurdly that "the only vital point at issue" was "recognition of the I.L.A." When he negotiated a settlement similar to past proposals, he was met with catcalls and voted down almost unanimously by the I.L.A. locals in Portland and San Francisco.2 Two weeks later Ryan signed a new agreement to send the longshoremen back to work; Michael Casey and Dave Beck, San Francisco and Seattle Teamster bosses, guaranteed the agreement by promising to resume working on the docks; but Ryan was again booed down by his own membership, which rejected the agreement by acclamation at a mass meeting in San Francisco, Finally, President Roosevelt appointed a National Longshoremen's Board to mediate the conflict.

Pacification efforts notwithstanding, the conflict itself grew steadily more violent. On the first day of the strike, police broke up a 500-man picket line. On May 28th, pickets armed with brickbats fought police, who ended the battle by firing with sawed-off shotguns directly into the pickets after failing to quell them with billy clubs and tear gas. As the Clarion, organ of the conservative Central Labor Council, put it,

To parade strike-breakers through the streets on the way to the docks under police guard and to use public property and city employees in conveying these outcasts to their nefarious work was an invitation to violence. . . .3

After forty-five days, San Francisco's economy was reeling, and the business community decided the time had come to break the strike. At a meeting on June 23rd, representatives of the Industrial Association, Chamber of Commerce, Police Commissioners, Chief of Police, and Harbor Commissioners agreed to open the port, with the assurance of the Chief of Police that "every available police officer in San Francisco will be detailed to the waterfront to give the necessary protection."4 On July 3rd a cordon of freight cars was set up and 700 policemen armed with tear gas and riot guns. A police captain brandishing a revolver declared, "The port is open," and five trucks manned by strikebreakers rolled from the pier toward the warehouses. Thousands of strikers and sympathizers on the picket line attacked the police lines. As the New York Times described it,

Mounted and foot police swung their clubs and hurled tear-gas bombs, strikers hurled bricks and rocks, battered heads with clubs and railroad spikes and smashed windows. . . . Mounted and foot police relentlessly drove the pickets behind these freightcar barriers. The safety line remained intact but on its fringes pandemonium raged.5

Twenty-five people were hospitalized as a result of the battle, about half pickets, half police.

After the Independence Day holiday, battle resumed July 5th. In the morning police charged 2,000 pickets who had gathered to stop trucks coming off the pier, and dispersed them after an hour and a half of street and barricade fighting. By the afternoon a crowd of 5,000 gathered, and when the police could no longer control them with gas, they switched to guns on a large scale. The crowd grew increasingly furious in the face of police shootings, and when the word spread that the National Guard would take over the waterfront that evening, they made a last concerted effort to seize the belt-line railway on the waterfront before the troops arrived. Unarmed demonstrators were no match for the police, however, and were driven back in a bloody battle. One reporter wrote, "It was as close to actual war as anything but war itself could be."6 Two strikers and a bystander were killed, 115 people were hospitalized.

That night the Governor of California ordered in 1,700 National Guardsmen, who enclosed the Embarcadero with barbed wire and machine gun nests, patrolled the area with armored cars, and were given orders to shoot to kill. Under this protection, freight moved steadily from the docks to the warehouses. The balance of forces had shifted decisively against the strikers; as Harry Bridges said, "We cannot stand up against police, machine guns, and National Guard bayonets."7

But the conflict had generated a whole new body of allies for the strikers. In the early weeks of June, the feeling had begun to spread among San Francisco workers that a general strike might be necessary to back up the longshoremen. The strikebreaking activities of the police daily roused their ire. A general strike was felt as a way of expressing their power against all employers. Even relatively conservative workers felt the need to protect themselves against the employer offensive; The Clarion wrote:

Workers in other groups have been impelled to stand behind the marine and waterfront workers under the general belief that they represented the 'shock troops' in a general defense of the Trade Union position against the assault upon the union shop and for the installation of the "open shop," even in industries which had recognized union contracts for generations.8

In mid-June, the Painters Local circulated a letter among A.F.L. unions requesting support for a general strike if necessary. On June 20th the Machinists Local voted to join such a strike when called. The longshoremen began sending first small committees and then mass delegations of fifty to four hundred men to other unions asking for support by a vote for a general strike.

The movement for a general strike did not become irresistable, however, until after the violent opening of the port. The street fighting itself had roused a spirit of combat, and the killing of unarmed strikers by police roused the resentment of virtually all the city's workers. The sending in of the National Guard to break the strike aggravated them still further. And with every other tactic defeated, a general strike was evidently the only means by which the longshoremen could be saved from defeat.

The day after the entry of the National Guard, the Joint Marine Strike Committee appealed for a general strike. Next day fourteen unions in San Francisco voted to strike in sympathy with the longshoremen, and similar sentiment developed in Portland and Seattle. At the crucial meeting of the Teamsters, Local President Casey warned the drivers that their contract restricted and their union constitution forbade sympathetic strikes, but they voted 1,220 to 271 to strike Thursday, July 12th, if the maritime strike had not been settled. "Nothing on earth," Casey said, "could have prevented that vote. In all my thirty years of leading these men I have never seen them so worked up."9

On July 9th, a mass funeral procession for the strikers killed in the opening of the port rallied tens of thousands. As Paul Eliel, director ofi├Čndustrial relations for the Employers' Industrial Association, later wrote, "the funeral was one of the strangest and most dramatic that had ever moved along Market Street." It created a "tremendous wave of sympathy for the workers," and with it "a general strike. . . became for the first time a practical and realizable objective."10 By July 12th, twenty-one unions had voted to strike, most of them unanimously. At a second mass meeting the Teamsters sang, "We'll hang Michael Casey from a sour apple tree," and shouted him down when he argued passionately against a strike.11

By Thursday, a partial general strike was under way; 4,000 Bay Area Teamsters walked out and picketed the roads entering the city, stopping all trucks except those carrying such exempted goods as milk, bread and laundry. In the city, Teamsters established a system of strike exemptions-as in Seattle in 1919:

San Francisco's food and gasoline problems. . . were taken to the Teamster's Union. . . . Emissaries of corporations and hospitals made their way through the crowd of striking truck drivers up the dingy stairs and waited their turn at the door behind which union officials sat. . . . Anyone not a representative in some way of a charitable institution or hospital was turned away with curt words before he reached that door, usually to the accompaniment of jeering laughter. . . . Union truck placards were granted without ado to the hospitals.12

Restaurants began to shut down. Next day 2,500 taxi drivers were scheduled to walk out. Cleaners and dryers struck for their own demands. Boilermarkers in sixty shops left their jobs.

The Central Labor Council was now faced with a general strike of which it wanted no part. Three weeks before it had passed a resolution condemning the "Communist" leadership of the maritime strikers, and resolutions calling for a general strike had been ruled out of order at its meetings week after week. After the forcible opening of the port, when the Joint Maritime Strike Committee had appealed for a general strike, the Central Labor Council did not even take up the question. Instead, it appointed a "Strike Strategy Committee" of seven conservative union officials, none of them from the striking unions. "The action of the conservative element in the labor council in naming the strike strategy committee . . . successfully sidetracked the plan of more radical groups to incite and promote a general walkout immediately," the New York Times reported.13 The Committee was appointed to kill the strike, not to organize it.

The momentum of general strike sentiment was too great, however, for the city's A.F.L. leadership to head off. When a convention called by the Strike Strategy Committee met Friday, July 13th, the general strike, though not yet complete, was already a fact. The convention, with five members from each union, voted 315-15 for a general strike. By Monday, the strike deadline, virtually all San Francisco unions except the Bakery Wagon and Milk Wagon Drivers - who were instructed to stay at work - had voted to join the strike. The Oakland Central Labor Council similarly voted for a general strike. The movement spread up the Pacific Coast; in Portland the Central Labor Council voted for a general strike, but left the date to a Strategy Committee.

Unable to stop the strike, the leadership of the San Francisco Central Labor Council decided to assume direction in order to bring it to an end as quickly as possible. They established a General Strike Committee of Twenty-five, all conservatives. The head was Vandeleur, who as chairman of the Labor Council had consistently opposed the strike, and the vice-chairman was C.W. Deal. Deal was head of the Ferryboatmen's union, one of the few in the city not to join the strike. Vandeleur was head of the Municipal Streetcar Workers' Union; when his members walked out on Monday he ordered them back to work on the grounds that they were breaking civil service contracts; he thus created the first breach of the strike the very first day. The General Strike Committee made no provision for meeting the needs of the strikers and the city's population, but instead issued an ever-increasing number of strike exemptions, which created the impression that the strike was dissolving. They also organized their own strike police to keep pickets from interfering with those they had sent back to work.

According to the press, Harry Bridges planned to recommend-

the immediate establishment of food distribution depots in every section of the city, with sub-committees of strikers to prevent profiteering, to regulate distribution of vegetables and fruit, and to prevent hardship.14

But this system never developed. Bridges concluded, "The general strike was broken by the return of the carmen and the lifting of restrictions upon food and gasoline." And as an article in Editor and Publisher pointed out, the bitterly anti-strike newspapers fully realized and abetted the objective of the labor leaders: "Newspaper editorials built up the strength and influence of the conservative leaders and aided in splitting the conservative membership away from the radicals. . . "15

Nevertheless, the strike effectively crippled the life of the city. Some 130,000 workers were out. With taxis, trolleys, and street railway workers out and gasoline for private cars embargoed by the strikers, transportation in the Bay Area virtually stopped. Many small shops closed down in sympathy with the strike or because delivery of goods had stopped. Food trucks were given permits to enter the city and markets remained open; a limited number of restaurants were permitted to run; gasoline was supplied for doctors; electric power workers and newspaper printers continued to work. The violence which had raged for weeks came to a halt with the general strike.

The strike was met with a powerful counter-attack. Five hundred special police were sworn in and the National Guard contingent was raised to 4,500, complete with infantry, machine gun, tank and artillery units; state officials were poised on the edge of declaring martial law. The leading California publishers set up a headquarters at the Palace Hotel and undertook a coordinated attack on the strike, combining a desire to weaken trade unions with an effort to embarrass President Roosevelt and a real fear that the general strike was the beginning of a revolt that might sweep the country. Typical was an editorial in the Los Angeles Times:

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.16

The NRA chief, General Johnson, arrived in town and after meeting with the publishers declared the general strike a "menace to the government" and "civil war." The Governor declared that the general strike "challenges the authority of government to maintain itself," and Senator Hiram Johnson, California's elder statesman, declared, "Here is revolution not only in the making but with the initial actualities."17 President Roosevelt followed the strike closely, but felt it had been provoked by the employers and saw no need to intervene for, as Secretary of Labor Perkins informed him, the General Strike Committee of Twenty-five was "in charge of the whole strike . . . and represents conservative leadership."18

On July 17th, Charles Wheeler, vice-president of the McCormick Steamship Lines, said that raids on radical centers would start soon, with government consent. That day a series of vigilante raids began up and down the coast on the Marine Workers Industrial Union, the Ex-Service Men's League, the Western Worker, and many other radical organizations and gathering places. According to the New York Times, the vigilantes "were connected with the Committee of 500 organized by prominent citizens at the behest of Mayor Rossi."19 The raids followed a regular pattern:

men in leather jackets drove up, broke in, smashed windows, furniture and typewriters, and beat up those within; the police invariably arrived just after the attackers departed and arrested those they had beaten. U.S. Army and immigration officials interrogated many of those arrested and held some of them for possible deportation. Radicals faced a virtual reign of terror.

The general strike succeeded in preventing the crushing of the longshoremen for the moment, but the Labor Council leadership began maneuvering to bring it to an end almost before it began. On July 18th, President Green of the A.F.L. disowned the strike. The second day of the strike the General Strike Committee called for arbitration of all issues, thus giving up the basic demand which the strike was all about, the union hiring hall. The third day it reopened all union restaurants and butcher shops and ended embargoes on gasoline and fuel oil. This generated irresistable pressures on those still striking for, as the strike strategy committee in the East Bay declared, "it would be unfair to the unions to continue the strike in view of the return of some San Francisco organizations to work." By the fourth day, the General Strike Committee voted 191 to 174 to end the general strike.20

With the end of the general strike, the longshoremen were forced to accept arbitration of all issues by the Longshoremen's Board. The Board established jointly operated hiring halls with union dispatchers but employer choice among available workers.

Each employer won the right "to introduce labor-saving devices and to institute such methods of discharging and loading cargo as he considers best suited to the conduct of his business."21

This far from ended the struggle on the waterfront, however, for the longshoremen now moved to direct action on the job to fight the speed-up authorized in the 1934 settlement. A journalist described the conflicts which followed:

. . . every dock gang elected from among themselves a so-called gang or dock steward. . . There were endless disputes, some resulting in "job action" on the part of workers or quick strikes ("quickies") localized to one dock. Suddenly, in the midst of unloading a ship, the longshore gang would walk off, causing the stubborn employer sailing delay, considerable additional expense, and general irritation. . .

. . . the employer called the union hiring-hall for another gang, which came promptly enough, but as likely as not pulled another "quicky" an hour later; and so on, till the employer yielded to, say, a demand that the slingload be made two or three thousand instead of four thousand pounds.22

Between January 1st, 1937, and August 1st, 1938, more than 350 such work stoppages occurred in the maritime industry on the Pacific Coast.23

Excepted and very slightly edited from Strike! - Jeremy Brecher.

  • 1. Samuel Yellin, American Labor Struggles (N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 217 1936), p. 328.
  • 2. Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 266.
  • 3. Clarion, May 18, 1934, cited in Wilfred H. Crook, Communism and the General Strike (Hamden, Conn.: The Shoe String Press, 1960), p. 112.
  • 4. Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 271.
  • 5. New York Times, July 4, 1934, cited in Crook, p. 116.
  • 6. San Francisco Examiner, July 5,1934, cited in Crook, p. 117.
  • 7. Ibid.
  • 8. Cited in Crook, p. 112.
  • 9. Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 280.
  • 10. Ibid., p. 282.
  • 11. Ibid., p. 283.
  • 12. San Francisco Examiner, July 13, 1934, cited in Crook, p. 120.
  • 13. New York Times, July 8, 1934, ciied in Yellin, p. 344.
  • 14. New York Times, July 16, 1934, cited in Crook, p. 138.
  • 15. E. Burke, "Dailies Helped Break General Strike," Editor and publisher, July 28, 1934, cited in Yellin, p. 348.
  • 16. Los Angeles Times, cited in Yellin, p. 347.
  • 17. Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 287.
  • 18. Ibid., p. 288.
  • 19. New York Times, July 18, 1934, cited in Yellin, p. 350.
  • 20. Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 293.
  • 21. Ibid., p. 295.
  • 22. Adamic, p. 370.
  • 23. George O. Bahrs, The San Francisco Employers' Council (Phila.: Wharton School of Finance and Commerce, 1948), p. 7.