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The Big Strike
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It's the 75th 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 skilled or experienced 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."

Hiring 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 l8, sometimes even more, usually worked non-stop. They might work a day or so, then lay around idle and unpaid for several days, sometimes for weeks.

They were certain, however, that greater and greater speed and more and more work would be demanded of them, given the fierce competition for jobs and the employers' lack of concern for safety.

"They were always hollering at you, 'What's the matter with you guys? Hurry up! Hurry up'," recalled former longshoreman Jerry Bulcke. "And if we wanted to work tomorrow, we had to hurry up."

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.

The men had a union -- the International Longshoremen's Association -- but the ILA was a conservative organization tightly controlled by its notoriously corrupt national officers. The New York-based officers paid little attention to the needs and desires of members, although they were quite attentive to those of employers and the employers' government allies.

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, so as to giveeach of them a fair share and enable them to work regular hours on a steady basis, with adequate rest periods and at decent pay and under decent conditions determined in genuine negotiations with employers.

The longshoremen demanded, in short, a strong union under firm direction of the rank-and-file and a hiring hall which they controlled.

The 32,000 dock workers and their leaders -- Harry Bridges, a young Australian sailor turned longshoreman the most prominent among them -- were denounced by ILA officers and other conservative union leaders, by employers, politicians and by the press as dangerous radicals bent on violent revolution. They were charged with carrying out a Communist plot aimed at seizing control of government.

But despite the heavy opposition, the longshoremen managed to shut down every port along the 1,900 miles of coastline between San Diego and Seattle. They drew their most important support from teamsters, who defied their own union officers and refused to cross longshoremen's picket lines to pick up or deliver cargo, and from sailors and other seagoing workers who called their own strikes over demands similar to those of the longshoremen.

After 57 days, employers, backed by state and local government officials, issued an ultimatum to the longshoremen: Call off the strike or they would bring in strikebreakers under police escort 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 Thursday." 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 wounded or seriously injured. Some 800 people were under arrest.

Four others were killed, hundreds of others hurt and arrested at ports in the Pacific Northwest and southern California. But it was San Francisco that drew the most attention, and a great public outpouring of sympathy for the strikers.

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, men, women and children eight to ten abreast behind the coffins laid on crepe-draped, flower-strewn flatbed trucks. Nothing was heard save for the scrape and shuffle of feet and the somber strains of a union band playing Beethoven's funeral march.

Pat Tobin, who was there, remembered that "despite the grimness of the moment, one also sensed a mood of confidence and pride. On this day, workers owned San Francisco. They had stood fast and somehow recognized they would eventually win."

Public support continued to mount, until a week later it erupted into a citywide general strike. As the longshoremen's Harry Bridges said, other workers were very much aware that "if they allowed police to shoot down strikers, or resolve labor problems by bringing in the National Guard, we were all done for."

Emergency services continued, but otherwise San Francisco came to a virtual standstill. Most businesses were closed, most factories, most food markets and restaurants, most shops and offices, most service stations. Streetcars and just about everything else stopped running.

The strike, as author Tillie Olsen said, "showed our interconnectedness, how we depended on each other for the everyday tasks of life .... You could not help but have been impressed with the fact that without the labor of working people, nothing happened ..."

Vigilante committees and police squads raided and badly damaged the headquarters and meeting rooms of unions and of the Communist Party and other left-wing and liberal groups that actively supported the strike, as well as the homes of their leaders.

Civil authorities and the press, declaring the strike an insurrection, openly encouraged the violence and the jailing, on charges of "subversion," of 500 victims of the violence.

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.

It took another two years, but eventually seafaring unions also won recognition, higher pay, regular hours and their own hiring halls.

The dock workers' union continued to operate as a local of the ILA, which not only opposed the strike, but also opposed the union's policy of organizing workers regardless of their race or politics and its attempt to form a union that would encompass all maritime trades.

Within three years, however, the West Coast longshoremen set out on their own in partnership with the warehousemen who worked closely with them. Their International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union soon became one of the most powerful, democratic, progressive and influential of all unions.

The ILWU led the drives of the fledgling Congress of Industrial Organizations that brought unionization to workers throughout the West, in mines and mills, in stores and factories, just about everywhere.

The longshoremen's union, their struggle to create it and the general strike the struggle inspired were extremely important signals that working Americans could finally win the basic rights so long denied them.

"We forced the employers to treat us as equals, to sit down and talk to us about the work we do, how we do it, and what we get paid for it," Harry Bridges recalled shortly before his death in 1990.

"We showed the world that when working people get together and stick together, there's little they can't do. We showed the world that united working people could stand against guns and tear gas, against the press and the courts, against whatever they threw at us."

Copyright 2009 Dick Meister