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The San Francisco Strike of 1934: It’s Lessons Today

by Echo Park Community Coalition (EPCC) Tuesday, Jul. 07, 2009 at 7:21 AM
epcc_la@hotmail.com 213-241-0906 337 Glendale Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90026

The progressive sector of the US labor movement marked July 5, 1934 - a day striking labor unions called "Bloody Thursday" - a turning point in the history of working people on the West Coast. On that day, strikes, riots, tear gas and armed troops on the San Francisco waterfront 1934 strike still had an impact that is still felt to this day. "I think it is still relevant to the Bay Area," said Kevin Starr, the pre-eminent historian of California who wrote about the strike in "Endangered Dreams," a history of California in the Great Depression.

The San Francisco St...
24a_00048.jpg, image/jpeg, 2400x1600

July 6, 2009

The San Francisco Strike of 1934: It’s Lessons Today

Los Angeles--- The progressive sector of the US labor movement marked July 5, 1934 - a day striking labor unions called "Bloody Thursday" - a turning point in the history of working people on the West Coast.

On that day, strikes, riots, tear gas and armed troops on the San Francisco waterfront 1934 strike still had an impact that is still felt to this day.

"I think it is still relevant to the Bay Area," said Kevin Starr, the pre-eminent historian of California who wrote about the strike in "Endangered Dreams," a history of California in the Great Depression.

Birth of the ILWU

The 1934 strike led to the creation of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, a major player in the economics of shipping. While San Francisco's port has faded away, ILWU union workers staff all the West Coast ports, including Los Angeles and Long Beach, the busiest ports in the country. A longshoreman who works 2,000 hours a year now can earn $130,000, the union says. They are the aristocrats of labor.

A waterfront strike now would paralyze America's foreign trade.

Today, the world of 1934 seems like another age. "It was a different time," Starr said, "and a very different city." San Francisco was the most important port on the West Coast, and the Embarcadero was full of ships from all over the world, and in many ways it was the economic heart of the Bay Area.

The showdown

The bloody events of that July day - two dead, 109 injured - set off a general strike that rocked San Francisco to its foundations.

National Guard troops, armed to the teeth, patrolled the waterfront and, for awhile, it seemed San Francisco teetered on the edge of revolution.

Mayor Angelo J. Rossi apparently thought so. "I pledge to you that I, as chief executive of San Francisco, to the full extent of my authority, will run out of San Francisco every Communist agitator," he said.

It was clear that he meant Harry Bridges, leader of the striking longshoremen. Never before in the history of San Francisco had the forces of the far left, Bridges and his associates, and the far right, the mayor and the conservative businessmen who backed him, faced off in a showdown like this.

Starr thinks the bitter and violent clashes of those July days 75 years ago pointed out the dangers of what he calls "ideological lines in the sand."

One result was that San Francisco became a union town, where no politician dared to cross a picket line and where unions, even now, still have considerable clout.

The 1934 strike taught the unions that if they pulled together, they could shut down a whole city and they could force management to deal with them.

"It was a pivotal event in San Francisco labor history," said Catherine Powell, director of the Labor Archives Project at San Francisco State University.

The showdown had been simmering for years. An earlier waterfront strike had been crushed in 1919, and the employers formed the Industrial Association of San Francisco, in effect a union of employers to fight a union of workers.

They also had a hand in a company-organized union called the Longshoreman's Association, also called the "Blue Book" union. Longshore gangs were hired by a process known as the "Shape up," where managers, called "walking bosses," picked out who would get jobs.

It was a rotten system; crooked, too. It was easy to bribe a boss; the work was dangerous, and the pay was low.

In May, the longshoremen went out on strike. It was the depth of the Depression; workers had nothing to lose, and soon the strike spread. Pretty soon, the piers and the anchorages in the bay were full of idle ships.

The battle

The employers were determined to break the strike; they brought in strikebreakers, and on July 5, with the help of City Hall and the police, they decided to open the port.

The employers, backed by an army of cops, tried to move cargo by trucks and freight trains. The strikers and their supporters tried to stop them. The cops used clubs and vomiting gas; the strikers threw rocks and bricks.

"Don't think of this as a riot," The Chronicle said, "it was a hundred riots." At one point the strikers were forced back, up Rincon Hill, and fought a skirmish they called "The Battle of Rincon Hill." The site is now occupied by the One Rincon Tower.

In the afternoon, police fired on strikers at the corner of Steuart and Mission streets. Howard Sperry, a striking sailor, and Nick Bordoise, an unemployed fry cook, were shot and killed.

The news shocked the city and nearly brought it to its knees.

Four days after the killings, the bodies of the two men were given a public funeral. "In life they wouldn't have commanded a second glance on the streets of San Francisco, but in death they were borne the length of Market Street in a stupendous and reverent procession that astounded the city," R.S. Clampett wrote in The Chronicle.

Thousands of men followed the coffins up Market to Valencia Street, marching silently, the only sound "the dull roll of muffled drums and the steady dirge of the funeral march" from a union band.

The two were "transformed by death into heroic symbols of labor," the paper said.

The general strike followed, and then, eventually, a settlement. The unions got most of what they wanted. Within five years, San Francisco had turned into a union town; "a place," said historian Chris Carlsson, "where even the coffee shops were organized. The coffee was made by a union cook and served by a union waitress."

For years, the government tried to prove Bridges was a Communist and to have him deported. He was tried four times, finally cleared in 1953.

Back then, as Starr points out, San Francisco was a manufacturing town: Coffee was roasted here, fruit and vegetables were packed in San Francisco, ships were built in the city, San Francisco made steel, door locks, mattresses and metal cans.

It all gradually faded. San Francisco, some said, had turned into a mini Manhattan, but the memory of 1934 stayed alive, with memorials every year.

The legacy

The corner where the two men where shot is now the site of a tourist hotel; the union headquarters is an upscale restaurant. A developer wanted to set up a hamburger place on a waterfront pier and name it for Harry Bridges; instead it was turned into an expensive restaurant serving Peruvian tapas.

Bridges died in 1990 at age 88; he'd served as port commissioner, an honored citizen. "He was a great guy, lean, mean and salty, with a bit of a swagger," Herb Caen wrote of him. "For years he cast a long shadow over the San Francisco waterfront, for better or worse, but definitely for history."

One of the centers of world wealth," Starr calls it. "Workers can't afford to live in San Francisco," said Steve Zeltzer, one of the organizers of a festival to commemorate the strike this weekend.

Is San Francisco still a union town? "No," Carlsson said. "The unions are ghosts of what they once were. The union movement has lost the vision."

He says it is still important to remember 1934. "It was an incredible moment in history," Carlsson says. "You can see what was possible." If times get tougher, he says, "It is going to happen again."


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