The 1934 West Coast Waterfront Strike and the San Francisco General Strike

1934 witnessed an 83 day strike which closed off all the West Coast ports from Seattle to San Diego and a four day general strike in which 150,000 workers shut down the city of San Francisco. Through these actions the port workers won most of their main demands, replaced the old conservative union leadership with radicals like Harry Bridges, created a strong foothold for the left-wing CIO on the West Coast and proved that through united working class actions they can beat the capitalists.

With the exception of Tacoma, Washington, since the early 1920s the West Coast ports largely lacked strong independent unions. Instead open-shop and company unions dominated the scene. Throughout this time radicals attempted organization drives, but unionization attempts were unsuccessful. By successfully keeping unions out of the ports, the industry owners were able to worsen working conditions. This, along with the general conditions of living during the Great Depression made being a dock worker almost unbearable.

Though they were unable to unionize the ports in the 1920s, radicals were able to spread their message to the more and more of their fellow workers. Finally, in 1933 the National Industrial Recovery Act was passed through congress. This act legally protected collective bargaining rights and lead to widespread union organizing throughout the country, including the West Coast docks. By the second half of 1933 almost all dockworkers were members of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) union.

The ILA was headquartered on the East Coast and controlled by a conservative leadership. However, due to the previous work of radical organizers, the workers in the West knew they could get more than the crumbs the union leadership was willing to settle for. In early 1934, Harry Bridges and other radicals started calling for a coast-wide contract, a union-run hiring hall, a closed shop and an united industry-wide workers federation. In response to these demands, ILA union leadership agreed to a very weak deal with the shipping companies, where none of the original demands were met. The rank-and-file rejected this agreement and began preparations for a coast-wide strike.

On May ninth dockworkers up and down the West Coast ports walked off the job and the strike began. A few days later they were joined by seamen and teamsters, stopping all shipping from San Diego to Seattle. An estimated 35,000 workers went on strike. From the onset of the strike much of the capitalist media attacked the strikers, red-baiting and accusing the strike of economically hurting the majority of the American public. Soon the shipping companies brought in scabs, armed guards and the police. African-Americans were going to be one of the main sources of scab labor brought in by the capitalists. ILA members countered this by going into the black community and asking for support. Black longshoremen were invited into the union, joined the strike committee and played a visible part in the strike. When strikers were able to find scabs without police protection they would physically attack them. Some teamsters and rail-workers refused to move cargo unloaded by scab labor.

These militant actions had a huge economic effect on the shipping owners. Stubbornly the shipping owners refused to meet the workers' demands.

Almost two months into the strike, on Thursday, July 5th, the shipping owners along with the mayor of San Francisco and the police department decided to force open the ports. Police attacked thousands of striking workers using tear and vomit gas, clubs and guns. The workers responded with bricks, railroad spikes and fists. Hundreds of strikers, sympathizers and bystanders were injured and arrested. Two workers were shot and killed and that day became known as "Bloody Thursday."

Strikers were also shot in Seattle, Washington and Long Beach, California. The governor of California declared a “state of riot” and sent in the national guard to protect property and preserve order.

On July 9th a funeral procession for the two killed strikers marched silently through the streets of San Francisco. Thousands of strikers, families and sympathizers showed up, with the crowd stretching more than a mile and a half. There was no police present.

Rather than breaking the strike, these two deaths and the presence of armed national guard troops patrolling the streets galvanized public sympathy and support. Over the next few days 21 labor unions voted to strike in sympathy with the dockworkers and the San Francisco Labor Council called for a general strike. Monday the 16th of July the general strike official began, but was well underway before that with teamsters, butchers, laundry workers and others leaving work days before. The city shut down and the general strike was in full bloom. There was a festive mood in the air, violence was almost nonexistent and people patiently waited in line at the nineteen restaurants the strike committee allowed to stay open. Streetcars were not running and most automobiles were left home. The streets were instead filled with people. Over 40,000 workers also participated in the general strike in the East Bay, including rail-car and ferry drivers who proclaimed that workers should "take over the transportation system for working people." In the East Bay the labor council did not call any marches or mass assemblies, and the streets were much quieter than in San Francisco.

However, reactionary forces responded in full force. The American Legion barricaded the wealthy upper class city of Piedmont demanding identification of anyone wanting to enter the city. The media was hysterical, calling the strikers "reds" and "foreign agitators" and demanding the government step in and use full force to crush the strike. The governor ordered two thousand more troops into the city and the waterfront was soon lines with tanks. Vigilante and police mobs raided union halls, food lines, and private homes, beating and arresting the individuals inside and (ironically) destroying furniture, plumbing, typewriters, papers and other property. Attempts were made to deport anyone suspected of being a radical. Dozens of buildings and homes were ransacked while men hired by the shipping companies followed, recording the names of the places which were raided and the names of the men arrested and beaten. The media praised the police and vigilantes for clearing the streets of vagrants. The Mayor claimed that he would "run out of San Francisco every Communist agitator." This tactic of systematic, police approved vandalism and violence spread beyond San Francisco into the neighboring cities and then across the West Coast into other striking towns.

Through all of this repression, the strike did not end because of intimidation. The Central Labor Council's Strike Committee was now in charge of making decisions, and this committee was largely made up of more conservative labor leaders than those who were participating in the waterfront strikes. By July 19th the committee narrowly voted to end the general strike. By voting the end the general strike, the committee gave the maritime workers no choice but to end their own strike and agree to arbitration. When the arbitration decision came in, months later, it was largely favorable to the workers.

Rather than destroying the power of the dockworkers, the end of the strike emboldened them. Many saw it as a victory, and smaller strikes and work stoppages became a powerful tool of the workers to win concessions from the owners. Other local unions saw their membership numbers surge after the general strike.

Today Bloody Thursday and the general strike are commemorated every July fifth by the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union with picnics and barbecues.

The intersection of Mission and Stuart Streets in San Francisco is host to the "Injury to One" Memorial for the two men killed on Bloody Thursday.

Read more about the SF general strike here