San Francisco General Strike (1934)

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SAN FRANCISCO GENERAL STRIKE (1934)

What began as an isolated longshoremen's dispute developed in the spring and summer of 1934 into one of the most sweeping and violent industrial conflicts of the Great Depression. Over the course of eighty-two days, San Francisco's waterfront workers protested their mistreatment by ship owners. Employers organized as well, resulting in a bloody confrontation and a stalemate that brought a polarized San Francisco to standstill.

The roots of the general strike lay in the harsh working lives of San Francisco's longshoremen. Each morning, under what was called the "shapeup," workers lined up at the docks as private contractors chose whom they would employ that day, forcing men to beg for work and pay kickbacks to hiring agents. Represented only by an employer-controlled company union, longshoremen had few alternatives. With the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, and its promise of greater cooperation with unions, however, longshoremen started to organize. Workers formed Local 38-79 of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA), a conservative union affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and issued a set of demands: recognition, a six-hour workday, a thirty-hour workweek, and a pay increase. A radical faction of longshoremen led by Australian-born Harry Bridges raised the stakes further by demanding that the shape-up be replaced by a union hiring hall. When ILA officials negotiated an agreement that left out the hiring hall, rank-and-file members of Local 38-79 suspended their president.

Unable to win their broader demands, longshoremen throughout the Pacific Coast region went on strike on May 9, 1934. Workers rallied together in unprecedented solidarity, virtually closing down all West Coast ports. Responding to their members' pleas, the Teamsters and the seamen's unions supported the longshoremen by refusing to service the ports. Despite pressure from union and public officials, San Francisco's longshoremen, now led by Bridges, held firm. Responding in kind, business leaders coordinated their efforts to undermine the strike through the Industrial Association of San Francisco, an alliance of industrial, banking, shipping, railroad, and utility firms that was formed in 1921. The Association, with the help of a public relations firm, launched a campaign alleging that the strike was a Communist plot. Historians have since rejected that claim, though some strike leaders, including Bridges, were either members of or sympathetic to the Communist Party.

The violence between strikers, scabs, and police escalated on July 5, which would be remembered as "Bloody Thursday." At midday, police and vigilantes fired on strikers who had retreated for a lunch break, killing two. By the day's end, another seventy strikers had been seriously injured. Over the next two weeks, California's governor mobilized the National Guard to restore order while the National Longshoremen's Board, appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt, struggled unsuccessfully to restart negotiations between strikers and employers. On July 16, sixty-three unions of the San Francisco Labor Council commenced a general strike that involved 130,000 workers, shut down the city, and took over basic services, such as the distribution of food. The Industrial Association of San Francisco, the mayor, and a consortium of the city's newspapers reacted with a hyperbolic campaign that depicted the general strike as a Communist insurrection. Although the campaign did not achieve its objective—a military crackdown by Roosevelt—the accusation of treason scared the more cautious labor leaders, who terminated the general strike after only three days. On July 30 the ILA membership overwhelmingly agreed to end their strike and to accept binding arbitration by the National Longshoremen's Board. The Board granted the ILA a collective bargaining agreement, a hiring hall virtually controlled by the union, and a significant pay increase.

The longshoremen and general strikes demonstrated the power and quickness with which ordinary workers could act if pushed too far. The latent radicalism and solidarity of the rank-and-file served as both a warning to employers, who slowly became receptive to mediated settlements, and a promise to aggressive labor leaders, who soon left the conservative AFL and formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to unionize workers across job categories. The strikes also demonstrated the impact of federal labor policy: The National Industrial Recovery Act and the federal labor board were vital to both the instigation and resolution of the conflict. Most of all, the general strike represented the fraying of social bonds that could only get worse if the economic crisis of the Depression continued.

See Also: AMERICAN FEDERATION OF LABOR (AFL); BRIDGES, HARRY; COLLECTIVE BARGAINING; CONGRESS OF INDUSTRIAL ORGANIZATIONS (CIO); INTERNATIONAL LONGSHOREMEN'S ASSOCIATION (ILA); ORGANIZED LABOR; STRIKES.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Kimeldorf, Howard. Reds or Rackets? The Making of Radical and Conservative Unions on the Waterfront. 1988.

Larrowe, Charles P. Harry Bridges: The Rise and Fall ofRadical Labor in the United States. 1972.

Nelson, Bruce. Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and Unionism in the 1930s. 1988.

Selvin, David F. A Terrible Anger: The 1934 Waterfront andGeneral Strikes in San Francisco. 1996.

Starr, Kevin. Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression inCalifornia. 1996.

Eduardo F. Canedo

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San Francisco General Strike (1934)