The summer of 1934 was a season of protest. The longshoremen’s strike that summer was of monumental importance to the nascent labor movement on the West Coast. Some refer to a strike as a small revolution. In 1934, men literally fought and died for one union to represent all longshoremen on the West Coast. Today, while we aren’t seeing fights to the death, we are seeing another surge in organizing and strikes across the country like we haven’t seen in decades. Today’s workers are learning the value of solidarity, not only throughout their bargaining units but also across unions and in the community.
Unlike our current period of record low unemployment, during the Great Depression jobs were scarce. Men would wait on the docks for 15 hours at a time just hoping to get a couple of hours of work. Longshoremen were afraid to join unions but were frequently forced to join “company unions,” which were unions run by the companies as a way to force kickbacks for doling out work to people desperate for jobs. The companies required membership for employment. In addition to the dues that went to the company, workers were often obliged to bribe bosses with a bottle of whiskey, a ham, or money.
There was little regulation to curb bosses from overworking crews. Companies forced workers to stay on the job for up to 36 hours without a break. Being a longshoreman was dangerous work, but before we had OSHA, workers rarely reported injuries for fear of being blacklisted. When workers in San Francisco started to organize, the powerful and well-financed shipping companies brought in 1,500 scabs — people willing to cross picket lines to work. The companies used the same scabs to decimate union efforts in Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland.
The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 — part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal program — changed the situation. It legalized the right to unionize and collectively bargain with representatives of the workers' own choosing. This led to an increase in membership of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA). After the passage of the Industrial Recovery Act, the ILA continued to press for better wages and working conditions. They organized solidarity activities like wearing union buttons, refusing to show their company union membership books, and walking off the docks in protest over the firing of workers for union organizing. The ensuing work stoppage broke the company’s stranglehold over the men and allowed the union to gain a toehold with the workers.
In 1933, the ILA held a national conference where they identified four demands:
Negotiate only as a unified district
One coastwide contract
6-hour days, 30-hour workweek, $1/hour
Union Hiring Hall
But the employers wouldn’t recognize the ILA as a legitimate bargaining unit for the entire coast and insisted that each port negotiate separately. The companies wanted separate contracts so they could simply sail further down the coast to another port rather than bargain in good faith.
The workers voted for a coastwide strike. On May 9, 1934, more than 12,000 longshoremen walked off the job. More than 5,000 workers from the seafaring unions joined them along with marine and warehouse workers. Teamsters showed solidarity by refusing to carry cargo to and from the docks. Shipping bosses launched into typical union-busting activities, including recruiting police to break up strikes by mass arrests and through violent means.
ILA’s community organizing efforts were well-thought-out. The dock workers talked to churches, clubs, and other organizations in their communities. People responded with whatever kind of support they could offer. One group of sex workers prepared sandwiches for the strikers once a week. Other unions traveled from far away to join the picketers. Community support rallied the men and showed the power of solidarity. Shipping remained at a standstill wreaking havoc on the economy.
In early June, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce formed a Citizen’s Emergency League, known in the movement as the Silk Stocking Mob. They hired 200 special police to protect the strikebreakers and 1,000 men to back them up. The strike turned violent on Thursday, July 5th. The day became known as Bloody Thursday. Mounted police attacked the picketers and shot into the crowd, killing two, Howard Sperry and Nick Bordoise, and injuring one, Charles Olsen. The next day, a funeral procession for the slain men marched down Market Street. Police and vigilante attacks continued. Strikers and allies were beaten and arrested. In Portland, the mayor and chief of police tried to end the strike at all costs. In what became known as Bloody Wednesday, the police shot into a crowd in a public park, critically injuring four longshoremen.
“The boldness and carelessness that the police had to open fire in a public park are in part what compelled so many Portlanders to condemn the police action,” said local historian Ryan Wisnor.
The longshoremen returned to work on July 31, 1934, following a tentative agreement entered into by both sides with the assistance of a national mediation board appointed by Roosevelt. The board ultimately awarded the ILA a major victory: a coastwide contract, union-controlled hiring halls, increased wages, and limited hours. The strike lasted 83 days. Following the dock workers' lead, many other workers in various industries on the West Coast unionized.
This was an early lesson in the importance of solidarity. The longshoreman could not have won the strike if they did not stick together on one contract for the entire coastline. They also needed the help of the teamsters, seafarers, marine workers, and warehouse workers in order to shut down all the work on the docks. The entire community helped out in any way they could which helped the workers resist the companies’ strikebreaking efforts despite their incredible resources and violent coercive tactics. Lessons of solidarity from this struggle are still incredibly relevant today as organizing campaigns at Amazon, Starbucks, and countless other companies take hold and require all workers to yet again, stand united in the face of corporate greed and union busting.
To learn more about this historic and precedent-setting strike, check out OPB’s “Oregon Experience” documentary, “The 1934 Waterfront Strike: Solidarity on the Docks,” which is available on their website and on their YouTube channel.