The Columbus Free Press


Part 65

The Great Strike of 1934

by Thomas C. Fleming, Dec 16, 1998

In 1934, one of the low years of the Depression, blacks could only work on two piers in San Francisco -- the Panama Pacific and the Luckenbach Line. If you went to any other pier down there, you might get beaten up by the hoodlums.

That year, Harry Bridges, an Australian who had migrated to the United States and worked on the waterfront, emerged out of the pack of dock workers as one of the great labor leaders of the century.

Before this time, I clung to views that the trade union movement was just formed to continue racial discrimination. But Bridges and John L. Lewis, the head of the International Miner's Union, felt that by keeping the unions lily-white, there would be a steady reservoir of black, potential strikebreakers whenever strikes were called, which would weaken the unions when negotiations broke down.

The system on the docks then was called the shape-up, in which the bosses on all piers selected whom they wished to hire on a daily basis. They held absolute power. No one had a guarantee of a daily job, unless he was a pet of the dock boss, or paid a sum of his daily earning. The longshoremen had no real union on either the West or East Coast.

The strike began on May 9. Every port on the West Coast and Hawaii was locked up. The longshoremen demanded their own hiring hall, operated by the union, and they asked for a dollar an hour; they were getting about 50 cents. They were regarded by many conservatives as being Communists, or at least a Communist front organization.

Bridges went to black churches on both sides of San Francisco Bay and asked the ministers: could he say a few words during the Sunday services? He begged the congregation to join the strikers on the picket line, and promised that when the strike ended, blacks would work on every dock on the West Coast.

During the strike, I was doing some writing for the Spokesman, a black weekly newspaper in San Francisco, which supported the strike. There were some vigilante groups patrolling the Bay Area, and apparently they were displeased with some of the editorials we were writing, because we came to work one morning and all the plate glass windows were smashed out. They had gotten inside and smashed the keys of our linotype machine, and they pasted up a note: "You niggers go back to Africa."

The strike culminated in a big demonstration on the waterfront on July 5, "Bloody Thursday," in which the police shot and killed two strikers in the general melee. The governor was compelled to declare martial law, and sent the National Guard to the California port cities. The guard set up camp on the waterfront, where they took the place of the beleaguered cops.

Striking dockworkers battle police in San Francisco on "Bloody Thursday,"
July 5, 1934. (Photo, courtesy of San Francisco Public Library.)
On July 16, Bridges and his council called a general strike in San Francisco and Oakland. The Teamsters and other unions went out with them in sympathy. It was the only time a general strike has been called in a major American city. Everything stopped. Streetcars weren't running. Nothing moved. Mail was being delivered, because that was government, but the only time the Teamsters would cross the picket lines was to bring supplies to the hospitals. This lasted for four days.

Many black and white students worked as scabs. A ship was tied up at one of the docks, where they would sleep and eat. I knew of many students who met at Alameda to wait for a launch that carried them across the bay to the dormitory ship.

The students didn't care anything about unions: they wanted money to go to school. They could work for two weeks, put in a lot of overtime and maybe come home with a couple of hundred dollars. The tuition for the University of California at Berkeley was then $26 a semester.

I heard there was a truck picking up people who wanted to be scabs. It would arrive one night at 35th Street and San Pablo Avenue in Oakland. So I came down there with a couple of students I knew real well. I felt a little bad about it, but I needed the money. When you've been out of work a long time, you'll take anything where you aren't breaking any laws.

A truck came up there all right, but it was the wrong truck. It was loaded with striking workers, and they had baseball bats, which they started swinging. We jumped off that damn truck and took off running. I didn't try any more after that. I saw it was wrong then.

The waterfront strike ended on July 31 when the International Longshoremen's Association was recognized by the ship owners. Bridges kept his word: all piers were opened to blacks. They began to get the same work as everyone else, and some later became union officers. As part of the agreement, the ILA got its own hiring hall, which it controlled, and the men got a minimum 30-hour week and a raise to $1 an hour.

The U.S. government repeatedly tried to deport Bridges. He went on trial four times, on charges that he was a member of the Communist Party, but he was never found guilty. In the late 1930s, the ILA expanded to include workers in other trades, and changed its name to the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union. Harry Bridges was its president for almost half a century. He died in San Francisco in 1990 at the age of 88.

Copyright © 1998 by Thomas Fleming. Email.
At 90, Fleming continues to write each week for the Sun-Reporter, San Francisco's African American weekly, which he co-founded in 1944. Black Life in the Sacramento Valley 1850-1934, a 100-page book co-authored with Michele Shover, is available for $7. A 48-page book of his stories and photos from 1907-19 is available for $3, and a 90-minute cassette tape of his recollections of black life in Florida, Harlem and Chico from 1912-1926 is available for $5. All prices include postage. Send mailing address or call 415-771-6279.

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