San Francisco and the General Strike
By Paul S. Taylor and Norman Leon Gold
SIXTY-FIVE thousand trade unionists during four July days staged on the shores of San Francisco Bay the second and most widespread general strike in United States history. From the sixteenth through the nineteenth they carried out an extended maneuver which surprised, bewildered, gratified, or terrified and maddened the average citizen. To most Americans there is something reign about a general strike, and a bit ominouslike the "dole," storm-troopers, socialists, communists, fascists, and a lot of other things that used to seem farther away than they do now. But to many on the Pacific Coast, experience has made the general strike at least real, however differently they may interpret itas a splendid demonstration of the strength and "solidarity of labor," a victory for the "real leaders of labor," a "sell-out" by labor "fakirs," a "strikers' Dictatorship," or an "insurrection."
The San Francisco general strike of 1934 was in no sense a "sport." It is but the latest of a long line of conflicts between employers and employed in that area, many of them, like the general strike, centering about the waterfront, and focusing on the degree of control over employment to be exercised by employers or by union. For power flows from job control. Beginning in the late eighties, the shipowners' association established a hiring-hall as a device for breaking union power. The sailors struck, proposed joint control, were refused, and then beaten. In 1934 the longshoremen demanded substitution of union-control for employer-control of hiring halls. The employers proposed joint control, here refused, and the issue finally went to arbitration. The general strike was but a climax to the 1934 phase of this perennial struggle for power.
Waterfronts the world over provide dramatic examples of the local accumulationcharacteristic of many industries-of over-supplies of under-employed workers. We lack neither knowledge nor example of how to "decasualize" this waterfront labor. Indeed, Seattle employers have taken the lead among American ports in achieving regularization, and the other ports of the Pacific Coast, except San Francisco, have more or less followed suit. But in San Francisco the "good employer," while maintaining his individual labor relations on a fairly advanced plane, allowed general employment practices in his industry to lag behind those long recognized by experts in industrial relations as intelligent and beneficial. The philosophy of the agent who for years has managed waterfront labor there is suggested by his characterization of marine workers as "hewers of wood and drawers of water," and by his statement some years ago that "Really, what we are trying to do is to put the spirit of Jesus Christ in these men," a profession promptly balanced with: "Of course, you've got to put the fear of God in them, too." Under this regime, the well-known abuses of an overcrowded labor market flourished: under-employment, low earnings for many, long and fruitless waits at the docks, petty graft as the price of jobs. These were the conditions, against a background of protracted unemployment and insecurity, of anxious hope stimulated by the rights of collective bargaining under the National Industrial Recovery Act, of a left-ward surge toward more aggressive labor activity both within and without the trade unions, from which the waterfront strike, and ultimately the general strike, developed.
THE first rumble of impending conflict on the waterfront was heard in October 1933 when 400 longshoremen struck against the Matson Navigation Company, claiming discriminatory discharge of members of the newly formed International Longshoremen's Association (ILA.) The company refused to recognize the ILA, but after mediation, reinstated the men. This act sounded the death-knell of a curious organization, the "Blue Book" union, or Longshoremen's Association of San Francisco. Fourteen years earlier the Blue Book union had arisen during a strike from a schism within the ILA; organized by the gang bosses as a right-wing dual union, the employers promptly accorded it recognition and a "union shop" agreement which consigned the original ILA to a lingering death. Strangely, the Blue Book union later was welcomed into the San Francisco Labor Council in 1929 as a "transformed" company union, but ejection followed in 1931 when it was ascertained that the "transformation" was not complete. It lingered on, then in its turn went down to defeat before the rising ILA of 1933 and 1934.
By March 1934 the longshoremen were ready for aggressive action. Slack employment, instead of deterring action, only made more acute the grievance voiced by the numerous unemployed and underemployed unionists that favored gangs received too large a share of the work. Both sides were in a fighting mood, the men following militant leaders, the employers confident of victory, and willing to put up with the possible loss of two or three million dollars as not an exorbitant price for crushing the new union. Negotiations proceeded, both sides yielding a bit, but neither conceding enough to avert a strike. The men asked an increase of wages from 85 cents to $1 an hour, and $1.50 an hour for overtime, a coastwide agreement, and union control of the hiring-hall. The last demand was crucial and the issue was clearly joined: the men called it the foundation of their union; the employers declared that it meant union dictationan infringement on the "right to select employee," and discrimination against competent and faithful non-unionists. Curiously but significantly, the ILA now was seeking a "union shop," which it had protested the preceding October when employers gave force to their "union shop" agreement with the Blue Book union and discharged some ILA men. The employers, similarly, were now resisting a "union shop," when previously they had only too eagerly granted one. How much depends on the kind of union!
Negotiation for a shift in power is peculiarly difficult. Dissatisfied, the men called a strike for March 23, halted it upon request of President Roosevelt, but mediation failing, called it again for May 9. The fight was on in San Francisco and in other ports of the Pacific Coast. Along the three and one-half miles of San Francisco's Embarcadero the corrugated steel doors remained shut. Gates, topped with barbed wire, were closed and boarded. Pickets strolled up and down, passing knots of police, accosting and warning those who looked as though they might take jobs.
THE companies advertised for strike-breakers, and recruited several hundred. These were given steady work at the same hourly rates which the strikers refused, plus $1.50 a day, which was in excess of the cost of board and lodging aboard two ships fitted out for the purpose. Some people inquire incredulously how any man can break strike. Perhaps the answer is not difficult: apart from the few who do it for principle or for love of adventure, they act under the spur of necessity. Many a striker and strikebreaker had this in common: each, with his family, was on relief. Said a college premedical student who worked as a strikebreaker: "I'd rather have salt on my torn body, but God, I have to be a doctor!" His earnings of $150 enable him to return to college. Union pickets sought to deter the strikebreakers with the threats and physical violence often characteristic of American strikes. By July 9, 266 injured persons had been reported by the police; of these 63 percent were strikebreakers and 10 percent were police.
The strike spread first on the side of labor. Partly in sympathy with the longshoremen, but principally to resume actively its long-clouded leadership of the men of its crafts, the International Seamen's Union struck on May 16. The unions of licensed officers followed, May 19 and 21. Meanwhile the truck drivers (under the anachronistic name of the Teamsters' Union) decided that after May 13 they would no longer haul from the docks "hot cargo," i.e., cargo unloaded by strikebreakers. They continued to haul freight from the warehouses, however, if the employers could move it that far. This the employers did by way of the state owned Belt Line Railroad, which operates from the piers to the warehouses. Strikebreakers loaded the cars on the piers, warehousemen unloaded them. To stop this traffic, the longshoremen proceeded to organize the warehousemen into a union to refuse to handle "hot cargo." On June 14 the Teamsters' Union refused to haul "hot freight" anywhere The tactics were effective. The railroads, connected with the piers by the Belt Line over which freight moved to the hinterland and along the coast, gained heavily at the expense of the shipowners, but freight movement from the waterfront to the city was at a standstill. The docks choked with cargo, vessels could not unload, more merchant ships lay at anchor in the Bay than at any time since '49 when sailors deserted en masse to join the rush to the gold fields.
THE widening base of support on the side of labor was countered on the side of capital. On May 20 the president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce rallied to the support of the waterfront employers, declaring, "It is now my duty to warn every business man in this community, that the welfare of business and industry and of the entire public is at stake in the outcome of this crisis." Three weeks later, the Industrial Association, organized in 1921 during a crisis in the building trades, standing for the open shop under the name of the American Plan, and representing the leading industrial, financial, and business interests of the city (including the shipowners) accepted the invitation of the Chamber of Commerce to "open the port." A corporation was formed; it acquired trucks, a warehouse, the fastest speed boat on the Bay, assembled men to drive trucks and work longshore, and took contracts to move freight. With the announcement that, "We are, therefore, commencing operations to restore the streets of San Francisco to its citizens, confident that the Police Department will afford full protection for the full use thereof by unarmed drivers," the Industrial Association began to haul cargo July 3. The strikebreaking drivers were evidently of the adventurous type; in the words of an Association official, "We've got a fine bunch of boys to drive those trucks. They are falling all over themselves to get the jobs."
The movement of cargo from waterfront to warehouse was little more than a gesture, for effective picketing still prevented movement beyond. But everybodylongshoremen and teamsters, shipowners and Industrial Association, public authorities and the publicaccepted it as a test of power. The mayor promised the Industrial Association "adequate police protection during these operations which, of course, is their right" and asked "the people of San Francisco to absent themselves from the vicinity wherein the movement of merchandise is to be conducted." But neither spectators nor pickets would remain away. Cargo moved from waterfront to warehouse, some trucks were dumped and burned, missiles were thrown, clubs wielded, and officers and men injured. On July 5, "lines of battle, as clear cut as any formed on the Western Front, were drawn along San Francisco's waterfront."
The pickets faced the police; this is significant. String pickets usually confront first the strikebreakers or guards hired by the employers. Indeed, in times past San Francisco employers have even boldly proclaimed their readiness directly to meet force with force. In an earlier longshore strike a noted shipowner said: "As long as we continue hauling our men to the receiving hospital . . . we are never going to get anywhere, and I propose, that tomorrow morning, starting in when they compel us to send one ambulance to the receiving hospital, we send two of theirs." But in the strike of 1934 different tactics were employed: "We didn't do as in the old days when we went out and got a lot of ugly-faced toughs." Instead, the maintenance of physical order was left to the police, so that when pickets were beaten it was the police who did it rather than hired thugs. The gain in public sympathy to the employers from such an alignment is obvious. Financially, it also offers advantages to them; as the San Francisco employers pointed out to those in San Pedro, the port of Los Angeles:
The item of guards, cost and boarding, amounting to about $100,000 [in San Pedro], is one which we think should be borne by the city. Here [in San Francisco] the police in ample numbers are supplied without cost, and the only guards employed are those needed on the housing ships. Each company has extra guards or watchmen, the cost being borne by the individual line.
On July 5, then, hundreds of police and some thousands of pickets faced each other. The trucks of the Industrial Association began to move. The pickets were forced back, back, in an extended maneuver covering many blocks. Thousands of commuters from the East Bay jammed the viaduct and the sidewalks; clerks crowded to the windows of office buildings. As police drove strikers and sightseers up Rincon Hill, the pickets hurled bricks, and the police, at the cry of "Let 'em have it," threw tear-gas grenades. Here and there clubbing occurred as men and police clashed. Before the ILA hall fighting was more vicious. Inspectors of police, surrounded by angry strikers seeking to overturn their car, fired. Two men were killed. Police, horses, strikers, and spectators were wounded.
THE men called it "bloody Thursday," and spoke of the "battle of Rincon Hill." They staged a funeral parade down Market Street that contrasted strangely in its awesome quiet and simplicity with the gay banners above, hung in welcome to the convention of Knights Templar. At street intersections the police stepped aside, and like other spectators bared their heads. The funeral made a stirring emotional appeal to the strikers; the public was curious and impressed.
The Governor declared a state of riot. Strike leaders had refused to allow "hot cargo" to move over the State Belt Line "without molestation," so he accepted "the defi of the strikers," and ordered out the National Guard to preserve order and "protect state property." Under the guns of the troops, "hot freight" continued to move from waterfront to warehouse. If the troops allowed traffic to move, their presence aided the employers; if they did not, they would have aided the men by establishing completely effective picketing. We are accustomed to follow the first practice. (The Governor of Minnesota, however, has introduced a notable exception to American procedure by permitting movement only of trucks engaged in essential services or those whose Owners have reached an agreement with the men approved by federal officials.) So the strikers were out-maneuvered, until to the on-looker the waterfront conflict was made to appear a battle of employee striking not against their employers but against the police and beyond them against the public itself. A less obvious effect was to suggest to the strikers that the government was not impartial, but against them. Communists were not slow to point this out to the men, ignoring, of course, government feeding of needy strikers' families and other helpful services.
TROOPS occupied the waterfront-sentries with steel helmets and gleaming bayonets, machine-gun nests, and motorized roving patrols. Admission to the occupied area was by pass. Guards moved about in the ferry building and forbade commuters to loiter on the viaduct. A pier watchman who obeyed too slowly the sentry's command to halt was bayoneted in the groin; a 19-year-old strikebreaker who inadvertently came within the 50-foot deadline in his speedboat, and an amateur photographer taking movies of guardsmen were shot.
Conceding the futility of trying to stand up against the militia, the strikers' leaders sought other weapons to checkmate the waterfront employers who were now actively aided by the highest financial and industrial leaders of the city. To the strikers, confident and more impassioned than ever, the situation seemed clear: the employers had finally used their last resourcetheir own strength first, then the police, the Industrial Association, and the militia; now the men must win reinforcements for the final test of power.
first and only possible defense-step against the aggression of anti-union employers under the banner of the San Francisco Industrial Association....
The sympathy of a large section of the general public was swinging to the side of labor. Even professional and business men said, "I hope they beat the Industrial Association," and "I'm for the longshoremen." The overwhelming show of force was too much, and American spirit was moved to side with the under dog. Besides, the verbatim publication of hearings before the National Longshoremen's Board now gave the public its first opportunity to read and compare adequate statements by all parties to the dispute.
One of the significant aspects of the entire situation was e relation between aggressive strike leaders of the longshoremen, and the more conservative leaders of unions throughout the city. In the ILA, the conservative leaders had already been repudiated one by one. The conservative local president had been deposed; thereafter he sought to weaken the strike by organizing a new union, and announcing that conservative longshoremen were ready to return to work, and that more would do so except for insufficient slice protection and the spell cast over them by communist leadership. And when the international president, Joseph P. Ryan, came out from the East and, together with Pacific Coast union executives, negotiated an agreement with the employers, the members denied the authority of officials to take a binding agreement without referendum, and voted it down. Under Harry Bridges, sincere, militant man of the ranks, whose eleven years on San Francisco's waterfront have not effaced his nasal-cockney Australian accent, a Joint Marine Strike Committee was organized to take over negotiations. The employers called the rejection of the "Ryan agreement" a "repudiation," but clearly the men never had been bound by it, for Ryan negotiated it with neither authority nor sufficient knowledge of the temper the men and their local leaders.
As the cry for a general strike sounded, the gulf between the aroused members of the ILA and the Teamsters, on the one hand and the conservative leaders of the San Francisco labor movement and their followers on the other, became increasingly apparent. Indeed, the course of the general strike itself was determined by this conflict. On July 6, the day after troops occupied the waterfront, the Labor Council appointed a strike strategy committee of seven to "investigate." But if the business agents at the Labor Temple were calm and cautious, the rank and file of a number of unions were eager for action. "Bloody Thursday" and the ensuing funeral had dramatized the struggle to all labor. The Teamsters voted 1220 to 271 for a complete walkout in San Francisco; said Michael Casey, their "responsible," conservative officer:
I warned them that it was strictly against the rules of the brotherhood and that they will undoubtedly lose all strike benefits . . . but nothing on earth could have prevented that vote. In all my thirty years of leading these men, I have never seen them so worked up, so determined to walk out.
Union after union voted to strike or (about half of them) to abide by the decision of the General Strike Committee formed by appointment of President Vandeleur of the Labor Council as the labor directorate of the strike. In vain their leaders urged arbitration and warned against a general strike. "All right, boys, I'm with you," said one, and later he told a friend, "It was an avalanche. I saw it coming, so I ran ahead before it crushed me."
The employers agreed now to arbitrate all issues with the longshoremen, and to bargain (but not to arbitrate) with elected representatives of the seafaring crafts. The longshoremen remained adamant; they would not arbitrate "control of the hiring-hall," and they would not settle unless the seafaring crafts were guaranteed a satisfactory settlement. And now the men were marching out. On July 12 the truck drivers ceased work; gasoline trucks could make no deliveries and taxis were driven back to their garages. Butchers, ship boilermakers, machinists, welders, and laundry workers followed. The building-trades, cleaners, cooks and waiters, barbers, auto mechanics, cleaners and dyers, streetcar men, and many others waited only the call of the General Strike Committee. In the East Bay similar stands were taken by excited unionists.
The National Longshoremen's Board worked furiously for a settlement. The striking teamsters allowed only emergency trucks to operate in the city. Fire trucks, police cars, hospital services, scavengers were unmolested; other essential-service trucks required union permits. A ring of teamsters' pickets began to turn back food trucks bound for the Bay cities. Still people were asking: "Is there going to be a general strike?" Vandeleur as head of the General Strike Committee replied: "Do you fellows have to see a haystack before you can see which way the straws are blowing?"
Grocery stores were jammed. As the contagion spread, more and more people rushed to the stores to stock up. In the more affluent districts vegetables soon were "picked over" and gaps appeared on grocers' shelves. Canned goods sold rapidly, but stocks were large. With meat no longer obtainable, an inspired advertisement announced "X-brand tuna, an ideal meat substitute . . . can be served in countless ways." In the poorer districts trade was brisk, but slower than elsewhere; there were no funds for large purchases. The Knights Templar terminated their convention and left the city while teamsters would still haul their baggage.
By Saturday night, July 14, a general strike seemed inevitable. Said Michael Casey: "Logic has all gone out of the window! This thing is being ruled now by passion and hatred." But now the leaders were well ahead of the prodding followers, and they guided the action. The general strike was timed for 8 o'clock Monday morning in San Francisco, and Tuesday in the East Bay. But the militant unionists were not in control. Harry Bridges was defeated for the vice-presidency of the meeting formed by delegates from every union in San Francisco, and he was smothered as the only maritime representative on the appointed General Strike Committee of twenty-five.
Monday morning no streetcars ran. The streets were filled with pedestrians. Autos were left at home to conserve gasoline. A holiday mood was in the air. Two thousand more soldiers entered the city; armored tanks appeared on the waterfront. There was practically no violence. Long lines of people waited their turn for meals before nineteen restaurants officially opened by the strike committee.
But already the strike, which was general but never complete, was being checked. From within, the strike leaders decided the first day that the municipal carmen should return. The next day food trucks were given free passage by the pickets. More restaurants were opened by union permit, then all restaurants. Soon the embargo on gasoline trucks was lifted, and finally on July 19, the general strike was called off at the close of its fourth day. The General Strike Committee urged arbitration of all issues by all unions and employers party to the original dispute, and the National Longshoremen's Board announced a closely similar position.
FROM without, press and public officials were declaring the general strike a labor "dictatorship" and "insurrection," a strike against the public. "Strike bred in Moscow AFL avers," "Citizens open food, gas sales in spite of unions; Bridges admits defeat of plot to starve city into surrender," declared the headlines. Said Mayor Rossi "In the presence of a general strike nothing can be accomplished. That strike must be ended." Oil trucks were operated under armed guard; union "permits" were indignantly refused, by interests which, only a few years earlier had supported the Industrial Association's "permit" system which compelled the "open shop" in the building trades. But now they said, "Are we going to recognize another government or our own?" Guardsmen stripped the permit signs from cars which entered the occupied zone, and some, over-zealous, even took union badges from the strikers. "Imagine permits!" said an oil man, "I see red every time I see one those signs. What a fizzle! What have they gained? Nothing but the hatred of the public. I like what General Johnson said; nothing but civil war, insurrection... general strike!" The sympathy of the public was turning away from the strikers as their inconvenience grew. "They were trying to set up another city government of their own. They found that our sympathy was gone when we couldn't get our carrots," said a professional man. "The longshoremen should have endured almost anything rather than let people go hungry and cause anything like a general strike"; "Working people can't be trusted," said middle-class housewives. Many rank and file unionists, too, like a Key Route conductor were
glad that it ended the way it did. It might have been worse. If it had lasted longer the company would have ordered us back to work and then we would have been called "scabs" or we'd have lost a year's pension rights. A general strike? That's socialistic. The AFofL don't believe in that. We had nothing to do with the making of it, yet we were brought into it. We lost three days' wages and are paying for it yet.
Such men, and those who genuinely doubted the tactical wisdom of a general strike of indefinite duration, were the support of the conservative leaders
The Mayor "officially" announced the end of the general strike, saying, "I congratulate the real leaders of organized labor on their decision. San Francisco has stamped out without bargains or compromise any attempt to import into its life the very real danger of revolt."
The maritime strike went on to its conclusion. The fate of the longshoremen's strike hung on the teamsters whose position was strategic. What would they do? Delay, refusal to admit Bridges to the Teamsters' Hall, then the vote. The teamsters would go back to work "unconditionally." The last prop was pulled, and the longshoremen reluctantly, if overwhelmingly, voted to return to work. The strike was over.
The Manufacturers' and Employers' Association can look with complacency upon its work during the last two years. One after another the unions have been taught a salutary lesson until out of the horde of unions only one or two are left of any strength. This association has taken hold of the shipowners' struggle and it is only a question of time when the Sailors' Union will have gone the way of the rest. It is of most vital importance that this good work should go on. Trade unionism among workmen is like tares in the field of wheat. The word and the act should be placed among the things prohibited by law.
This strike is the best thing that ever happened to San Francisco. It's costing us money, certainly. We have lost millions on the waterfront in the last few months. But it's a good investment, a marvelous investment. It's solving the labor problem for years to come, perhaps forever.
IN order to mobilize support for the employers, it was declared early in the strike that the longshoremen were "led by a radical and communistic group . . . whose objective is to create civil disturbance, not only in the waterfront trades, but in all other trades." As the strike proceeded, and especially when the general strike was declared, the press and public officials broke into a torrential attack upon "reds" and "subversive influences" among the strikers. Even the conservative Ryan, whose agreement was upset by Bridges and his followers, supported the employers in the charge that "the Communist Party, led by Harry Bridges, is in control of the San Francisco situation," although a local committee of conservative labor leaders denied that Bridges and his committeemen were "reds." The Communists, indeed, were active in San Francisco, as they are elsewhere; they followed a twofold policy: to "bore from within" the conservative trade unions; to form a "dual" union, the Marine Workers' Industrial Union. The first tactic met with considerable success, the second with comparatively little. They advertised widely their asserted influence in San Francisco. Whether Bridges is or is not a Communist is extremely difficult to prove; certainly neither the maritime strike nor the general strike were basically "communist strikes." The central issue of the longshoremen's strike was an old one; the position of the parties was not greatly different than in numerous earlier conflicts stretching back a half century. In 1893 the agent of the employers called the striking Sailors' Union of Andrew Furuseth an "anarchistic society." In 1934 the presence of Communists on the scene, and such influence as they exerted on men and on tactics, were seized upon to defeat aggressive, but essentially orthodox unions and unionists.
NOT only was this accomplished, but creating an hysteria the like of which California had not witnessed since the war, employers and industrial leaders, the press, and officials fostered thereby an attack against "reds" which has spread over the Bay region and beyond. Labor was importuned to "run subversive influences from its ranks like rats," and some union laborers did physically attack Communists, although not in most of the cases where it was attributed to them. Police and vigilantes raided communist "lairs," and arrested "reds," characterized by the approving press as "alley spawn." Vigilante committees were rapidly organized; business men, professors, and other staid citizens armed with pick handles and other weapons patrolled cities of the East Bay while more halls were raided and bricks with warnings attached were thrown through windows of homes. A protecting picket line was thrown around fashionable Piedmont; a librarian was ordered by resolution to submit for destruction a list of books "praising the virtues and advantages of Communism." A student editor urged that "student vigilantes must quell student radicals," opening his editorial with Voltaire's famous statement: "I may disapprove of what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it." The tactical theory of the vigilantes was explained by a member: "If you shoot the reds, then they become heroes, but they don't like it so well if you work them over with pick handles."
The farmers of California have been organizing vigilante groups and prodding officials to action for months. In the wake of the general strike came the opportunity to arrest communist leaders of farm strikes on charges of vagrancy and criminal syndicalism under cover of hysteria, for the criminal syndicalism laws work most effectively when fear is abroad. A warning scaffold appeared in rural Hayward where fruit pickers had struck in sympathy with the longshoremen.
The most significant aspect of the general strike, perhaps, is the fact that officials, business men, and other conservative citizens have been so effectively agitated, that they are convinced of the immediate necessity, and of the suitability of storm-troop tactics to "save America," and "democratic government, including civil liberties such as freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly and trial by jury." Few audible voices have been raised in protest-the victims first, of course, then a judge, and later a couple of editors;for the harvests seem less prone to interruption, industries less exposed to "demoralization" when strike leaders are in jail.