Date: Tue, 5 Jan 1999 22:35:52 -0600 (CST)
From: Tom Condit <email@example.com>
Subject: REFLECTIONS ON BLACK HISTORY: The Great Strike of 1934
Reflections on Black History: The Great Strike of 1934
By Thomas C. Fleming, Sun-Reporter, 5 January 1999
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
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
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
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
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.
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. Every-
thing 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 stu-
dents who met at Alameda to wait for a launch
that carried them across the bay to the dormitory
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 agree-
ment, 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 C. Fleming. At 91,
Fleming continues to write each week for the
Sun-Reporter, San Francisco's African-American
weekly, which he co-founded in 1944. His new
100-page book, "Black Life in the Sacramento
Valley 1850-1934," is available for $7. Send
mailing address to firstname.lastname@example.org.
(A photo, 65reflec.jpg, is available to accompany
this week's column. Caption: Striking dockworkers
battle police in San Francisco on "Bloody Thurs-
day," July 5, 1934. Courtesy of San Francisco