The annual celebration called LaborFest has been going on since July 2 in San Francisco. Various cities across the country have their own LaborFest celebrations, but in San Francisco it is a monthlong series of cultural and arts events, including a film festival, to educate the public about the history of organized labor in America.
LaborFest commemorates the 1934 San Francisco General Strike, a key episode in the rise of organized labor in the United States. It was the first time that a major US port city was completely shut down by a strike. The result of the strike was the unionization of all ports on the West Coast.
On May 9, 1934, roughly 10,000 longshoremen went on strike all along the West Coast, to protest below-subsistence wages and the humiliating daily hiring experience known as the “shapeup.” Writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, Fred Glass explains:
In this exercise in employer absolutism, workers gathered early in the morning on the foggy docks along the Embarcadero, competing with one another in a desperate race to the bottom of the Depression wage scale. Once at work, the worker might remain there for 10, 12, 16 or more hours. Injuries accumulated faster than cargo on the dock because of the frantic pace of the work. And should they imagine complaining, there were always more workers waiting to take their place.
Among those who’d had enough was Australian immigrant seaman Harry Bridges, who had started working the San Francisco docks in 1921. Bridges reached out to other maritime unions – including sailors’ unions and Teamsters – in May 1934 and within weeks, the number of striking workers increased to 40,000. Almost every West Coast port was shut down.
Employers had the support of San Francisco government officials, the police, and the local press. Police and employers’ armed “thugs” sent hundreds of strikers and their sympathizers to hospital emergency rooms.
On July 5, known ever since as Bloody Thursday, police shot and killed two strikers near the longshoremen’s union hall – World War I veteran and longshoreman Howard Sperry and marine cook Nicholas Bordoise. After lying in state their bodies were moved to the front of an enormous, silent funeral parade, writes Fred Glass. The discipline of the marchers inspired solidarity among other groups of workers and an outpouring of sympathy from San Francisco’s middle class, “scaring the bejesus out of San Francisco’s ruling elite.” Glass continues:
The conflict escalated into a four-day mostly peaceful…citywide general strike. The work stoppage brought virtually all industrial and commercial operations of San Francisco to a halt. Although the San Francisco Labor Council assumed leadership of the general strike, its heart was the maritime workers unions’ headquarters. After the display of determined collective power, the maritime workers gained union recognition, substantial increase in wages, and control over their hiring halls.
Every year on July 5 the International Longshore and Warehouse Union honors Bloody Thursday, as a memorial to the lives lost during the strike and as a celebration of what they achieved. For Harry Bridges, the real fruit of the General Strike wasn’t the winning of any particular demand, according to the ILWU website, but an ever-expanding union.
The longshoremen turned San Francisco into a union town and embarked on a warehouse organizing drive that didn’t stop until it reached Baltimore on the East Coast. The ILWU went on to organize the entire state of Hawaii and expanded into Alaska and western Canada.
Now consider the words of William H. Crocker, a prominent San Francisco banker during the time of the General Strike. Crocker had served as a leader and strategist for the employers.
This strike is the best thing that ever happened to San Francisco…Mark my words. When this nonsense is out of the way and the men have been driven back to their jobs, we won’t have to worry about them anymore. They’ll have learned their lesson. Not only do I believe we’ll never have another general strike, but I don’t think we’ll have a strike of any kind in San Francisco during this generation. Labor is licked.