previous chapter
8 The Big Strike
next sub-section

Editor's Introduction

No group of workers has played a more important role in the labor history of California than its seafaring and longshore workers. From the founding of the Coast Seamen's Union in 1885 to the launching of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU) in 1937, longshoremen and sailors were in the vanguard of the California labor movement. During the 1880s and 1890s, the seafaring workers gave crucial support to the embryonic and fragile California labor movement, first lending assistance to the Knights of Labor and then helping to sustain trade unionism during the depression of the 1890s. They were also a vital force in securing the "undisputed sway" of trade unionism in San Francisco during the Progressive Era.

Several factors account for the militancy of the seafaring workers. First, the harsh conditions and treatment that sailors experienced aboard ships made their lives, in the words of Andrew Furuseth's biographer Hyman Weintraub, "a purgatory of unending hell." On shore, the control that the "crimp," or boardinghouse keeper, had over hiring reduced sailors to a state of debt peonage. Second, as Bruce Nelson observes in his book Workers on the Waterfront , sailors "lived on the fringes of society and had little or no recourse to the family, church, ethnic, and other institutions that served the purpose of reconciling working people to the hegemony of the employing class or of creating a subculture that reinforced an alternative value system." Third, during their worldwide voyages, seamen were exposed to a wide range of social and political systems at various ports of call. The recollections of seafaring activists indicate that their political consciousness was shaped significantly by events as diverse as famines in


China, the brutality of colonialism in India, and the syndicalism of British and Australian seamen and dock workers. Finally, the seafaring work force was relatively homogenous on the West Coast, especially in California, where men of Scandinavian origin predominated.

Seafaring workers were not, however, eternally militant and always capable of sustaining strong trade unions. To begin with, these workers had to contend with the opposition of highly organized anti-union shipowners. In addition, considerable jurisdictional factionalism existed among the seafaring unions. On the West Coast, a serious gulf between the sailors and the longshoremen led to the creation of separate unions in the early twentieth century.

Factionalism, a depressed economy, and the almost total control over hiring that employers achieved with their "Blue Book union" after a major strike in 1919 seriously undermined maritime trade unionism in the 1920s and the early 1930s. By 1933, however, the maritime workers, pushed to the limit by employers and encouraged by New Deal legislation, began to assert themselves.

The leadership of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) and the International Seamen's Union (ISU) was cautious and conservative. But on the West Coast (and especially in San Francisco), the rank-and-file workers were restless. Dissident elements within the Sailors' Union of the Pacific (SUP)—the largest affiliate of the ISU—and those within the ILA demanded improvements in working conditions, wages, and the hiring system. Harry Bridges, a leading activist within the ILA, soon became the spokesman for a host of dissident workers. At the same time, former Wobblies and Communists who belonged to the rival Marine Workers Industrial Union (MWIU) helped to rekindle the spark of maritime trade unionism on the San Francisco waterfront.

Bruce Nelson tells the story of how these mounting tensions exploded into the 1934 longshoremen's strike—one of the most dramatic events in California labor history. He argues that while Harry Bridges and the MWIU helped spark and organize the walkout, the strike was in essence a rank-and-file insurgency of longshoremen who defied the conservative leadership of their AFL unions. However, Nelson contends, when the AFL leadership saw that the writing was on the wall, they moved, with some success, to coopt control of the strike.

When two workers were killed on "Bloody Thursday," the outpouring of support for the strike was widespread and spontaneous. Eventually,


however, mass arrests of strikers, vigilante action, a viciously hostile newspaper campaign, and the desertion of the teamsters from the strike persuaded the longshoremen to submit their dispute to arbitration and end the strike. They secured significant concessions in the agreement that followed, and the outcome of the strike set the stage for a resurgent California trade union movement later in the 1930s. Figuring prominently in this renaissance would be the ILWU, founded in 1937 and led by Harry Bridges, which, to a significant extent, represented a coalescence of the forces that had helped to organize the 1934 strike.

Every year, in early March, Andrew Furuseth sent an anniversary message to the Sailors' Union of the Pacific to commemorate its founding in 1885. In 1929, when the union's fortunes were at an all-time low, Furuseth's letter to the few diehard members and their guests burned with a zeal that was peculiarly out of character with the times. "I wish we could all of us be saturated with the spirit of the crusader, " he said. "Let us make this meeting a Pentecostal one, and go away from it with the determination to achieve, to live up to the highest and best that is in us."[1]

Five years and two months later, maritime workers erupted with the "spirit of the crusader" and waged one of the great battles in the history of the American working class. Even by the standards of 1934, one of the most extraordinary years in the annals of labor, the Big Strike fully merited the adjective its partisans assigned it.[2] This eighty-three-day drama transformed labor relations in the Pacific Coast maritime industry and ushered in an era of militant unionism that caught Andrew Furuseth and the leadership of the International Seamen's Union completely by surprise. In fact, the character of this upheaval was such that it alarmed Furuseth as much as it did the employers. Although the Big Strike ended on an ambiguous note, and in its immediate aftermath was sometimes characterized as a defeat for labor by friend and foe alike, the insurgent maritime workers armed themselves with the lessons of the strike and applied these lessons to their workaday world with stunning results.

Before discussing the contours of this Pentecostal era, we must examine the major characteristics and lessons of the Big Strike, because they became a major part of the foundation on which the new order was constructed. One of the problems in presenting these lessons is that even a sober and restrained portrayal may appear as one-sided and romanticized as a crude proletarian novel. But in this case the real world is more dramatic than


fiction. To be sure, there was complexity and unevenness. For example, the vital port of Los Angeles remained open throughout the strike; and a substantial number of seamen never joined the ranks of the strikers, in some cases because their ships anchored in the outer harbors and refused to let the men debark, in other cases because they consciously decided to stay aboard the vessels. But in the final analysis, these and other examples of weakness failed to overshadow or undermine the strike's central characteristics.

Among the many threads that were a part of the Big Strike's dynamism, four stand out as crucial: first, the strikers' militancy, steadfastness, and discipline in the face of an adversary who wielded an arsenal of weapons ranging from private security forces and vigilantes to the bayonets and machine guns of the National Guard; second, a solidarity that swept aside old craft antagonisms and culminated in a general strike; third, a rank-and-file independence and initiative that came to mean frequent defiance of AFL norms and officials; and finally, in the face of an increasingly hysterical and violent wave of anti-Communist propaganda, a willingness to assess the Red presence in the strike independently, from the workers' own standpoint, and a growing tendency to view Red-baiting as an instrument of the employers.

The strike began on May 9 with the longshoremen's coastwide walkout. Within days seamen and other maritime workers swelled the picket lines, and teamsters refused to handle scab cargo. As the magnitude of the conflict became apparent, Assistant Secretary of Labor Edward McGrady rushed to San Francisco and presided over several efforts to reach a compromise. Two such agreements were concluded, one on May 28 and another on June 16. But both were negotiated by top AFL officials who had no authority to represent the strikers, and they were emphatically repudiated by the rank and file. The strikers' rejection of the mid-June agreement convinced the shipowners that reason was of no avail, and they developed a plan to open the port of San Francisco by force. On July 3 the waterfront became "a vast tangle of fighting men" as seven hundred police tried to move scab cargo through the picket lines. Two days later, on what became known as Bloody Thursday, all hell broke loose. The Chronicle called it "War in San Francisco!" as "blood ran red in the streets." At the end of the day, two workers—longshoreman Howard Sperry and strike sympathizer Nick Bordoise, a Communist—lay dead; National Guard troops were erecting barbed-wire fortifications on the waterfront; and armored personnel carriers replaced the pickets.[3]


It appeared that labor was defeated, but on July 9 a massive funeral procession for Sperry and Bordoise paraded up Market Street, and the uncanny power of this event crystallized sentiment for a general strike. With a renewed surge of confidence, the general strike began in both San Francisco and Oakland on July 16. However, the strike apparatus was in the hands of AFL conservatives, and they were able to terminate the general walkout after four days. Shorn of their most vital allies, the maritime workers had little choice but to agree to place their demands before the presidentially appointed National Longshoremen's Board. After eighty-three days, the men returned to work on July 31.

From the beginning of the walkout, the strikers displayed awesome courage and militancy. In the first few days there were violent outbursts up and down the coast, as employers hired large numbers of strikebreakers and tried to maintain business as usual behind a protective shield of police. In Oakland, according to newspaper reports, four hundred strikers stormed the gates of the municipal pier, "drove police before them and staged a hand to hand battle with 72 strike breakers." In Portland, "a mob of 400 striking longshoremen threw one policeman into the water and severely beat others" in an attack on a ship housing scabs.

The most dramatic confrontation occurred in Seattle, where a timid and conservative ILA (International Longshoremen's Association) leadership stood by as employers put strikebreakers to work on every pier. In response on May 12 a flying squad of six hundred Tacoma longshoremen, along with several hundred strikers from Everett and "all of the militant men we could find in Seattle," stormed the docks. The army of two thousand men battered down pier doors, swept police aside, and halted work on eleven ships where strikebreakers had been handling cargo. The flying squad also paid visits to other cities, with so much success that a shipowner spokesman complained: "Within a few days all work at Pacific Northwest ports had to cease owing to violence by strikers and to lack of police protection. The strikers took over entire control of the waterfront."[4]

The high point of this militancy came on Bloody Thursday in San Francisco, when an army of police tried to reopen the port by terrorizing the maritime strikers into submission. According to the eyewitness account of a "small investor" named Donald Mackenzie Brown,

Struggling knots of longshoremen, closely pressed by officers mounted and on foot, swarmed everywhere. The air was filled with blinding gas. The howl of the sirens. The low boom of the gas guns. The crack of pistol-fire. The whine of the bullets. The shouts and curses of sweating men. Everywhere was a rhythmical waving of arms—like trees in the wind—swinging clubs,


swinging fists, hurling rocks, hurling bombs. As the police moved from one group to the next, men lay bloody, unconscious, or in convulsions—in the gutters, on the sidewalks, in the streets. Around on Madison Street, a plain-clothes-man dismounted from a radio car, waved his shotgun nervously at the shouting pickets who scattered. I saw nothing thrown at him. Suddenly he fired up and down the street and two men fell in a pool of gore—one evidently dead, the other, half attempting to rise, but weakening fast. A gas bomb struck another standing on the curb—struck the side of his head, leaving him in blinded agony. The night sticks were the worst. The long hardwood clubs lay onto skulls with sickening force, again and again and again till a face was hardly recognizable.

Late in the afternoon, when "the police were mopping up the remaining combatants," Brown walked by the ILA headquarters. There "two men were helping a staggering picket away from the fray. He was stripped to the waist showing a gaping bullet hole in his back." Henry Schmidt later recalled a grim moment that may have involved the same striker. During a lull in the battle, near the ILA hall, "I noticed a man in front of me, and I figured that's a cop and he's got a shooting iron ready for action. Then I noticed another man in front of him. There was absolutely no reason for this policeman to do anything, but he raised his rifle, or whatever it was, and he shot this striker in the back. He went down like a load of lead."

For most of the day, even the sadistic violence and superior technical equipment of the police could not deter the strikers. Brown, the businessman, was overawed by the workers' "insane courage." "In the face of bullets, gas, clubs, horses' hoofs, death; against fast patrol cars and the radio, they fought back with rocks and bolts till the street was a mass of debris. . . . They were fighting desperately for something that seemed to be life for them."[5]

Bloody Thursday was an epic moment, but it was by no means unique. Class warfare has punctuated the American industrial landscape for more than a century. What may be even more noteworthy than the militancy of the strikers and the violence of their adversaries is the staying power and growing discipline that the maritime workers demonstrated over a period of nearly three months. Perhaps the most remarkable example of this steadfastness occurred in Los Angeles and its adjacent port city of San Pedro, where the strikers persevered and increased their numbers in spite of the weakness of their unions and the blatantly obvious role of the police as instruments of capital. The passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act had forced the Los Angeles employers to temper their long-standing crusade for the open shop, but the coming of the strike rekindled their zeal for the methods that had earned Los Angeles its reputation as "scab city."


When 97 percent of the longshoremen who voted in a representation election chose the ILA, waterfront employers signed a contract with the company union that had received the votes of only thirty-two men. Representatives of the Merchants' and Manufacturers' Association helped to enlist thousands of strikebreakers, many of whom were housed in stockades along the waterfront. The Los Angeles Police Department assigned some seven hundred officers to the harbor area, and they were aided by hundreds of special deputies and private security guards. The $145,000 required to maintain this police army came not from the city but from the employers themselves. In fact, these ties between the police and the large employers in Los Angeles became so lucrative for the former that after a subsequent maritime strike, a police official recommended that "each executive from each oil company in the harbor district should be invited and entertained at our police range for lunch . . . and there presented with a police badge in recognition of their splendid cooperation and in furtherance of their friendly relationship [with] our department."[6]

Between the police and the maritime strikers, however, there was anything but a friendly relationship. One observer characterized the Los Angeles Intelligence Bureau, or "Red squad," as "unbelievably sadistic," and even the Los Angeles Daily News belatedly acknowledged the "definite campaign of brutality and terrorism indulged in by the police red squad in the confines of the harbor department jail." The Nation reported that approximately five hundred arrests were made in the port of San Pedro during the course of the strike. The fate of Thomas Sharpe, a member of the International Seamen's Union, was by no means exceptional. His statement about his ordeal is worth quoting at some length because Sharpe's case symbolizes not only the method and rationale of the authorities, but also the extraordinary staying power of the workers in the face of a sustained campaign of terror. Sharpe reported:

On Monday the 16th of July, I went on picket duty on Terminal Island. We were not out to do violence. . . . We had no clubs or weapons of any kind. . . . I went across the street, where I saw a man dressed as an unemployed seam[a]n, standing against the wall with a police riot club hanging besides his right leg. . . . He grabbed me by the arm and walked me across the street to the police car. . . . This man I learned from the description I have from other seamen at the hospital who were beat and tortured by him was Strand of the "red squad."

Strand took the young seaman to the police station and pushed him into a dark hallway where, Sharpe reported,


he hit me on the right shin bone with his riot club, which was a solid wooden club about two feet long and 1½ inches thru. I fell to the floor and every muscle in my body went limp. While I was on the floor he beat me unmercifully. The only thing that was said was, I'm going to run all the reds out of San Pedro if I have to break their damn necks. I answered that I ain't no red. He then grabbed my right foot and hit me eight or nine times, again and again on the same shin bone with his club. Then he twisted the right foot until the bones he had splintered with his club cracked and came thru the flesh, severing an artery. It started [to] hemorrhage and the blood simply poured out of me.

Sharpe remained either in the hospital or in jail, with a cast on his leg and another on his shoulder (also broken in the beating), until August 14, nearly one full month after his incarceration, when he was taken into court and the charges against him were dismissed.[7]

As grim as the Sharpe incident was, and there were innumerable examples of lone strikers being arrested, or kidnapped, and beaten, a far more massive and deadly confrontation had occurred on May 14 at a stockade that housed a large number of strikebreakers. A twenty-year-old longshoreman named Dick Parker died that night of a gunshot wound in the heart. The Los Angeles Times claimed that a mob of strikers rushed the stockade, set it on fire, and jeopardized the lives of police and private security guards who were protecting the facility. Parker was shot, said the Times , while "leading some 300 strikers in their attack." (Tom Knudson, a forty-five-year-old ILA member, died later of injuries sustained in the incident.)[8]

The newspaper of the marine workers maintained, however, that "the police opened fire on a large crowd of pickets . . . before any of the men could take a step toward the armed fortress." One participant, striking seaman Bob McElroy, who was standing no more than ten feet from Parker when he was shot, recalled in later years that the demonstration had begun as "an impromptu thing. . . . There was no provocation, no commotion, no threats, no nothing—just a gun going off and Parker going down." At a special coroner's inquest, McElroy and others identified a former Los Angeles police officer who was serving as a private security guard at the scab stockade as the man who shot Parker. But there was no indictment and trial. Dick Parker, who had joined the ILA only a few hours before his death, became the first martyr of the Big Strike.[9]

In spite of the beatings, the arrests, and the two killings, in spite of the fact that they were never able to shut down the vast Los Angeles harbor, the ranks of the strikers remained solid and the scale of their activity increased. Whereas there had been only about three hundred pickets on the


docks in the early days of the strike, their numbers increased to about eighteen hundred as seamen and teamsters joined the picket lines. One striking seaman reported in early July that "open meetings are held daily and the crowds are so large that loud speakers are necessary." This growing combativeness and unity led a Sailors' Union activist to declare soon afterward that "the 1934 strike did more to solidify the longshoremen and the seafaring men of San Pedro than anything that was ever done before."[10]

The most dramatic examples of the strike's increasingly disciplined militancy occurred in San Francisco. On Bloody Thursday, in the "Battle of Rincon Hill," the strikers conducted themselves with remarkable precision and imagination in the face of three successive assaults by policemen, who according to Henry Schmidt were "using their firearms freely and laying down a barrage of tear gas bombs." And in the famed funeral procession in which labor honored Sperry and Bordoise, tens of thousands of marchers demonstrated a unity of purpose and a solemn dignity that left friend and foe alike awestruck. The Chronicle reported that in life Sperry and Bordoise "wouldn't have commanded a second glance on the streets of San Francisco, but in death they were borne the length of Market Street in a stupendous and reverent procession that astounded the city." Other eyewitnesses spoke of "an oncoming sea" and "a river of men flowing . . . like cooling lava." One participant noted "an ominous silence among spectators and marchers alike. . . . The sound of thousands of feet echoed up that hollow canyon—nothing else. . . . It was a magnificent sight—those careworn, weary faces determined in their fight for justice thrilled me. I have never seen anything so impressive in all my life." As he marched up Market Street, Roy Hudson was also struck by "the silence —you could hear it—not a placard, not a slogan, complete and utter silence. You could hear what was in the atmosphere." Even an employer spokesman sensed it, acknowledging the event as "the high tide of united labor action in San Francisco."[11]

This high tide was the culmination of many waves of solidarity that had broken down the traditional barriers of craft and nationality. It began in the ranks of the longshoremen themselves. They had cast aside the Blue Book; they had built an aggressive rank-and-file movement—so aggressive that one conservative union official characterized it as "mob rule." Their pent-up fury had exploded on May 9 and in succeeding days, driving strikebreakers from the docks or forcing them to take refuge behind massive police lines. Now, particularly in San Francisco, they faced an issue


that had contributed to their defeat in previous strikes. Would the union offer the hand of solidarity to black longshoremen? And would black workers honor the picket lines?[12]

Unlike the Eastern and Gulf ILA locals, which provided black longshoremen with a secure but subordinate place within the union, Pacific Coast longshore unions had always excluded blacks. In San Francisco, facing the unremitting hostility of the Riggers and Stevedores, black workers had found that strikebreaking was the only way they could gain employment on the waterfront. In the 1916 and 1919 strikes they had been "an important factor in defeating the unions." Of course, the shipowners had eagerly recruited them then, but by 1926 black longshoremen were employed on only a few docks. Labor economist Robert Francis noted in early 1934 that "today there are not more than fifty black men working on the San Francisco waterfront."

In late 1933 the local 38-79 executive board had expressed a mild interest in "working with the colored boys of San Francisco and the bay District." But as Sam Darcy acknowledged, for the most part the ILA displayed a "passive attitude towards the question of Negro workers, and in some cases, actual antagonism towards including them in the Union." Although "the rank and file militants of the I.L.A. made a sincere effort to unite black and white workers," only a handful of black longshoremen joined the union before May 9.[13]

In the first few days of the strike employers recruited nearly a thousand scabs in San Francisco. The majority, according to one participant, were white-collar workers and college students, including a sizable contingent from the University of California football team. The ranks of the strike-breakers also included several hundred black men, and the violent flare-ups along the Embarcadero sometimes had racial overtones.[14]

However, as Henry Schmidt recalled, there was a vitally important breakthrough early in the strike that was to set the tone for the future of race relations on the San Francisco docks. Schmidt had gone down to the Luckenbach pier, where most of the regular black longshoremen were employed; along with a black union member he had called on them to join the strike. "On the same afternoon or the next day," he remembered, "these Negro brothers came to the then union headquarters at 113 Steuart Street. I can still see them coming up the stairs and entering the premises. . . . Somebody raised the question, 'Why didn't you come earlier to join up?' And they replied, 'We didn't know that you wanted us.'"[15]

An even greater wave of solidarity began to gather momentum on the very first day of the strike, as seamen walked off the ships and joined the


longshore picket lines. The seamen's involvement, however, was complicated by the condition and outlook of their unions. Veteran ISU (International Seamen's Union) official Walter Macarthur acknowledged that the Sailors' Union officials were helpless and that "the seamen found themselves entirely at a loss for leadership or advice." Harry Bridges claimed in retrospect that the ISU affiliates "were forced to strike because of the pressure of the MWIU [Marine Workers Industrial Union]." Bridges's recollection was supported by Bill Caves, an outspoken deck sailor who played an important—and controversial—role in the Big Strike. Caves maintained that "the whole attitude of the SUP [Sailors' Union of the Pacific] officials during the 1934 strike was to stay aboard the ships," and that "it was only the militant action of the MWIU that forced the issue."[16]

Although not entirely accurate, these charges have considerable merit. The ISU affiliates on the Pacific Coast were in a sorry state before the Big Strike engulfed them. The Sailors' Union had weathered the long drought better than the marine cooks' and firemen's unions, but the news from the SUP was hardly encouraging. The Seattle branch seldom attracted more than a dozen members to its weekly meetings, and Portland was able to muster one quorum in the six months that preceded the 1934 strike. As for San Pedro, it "seem[ed] to be going to hell altogether." When a local official took sick, the union was unable to find anyone to replace him. Even the San Francisco headquarters usually acknowledged that "things here are slow," and sometimes "exceedingly slow."

In explaining the union's moribund condition, the SUP leadership pointed the finger at the seamen themselves. George Larsen, the Sailors' Union secretary and chief spokesman, lamented that the majority "don't seem interested in any kind of organization." When the Portland SUP agent reported a growing sentiment among the men that "the union should do something," Larsen pointed to the international officials' longstanding effort to bring about change through the NRA (National Recovery Administration) shipping code hearings in Washington and blamed the lack of results on "the majority . . . who sail outside of the union." "Let the men understand that it is because of lack of organization among us that we are faced . . . [with] low wages, miserable working conditions, and intolerable employment conditions. Let them be reminded that in vessels where men are doing the hardest kind of physical labor, namely in many steamschooners, no raise has taken place since they were reduced to the starvation point some two years ago. . . . the answer is, come into the union." When the Portland official reported again that "the men would like to se[e] the Union take some action," Larsen exploded: "The trouble is


not with the union, it rests with [the men]. . . . The only way to wake them up is with a big stick."[17]

Begrudgingly, the Sailors' Union spokesman acknowledged that the longshoremen had demonstrated "sense enough to get into one organization" and prepare for "concerted action." But whenever the dockworkers moved beyond mere preparation, Larsen reacted with fear and pessimism. "I can see a bunch of trouble ahead," he declared during the San Francisco stevedores' wildcat against Matson and the Blue Book. "I think the men have been ill advised." Increasingly, he was convinced that the source of these disturbances was the "considerable number of Communists" in the San Francisco ILA. "Should it come to a strike and a finish fight," he wrote in late March, "I am afraid the longshoremen will be the losers." As for the seamen, he recognized that some of them would join the walkout, but "there is little that we can do about it."[18]

When the longshoremen struck on May 9, the ISU Pacific District leadership took an ambiguous position, advising union members to stay aboard ship in those few cases where "the unions have recognition or an understanding with the owners." On all other ships, the ISU stressed the question of "liberty." Larsen wrote to Portland on May 11: "Let the men be told that none of the steam schooners recognize any of our unions, and that therefore, they are at liberty to quit. . . . But the unions are not demanding it, that is to say it is not mandatory."[19]

The Portland steam schooner men acted unanimously two days before Larsen offered them the option. They deserted the ships on May 9 and joined the longshore picket lines, thus serving as the advance guard of a spontaneous walkout that caught the ISU leadership by surprise. Larsen had blasted the nonunion seamen for losing faith in themselves. But apparently many of them had lost faith only in the capacity of the ISU affiliates to take decisive action. When the longshoremen showed the way, they followed.

The Marine Workers Industrial Union took immediate steps to give the seafarers' walkout a more organized character. The MWIU's membership on the West Coast was probably smaller than that of the SUP. But the Marine Workers had one major advantage, namely, a core of activists who were eager to strike and to build closer ties between the men on the ships and those along the shore. In fact, MWIU members began supporting the longshore strike even before the stevedores walked off the job. On May 8 the S.S. Oakmar pulled into San Francisco Bay and her entire crew struck in anticipation of the longshoremen's action. One seaman recalled that "every man aboard of her was a member of the M.W.I.U." On May 12, the


union held a well-attended conference; the assembled delegates called a formal strike for eight o'clock that evening and put forward their own set of demands. The crews of seventeen ships responded to the MWIU's strike call, and within a few days the men on practically every vessel coming into San Francisco joined the longshoremen on the picket lines.[20]

It is probable, however, that the seamen's spontaneous determination to strike was more important than the MWIU's leadership in triggering many of the actions that occurred. The deck department of the S.S. President Hoover , for example, walked off the ship in San Francisco and immediately pressured the SUP officials to call a strike. There had been a self-appointed organizer aboard this Dollar line vessel. But as it turned out, his role was secondary at best. Harold Johnson, a Communist seaman, recalled that "my duty was to recruit people into the MWIU, the Young Communist League, and the Communist Party. I didn't succeed." In fact, he acknowledged, "I was a constant pain in the ass." Indeed, when the ship pulled into San Francisco on the first day of the strike and a number of crew members looked to Johnson for leadership, instead of taking time to help spearhead an organized walkout, the young zealot simply packed his seabag and walked off the ship, alone.

The next day the President Hoover sailed to San Pedro, returning to San Francisco a few days later. This time the entire deck crew walked off together, led by able-bodied seaman Bill Caves. A stereotypical sailor, Caves had joined the navy at age seventeen and had been sailing ever since. Now in his forties, he was muscular, literate, and outspoken to the point of belligerence. He took great pride in the fact that he had broken every one of his knuckles in various brawls. (He was also a homosexual who along with half a dozen other crew members on the Hoover was being treated for syphilis.) Although somewhat erratic, Caves "radiated excitement." By virtue of his charisma and experience, he was far better able than the politically zealous but unseasoned Harold Johnson to help crystallize the anger and determination of his fellow seamen.[21]

The MWIU's initiative, the catalytic role of natural leaders like Bill Caves, and the massive—often spontaneous—upsurge of rank-and-file seamen hastened the inevitable. The Sailors' Union took a formal strike vote on May 15. Coastwide only 146 men cast ballots, with 131 of them voting to "hit the bricks." (The vast majority of seamen were not union members when they walked of the ships and were thus ineligible to participate in the strike vote.) Within a week all seafaring unions on the Pacific Coast, including those representing licensed officers, were on strike, and George Larsen could declare: "Most of the men going to sea have faith


in the union, let's show them their faith is not misplaced. We must stick and win."[22]

With the seamen on the picket lines, the teamsters quickly became crucial to the strike's continued momentum. If they had been willing to haul scab-unloaded cargo, the maritime workers' position would have been undermined. But in spite of repeated warnings from their leadership about the sanctity of contracts, the rank-and-file truck drivers refused to handle goods that were bound to or from the docks.[23]

The high point of the strike's extraordinary solidarity was the San Francisco general strike. Although it is impossible to identify the exact number of workers who participated, it probably exceeded a hundred thousand, encompassing not only San Francisco but Oakland and Alameda County as well. Sam Darcy commented that initially "the General Strike was effective beyond all expectations. Not only had the overwhelming bulk of organized workers joined the strike, but many thousands of unorganized workers" also walked out. Of perhaps greater significance than the numbers was the attitude of the rank-and-file participants. Longshoreman Germain Bulcke lived several miles from the San Francisco waterfront, and with no streetcars running, he had a long walk to his picket duty at Pier 35. "But it was a very happy feeling," he recalled. "I felt like I was walking on air." Mike Quin claimed that in the city's working-class neighborhoods, "an almost carnival spirit" prevailed. "Laboring men appeared on the streets in their Sunday clothes, shiny celluloid union buttons glistening on every coat lapel. Common social barriers were swept away in the spirit of the occasion. Strangers addressed each other warmly as old friends."[24]

Meanwhile, across the bay, as employer representative Paul St. Sure recalled, momentum was building, until "with dramatic suddenness everything was down in Oakland." The Amalgamated Streetcar Workers met in the early hours of the morning, after the trolley system's daily shutdown at 2 A.M. , to consider what action to take. Employers were confident that this vital artery would remain in operation, because the company had recently granted a voluntary wage increase and its work force included many "old-timers . . . loyal to the company." Imagine the employers' shock, then, when the Streetcar Workers passed a resolution that committed the union to walk out in sympathy with the waterfront and general strikes "and called upon the employees of the Key System and workers of the community to take over the transit company as a mass transportation system for working people." At that moment, St. Sure remembered, the East Bay business community became convinced that "there was a revolution


in progress. . . . frankly we were frightened . . . [because] the streetcar workers, who had no direct connection with the strike . . . were actually proposing taking over the property; . . . we felt this was the first step in [a] class conflict that might lead to anything."[25]

Where did such resolutions come from? In spite of all the hysteria about imminent revolution and Communists on the march, George Larsen of the Sailors' Union readily admitted that the strike was not led by Communists—they "are loudmouthed but not in control"—nor even by trade union officials like himself, "for they are swept along by [the workers'] deep resentment against the shipowners." Instead Larsen pointed to the centrality of rank-and-file anger and initiative. Perhaps no other dimension of the Big Strike was more vital than the energy and determination radiating from thousands of anonymous workers. The case of Ed Darling, an oiler on the S.S. Washington , may not be entirely representative, but the strike could not have succeeded without the spirit of militant activism that he exemplified. Ed Darling was in many ways a typical seaman. He had been sailing in the navy or the merchant marine for twenty-three years by 1934. Although he was a high-school dropout who admitted to spending most of his money on "women and whiskey," he was also an avid music enthusiast who never missed an opera or a symphony when he had the opportunity in port. Fortune chronicled the story of his involvement in the Big Strike:

When he heard about the strike, he jumped the ship in Marshfield, Oregon, and beat it up to Portland in a boxcar. In Portland he promptly got a thirty day suspended sentence for attacking a scab, which made it necessary for him to leave the city. Thereupon he went to Seattle, where he picketed fourteen to sixteen hours a day, tossed rocks at the engineers and firemen who tried to move freight along the waterfront, and greased the railroad tracks so that the engines couldn't move. From a woodworking factory he helped to steal 300 clubs that had just been turned out for the police and vigilantes. He was gassed and clubbed frequently and lost all his upper teeth in a fight with a scab. Then one day . . . he met the man who had knocked out his teeth, and in an attempt to break a bone for every tooth he had lost, he battered the scab so fearfully that he was afraid to stay in Seattle. The remaining month of the strike he spent on veteran's relief in Portland, doing nothing to excite the attention of the police.[26]

Ed Darling was one of those men who, like Henry Schmidt, had been praying for a showdown with the shipowners. But there were many others who discovered only during the course of the strike that they had the will


and the confidence to combat the employers. One stevedore admitted, "I have always been afraid of strikes," but declared that his experience on the picket lines "proves to me what power the workers have if they will only use it." The shipowners "have treated us as if we were not human," he said, "and now that the strike is [on] I can't see how in hell they got away with it for so long. We must have been asleep; we should have given it to them long ago. Well, we have the power now; if they don't behave themselves we will take the ships and run them to suit ourselves."[27]

Such a statement may reflect a touch of picket line bravado or, if taken literally, may have represented only a small minority of the strikers. But like the Streetcar Workers' resolution, it is also indicative of the festive, irreverent, and spontaneously radical sentiments that come to the fore in a crisis of this magnitude. In this situation it was inevitable that the conflict between the insurgent strikers and their conservative officials would often reach a fever pitch. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins declared that "the officers of the unions have been swept off their feet by the rank and file movement." Likewise, Paul Eliel, a spokesman for the Industrial Association, commented with alarm on the declining authority of San Francisco Teamster President Mike Casey. Once known as Bloody Mike, Casey was by now a solidly entrenched member of the AFL hierarchy, and he was on friendly, even intimate, terms with the employers. Because the forces of capital relied heavily on AFL representatives like Casey to settle the strike in a way that would minimize the damage to the employers' interests, it was painful for Eliel to admit that "as strong a man as Michael Casey has absolutely lost control of the Teamsters' Union and he is unable to lead it any more. He used to be able to drive it."[28]

Appropriately, however, it was the longshoremen who provided the most vivid example of the conflict between rank-and-file insurgency and AFL conservativism. The pivotal figures in this conflict were Henry Bridges and ILA President Joseph E Ryan. Whereas Ryan's was a familiar name in the councils of business, government, and the American Federation of Labor, Bridges was so obscure at the beginning of the strike that one veteran MWIU leader who had spent considerable time on the San Francisco waterfront in 1931 and 1932 couldn't even remember who he was. "You know him," Harry Hynes reminded Tommy Ray as they followed the strike news in a New York gin mill. "Australian Harry! He works on the Matson dock and plays the horses."

At first glance, Bridges was hardly an appealing candidate for the leadership of an insurgent movement. He lacked the surface charm of Walter Reuther, the impressive bulk and prophetic aura of John L. Lewis, the


rough-edged proletarian hue of Joe Curran. To some observers, the only thing that seemed to distinguish him was his long nose. Fortune spoke of his "hawk eyes and nose and long spidery arms." Journalist George West found him "physically unimpressive" and said he had "no 'personality,' no charm, no radiation." Frances Perkins remembered him as "a small, thin, somewhat haggard man in a much-worn overcoat." Richard Neuberger spoke of his "monastic simplicity," but unlike Perkins he also perceived the cocksure personality who "swaggers like a racetrack bookie."[29]

As for the longshoremen, although they good-naturedly called him the Nose, they did not judge Bridges by his looks. Author Charles Madison correctly noted that he became the stevedores' spokesman through his unique "ability to verbalize their yearnings and concretize their goal." In fact, it is remarkable how often longshoremen and outsiders alike referred to the effectiveness of his use of language. His style was simple and direct. His speeches were "cold," "clean," "clear," "rapid-fire," "precise," with every word "like the blow of a hammer," building an orderly and readily comprehensible edifice for his listeners. One observer described how he captivated a meeting of two thousand maritime workers in Portland "with a few masterful words." In spite of strong opposition from the Portland ILA officials, "he presented his case with such brilliance that the audience rose to give him a unanimous vote of confidence."[30]

Fellow longshoreman John Olsen remarked that "he had a certain charisma that nobody else seemed to have. There are certain men . . . who have the ability to present something so that you understand it, and you feel a part of it." Olsen recalled one particular case in San Francisco "when we had a big meeting, and . . . all the officials of the old ILA were there opposing Harry. They all spoke first. Harry finally got up and said . . ., 'It's me against all of them.' [Then] he took something out of his pocket, and he read it. When he got through talking, he had the whole meeting on his side. He had that ability to draw you to him that very few men have."

Even men who were far removed from the stevedores' rough-and-tumble environment were struck by this quality in Bridges. Paul Eliel marveled at his "extraordinary presentation" before the National Longshoremen's Board in July 1934. He said that "speaking without notes and extemporaneously," Bridges "showed not only an unusual command of the subject matter but of the English language as well." After his testimony, said Eliel, "employers were able for the first time to understand something of the hold which he had been able to establish over the strikers both in own union and in the other maritime crafts." Likewise, Harvard Dean James M. Landis concluded that Bridges's testimony at his first deportation


hearing "was given not only without reserve, but vigorously as dogma and faiths of which the man was proud. . . . It was a fighting apologia that refused to temper itself to the winds of caution."[31]

The same qualities that inspired admiration in Eliel and Landis were infuriating to many on the employers' side. For men who were used to the friendly, even deferential posture of a Ryan or a Scharrenberg, Bridges's self-assurance appeared arrogant, his faint smile seemed a sneer, his scorn for bourgeois amenities and his refusal to shy away from controversy became the mark of treason. Admiral Emory Land of the War Shipping Board recalled that Bridges never came to Washington "without insisting on having an appointment with me. And it was always one of the most unhappy appointments I ever had. Naturally, we never agreed on any single thing. . . . He always had a snarl on his upper lip. I've always said he had a crooked brain. He was an out-and-out Commie."

Louis Adamic rightly observed that the shipowners were "mentally and emotionally paralyzed" by their hatred of Bridges. In an editorial that represented the employers' view as much as Hearst's, the San Francisco Examiner once characterized "the line-up in the waterfront labor situation" as

Harry Bridges vs. responsible union labor
Harry Bridges vs. the shipping industry
Harry Bridges vs. San Francisco, the Pacific Coast, the entire American seaboard.
Put in one phrase—the issue is:

The shipowners convinced themselves that they loathed Bridges because he was a Communist. But, in part, at least, their hatred derived from the fact that this upstart dockworker often proved a superior foe. George West described him as a "lightning thinker" and a "master of repartee." "Facing the shrewdest of corporation lawyers," he said, Bridges "makes them seem soft and a little helpless by comparison."[32]

Of course, in the eyes of the longshoremen and the other maritime workers, these very same qualities made "Limo" an effective leader and, ultimately, a folk hero. As one "Stevie" put it, "Harry Bridges is a 100% union man. . . . He's a man in a million. A union man at heart, not a faker. Maybe I admire him because they call him a radical. If Harry Bridges is a radical, I am a radical too." Even a self-proclaimed "Conservative Longshoreman" expressed similar sentiments, declaring, "Anybody can see . . . that Bridges knows what he is talking about. He stands ready to offer leadership to our local, something we have always lacked, and what's


more, he is ready to fight for what he believes to be right. I have changed my mind about that man. He is not too radical for me now. He is a good trade unionist."[33]

It is important to emphasize that Bridges as leader was very much a product of the rank-and-file movement. He did not create the burst of energy that drove the maritime workers forward during the 1934 strike. Nor was he solely responsible for the continuing upsurge that would transform conditions on the waterfront and give the Pentecostal era its special dynamism. Without the determination of the Ed Darlings and thousands of anonymous rank and filers, even the most skillful and dedicated leaders would have been helpless. As one longshore activist declared, "It was collective action that won the strike, not a few individuals."[34]

It is also true that Bridges was neither as malevolent as the shipowners imagined him nor as perfect as many of the longshoremen portrayed him. Like any human being, he had faults. He was notoriously irascible, and his warmest admirers agreed that he had trouble delegating authority. These traits may have contributed to his inordinate capacity to make enemies, even among those who had once been his close allies in the union movement. According to Richard Neuberger, "Bridges demands tolerance for himself but is inclined to be intolerant of others." Darcy recalled that he was "very jealous of anyone he thought might excel him in leadership," and that he often "tried to belittle the role of other people." Herbert Resner, a left-wing attorney who knew Bridges well up until 1950, found him "notoriously lacking in . . . human kindness." My purpose, however, is not to provide an all-sided portrait of Bridges's personality and career, but rather to analyze the qualities that enabled him to become the leading spokesman for his fellow maritime workers during the thirties. Among these men, whether they were radical or conservative, Bridges was widely regarded as the embodiment of the best in themselves and their movement. As a marine fireman put it, "We like Bridges because he is rank and file."[35]

No one could accuse Joe Ryan of being rank and file, although Fortune did concede that he "still goes down to the waterfront to visit with his boys—after a pleasant dinner" at a New York restaurant. Whereas Bridges wore inexpensive clothes and was obviously indifferent about his appearance, Ryan dressed "with splendor," wearing painted neckties and pinstriped, elegantly tailored double-breasted suits on his massive, 200-pound frame. "Next to myself," he used to say, "I like silk underwear best." Another of his favorite sayings was "What does I.L.A. stand for? Why it means 'I Love America!'" Irving Bernstein has aptly characterized


him as "an old-style Tammany politician who . . . strayed into the labor business."

Ryan began stevedoring around 1910. Several years later an injury and his gift for blarney combined to end his career as a working longshoreman. Elected to local union office in 1913, he made his way up the ILA hierarchy until he achieved the rank of international president in 1927. During his long reign, there were no authorized strikes on the New York waterfront, even though conditions for the majority of dockworkers were abominable. He fortified his regime by courting politicians and hiring criminals. Under the aegis of the Joseph E Ryan Association, his friends sponsored annual testimonial dinners that raised large sums of money for his personal and political use. Among the honorary chairmen of the 1931 dinner, which raised $8,000 to send the Ryan family on a vacation trip to Europe, were New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, former Governor Alfred E. Smith, and New York City Mayor James J. Walker.

Ryan also had many friends at the other end of the social spectrum. Matthew Josephson characterized the Brooklyn waterfront in particular as "a racketeers' jungle run wild." A congressional subcommittee concluded that Ryan had used his position as head of the New York State Parole Board to make ILA headquarters "the court of last resort for all shady aspirants and claimants along the waterfront, as well as the fountainhead of protection . . . for vicious criminals in key waterfront posts." Refuting Ryan's claim that his motive was the rehabilitation of ex-convicts, the committee declared that "the waterfront is not where a man can 'go straight'—it is where he can keep crooked." Finally, the ILA president was forced to fall back on the hackneyed ruse of fighting communism on the docks, telling the committee that "some of those fellows with the bad criminal records were pretty handy out there when we had to do it the tough way."[36]

With the employers, however, Ryan always preferred to do it the easy way. Although he had no authority to negotiate any binding agreements on behalf of the Pacific District union membership, the ILA president came to the West Coast and made several highly publicized efforts to settle the strike on terms that fell far short of the men's demands. In mid-June he participated in a series of carefully orchestrated maneuvers that resulted in an alleged settlement of the strike. The so-called Saturday Agreement met some of the stevedores' demands and compromised on others, but it was negotiated by ILA and Teamsters union officials who had no authorization to represent the longshoremen. In fact, their elected representatives were excluded from the proceedings. When the agreement was signed, the press


immediately declared the strike over, before the men had had a chance to examine the terms of the settlement or vote on the matter. The Sunday Chronicle ran the banner headline "S.F. Strike Ends; Port Open Monday" and featured a picture of a smiling Ryan on the telephone, saying "Hello Seattle! It's All Over Boys."

But the longshoremen overwhelmingly rejected the pact. In the ports of San Francisco, Portland, and Tacoma, they refused even to vote on it. The Chronicle was forced to admit that "the proposal [was] shouted down by a thunder of 'noes.'" Why this emphatic rejection of an agreement where the employers compromised significantly on the longshoremen's demands? Because the pact made no provision for resolution of the seamen's grievances. This was fine with diehard craft unionists like Ryan and Furuseth, but to the aroused rank and file it was a betrayal of the solidarity that had become one of the strike's most powerful weapons.[37]

The climactic moment in this escalating confrontation between the strikers and their conservative officials came when Ryan attended the San Francisco ILA meeting and attempted to explain his actions to the three thousand longshoremen who were packed into the hall. The growing clamor from the audience made it clear that he was in deep trouble. Suddenly, Pirate Larsen leaped onto the stage, pointed an accusing finger at the ILA president, and shouted, "This guy's a rink and he's trying to make rinks out of us. Let's throw him out!" As Henry Schmidt recalled, "Pirate brought the house down."

From that moment on, Joseph P. Ryan—international president of the ILA, former president of the New York City Central Labor Council, crony of governors, mayors, and millionaire employers—was a dead letter on the West Coast. Before returning to the more hospitable confines of the East, however, Ryan took a parting shot at the rank-and-file stevedore who had replaced him as principal spokesman for the men. "Bridges does not want this strike settled," he declared. "My firm belief is that he is acting for the communists."[38]

It had quickly become standard procedure in many quarters to attribute the strike and the grim determination of the strikers to the machinations of the Reds. Only ten days into the conflict, Assistant Secretary of Labor Edward McGrady, his efforts at mediation rebuffed, had declared in frustration: "San Francisco ought to be informed of the hold of the Red element on the situation. A strong radical element within the ranks of the longshoremen's union seems to want no settlement of this strike." Two


days later, the president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce eagerly followed McGrady's lead, stating matters in far more apocalyptic terms. "The San Francisco waterfront strike," he declared, "is out of hand. It is not a conflict between employer and employee—between capital and labor—it is a conflict which is rapidly spreading between American principles and un-American radicalism. . . . There can be no hope for industrial peace until communistic agitators are removed as the official spokesmen of labor and American leaders are chosen to settle their differences along American lines."[39]

Even as sanguine an employer spokesman as Paul Eliel tended to view the strike in these terms. Although he avoided the apocalyptic frame of reference, he was frankly alarmed about the broad practical implications of the waterfront strike. In a letter to the National Labor Board, he said:

The I.L.A. in San Francisco at the present time, is absolutely and unequivocally in the hands of a group of Communists. You know I am not a Redbaiter and I more or less laugh at these Communist scares. In the present instance, however, I am convinced that the I.L.A. has definitely been taken by a Communist group.

Now the difficulty of the employers accepting a closed shop with the I.L.A. in view of this existing leadership of the I.L.A. here is that such a crowning of the achievements of the strike committee would, it is believed, affect the entire crop-harvesting situation most adversely . In addition, it would constitute a definite threat to the leadership of the more conservative labor men in San Francisco whose control of their unions is tottering.[40]

The control of the "conservative labor men" was indeed tottering, and in the maritime unions it was about to collapse. But Eliel was wrong in reducing the motive force in this drama to communism. To be sure, the Communist party played an active and important role in the strike, placing its newspaper, legal apparatus, and other elements of its institutional network at the disposal of the strikers. There were influential Communist cadres in several of the AFL unions, and the Communist party recruited many new members during the strike, especially among the maritime workers. Darcy estimated that there were perhaps six or eight Communists among the members of the ILA strike committee in San Francisco. The extent of the Party's influence on Harry Bridges was a matter of controversy and litigation for many years. One Communist later remarked that he "enjoyed intimate ties with the Party, usually on his own terms." And even as devout an anti-Communist as John Brophy acknowledged that Bridges "was not one to be captured or used, but had his own ideas and ambitions." Bridges himself readily acknowledged his substantial


agreement with the program and political line of the Party, but denied being a member. In any case, it is symbolic of the significant and open relationship of the Communist party to the strike that during the funeral procession for the martyrs of Bloody Thursday, Darcy and Mrs. Bordoise, wife of slain Communist Nick Bordoise, rode in one car at the head of the line of march, while Bridges and Mother Mooney, whose son Tom was the nation's most famous "class war prisoner," rode in another.[41]

It is clear, if only by inference at times, that the Communist presence in the strike gave it a more disciplined and organized character and a more effective leadership, especially among the longshoremen. But the scope and dynamism of the upheaval far exceeded the ability of the rather insignificant number of Communists to control or direct it. The fact is that the Big Strike was an authentic rank-and-file rebellion that had long been waiting to happen. It drew upon deep wellsprings of discontent that required leadership and direction but did not submit easily to manipulation. There was a spontaneous impulse toward solidarity and discipline that was quite evident in the Battle of Rincon Hill, in the stirring funeral march for Sperry and Bordoise, and in other events where masses of workers flowed together "like cooling lava" in uncanny demonstrations of self-direction and self-discipline that left even their own leadership amazed. This was perhaps clearest in the funeral procession, which Paul Eliel wrongly characterized as "a brilliant and theatric piece of propaganda." For what stands out about this event is the self-discipline and determination that characterized the spontaneous participation of thousands of workers. They, and not its planners, made the event into a living piece of propaganda. Indeed, they made it the general strike in embryo. And they made good on their promise that if no police were present on the streets that day, the workers would maintain a dignified order that the police could only have disrupted. As Sam Darcy recalled in later years, "What was amazing was the organizational job those workers did that day. Every spot was organized along the [route of march], and it all came from the ranks. They worked out the details themselves."[42]

What is more significant than the degree of Communist involvement in the Big Strike is the fact that the constant barrage of Red-baiting made communism an issue among the strikers, or at least forced them to take an increasingly clear stand on the question of Communist participation in the strike. While several unions responded to the anti-Red campaign by issuing statements condemning communism, the growing trend in the ranks was to view Red-baiting as another in the arsenal of weapons that the employers used to divide and conquer the workers.[43]


The issue of communism caused particularly bitter conflict within the AFL seamen's unions, largely because of the presence of the MWIU. From the day they voted to join the strike, the ISU leadership resisted every move to build a united front with the Marine Workers Union. In fact, they suspected that anyone who advocated such unity must be a Red himself. But to the rank-and-file seamen, the issue was not ISU versus MWIU or Americanism versus communism. To them the issue was the maritime strikers versus the shipowners, and the MWIU was, in the eyes of many seamen, a legitimate marine workers' organization that was making a solid contribution to the winning of the strike. As one MWIU picket put it: "Up to this very minute no one has crammed a communist license down my throat nor have I been forced to change my religion or politics. The main issue is the strike; the main point is solidarity and a continuous picket line."[44]

The issue of the united front came to a head in mid-June. On the fourteenth, the ISU walked out of the daily conference of striking maritime unions because the MWIU, with the support of the longshoremen, had been seated at the meeting. The following evening the ISU joint strike committee issued a press statement condemning communism in general and the MWIU in particular. But the stevedores' rejection of the Saturday Agreement sparked a wave of insurgency among the rank and file of the ISU. On the evening of the seventeenth, right after the tumultuous longshore meeting—the "thunder of 'noes'"—in San Francisco, a thousand seamen held a gathering where ISU strike committee chairman Bill Caves delivered a ringing speech condemning the ISU officials for refusing to unite with the MWIU. Sam Telford, a leader of the Marine Workers Union, spoke at the meeting, to a loud welcome, and the evening concluded with cheers for the united front. The next day George Larsen suspended Caves from the strike committee, whereupon his office "was stormed by an angry mob." That evening, in a close vote, the Sailors' Union membership repudiated Larsen's action and restored Caves to his position of leadership. Meanwhile, the Seattle ISU voted unanimously that "there should be no distinction made between MWIU and ISU men" on the picket lines; and a striker from San Pedro reported on the growing fraternization between MWIU members and the rank and file of the ISU on the Southern California waterfront.[45]

In addition to its triumphant moments, the Big Strike had other dimensions and was shaped by other events that threatened to undermine its


splendid achievements. Toward the end of the upheaval, two factors in particular began to corrode the morale that had sustained the strikers through more than two months of bitter conflict. One was the manner in which the general strike ended, leaving the question of whether this massive outpouring of solidarity constituted a triumph for labor, an inconclusive stalemate, or a victory for the employers. The other was the systematic campaign of terrorism by police and vigilantes that accompanied the general strike. To what extent did this campaign represent a division in the ranks of the workers themselves? To what extent did it place militant labor on the defensive and signify a period of repression and retreat? These questions haunted the waterfront as the strike entered its final days.

The campaign of vigilante and police terror began with the general strike, but was preceded by a mounting wave of provocation by the media, the employers, and government officials. For example, on June 21 the Chronicle began an article on American Legion Week with the declaration that "San Francisco trains its guns on communism today!" A few days later the Foc'sle Head reported that "American Legion gangsters are cruising around the streets beating up lone pickets." On the eve of the terror campaign, California Governor Frank Merriam insisted that "a more active and intensified drive to rid this State and nation of alien and radical agitators should be undertaken by the workers themselves if they are to enjoy the confidence of the people." General Hugh Johnson, the mercurial chief of the National Recovery Administration, was even more direct. In a speech at the University of California, he demanded that the "subversive element" in the ranks of labor "must be wiped out. They must be run out like rats."[46]

On July 17, the same day that Johnson placed the imprimatur of the federal government on vigilante terror, there was a massive raid on the Marine Workers Industrial Union hall, the most visible symbol of the Red presence on the waterfront. National Guardsmen with machine guns mounted on trucks cordoned off an entire block. Police then entered the hall, arrested eighty-five people, and systematically destroyed everything in sight. The reign of terror continued for nearly a week and spread to many of the smaller cities and agricultural communities in northern and central California. Newspapers openly applauded the actions of vigilantes who smashed up target after target and left bleeding victims whom the police then arrested for vagrancy. In one instance, a Finnish workers' hall was "reduced to kindling, while the helpless workers watched their thousand-dollar library, their theater with its two grand pianos, all their equipment that spelled years of sacrifice, reduced to rubble." In another


instance an eyewitness reported that "the Workers' Center in Oakland . . . was blood-spattered from wall to wall; the stairways that led to the street was actually slippery with coagulated blood." In San Jose a group of vigilantes—approvingly described by a local newspaper as "armed with bright new pick-handles, their faces grim, eyes shining with steady purpose"—terrorized thirteen suspected Communists and ran them out of the country. The San lose Evening News exulted that "the mongoose of Americanism dragged the cobra of communism through the good Santa Clara Valley orchard dirt last night."[47]

The San Francisco Chronicle claimed that the activity of these "citizen vigilantes" represented a move by "conservative union labor . . . to purge its ranks of Communists." The San Francisco Examiner reported that "police started the raids . . . but were superseded by an infuriated band of men, reported to be union strikers." Most unions, however, vehemently denied any involvement in the terror, and there were carefully documented charges that the police and their anonymous accomplices acted under the direction of the Industrial Association. Mike Quin, a contemporary who in 1936 wrote what remains the best full-length account of the strike, declared that many of the vigilantes were "strikebreakers brought in from Los Angeles by the Industrial Association to run the scab trucks on the waterfront. A lesser number were businessmen, bank managers, and adventurous members of the industrialists' white-collar staffs." Lorena Hickok, a representative of the Roosevelt administration who was in California at the time, was told that most of the vigilantes were American Legionnaires. But it is probable that the vast majority of the raiders were policemen. Robert Cantwell of the New Republic reported that the raids were badly stage-managed, since the so-called "workers looked very much like police dressed like workers"; and Communist leader Sam Darcy, who had good reason to inquire, recalled, "We establish beyond question that policemen were being dressed as longshoremen to carry through the vigilante raids."[48]

Significantly, the "vigilant citizens" generally steered clear of the waterfront. With the exception of the raid on the MWIU hall and a brief episode at the ILA soup kitchen, the police and their accomplices avoided frontal assaults on the maritime strikers, their leaders, and their various headquarters. Sam Darcy maintained that in spite of the arrest of many Communist party members (more than three hundred alleged Communists were arrested in one day), "those of our comrades who were on the front line trenches of the maritime and general strikes hardly suffered at all as a result of the terror, because they were, so to speak, 'hidden' among


the masses and [had] the confidence and support of large numbers of workers."[49]

The police-vigilante campaign was, nonetheless, ominous. But it is possible that the manner in which the general strike ended was even more destructive of morale on the waterfront. For more than a month before it began, the maritime workers had regarded this consummate act of labor solidarity as their ultimate weapon and had believed that it would force the employers to meet their basic demands. Hence, when it ended inconclusively, accompanied by banner headlines that shouted "General Strike Crushed by Determined Citizens" and "Bridges Admits Failure of Plot to Starve City into Defeat," the strikers inevitably fell prey to a certain amount of confusion and demoralization.[50]

The general strike was not a Red plot to starve the city into submission. Rather, it was the culmination of a massive outpouring of solidarity from within the ranks of labor. It had gained its initial momentum from the growing united front of longshoremen, seafarers, and teamsters, and had been fed by the intransigence of the employers and the violence of the police. In the wake of Bloody Thursday, and the military occupation of the waterfront, the solemn, massive funeral march in which labor paid tribute to its fallen comrades made the general strike a virtual certainty.[51]

Contrary to the Chronicle' s exultant headline, the "determined citizens" of San Francisco did not "crush" the general strike. Even the widespread and officially condoned vigilante activity did not bring about its demise. When the strike ended, many businessmen and public officials regarded Hearst general counsel John Francis Neylan as man of the hour. Neylan was chief guardian of William Randolph Hearst's interests on the West Coast, and he orchestrated the newspaper campaign that drowned the general strike in a sea of hostile—and largely false—propaganda. In a private letter, Neyland expressed the opinion that "I have been given entirely too much credit. . . . The plain truth is, the whole community is deeply indebted to the reputable labor leaders." Without their "courageous and intelligent action," he wrote, "we would have been faced with an extremely complicated situation, leading to bloodshed and the spread of the general strike idea to other communities."[52]

When the longshoremen and their allies first raised the idea of a general strike, most of San Francisco's established labor leaders regarded it as a "radical menace." They continued their opposition until the momentum of events threatened to overwhelm them. As Secretary of Labor Perkins informed President Roosevelt, "The conservative leaders of all of the San Francisco unions urged against the general strike. They were overwhelmingly


outvoted by the rank and file members who were emotionally very much stirred by the situation." In the case of the teamsters, Mike Casey acknowledged that "nothing on earth could have prevented that vote. In my thirty years of leading these men, I have never seem them so worked up, so determined to walk out."

At the crucial moment, however, the labor leaders showed enough political sense to change direction and seize control of a movement they could no longer thwart. As one union official confided to a friend, "It was an avalanche. I saw it coming so I ran ahead before it crushed me." The top AFL officials simply designated themselves leaders of the Labor Council's strike strategy committee and then used all of their institutional power to maneuver the strike movement to serve their own purposes. The key figure in this regard was George Kidwell of the Teamsters, a man with a reputation for liberalism, pragmatism, and keen intelligence. Once he recognized the inevitability of a general walkout, Kidwell concluded that it could be the instrument for taking the entire strike situation in San Francisco out of the volatile and stubborn hands of the maritime workers. He developed a twofold agenda: first, to force both the employers and the marine unions to accept arbitration; and second, to turn an avalanche of class feeling into an orderly and limited expression of sympathy. Thus, from the beginning of the general strike, Kidwell and the other members of the strategy committee sought to defuse the potential for open class warfare and to bring the drama to a rapid, orderly conclusion. On the third day, a Sailors' Union spokesman complained that "our General Strike seems to be dissolving under our feet. . . . The strike is now being run by other Unions, and the conservatives, having all the voting power, seem to be attempting to force us back to work immediately." After four days, by a surprisingly close vote of 191 to 174, the Labor Council delegates terminated the general strike.[53]

San Francisco Mayor Angelo Rossi danced around his office for joy at the news and declared, "I congratulate the real leaders of organized labor on their decision." ILA President Ryan in turn congratulated Rossi "as one good pal to another." In Sacramento, Governor Merriam gave thanks that "the sane, intelligent, right-thinking leadership in the labor organizations has prevailed over the rash counsel of communistic and radical agitators." But the maritime workers were in no mood to celebrate. For them all that remained was the uneasy feeling that their ultimate weapon had never been fully tested and the gratuitous recommendation of the Central Labor Council that they accept the arbitration they had been rejecting all along.[54]


The premature and inconclusive termination of the general strike left the maritime workers in a difficult position. After nearly two and a half months on strike, literally thousands of arrests, at least six deaths, and hundreds of serious injuries, the men and their families were still holding the line. But their allies were gradually cutting the ties of solidarity that had been the strike's lifeblood. When the teamsters voted to return to work unconditionally, the maritime strikers were once again on their own. Paul Taylor, a scholar whose work combined objectivity with strong sympathy for agricultural and marine workers in California, sat in the ILA hall with a number of longshore strike leaders as they anxiously awaited the outcome of the teamsters' vote. "The big shabby room was depressing," Taylor reported, "and the three [or] four men sitting around were depressed. Ralph Mallen the head of the Publicity committee sat by the phone. He looked tired and beaten. In the three months he had aged years. . . . There was no confidence now, only silence and painful waiting." Although they stated that they felt "more strengthened . . . today than at any time during the entire maritime strike," their strategic alternatives were now severely limited and their morale was being tested as never before.[55]

In these circumstances, the employers' long-standing offer of arbitration to the longshoremen began to appear more palatable. The men had maintained that they would never arbitrate the hiring hall issue and that they would not return to work until the seamen's grievances were resolved. But when in the immediate aftermath of the general strike the National Longshoremen's Board conducted a coastwide ballot on the question of submitting the stevedores' dispute to arbitration, 6,504 longshoremen voted yes and only 1,515 voted no. Even in the storm center of San Francisco, the yes ballots carried by a three to one margin. Only the lumber port of Everett, Washington, rejected arbitration, by the margin of a single vote.

The longshoremen's decision to accept arbitration left the seamen in the lurch and jeopardized the magnificent unity that the marine workers had forged during the strike. Following the stevedores' vote, there was a growing rumble of bitterness among the seamen. Long-standing craft antagonisms that had been swept aside in a matter of days now threatened to reappear and to engulf the maritime strikers in "all the muck of ages" once again.[56]

Matters seemed ready to come to a head on July 29, the eighty-second day of the strike, at a packed meeting in the Sailors' Union hall in San Francisco. A parade of officials came before the angry seamen and tried to explain why the vanguard body of the strikers seemed to be abandoning


their more vulnerable comrades to an uncertain fate. In this procession two men stood out as a vivid symbols of the different realities, programs, and outlooks that had been part of the seamen's experience and that confronted them with alternative choices now. One of these men was Harry Bridges; the other, Andrew Furuseth. Bridges had emerged as the strike's leading spokesman; he was a powerful force among longshoremen and seamen. But on this day, in these circumstances of reemerging craft jealousies, it appeared that Old Andy might well have the last word.

Furuseth, the grizzled eminence of the seafaring world, appeared almost ghostlike with his gaunt countenance and shock of white hair. In spite of numerous eccentricities, he remained a quintessential representative of traditional AFL unionism. The seamen of this generation knew him more as a legend than as a real person. But some of them were no doubt aware that he had favored arbitration and opposed the general strike movement, along with his friends in the top echelon of the San Francisco Labor Council. Although these conservative officials were widely regarded as sell-outs and fakers, many sailors retained a large measure of respect for "the Old Man of the Sea." Only a few days earlier, in San Pedro, he had addressed a mass meeting of eight to nine hundred seamen, and one official reported that "when Andrew got through you could hear the cheers from here to Los Angeles. . . . man after man came forward and shook Andrew by the hand."[57]

At this moment, perhaps the crucial contrast between Bridges and Furuseth lay in their differing attitudes toward craft unionism. Furuseth had staked his entire career on keeping the seamen free of entangling alliances, and his bitterest battles had been with the longshoremen. Bridges, on the other hand, had been a leading adherent of broad maritime unity throughout the strike, and along with the Waterfront Worker he had strongly opposed the longshoremen's decision to accept arbitration. He remained one of the most forceful spokesmen in favor of a Pacific Coast marine federation that would embrace not only the maritime crafts, but teamsters, machinists, scalers, and all other workers whose labor brought them into contract with ships and cargo.

After more than three decades of craft separation, the militants' dream of maritime unity had emerged as a powerful reality during the strike. But now that the longshoremen had in effect voted to abandon the seamen, the specter of long-standing craft antagonisms reappeared. The stevedores, the largest and strongest of the maritime crafts, had firm assurances that they would receive a serious hearing before the presidentially appointed arbitration board. What was more important, they had displayed the kind of


muscle that would compel significant concessions from the arbitrators. But the seafarers were divided into more than half a dozen organizations; they had only recently received the promise that their demands would be arbitrated; and the terms of their dispute with the shipowners lacked the clear and sharp visibility that had characterized the conflict between longshoremen and employers from the very beginning. In short, the seamen were widely regarded as a mere auxiliary to the main event. As one of their numbers put it, with bitter frustration, "We had nothing to say because it was well known all over that the longshoremen's strike was going on, but who ever heard of a seamen's strike!"[58]

This was the scenario as Bridges faced the sailors' union meeting. Characteristically, he came right to the point. "I think the longshoreman is ready to break tomorrow," he told the seamen. "They have had enough of it. They have their families to support. They are discouraged by the teamsters' going back to work. They didn't get enough support from the [central labor] council. Up to this minute, as far as I know, there may have been about twelve desertions. But . . . it doesn't take many men. A hundred or two would do the trick. . . . In this case unless you stick 100% the majority doesn't count."

Would the seamen stand their increasingly isolated ground and then accuse the longshoremen of scabbing because a hundred or two stevedores were about to break ranks and compel a retreat? "It will be terrible," said Bridges, "if we go back tomorrow and the sailors stay out." The only answer? "We must go back together and on good terms. If the longshoremen go back and the sailors stay out that will break the unity of the whole thing. That is the best thing we have in our hands. Unity!"

Bridges recognized that recent events had put the maritime workers on the defensive. "The shipowners have got us backed up," he said, "and we are trying to back up step by step . . . instead of turning around and running." Without apologizing or pandering, he acknowledged that the seamen had good reason to be angry about the stevedores' unilateral decision. "I don't know how you fellows are going to take this," he said. "It's going to be a tough pill to swallow." After a final plea for unity, even in retreat, Bridges yielded the floor to Andrew Furuseth.[59]

Old Andy, a veteran of nearly fifty years of maritime unionism, undoubtedly had never heard of Harry Bridges prior to the 1934 strike. But in spite of Bridges's courage and forthrightness, the ISU president could hardly have held him in high regard. For Bridges represented two things that Furuseth despised: longshoremen and radicalism. Now that the dock-workers had voted to go their own way, Furuseth saw an opportunity to


pursue the course he had been following for decades. In a rambling speech that was vintage Furuseth, he quoted scripture—"How often shall we forgive an erring brother?"—and forgave the "erring" seamen for quitting the ISU after the collapse of the 1921 strike. He exclaimed that the moment had arrived to restore the integrity and power of the legislation for which he had campaigned endlessly. How? By embracing the ISU and its leadership, by refusing to cooperate with the rink halls—the employer-controlled hiring halls—that had been the most vivid symbols of the ISU's impotence, and by trusting in the goodwill of the government. "This is a federal question," he said. "The government is for us. The government feeds the men in San Pedro. They will feed them here if it becomes necessary." He passed along the personal assurances of NRA chief Johnson that "as soon as the general strike was out of the way and . . . the soldiers were out of San Francisco, . . . he himself would fight like a tiger for the seamen."

Furuseth then referred briefly to the long series of jurisdictional and tactical disputes that had characterized relations between seamen and dockworkers. He implied that the longshoremen's vote to return to work was an act of "damned cowardice," but emphasized that "they have acted as a trade union has got a right to act." Their decision "leaves the longshoremen free to act for themselves and us to act for ourselves. It leaves us to our own affairs."[60]

Here was the nub of the matter. The ILA's action had created exactly the opening that Furuseth wanted, namely, to disengage the seamen from the longshoremen and to break up the intercraft unity that he viewed with such alarm and distrust. Soon after the longshoremen's courageous rejection of the Saturday Agreement because it failed to resolve the seamen's grievances, Furuseth had arrived in San Francisco and stated to the press: "Something's got to be done quickly to get [the seamen] back on their ships. While they're in port right now they must vote on submitting their differences to arbitration." He made this plea at a time when maritime unity had reached unprecedented heights. Now, however, in the wake of Bloody Thursday, the military occupation of the waterfront, and the conservatives' successful move to end the general strike, the longshoremen were somehow guilty of "damned cowardice" when they voted to follow the same course that Old Andy had recommended for the seamen a month earlier.[61]

On any other day the seamen might well have alternated between shouts of outrage and chuckles of irreverent amusement at much of Furuseth's speech. He asked them to trust a government whose support


of the shipowners and disregard of their own most basic needs was one of the most obvious, and painful, facts of seafaring life. His reference to General Johnson's concern for the seamen must have sounded hollow at best at a time when the NRA administrator's bitter denunciation of the general strike as "bloody insurrection" and "a menace to government" was still ringing in their ears. Moreover, Old Andy's gesture of forgiving the seamen for abandoning the ISU could hardly have invoked a sentiment of gratitude among men who had left the union because they had long regarded it as impotent or worse. The maritime strike had created the opportunity, and the necessity, to reshape the moribund ISU into a real weapon in the hands of the seamen. But they had spontaneously walked off the ships, or had followed the MWIU's lead, and the ISU had belatedly joined them on the picket lines. Finally, Furuseth's denunciation of the longshoremen for their "damned cowardice" would ordinarily have been regarded as a vile slander upon courageous comrades who had paid a high price, including the death of at least four ILA members, for their determination to bring a new era to the waterfront.[62]

But on this day there was widespread confusion and a growing sense of betrayal. Old craft jealousies and antagonisms were plainly evident in remarks that the stevedores were about to "crawl back" to work, and that "we will win where the longshoremen couldn't." Moreover, Furuseth carried the hour not only by feeding the fires of negativism but also by concluding with a masterful appeal to the seamen's militancy and anger. The old man who only a few days ago had seemed to merit the mantle of ridicule implicit in the nicknames Andy the Weeping Willow, Andy Feroshus, and Andy Forsake-us now came forward with a proposal for what was to be the strike's final moment of symbolism. He suggested an act of defiance that "will go like fire" and "wake up everybody." "What do you think my proposition is? It is horrible and yet it is the most beautiful you can ever think of. . . . We are going to build a fire. Alongside of that fire we will have a can of petroleum and each man who has got a rink hall book will come along there and he will dip it into that petroleum and throw it on the fire. . . . The newspapers will know about it. The associated press will know all about it. The pictures will be shown on screens all across the country."[63]

With one stroke, Furuseth captured the seamen's imaginations, rescued them from their apparent obscurity, and seized the initiative from the longshoremen and Bridges. The meeting adjourned after a unanimous yes to the question "Are you willing to stay as you are absolutely until the International Seamen's Union orders you back to work?" Furuseth, who


during the height of the strike had sought to persuade the seamen to go back to work alone, now seemed in no hurry to return to the ships. The unifying thread in the old man's apparently puzzling course was his obsessive determination to separate the seamen from entangling alliances with other crafts in general and longshoremen in particular. For the moment, Old Andy had indeed had the last word.[64]

The next day seamen in San Francisco gathered in a vacant lot near the Sailors' Union hall, built a huge bonfire, and joyously burned the hated rink books. The press reported that Furuseth "insisted on attending the ceremony, but his frail condition, due to a recent illness," kept him from taking an active part. While he watched the ritual from a nearby embankment, "solicitous [union] members brought him glasses of water."[65]

On July 31, however, the necessity imposed by the stevedores' decision caught up with the seamen. Fortified by the ritual of consigning the rink hall to a fiery grave, and by several conciliatory gestures from the shipowners, the seafarers joined the longshoremen in returning to work. After eighty-three days, the Big Strike was over.

previous chapter
8 The Big Strike
next sub-section