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The 1934 West Coast Waterfront Strike

        There has been no other strike quite like the 1934 waterfront strike.  The workers knew the battle could only be won through sheer determination.  They endured riots, fights, and accusations on both sides.  Nevertheless, the strike eventually ended in what could be considered an ambiguous victory for nearly all Pacific Coast waterfront workers.  The strike had swept up and down the West Coast during the summer of 1934 as the picketers participated in an extensive walkout.  Thousands of people strolled off their jobs in order to get the attention of the Pacific Coast shippers.  The strikers wanted to reduce the work week from forty eight hours a week to a mere thirty.  Furthermore, the strikers wanted to have their pay increased from $0.85 an hour to $1.00 an hour with $1.50 for overtime.  Most importantly, the strikers wanted to secure a closed union shop.[1]  Although the tale of the 1934 strike is fascinating in and of itself, the story also holds some interesting implications about American society in that time. Through a look at the events of 1934, historians will find that there are many examples that indicated that the workers that participated in the strike had more in mind than just their own personal benefit. One could argue that the workers, in effect, wanted to change society in order to lessen the social tensions that made such a strike possible.  This scenario seems to make the most sense, but still, the workers never invoked a social revolution that could ease their tensions.  Whether or not the strikers were revolutionary (apparently they were not), the strikers still had to fight off accusations of communism.  Through a study of the eventful 1934 waterfront strike one will see that although the strikers appeared to want non-revolutionary social change, many of them were charged with being communist, something which stirred up the associated negative discourse enveloping communist ideology in America.  This worked greatly to hinder their ability to essentially win the strike and enact their desired change.

            The start of the strike played out like an interesting narrative suitable for a television drama.  Mediators tried, to no avail, to prevent the strike.  Judge C.A. Reynolds and Dr. J.L. Leonard, members of President Roosevelt’s mediation committee, worked through the night in attempt to come to some sort of agreement.  In San Francisco, however, the headquarters of International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) declared that nothing could prevent the strike unless all of their demands, including the closed union shop, were met.[2]   The shippers, in response, argued that the strike would squarely be the fault of the stevedores.[3]  In return, workers walked off the job on May 9th 1934 to start what would become an eighty-three-day drama that enveloped the whole west cost.[4]  In Portland Oragon, despite the threat of permanently losing their jobs, 1,100 to 1,500 worker stayed off the docks. Up and down the coast the waterfront workers acted similarly.  In addition, teamsters, acting with sympathy for the strikers, refused to handle any cargo that was destined to be loaded or had been unloaded by scabs.  In response, policemen along the waterfront went on strike patrol, giving up their holidays and vacations in order to help protect the shipping interests.[5]  As the strikers gained in number the shippers declared that they were not even given a full day to reply to the workers’ demands.  Still, the shippers claimed that even though cargo was to be delayed the first few days, they anticipated the work to proceed as normal. Moreover, the shippers expected peaceful picketing and did not request any additional guards.[6]  

            In order to keep the docks open the shippers depended on the use of strike breakers.  In San Francisco, even before the official start of the strike, shippers had retrofitted two ships to use for the housing and protection of the strike breakers.  To help bring in people who were willing to work while the longshoremen were on strike, the shippers opened up major recruiting centers and promised the scabs protection.   The nervous strike breakers worked under the promise of police protection, which they used even though they did not have to cross the picket lines.  If the workers did find a need to cross the picket line, they were transported in an armored car to take them across.[7] Additionally, the shippers did not require previous experience and paid the strike breakers upwards of $90.00 per week; substantial pay for the time.  A variety of men, under these circumstances, responded to the shippers’ calls.  There were sales men, college students, clerks, and family men and many of them had never worked a day on the docks in their lives.  Nevertheless, many of the experienced workers that had not joined the strike found themselves amazed as the strike breakers quickly learned the skills that they needed in order to do their jobs.[8]

            Although the strike breakers worked diligently, the picketers did not remain peaceful as the shippers had early anticipated. In San Francisco authorities had to close the port on May 9th because they were unable to provide adequate protection for the strike breakers.  Furthermore, police had to search the piers’ utility sheds after the threat of bombings became apparent. Someone had stolen 1,500 of dynamite from the Hercules Powder Company in San Francisco. [9]  Later reports indicated that the dynamite was moved to San Pedro in order to threaten shippers in the south.[10] To make matters worse for the shippers, strikers armed with rocks and baseball bats patrolled up and down the piers. By July 20th reporters claimed that up to 195 strike breakers and bystanders were beaten by the angry strikers.[11]  One police captain of the San Francisco Harbor District claimed that “the strikers became a howling mob. They began to surround the police cars and tried to drag the inspectors out. From then on it was a case of everybody for himself.”[12] In Seattle, where a less aggressive ILA leadership let the shippers continue operating the port, other officials took matters into their own hands.[13]  Strike officials flew in six hundred men from Tacoma Washington where they met hundreds more men from Everett Washington.  These men, along with as many militant strikers from Seattle as could be found, made themselves into a two thousand man army.  The strikers, with their violent tactics, were able to break through the police guard and effectively halt all shipment going in and coming out of the Pacific Northwest.[14]

In reaction to the strikers’ militant tactics, police and security guards viciously fought back. The authorities, both local and state, decided that they were not going to stand around and let the strikers disrupt all of the nation’s needed West Coast cargo flow.  The San Francisco police department had in its possession thousands of dollars worth of tear gas and other non-lethal equipment that they were more than wiling to use against the strikers.  One spout of violence was described by an affiliate of the San Francisco Chronicle as similar to a war zone.  He described explosions of tear gas, the sounds of firearms including sawed-off-shotguns being fired, and the sight of heads being smashed in by clubs.  Even if a striker was able to drag a police man off his horse, he regularly found that it was not long before he was brought down by the police and soundly beat into submission.[15]   In one case a security guard fatally shot a 20-year-old striker by the name of Richard J. Parker as the authorities tried to stop an upsurge of striker violence.

The hostility between strikers and authorities peeked during a few days of aggression in San Francisco when the mayor declared that he was going to reopen the ports. On Monday July 2nd San Francisco Mayor Rossi told his city that the next day he was going to force trucks past the picket line in order to start the movement of cargo that the teamsters, who had earlier refused to work against the longshoremen’s strike, had been refusing to move.  The plan was to use old trucks with police escorts to drive the cargo past the picketers.  On Tuesday, July 3rd Rossi ordered the trucks to start moving.  At first appearance there were still high hopes that the mayor’s strategy would indeed work well, but it was not long before the strikers gathered to stop the trucks.  Although the mayor issued widespread warnings that the waterfront should be avoided, many people seemed to ignore them.   By the time that the drivers were ready to get the trucks moving, a massive crowd had gathered outside the trucks’ holds on Pier 38.[16]  The strikers had come to stop the trucks from moving and nothing short of a battle ensued.  One reporter, describing the scene, claimed that gas “bombs were hurled, shots were fired, automobiles and trucks overturned, produce scattered, fire hoses brought into play, heads were cracked, rocks thrown, [and] blood flowed.”[17]  According to another witness, “seven policemen, at least fifteen strikers, a truck driver, and several bystanders…” were injured during the rioting.[18]  Although the day had ended up a fiasco for the mayor, Rossi said that he would not ask California Governor Frank Merriam for the use of the National Guard.[19]  On Wednesday, July 4th the strike-breaking truck drivers that Rossi used to open the docks had the day off.  The lack of work lead to a day of peace; the proverbial calm before the storm.

The next day proved to be the most violent day of the strike and would be remembered as Bloody Thursday.  On the morning of the 5th a large number of trucks with a beefed up police escort containing, as one witness described, “mounties, motorcycles, and just plain flatfoots’ with extra long nightsticks dangling from their belts” got ready to move cargo from the docks.[20]  Shortly after the trucks started moving a police car rolled up containing a police captain.  As the captain got out he apparently screamed an order to the affect of “let them have it”, after which the police opened up with their tear gas and various other methods of repelling the strikers. The strikers, along with anyone else that had found themselves unlucky enough to be present, were given hell.[21] 

The violence that erupted would later be remembered by some World War II veterans in the same light that they would remember the war.  Joe Rosenthal, a World War II veteran who became renowned after his photo of marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima, makes a great example.  As he tried to take photos of the rioting he got caught up in the fighting.  As Rosenthal latter told Charles Larrowe, the biographer of one of the strike leaders, “he was stoned by the strikers, tear gassed by police, and beaten so badly that he was hospitalized for a week.”  Needless to say, he was one of the many witnesses that did not have fond memories of that day.[22]

The Bloody Thursday battle was brutal and lead to many casualties.  Thousands upon thousands of strikers and strike sympathizers armed with stones fought against thousands of police who were armed with teargas, clubs and revolvers.  As the fighting came to an end, a list of casualties was circulated.  Many men had been shot, while others had escaped, though often with fractured skulls or broken bones.[23] Finally, 3 men died; the police shot and killed two men while still another died of severe beatings.  

In order to end the chaotic rioting Governor Merriam eventually called in the National Guard.  Merriam apparently issued the order at 3:05 p.m. with an outcome of 1780 officers and men arriving on the San Francisco waterfront by 3:30 pm.  The governor ordered the National Guard to remain on state property unless they feared their lives were in danger.  The guardsmen were also ordered to pursue any problematic strikers even if they left government property.[24]  By July 6th the National Guardsmen were firmly planted on the waterfront.  They had their machine guns pointed out at the remaining strikers and were, in essence, able to protect the strike breakers that managed to remain working on the piers.[25]    

In response to the violence of Bloody Thursday sympathy for the strikers increased throughout much of the San Francisco working class. San Francisco’s proletariat was angry about what historian David F. Selvin calls in his book, A Terrible Anger, the “indiscriminate shooting down of strikers and innocent bystanders.”[26]  To further stress the situation, the authorities were not letting the strikers properly mourn the loss of their two gunned-down comrades, Howard S. Sperry, a longshoreman, and Nick Counderakis, a cook.  Every time that that the strikers set up a make shift memorial where the two men died, the police tore it down.  The police appeared to be under the impression that the deaths of the two strikers would be turned into martyrs symbolizing the hardships of the strikers.  Basically, the authorities were right. The strikers diligently set up the memorial time and time again.  By the time that the dead men were ready to be buried on July 9th a massive crowd had gathered to form a funeral procession. An estimated 50,000 men marched down the streets of San Francisco.[27] The strikers felt that something had to be done and figured that the situation was then ripe for the general walkout that brought San Francisco to a halt for several days.

San Francisco’s general walkout effectively shut down the whole city for four days.  Labor union after labor union decided to go on strike either in sympathy with the longshoremen or for their own reasons.[28]  On July 8th, for example, the teamsters voted 1220 to 271 in favor of the city-wide walkout.  The vote occurred only after it was clear that at least fifteen other unions were ready to strike as well. The longshoremen urged all workers to strike under the pretense that victory was near.[29] Most of the conservative labor leaders believed that the strike would not benefit their organizations and pushed for the rejection of the idea.  The rank and file members, though, disagreed and overwhelmingly voted for the general walkout.  When it came down to it, the labor leaders realized they were unable to prevent the strike and decided to join their rank and file workers.[30] July 12th marked the real start of the general strike.  It was not long before the people of San Francisco realized that they were running out of food and other essential supplies.  The striking teamsters were not heartless, however, and did allow for the reopening of a limited amount of services to feed the people.  For the most part the people that were able to afford to leave San Francisco left.  The city had become a wreck.[31]

Eventually the tide turned in favor of the business interests.  The conservative labor leaders saw the city-wide strike as a tool to be used in order to take the initiative away from the stubborn dock workers.  A general strike committee was formed to try and control the massive walk out.  The committee contained representatives from many of the major labor unions.  Slowly but surely the committee members started to loose faith in the strike and started voting to pull out.  To Mayor Rossi’s delight, on July 20th the strike committee voted 191 to 174 to end the city-wide strike.  The dock workers, who had come to rely on the rest of San Francisco’s workers for support, once again found that they were on strike alone.  Having lost the support of San Francisco, it became time for the longshoremen to go back to work.[32]

The strikers ultimately decided the time had come to arbitrate with the shippers.  Although the issue of running a closed shop had long been regarded by the strikers as non-negotiable, the events of the general strike seemed to, in effect, change their minds.  The National Longshoremen’s Board conducted a coast-wide vote that resulted in 6,505 votes for, and only 1,515 votes against the arbitration of closed union shops.  The men, essentially, wanted to go back to work.  Furthermore, the votes to arbitrate the union shop issue lead to a division among the trades.  The seamen became bitter that the stevedores were willing to give up.[33] Craft rivalries that had been long standing started to resurface as the coalition of dock workers started to collapse.[34] 

Journalists finally announced that on July 30th the strikers would be heading back to work, although the strikers did not officially start work until July 31st.  Worries that the shippers were going to discriminate against the striking workers left the strikers in a state of doubt, but the strike leaders promised that there would be arbitration to help alleviate such fears.[35] Tensions nevertheless remained high. In Portland, Oregon the authorities promised that whether or not the disagreement had been arbitrated the Portland waterfront would be opened.[36] The agreement that was finally reached appeared to be acceptable to both sides.  A reporter from The Los Angeles Times stated that under “the agreement, employers agreed to discharge immediately all workers that had been hired since the strike had begun, show no discrimination because of union or strike activities, and permit I.L.A. observers in the halls, as well as government supervisors, pending arbitration.”[37] The strikers, of course, had to vote on the agreement, but it won the strikers approval.  Finally, after eight-three days, the strike ended.[38]

Although they were unsuccessful in their efforts, negotiators early on worked hard to bring the strike to an end without violence.  They feared, and their fears were later proven to be justified, that if the strike was not ended quickly it would become drawn out and increasingly more difficult to resolve.  Although an earlier agreement between the leaders of the ILA and the Waterfront Employers’ Union (WEU) had prevented the strike from beginning on March 23rd, the negotiators did not truly solve the problems at hand. The WEU argued the agreement was final, although the ILA opposed this view. Harry Bridges, chairman of the strike committee of the ILA, claimed they did not come upon a real agreement, but instead a “truce made until such time as [they] could decide on something final.”[39]  To the misfortune of both sides, the negotiators were not able to come to anything final. The ILA and WEU did not get over the issues regarding the hiring halls.  Strikers wanted to have union controlled hiring halls, but the WEU leaders claimed that this demand was unacceptable.  To make matters worse, both sides argued that according the Roosevelt’s National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA).[40]     

The NIRA led to much disagreement between the negotiators.  President Roosevelt had succeeded in the passing of the NIRA in June of 1933 as a tool to help alleviate some of the hardships caused by the depression.  Section 7a of the act provided the legal right for employees “to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.”[41]  Under this provision, the unions were able to claim that they had the right to exist and the right to demand closed shops.  The WEU, on the other hand, claimed that the recovery act outlawed closed shops.  The ILA could only retort that the WEU supported closed shops when they were being run by the Blue Book union, a union that was controlled by the employers.[42]

 To seemingly complicate matters more, the strike leadership had its own disagreements. Harry Bridges, the strike leader, and Joseph Ryan, the president of the ILA, developed a relationship that appeared to be strongly marked by mutual animosity.  Ryan had been secretly working with the WEU to bring an end to the strike.  On June 16th Ryan and T. G. Plant, a representative of the Employers’ Union, signed an agreement that they thought would accomplish both their goals.  Ryan, who thought that he had the support of the rank and file strikers, was shortly proven wrong.  He had been unable to obtain the closed shop that the strikers had so desperately desired.  Upon the signing, nevertheless, Mayor Rossi of San Francisco informed the newspapers that an agreement had been reached.  Excitement spread up and down the coast as the public grew to believe that the strike was going to end. All that needed to happen was for the strikers to vote on the agreement.  Bridges did not approve of the agreement, however, and told Ryan that he had no power to force any sort of settlement on the strikers.  Bridges was adamant that the strike would not end until two thirds of the strikers voted to end it and was further confident that the strikers would not agree on Ryan’s and Plant’s settlement.  To Ryan’s dismay, Bridges was correct in his assessment.  When the agreement was brought to a vote, the strikers “emphatically” refused to accept it. Ryan, when he arrived at the meeting, was greeted by boos and shouts of disapproval while Bridges challenged his secret meetings and the fact that he had not consulted the strikers.  Ryan, who was hard pressed to gain the strikers support after that fiasco, eventually give up trying to act on behalf of the strikers.[43]

Harry Bridges was eventually able to replace Joe Ryan as the head of, and spokesman for, the strikers.  Ryan had never held too much influence over the West Coast, as he was centered in the East himself.  By the time the general strike had ended in San Francisco, Ryan, apparently bitter toward the strikers, personally congratulated Mayor Rossi.[44]  Bridges, on the other hand, had proven himself a hard worker and a trustworthy man. After the derailed June 16th agreement it had become apparent to the employers that Bridges was the man in charge of the strikers.  As the failed agreement had pushed a further wedge between the employers and the employees, the employers became desperate for an end to the strike.  They got together a bribe of $50,000 dollars in order to pay off Bridges and have him call an end to the strike.  For a short while, Bridges later admitted, he thought about taking the money and donating it to the strike fund, but knew if he did that he would be killed and the union would die with him.  Instead, Bridges refused the bribe only to have his popularity among the strikers further increase.  The strikers apparently took the stance that any one who was willing to give up $50,000 dollars for the cause was a man that was worth standing behind.[45]

Although Bridges had proven himself a capable leader, he nevertheless had many known ties to communism.  He had claimed himself that he was a Marxist, something bourn out by the details of his life.[46]  At the age of fifteen Bridges decided that he was going to be a sailor and it was not long before he first came into contact with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), otherwise known as the Wobblies.  They instilled in him their communist motto of “an injury to one is an injury to all.”  By the time that Bridges was just 16 he had participated in a general strike, and it was not long after this that Bridges had attempted to read Marx’s Capital.[47] By the time that Bridges had reached the age of 20 he had moved from his home in Australia to find himself working in the United States.  He had found work on the waterfront and, once again, it was not long before Bridges became associated the IWW. Soon after his move Bridges had obtained his own IWW membership card.[48]  Bridges, in overall disagreement with the goals of the Wobblies, eventually left the IWW, but never gave up his leftist views.[49] Bridges was never proven to be a member of the Communist Party, although he allegedly had close ties with, and even influence over, the leaders of the party.[50]  One labor reporter by the name of Richard Neuberger wrote that Bridges “epitomized labor revolt and extremism.”[51]  Furthermore, it has been argued that Harry Bridges remained far more to the left than any other labor leader able to reach equal status as a labor leader.[52]

Harry Bridges was not the only one to be accused of having communist tendencies.  Indeed, much of the strike was, and many of the strikers were, linked with the anathematic political doctrine as well.  Newspaper editors, for example, were quick to connect the events of the strike with the actions of communists.  In the majority of the articles the writers point out that the actions taken by the strikers were egged on by the communists.  One journalist, for example, wrote that during one day of picketing “the International Longshoreman’s Association admitted that communists [were] exerting efforts to incite striking members to violence.”[53]  One reporter even went as far as to claim that the “communists, so far as the longshoremen’s strike is concerned, control the situation.”[54] Many of the shippers, as well as government officials, also linked the strikers with communists.  Business interests along with Mayor Rossi and the San Francisco chief of police adamantly claimed that the communists were major players in the strike.[55]

The link with communism became a tool for the business interests and authorities to insist that the strike was against American interests.  The San Francisco authorities, for example, claimed that the “San Francisco waterfront strike is out of hand.  It is no longer a conflict between employers and employees- between capital and labor- it is a conflict which is rapidly spreading between American principles and un-American radicalism.”[56]  In this political climate if one was a socialist and adhered to the beliefs of the Communist Party it became understood that s/he was not a real American.  By the time that the general strike had swept through San Francisco a supporter of communism had ostensibly become a number one enemy.  Seeing that all of the violence that occurred was attributed to the influence of communists, whether or not the communists were actually involved, it becomes clear why the journalists wrote that the strikers were acting in an un-American fashion.  Furthermore, if one keeps in mind the turbulent communist revolution that had all too recently swept through Russia and removed one of America’s needed allies during World War I, it becomes apparent why many Americans would not have been too friendly to the idea of communists successfully operating in the United States.

Additionally, the strike was problematic with regards to the Americas work ethic.  America, like much of the rest of the world at the time, suffered from a long lasting and wide spread economic depression.  Countless workers desperately searched for jobs only to find that there was no work to be done.  Men, who were expected to amply provide for their wives and children, could not in many cases secure enough income to keep their families fed.  The Pacific coast was exceptional in that there was work--lots of work.  In a country that was hungry for jobs there was indeed a place that was hungry for workers.  The men qualified for the jobs, however, refused to do the work.  The men willing to do the work were stopped by the ones that had refused to do it.  In essence, the way that many Americas saw the situation was that the strikers were refusing to let desperately needed work get done.  

 Many more Americans further objected to the fact that the strikers benefited from public “strike relief” funds.  In one columnist’s views, “a man who may work and won’t work is not only not entitled to public charity, but is potentially a public enemy.”[57] The strikers in this sense were not in line with the needs and desires of many of America’s working class.  If it were taken for granted that a true American would not refuse to do good work when it is offered to him, the logical explanation of the situation became that the communists ran the strike, and the strikers were not genuine Americans.

Acting upon the hysteria caused by the perceived communist involvement in the strike, authorities raided known communist headquarters.  Groups of men showed up to the San Francisco communist headquarters and broke in.  Once inside they proceeded to destroy everything. According to Selvin in his essay “An Exercise in Hysteria,” the raiding posse “captured an ‘arsenal’ of razors axes, knives, clubs, along with piles of ‘inflammatory literature.’”  Furthermore, the raiders apparently targeted bystanders as well. One witness describing a raid claimed that the raiders “hustled a little man named Lord in from the street; we heard them say, ‘Get the hell in there!’ He came out with his head bleeding all over the place, wiping blood from eyes and saying over and over, ‘I didn’t do nothin.’”[58]

At the time, no one knew for sure who was responsible for the raids.  Someone apparently spread the rumor that an angry teamster had attacked the communist headquarters in retaliation for an earlier attack on a truck driver.  According to word on the street, a teamster had been hauling cargo and was subsequently caught by a mob of alleged communists.  The communists proceeded to thoroughly beat the teamster even though he had had been operating with union permission.  Although the story did in fact cause anger among the teamsters, they probably were not the cause of the raids.  Apparently, during many of the raids police officers just waited outside for the posse to finish.  Once the raiders had left the police came in and cleaned up.[59]  The witnesses actions lead to speculations that the city officials were primarily responsible for the raids. Selvin argued that that the authorities had been convinced by their own claims that the communists were in charge of the general strike.  He claimed that the authorities had given in to their own propaganda and fell victim to the hysteria that had swept through the city of San Francisco.[60]  The authorities wanted to rid their city of the un-American communists.

            Although in many ways communists were viewed as non-Americans, historians would be wrong to argue that only a few working-class Americans shared any aims or values with hardcore socialists.   In all actuality there existed a desire for substantial social change.  Essentially, the proletariat felt a legitimate desire for something more.[61] Historians, in attempt to vindicate organized labor, often argue that the progressive movement had undoubtedly lessened the want for a full Marxist revolution by working to ease some of the existing social tensions.  This in mind, it is self-evident that the progressive movement could not remove such tensions.  All too often the progressives made well meaning gestures that had no real effect. When historians look at the facts as presented in the story of the 1934 West Coast waterfront strike they will see that the desire for a change, the desire to no longer be taken advantage of, were to remain a reality.

            Harry Bridges worked hard to fulfill his desire for social change.  Bridges had grown up in Australia with stories of the wonders of the British Empire.  As he traveled the world as a seaman, though, he found that his illusion of the empire’s greatness faded.  Bridges traveled to Bombay and London where he witnessed first hand the social problems that were inherent in a society committed to economic stratification.  The poor, as he witnessed, were under-fed and dirty.  The rich, on the other hand, had no reason to worry about the squalors of the poor.  As Bridges reached America he found that the situation was little better.  He undoubtedly came to realize that the communists understood his concerns.[62]   

            Bridges was not the only one who noticed that the American proletariat suffered greatly from the division of classes.  Americans lived as either the owners or the workers, the haves or the have-nots.  The American people, in this sense, lived with a division of classes that permeated their entire society.  So great was the division that the owning class often tried to divert the workers’ attention away from the class separation by pointing out other social divisions.  Owners of some factories, for example, pushed gender division, in the sense of what was masculine and what was not, in order to take the workers minds off their social standing.[63]  

            The pre-strike longshoremen suffered greatly from the hardships faced by the American proletariat. As historian Robert W. Cherny wrote in his essay “The Making of a labor Radical,” the San Francisco waterfront comprised “a brutal, exploitative, and dangerous work situation.”  Furthermore, the workers had to put up with a corrupt union that did relatively nothing to help alleviate their hardships.[64]  As the men worked they had to deal with speedups in which the labor boss accelerated the work and neglected safety procedures, often to the loss and injury of the workers.  According to one official, one out of every four men that worked the Pacific Coast waterfront in 1933 was out of work because of injuries.[65]  What is more, aside from simply having to work a hazardous job, the waterfront workers had to struggle just to obtain that job. The men would gather at the waterfront and wait for the gang leaders to come out to pick that day’s laborers.  Frequently the men would wait more than half the day just to be told to try again the next day.  Additionally, the workers often had to bribe the gang leader in one way or another.  Whether workers resorted to straight out cash bribery of the leader, or simply buying the man some drinks, the hiring process was not legitimate.[66] 

            Aside from the actual communist involvement in the strike, there is in fact another noteworthy link with communism. One should find that the story of the 1934 waterfront strike presents considerable evidence in favor of Marx’s Communists Manifesto.   Marx presented in his book four major points.  His first point was that history in and of itself is controlled by capital. This point is easily applied to the strike as the shippers controlled the capital and therefore controlled the waterfront.  Marx’s second point was that there are classes; rich and poor, haves and have-nots. When applying this argument to the strike, one can easily place employers into the haves category and the strikers into the have-nots.  Marx’s third point was that the people with money will undoubtedly take advantage of the people without money.  The strikers undoubtedly related to this argument as they were certainly taken advantage of by shipping capital.  Marx’s fourth point was that the lower class will undoubtedly rise up in the attempt to overthrow the upper class. This point is realized, albeit partially, in the strike itself.  The longshoremen united together in the attempt to topple the rule of the employers, although they were not able to win an unambiguous victory. [67]

            Seeing that the strikers did in fact have much in common with the communists, one must note that not all, nor even the majority, of the strikers were communists.  It is true that the communists would naturally want to help out the strikers, for they were fighting for many of the same causes.  Indeed, the strikers appeared to be interested in lessening the hardships of their proletarian lives just as the communists were interested in lessening the hardships of all proletarian lives.  On the other hand, there were differences between the two groups.  The communists, according to Marx, had a goal of completely overthrowing the bourgeois in an attempt to create a classless society in which the people controlled the means of production.[68]  The strikers had a more limited goal of increasing their living wage and securing a closed union shop.[69] Of course the newspaper editors grabbed on to the fact that the communists and the strikers were a lot alike, but the fact of the matter is that the strikers were not all communists, and shared only some communist aims. 

            The continual link with communism undoubtedly hurt the strikers in the long run.  The popular discourse that communism was un-American lead the American people to associate the strikers with un-American values.   This association gave the employers a tool to bring about the eventual end of the strike.  The employers found it easy to point to the communists on order to gain the sympathy of the mass public.  True red-blooded, free-enterprising, Americans, the employers claimed, do not need foreign reds telling them how to run the country.  In retrospect, the communists and strikers like Harry Bridges might have been better off if they had absolutely nothing to do with each other.

            The 1934 waterfront strike was an event that should not soon be forgotten in the history of the United States.  The unionists banded together in an attempt to alleviate the hardships that they faced day in and day out in order to load and unload America’s cargo. They forced the water-front to close and caught the attention of most of America. Although the strikers in San Francisco eventually gained the support of their working class comrades, the support was not enough to accomplish their goals.  The employers were able to twist the strikers’ relationship with communism in order to reverse the strikers’ widespread support, and the strikers found themselves unable to attain their desired closed union shop.  Although the strikers were not able to secure their initial goals, the whole strike was not a loss.  The West Coast workers were able to reunite under a new leadership that was able to successfully fight for the workers’ rights.[70]  The West Coast may not have been completely won in 1934, but it certainly was not lost.





Primary Sources


“Stevedores Quit Today,” Los Angeles Times, May 9, 1934.


Healy, Floyd J. “Coast Dock Strike Begun With Clashes in North,” Los Angeles Times, May 10, 1934;


“Strike Hits Ship Lines,” Los Angeles Times, May 17, 1934.


“Harbor Traffic Growing, but Strike Tension High,” Los Angeles Times, May 18, 1934.


“Port Strike Crisis Near,” Los Angeles Times, May 21, 1934.


“The Dock Strike Crisis,” Los Angeles Times, July 1, 1934.


“Direct Action,” Los Angeles Times, July 4, 1934.


“Casualties of Rioting in bay City,” Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1934.


“More than a Score Injured in Rioting,” Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1934.


“Troops Speed to Harbor to Guard State Property,” Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1934.


“Teamsters Vote Strike to Back Up Dock Unions,” Los Angeles Times, July 9, 1934.


“Strike End Disclosed,” Los Angeles Times, July 29, 1934.


“Portland Tense Awaiting Show Down,” Los Angeles Times, July 29, 1934.


“Striking Longshoremen Going Back Tomorrow,” Los Angeles Times, July 30, 1934.


Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. England: Penguin Books. 1967.




Kimeldorf, Howard. Reds or Rackets?: The Making of Radical and Conservative Unions on the Waterfront. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.


Larrowe, Charles P. Harry Bridges: The Rise and Fall of Radical Labor in the U.S. New York: Lawrence Hill and Co., 1972.


Nelson, Bruce. Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and Unionism in the 1930s. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988.


Selvin, David F. A Terrible Anger: The 1934 Waterfront and General Strikes in San Francisco. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1996.





Blewett, Mary H. “Manhood and the Market: The Politics of Gender and Class among the Textiles Workers of Fall River, Massachusetts, 1870-1800,” in Work Engendered: Toward a New History of American Labor, ed. Ava Baron. London: Cornell University Press, 1991. 92-113.


Cherny, Robert W. “The Making of a Labor Radical: Harry Bridges, 1901-1934” Pacific Historical Review 64, no. 3 (1995): 363-388.


Selvin, David F. “An Exercise in Hysteria: San Francisco’s Red Raids of 1934” Pacific Historical Review 58, no. 3 (1989): 361-374.




[1] Floyd J. Healy, “Coast Dock Strike Begun With Clashed in North,” Los Angeles Times, May 10, 1934; David F. Selvin, A Terrible Anger (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1996).

[2] The closed shop refers to the idea that union wants to be in charge of the hiring of new workers.  Most likely also means that no non-union workers are allowed to work on the docks.

[3] “Stevedores Quit Today,” Los Angeles Times, May 9, 1934.

[4] Bruce Nelson, Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and Unionism in the 1930s. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988). 127

[5] Selvin, A Terrible Anger, 88-89

[6] “Stevedores Quit Today,” Los Angeles Times, May 9, 1934.

[7] “Coast Dock Strike Begun with Clashes in North,” Los Angeles Times, May 10, 1934.

[8] Selvin, A Terrible Anger, 90-91

[9] “Strike Hits Ship Lines,” Los Angeles Times, May 17, 1934.

[10] “Harbor Traffic Growing, but Strike Tension High,” Los Angeles Times, May 18, 1934.

[11] Selvin, A Terrible Anger, 93

[12] Selvin, A Terrible Anger, 105

[13] Often the ILA leadership and the strike officials were different people as the ILA was more national and the strike officials needed to remain more localized.

[14] Nelson, Workers on The Waterfront, 129

[15] Selvin, A Terrible Anger, 105

[16] Selvin, A Terrible Anger, 141-147.

[17] “Direct Action,” Los Angeles Times, July 4, 1934.

[18] “More than a Score Injured in Rioting,” Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1934.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Selvin, A Terrible Anger, 147.

[21] Selvin, A Terrible Anger, 149-151.

[22] Charles P. Larrowe, Harry Bridges: The Rise and Fall of Radical Labor in the U.S. (New York: Lawrence Hill and Co., 1972) 65-66.

[23] “Casualties of Rioting in bay City,” Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1934.

[24]“Troops Speed to Harbor to Guard State Property,” Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1934.

[25] Selvin, A Terrible Anger, 154.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Selvin, A Terrible Anger. The numbers are not quite clear as some sources claim more while others claim less.

[28] Not all of the striking unions agreed with the longshoremen, although they saw the city-wide strike as an opportunity to gain more for them selves.

[29] “Teamsters Vote Strike to Back Up Dock Unions,” Los Angeles Times, July 9, 1934.

[30] Nelson, Workers on The Waterfront, 150.

[31] Selvin, A Terrible Anger 166-193.

[32] Nelson, Workers on The Waterfront, 150; Selvin, A Terrible Anger 221.

[33] They were not part of the same union, they just went on strike together.

[34] Nelson, Workers on The Waterfront, 150-155.

[35] “Strike End Disclosed,” Los Angeles Times, July 29, 1934.

[36] “Portland Tense Awaiting Show Down,” Los Angeles Times, July 29, 1934.

[37] “Striking Longshoremen Going Back Tomorrow,” Los Angeles Times, July 30, 1934.

[38] Nelson, Workers on The Waterfront, 155.

[39] Floyd J. Healy, “Coast Dock Strike Begun With Clashes in North,” Los Angeles Times, May 17, 1934.

[40] Selvin, A Terrible Anger

[41] Howard Kimeldorf, Reds or Rackets?: The Making of Radical and Conservative Unions on the Waterfront. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988) 85.

[42] Nelson, Workers on The Waterfront, 122.

[43] Selvin, A Terrible Anger

[44] Nelson, Workers on The Waterfront, 150.

[45] Larrowe, Harry Bridges.

[46] Robert W. Cherny, “The Making of a Labor Radical: Harry Bridges, 1901-1934” Pacific Historical Review 64, no. 3 (1995): 363-388.

[47] Larrowe, Harry Bridges, 4; Cherny, The Making of a Labor Radical, 374.

[48] Cherny, The Making of a Labor Radical, 374.

[49] Bridges disagreed with the seemingly unachievable goals of the IWW.  They had no short term goals and would not give any in their demands.

[50] Assumingly the American Communist Party.

[51] Kimeldorf, Reds or Rackets?, 6

[52] Ibid.

[53] “Harbor Traffic Growing, but Strike Tension High,” Los Angeles Times, May 18, 1934.

[54] “The Dock Strike Crisis,” Los Angeles Times, July 1, 1934.

[55] Selvin, A Terrible Anger, 202.

[56]  “Port Strike Crisis Near,” Los Angeles Times, May 21, 1934.

[57] “The Dock Crisis,” Los Angeles Times, July 1, 1934.

[58] David F. Selvin, “An Exercise in Hysteria: San Francisco’s Red Raids of 1934” Pacific Historical Review 58, no. 3 (1989): 361-374.

[59] The police dispersed the crowds.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Before arguing this point, one must first make it clear that when taking into account the well documented human rights atrocities of most communist states as well the long term economic failure and political collapse of the greatest of them all, the Soviet Union, it appears in retrospect a very fortunate thing that a full scale communist rebellion never took hold in the United States.  Nevertheless, whether or not a Marxist revolution would have been good for the American people is not the point that needs proving.

[62] Cherny, “The Making of a Labor Radical.”

[63] Mary H. Blewett, “Manhood and the Market: The Politics of Gender and Class among the Textiles Workers of Fall River, Massachusetts, 1870-1800,” in Work Engendered: Toward a New History of American Labor, ed. Ava Baron (London: Cornell University Press, 1991). 92-113.

[64] Cherny, “The Making of a Labor Radical.”

[65] Selvin, A Terrible Anger, 45.

[66] Selvin, A Terrible Anger, 40-43.

[67] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto. (England: Penguin Books. 1967)

[68] Marx, The Communist Manifesto.

[69]Selvin, A Terrible Anger

[70] Kimeldorf, Reds or Rackets?



© All words and music written and owned by Shawn Nelsen.