An account of the 1934 West Coast Waterfront Strike
Two black draped trucks, bearing a coffin each, headed the 1,000 strong funeral procession as it made its way slowly through the San Francisco streets lined with 50,000 people who stood in silence out of respect for the two strikers killed by police just four days before on July 5th 1934, a day forever recognised amongst longshoremen as “Bloody Thursday” the most violent in San Francisco’s industrial history.
San Francisco’s maritime strike began 9th May, 1934 when longshoremen in every West Coast port walked out closing down the entire port system. It lasted eighty-three days, but was to have a lasting impact on how American dock workers chose to organise themselves. Intensive organising began in spring 1934 with West Coast union representatives forming a federation of maritime workers to negotiate with employers coast-wide, rather than independently, port-by-port. The rank and file, however, preferred to place their trust in young militants who set up a strike committee transferring the authority to strike from corrupt leaders to the longshoremen themselves. Longshore workers demanded a coast-wide contract, wage and hour improvements, an end to the speed-ups and the shape-ups, and the establishment of a union hiring hall. The strike remained solid with intensive picketing and constant confrontations with police and private security forces over a two month period. It only escalated out of control when the Industrial Association, made up of employers and business interests who were determined to break the strike due to the growing confidence and militancy of the workers, decided to start moving goods from the piers to warehouses on 3rd July.
The employers recruited strikebreakers under the constant protection of the police, housing them on moored ships or in secure compounds, amongst them many from the universities. In addition to student scabs employers recruited African Americans, who had been used as strikebreakers since 1916. Though some worked as scabs early in the 1934 strike, many supported the union and joined the picket lines. In recognition of their significant support and the desire to end the use of African Americans as strikebreakers, the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) opened its membership. The 1934 strike was a turning point in race relations among longshoremen.
The first serious running battles between unionists and police began early on Tuesday, 3rd July. There was a lull during the 4th July holiday but disturbances picked up again the following day when The Industrial Association tried to open the port even further and was met with hostile resistance from the strikers. As spectators watched police shot tear gas canisters into the crowd, followed with a charge by mounted police. Picketers threw the canisters and rocks back at the police, who charged again. The police fired shotguns in the air, then fired their revolvers at the crowd. One of the policemen fired a shotgun directly into the crowd, killing striking seaman and strike sympathizer, Nicholas Bordois and Howard Sperry, whose deaths came to symbolise the struggle for union recognition.
In this explosive atmosphere, the Waterfront Employers eventually agreed to recognize the ILA on July 21 and arbitrate all outstanding issues with maritime unions if the longshoremen would accept arbitration. They voted to return to work on July 31.
Today the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) continues to recognise “Bloody Thursday” by shutting down all West Coast ports every 5th July. The ILWU has frequently stopped work and refused to handle goods in solidarity with international causes and against such other things as Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, fascist intervention in Spain’s civil war, South Africa’s system of apartheid and the Iraq War.
Below is a report by the San Francisco News’ of the first day of the rioting.
San Francisco News
July 3, 1934
POLICE BATTLE STEVEDORE MOB, ARREST MANY
To the accompaniment of widespread rioting, fist fights and popping of tear gas guns and bombs, the Industrial Association of San Francisco carried out its promise today to begin moving freight from the waterfront piers, blockaded since May 9 by the marine strike. About a score of persons were injured severely enough to require hospital treatment. Two men were shot and slightly wounded, a half dozen motor trucks were turned over and many persons suffered burning eyes from the gas.
But on the outskirts of this area bellowing crowds of strikers and sympathizers were hurtling rocks at policemen, fighting through clouds of tear gas and damaging and overturning trucks.
Clubs Used Freely
Police used their clubs freely and mounted officers rode into milling crowds. The strikers fought back, using fists, boards and bricks as weapons. Rioting was widespread but was centred in the area surrounding the Southern Pacific Depot at Third and Townsend Sts. Several shots were fired in a battle near the railroad station. One bullet struck Eugene Dunbar, union seaman, in the left ankle. He was dragged out of the melee, tended by members of the crowd until an ambulance arrived and removed him to Harbor Emergency Hospital.
Bricks Hit Police
One of the bloodiest bits of fighting occurred near the King St. warehouse. Suddenly the strike pickets broke through the police lines and surged around a pile of bricks. Soon the air was filled with missiles.
Another riot broke out at Second and Townsend Sts. Police charged the crowd, but it did not move. The officers resorted to tear gas. Members of the mob, coughing and choking, picked up the smoking grenades and hurled them back into the police lines.
Windows of nearby buildings were crowded with onlookers. The gas began filtering through the windows and those watching the riot fell back, tears streaming from their eyes.
Police have a consignment of the new nauseating gas used so effectively in eastern riots, and Capt. Arthur DeGuire, head of Harbor Station, threatened to put it to use unless the rioters quieted down. Another crowd tried to break through police lines along Second St. They streamed through South Park toward Third St. Police met them and drove them back slowly.