The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Class War in California:
Pages from Workers’ History

Mar 28, 2022

In some ways, the period leading up to the Great Depression of the 1930s seems like the situation that has persisted in this country for decades. The workers’ movement had been thrown back in the 1920s, in some cases, smashed. The unions that existed had been decimated or were moribund. Yet, starting from that low point, in just a few short years, workers went on to organize themselves to carry out rapidly spreading strikes that engulfed millions and included factory occupations, even general strikes. They confronted not only their own employers, but politicians who posed as their “friends,” police, National Guard, the U.S. Army... as well as the top layers of the union apparatuses—when they existed.

While the most significant strike movements of the 1930s took place in the Midwest, there were important strike movements in other parts of the country, including in the state of California. Among them were the 1933 cotton strike in the San Joaquin Valley, the single biggest farm workers’ strike in U.S. history; the Waterfront and San Francisco General Strike of 1934, which at one point paralyzed the entire Pacific Coast; and the North American Aviation strike of 1941 in Los Angeles, which collided with the U.S. government’s military build up, when the U.S. was positioning itself to enter World War II.

These strikes epitomized the development of the workers’ movement during the Great Depression, both its ascent and the possibilities it opened up, as well as the means by which the movement was limited and contained.

Most of the struggles in California during the Great Depression were led by political militants, despite how few there were. At the beginning, maybe only a handful of militants were involved, but many of them had been formed in earlier labor struggles. Some brought with them the revolutionary traditions of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), some were part of a Communist Party (CP) just in the process of being formed. In other parts of the country, the Communist League (what later became the Socialist Workers Party) and parts of the Socialist Party played the same role. But in California, it was the IWW, then the CP. No matter how few they were, they gave these fights their cohesion and some perspective.

Most of those struggles were carried out within the framework of unions, existing ones they were trying to pour some life into or new ones they were working to create. The U.S. had systematically tried to prevent the working class from building mass organizations; California’s sweeping Criminal Syndicalism Act, passed in 1919 during the Red Scare, was used to arrest and imprison strike leaders and union organizers. Nonetheless, workers began to push forward in attempts to form unions.

The problem for the militants was to go with the workers who were struggling to form unions, but to do it, knowing—as Trotsky later put it in the “Transitional Program”—that trade unions, as essential as they were, were “not ends in themselves, they are but means along the road to proletarian revolution.” Lenin, even while arguing against the ultra-leftists who had turned their back on work in the unions and in bourgeois parliaments, expressed the same perspective about the goal of that work in “Left-Wing Communism.” “It is far more difficult—and far more precious—to be a revolutionary when the conditions for direct, open, really mass and really revolutionary struggle do not yet exist, to be able to champion the interests of the revolution (by propaganda, agitation and organization) in non-revolutionary bodies, and quite often in downright reactionary bodies, in a non-revolutionary situation, among the masses who are incapable of immediately appreciating the need for revolutionary methods of action. To be able to seek, find and correctly determine the specific path or the particular turn of events that will lead the masses to the real, decisive and final revolutionary struggle—as is the main objective of communism in Western Europe and in America today.”

The First Stirring in California Agriculture

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which was formed in 1905, had blazed the trail in the early efforts to organize farm workers in California for big fights. In contrast to the unions that existed at that time, which focused on skilled workers, the IWW rested their activity on some of the most oppressed layers of the working class.

They declared that their aim was “to unite all workers into One Big Union,” with the perspective of overthrowing capitalism. “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common,” began the Preamble to the IWW’s founding document. “Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.” Strictly speaking, the IWW was neither revolutionary party nor union; many of their militants were “wanderers,” who showed up where workers were raising their head in struggle. As they migrated from one struggle to the next, often little organization remained behind, in great measure, certainly, because the bourgeois state apparatus was intent on smashing whatever stirrings broke out among ordinary layers of the working people.

Farming was always big business in California, with large holdings and single crops going back to its earliest years as a state in 1850. In turn, the banks dominated the large growers through the banks’ control of credit. The large growers depended heavily on migratory labor, that is, experienced but mobile and temporary help, whom the agriculture capitalists kept in camps, under conditions of near servitude. In the early decades of those big farms, most farm workers were Chinese immigrants. In the 1890s, the Chinese were replaced by Japanese immigrants, who were in turn replaced by workers from the Philippines, Hindus, Armenians, Sikhs, and Mexicans.

IWW militants, also called Wobblies, drifted south into California’s agricultural fields from the timber camps of the Northwest. Between April 1910 and March 1911, they flooded into Fresno, the nerve center of agricultural labor, located in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. In Fresno the Wobblies fought for the right to maintain a headquarters, to distribute literature and to hold public meetings. It was one of several California cities where the Wobblies carried out what amounted to a fight to impose democratic rights within a repressive society. For six months, the Wobblies battled Fresno authorities. Their courage and tenacity attracted the attention of many migratory workers and made a deep impression in the state. IWW songs began to be heard in the fields and in the so-called “jungle camps” (that is, hobo encampments) under railroad bridges.

In August 1913, a farm workers’ revolt broke out at the Durst ranch, a leading grower of hops in the Central Valley, and the largest single employer of agricultural labor in the state. This fight culminated on August 3, when a mass meeting of 2,500 migrant workers, called by the IWW, was attacked by the local sheriff, a posse and the local district attorney (who was also Durst’s private attorney). They tried to arrest Wobbly organizers. Workers resisted and a fight broke out. The district attorney, a deputy sheriff and two workers were killed, and many more were injured. The posse, astonished at the resistance the workers put up, fled the scene. The Burns Detective Agency, which later made its name attacking miners’ strikes in Colorado, was called in. And the governor dispatched four companies of the National Guard to the Durst Ranch. The National Guard and local law enforcement arrested about 100 workers.

Out of fear that this labor confrontation would spread, police arrested Wobblies in every part of the state. The number of arrests ran well into the hundreds. Two IWW militants were tried and convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. As serious as the repression was, it did not prevent other struggles from breaking out in the fields.

The Strikes in Agriculture: Without Precedent

After the 1917 workers’ revolution in Russia, elements of the IWW, along with left-wing Socialists and other radicals, formed the Communist Party (CP), which declared at its foundation that its goal was working class revolution in this country. Regardless of the problems the CP faced in trying to establish a new organization, it started with a cadre of militants who had come out of earlier struggles. Many of them had gone into situations the existing unions ignored. As the IWW did, they had the habit to take their stand with workers who had engaged in a struggle. Early on, this included migratory labor in the fields.

Conditions in those labor camps were catastrophic, with large numbers of jobless workers. About 300,000 migrants from the stricken Dust Bowl states of Texas, Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma—the “Okies”—joined the ranks of migratory labor in California.

Migratory workers responded to continual wage cuts with a series of spectacular strikes that were without precedent in the history of U.S. labor. An AFL spokesperson in California told the New York Times in 1935: “Only fanatics are willing to live in shacks or tents and get their heads broken in the interests of migratory labor.” It was in the Communist Party where some of these “fanatics” were found: courageous, devoted to the working class, and not out for personal gain—something the union bureaucracies could not understand.

Without any real implantation among migratory workers, the Communist Party built on the traditions of the IWW’s earlier work in the fields. This was during the so-called “third period,” when the CP ignored the existing unions as hopelessly reformist, and sought to form its own “red unions,” i.e. ones that openly proclaimed their revolutionary aims.

In 1930, two strikes broke out in the Imperial Valley among Filipino and Mexican workers employed as vegetable and fruit pickers, and among American workers employed in the packing sheds. They were spontaneous strikes, provoked by wage cuts. Rushing to join in the strikes, a handful of Communist Party militants tried to enroll workers into one of these new “red unions.”

The early strikes were blocked by arrests. But the union established by CP organizers was able to send out a call for a conference of all agricultural workers of the valley. Every ranch and shed was asked to select delegates to the conference. Once again, there were mass raids, with the police arresting over 100 workers just to prevent the conference. Eight defendants were convicted under the Criminal Syndication law, accused of belonging to an organization that incited violence. The legal attack put an end to this first attempt at a “revolutionary union,” but it also aroused a considerable feeling of solidarity among the workers. And some of the workers in those fights, migrating to other fields, were key in later strikes.

In 1931 and 1932, a smattering of spontaneous strikes broke out. Once again, CP militants attempted to bring the striking workers into a new “red” union they tried to set up, one that had a little longer existence, the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU).

The CP organizers gained great experience in these earlier strikes, experience that allowed the organizers to be much better prepared for the explosion of strikes in 1933. In that year approximately 50,000 workers were involved in agricultural strikes in California, with a total of 37 recorded strikes (the actual number of strikes was much greater). The workers faced violent repression by police and vigilantes alike. The strikers confronted it head on. For example, on April 15, 1933 in Alameda County during the pea picker strike, 500 pickets clashed with police and deputies. At first, police and deputies attempted to disperse the picketers with tear gas bombs. When that failed, the police and deputies moved in with clubs and blackjacks, swinging at everyone in sight, including women and children. The strikers defended themselves with rocks and other improvised weapons. Some strikers threw back tear gas bombs at the police, hitting at least one officer in the face and burning him badly.

Twenty-four of these strikes were led by the “red union” set up by the Communist Party, the CAWIU. These included pea pickers in Santa Clara and Alameda counties, a beet strike in Ventura County, peach strikes in Fresno and Merced counties, a grape strike in Merced, a cherry and pear pickers’ strike in the Santa Clara Valley, and the cotton strike in the San Joaquin Valley.

The Great Cotton Strike of 1933: A Culmination

The cotton strike was by far the most important, with 18,000 workers joining the strike. Three-quarters of the work force was Mexican, the remainder included black workers from the South, Filipinos, and white migrants from the Southwest. They were paid a piece work rate according to the amount of cotton picked. Three years of depression had forced these rates down to 40 cents per hundred pounds.

At a mass meeting in Tulare on October 1, workers voted to strike. The union set a strike date for October 4. Many didn’t wait. Almost immediately after the meeting, hundreds of cotton pickers began walking off ranches in Kern and Kings counties, where the harvest season was getting under way. By the October 4 target date, almost all picking operations were at a standstill.

Growers organized “protective associations” which declared: “strikers work peacefully or leave the state of California.” As soon as the strike began, the protective associations moved to evict strikers from the employer-owned labor camps.

One of the first acts of the union had been to rent a small 45-acre farm on the outskirts of Corcoran, where they established not only a headquarters, but also a camp. Five thousand men, women and children made up this camp community—more than twice the population of Corcoran. Committees were set up to organize the camp and its activities. Two nurses were brought in to supervise sanitary conditions (an attempt to prevent health authorities from intervening—a favorite strikebreaking device).

The massing of so many strikers provided the strikers a certain protection from armed vigilantes—at least at the farm.

The strike embraced the entire San Joaquin Valley, with the union attempting to send patrolling pickets to a string of cotton plantations extending more than 100 miles down the valley. The roving truckloads of pickets stopped where they found workers in the field.

In the second week, the growers escalated the attack on the strikers. Roving bands of armed growers moved through the region attacking isolated or small groups of strikers, trying to force them to leave the area. Law enforcement officials, on the lookout for “strike leaders,” arrested dozens more. The growers applied pressure to local merchants, threatening to boycott all stores that did business with striking workers.

Nonetheless, there was considerable local support for the strike, given the resentment of the small growers against the cotton-gin companies and their usurious practices. One local minister, carrying a Bible, a Communist Party membership card and a union card, urged workers to carry on. “We’ll win this fight by the aid of God and a strong picket line,” was his slogan.

Despite the growers’ efforts, the strike grew, with most of the cotton crop remaining unpicked in the fields.

The violence reached its peak on October 10. In the small town of Pixley, a caravan of forty armed growers fired on a large group of unarmed strikers and their families who were gathered in the center of town to protest the arrests of strike leaders. The growers killed two and wounded at least eight more strikers while a group of highway patrolmen watched from a safe distance. Shortly after, there was a face-off in Kern County that lasted five hours between strikers and growers, with the strikers refusing to back down. The growers finally fired on the unarmed pickets, killing one and wounding several more. After the shootings, local authorities arrested nine of the strikers for rioting and allegedly murdering one of their own people. It was a blatant attempt to break the strike. But the workers responded, when an estimated crowd of 5,000 massed outside a church for the funerals of two of the murdered strikers, and another 2,000 for another funeral. Never before had California agriculture witnessed such mass demonstrations.

These large demonstrations somewhat altered the relationship of forces and compelled the Tulare County officials to appear “neutral” by arresting eight of the growers involved in the Pixley incident. The mobilization also was a protection for those arrested, since rather than go to prison, all the strikers, along with the growers, were eventually acquitted. Also under strong pressure, the federal relief office directed the governor to distribute relief to all of the striking farm workers, making it the first time in American labor history that the federal government offered relief to striking workers.

The attacks continued. National Guard units were mobilized at Hanford and Visalia. According to the Los Angeles Times, “The Tulare County fairgrounds have been turned into a stockade and the police are rounding up strikers and rioters and putting them in the stockade incommunicado. Kings County is an armed camp.” Surrounding the workers’ camp was an army of special deputies, State Highway Police and guards. The Roosevelt administration sent a representative to the camp, beseeching the workers to end the strike. The workers refused. The Mexican Consul was sent in to tell the workers that the strike was creating difficulties in Mexico. The workers booed. State health officials ordered the workers to abandon the camp by a certain date. Strikers remained adamantly in favor of continuing the strike.

Finally, on October 27, the CAWIU “strike committee” settled on seventy-five cents per hundred pounds, five cents less than what the strikers had been demanding, but significantly more than the rate the growers had offered when the strike movement began.

It was the most dramatic and significant strike in the history of American agriculture. The growers and state officials claimed victory since they still refused to give formal recognition to the union. In reality, the 18,000 migratory workers, the most despised part of the workforce, had fought the most powerful and determined growers in California—backed by the entire government, with its repressive state apparatus and armed vigilantes—and had pushed the growers back. In granting the increase in pay, the growers had de facto recognized the power of the workers’ organization, regardless of what they said about union recognition.

During this strike, the Communist Party had only a tiny number of militants active in the fields of the entire San Joaquin Valley. Caroline Decker, one of the CP union organizers, later told an interviewer, “You had me and Pat Chambers [the lead CP organizer] and three or four other people down there. A communist here. A radical worker there.” The union they set up didn’t outlast the strike—in part, perhaps, because of the “adventurist” aspect of the CP’s “red unions.” But nowhere was the bourgeoisie accepting unions for unskilled labor—it never had in this country. And it was fighting tooth and nail to prevent organization from developing among the largest part of the working class, carrying out a real reign of terror whenever workers attempted to organize. Undoubtedly, there were some things those few militants might have done differently. But they gave a kind of coherence and some aims to the struggle. In so doing, they showed that even this most marginal, most despised part of the working class could perform wonders of organization. And the social explosions in the California fields opened the way for the explosions that were to follow in California and in other parts of the country.

1934: Eruption on the Waterfront

During the first two decades of the 20th century, workers on the waterfront on the Pacific Coast had carried out several big strikes. Many of those workers had come under the influence of the IWW and then the Russian Revolution of 1917. In February 1919, during the week-long Seattle General Strike, some of the strike leaders directly said that their ambition was to carry out a workers’ revolution, like the workers in Russia had just done.

The capitalist class fought to regain the upper hand. In San Francisco, during a series of 1919 strikes, the waterfront employers in San Francisco violently destroyed the Riggers’ and Stevedores’ Union, which had traced its history back to 1853. It was part of a much bigger attack that weakened or destroyed countless trade unions and imposed an iron-fisted rule. By the early 1920s, employers in California bragged that the state was “Open Shop,” which meant that unions were banned, and anyone who spoke out for one risked getting fired.

Imposing starvation wages and a killing speed-up, the maritime companies fought tooth and nail to prevent any resistance. While a few crews of company favorites could count on regular shifts and hours, most workers worked only sporadically. Longshoremen called the San Francisco Embarcadero, “the slave market.”

The biggest challenge to the Open Shop in the early 1920s was led by the Industrial Workers of the World, which had attempted to organize longshoremen, sailors and fishermen and carried out several strikes. Although the IWW stopped playing a major role after 1923, many maritime workers, both on the docks and on the ships, continued to be influenced by its ideas. So, when the Communist Party made an attempt to organize its own union, the Marine Workers Industrial Union, the MWIU, in the early 1930s, some of these former IWW militants saw it as something similar to the IWW and helped to organize it. In December 1932, a few of these militants in San Francisco, the major port on the West Coast, began to put out a mimeographed bulletin, The Waterfront Worker—something that the Communist Party had been doing in other places in the country. The bulletin concentrated on the problems and grievances of longshoremen, as well as broader issues workers faced. The first issues were addressed to workers on both the ships and the port. Its impact was immediate. “There was an undercurrent of restlessness on the waterfront... but no direction. The paper gave one,” said a CP militant. The paper, which was widely read, urged workers to create a militant industrial union, to organize themselves to act on their own and in solidarity with other maritime workers.

For the most part, however, workers who wanted to fight were entering and giving new life to the old, worn-out AFL union structures the CP had ignored. The CP, which had been able to ride on the explosion in the fields, now found itself somewhat to the side of the big strikes, based in San Francisco, the main port on the West Coast, extending to other ports, from Seattle and Portland down to San Pedro (Los Angeles) and San Diego. In the whole waterfront area, CP militants were in only one union, the MWIU, a “red union” into which the CP had aimed at organizing all maritime workers: one big union on the docks and the ships.

Dockers ignored the MWIU and began to pour into an old AFL union, the International Longshoreman’s Association, which had been based on the East Coast, and that had been recently established on the West Coast. Dockers in the West Coast ports followed suit. The few CP members who had been dockers in the MWIU also joined the ILA. But the CP had a much bigger base among the seamen who remained in the MWIU. In February 1934, the ILA held a convention in San Francisco for all ILA longshoremen along the West Coast. At the convention, the delegates set a strike date of March 23 for the entire West Coast. The delegates also elected a 25-man committee, the ILA Strike Committee, to organize the strike. And they resolved that no agreement would be valid unless approved by a rank-and-file vote. Small as they were, these were attempts to prevent the running of the strike from falling into the hands of union officials, who soon proved themselves not only dead set against any strike, but also in control of the machinery of the union, which they used to block or divert many of the strike’s actions.

The day before the scheduled walkout, President Franklin Roosevelt sent a signed telegram asking that the strike be postponed so that a fact-finding commission might conduct an investigation. Both the ILA local leadership and the leadership of the Strike Committee accepted Roosevelt’s offer. But the fact-finding commission was followed by more negotiations, which dragged on.

A renewed push for a strike built up in the ranks. The West Coast ILA Strike Committee set a new strike date of May 9. The national ILA president and the federal government urgently appealed to the longshore workers not to strike. But the strike began on schedule. Within a few days it spread to the seamen on the cargo ships. Seamen streamed off ships on their own strike and all the ports along the West Coast were shut down. Most striking seamen joined the AFL-affiliated International Seaman’s Union (ISU) which quickly outstripped the membership of the MWIU. San Francisco Teamsters overruled their local president and refused to move cargo to or from the struck port. Seattle and Los Angeles teamsters followed their lead. From Puget Sound to San Diego, the longshoremen were striking “for better conditions, a shorter day and a living wage,” as one strike leaflet said. As ships tied up in port, their crews walked off and joined the strike. The Marine Firemen, the Marine Cooks and Stewards, and subsequently the independent Union of Officers and Engineers, declared strikes—not in sympathy but in their own interests.

Strike leaders from the ILA adopted the Communist Party’s newspaper, The Western Worker, which reported strike news and issued strike-related extra editions. Undoubtedly, the CP had earned respect from activists in the ILA, including apparently Harry Bridges, who had been elected head of the ILA strike committee, but the CP itself did not have any of its own militants playing a comparable role. And amongst the seamen, the CP militants lost influence since most seamen had joined the ISU.

From the start of the strike, the Chamber of Commerce and the Industrial Association—an alliance of industrial, banking, shipping, railroad, and utility firms that had been formed in 1921—took full command of the employers’ strategy. Shipowners hired thugs to work the docks and man the ships. City police in every port on the West Coast were mobilized on the waterfronts to hunt down strikers. Newspapers launched a vicious slander campaign against the strikers, issuing calls to form vigilante committees to raid strike headquarters, with the American Legion and other “patriotic societies” doing the actual dirty work.

Twice within a month, the employers, abetted by Roosevelt’s Under Secretary of Labor, tried to go over the heads of the longshoremen and the elected Strike Committee, to negotiate an end to the strike directly with the top ILA officials on the East and West Coasts. Both times, the agreements were soundly rejected, with the ILA president booed off the stage.

To solidify the strike, the striking unions banded together on June 18 in what they called the Joint Marine Strike Committee, that is, a kind of inter-union co-ordinating committee composed of five representatives from each of the ten striking unions. They elected Harry Bridges, who was already leading the ILA Strike Committee, as the overall chairman. It was another attempt to overcome the weight of the union officials. But by resting only on the ten AFL unions, they excluded all those not in those unions, as well as the members of the MWIU, the union set up by the CP. This put decision-making into the hands of those leading the unions. Caught up in the apparatus of the unions, their inter-union co-ordinating committee thus opened the door to the bureaucratic maneuvers that were to come.

Bloody Thursday and the General Strike

In early July, the employers’ Industrial Association tried to smash the strike by violently attacking its strategic center, the San Francisco waterfront. On July 3, a parade of trucks, driven by police and guards, rolled out from the pier. Pickets greeted it with jeers and bricks; police retaliated with clubs and tear gas. The battle raged up and down the waterfront all day. The next day, July 4th, a holiday, employers declared the port open. Early on July 5, the police attacked the strikers, pushing them back with tear gas. The strikers fought back with rocks and brickbats, driving the police away several times. Finally, police began firing with pistols and shotguns. By the end of the day, the police had killed two strikers and wounded 109 others. It was a deliberate massacre, carried out by the police, and a pretext for the governor to declare a state of emergency and order the National Guard to occupy the waterfront.

In San Francisco, July 5th became known as Bloody Thursday.

The Joint Marine Strike Committee, with Bridges at its head, appealed to the leaders of the mainline AFL unions to call for a general strike. Officials of those unions—who had all opposed the strike—jumped to volunteer themselves, offering to form a committee of seven top leaders, headed by the president of the Labor Council. Calling themselves the Strategy Committee, they promised to seek a settlement with the employers.

In other words, the Joint Strike Committee gave away the leadership of the strike to the very people who had opposed the strike from the beginning.

Even so, the union bureaucrats didn’t feel strong enough at that point to block the workers who were pushing to respond to the murderous attack. On the day of the funerals for the two strikers who had been killed, a procession of tens of thousands of workers extended the entire length of Market Street. Thousands more watched from the sidewalks. With no police in sight, longshoremen performed all traffic direction and crowd control, as if the union and not the National Guard, had taken over the city. In later years, people remembered how quiet everyone was, mourners and spectators alike. As the procession continued, the city fell silent, with only the music of Beethoven heard in the distance.

The workers in several unions did not wait for anyone’s permission to join the maritime strike. The day after the funeral, 14 San Francisco local unions voted to strike. That day similar sentiments cropped up in Portland and Seattle. At a mass meeting of the Teamsters Union on the day after the funeral, Mike Casey, the head of the union, tried to argue against a general strike. Nevertheless, the Teamsters voted to strike by a margin of 1,220 to 271. “Nothing on earth,” Casey said later, “could have prevented that vote.”

Late in the evening of July 13, AFL union officials announced quickie union meetings to elect delegates to what they called a “General Strike Committee,” consisting of five delegates from all 115 unions that belonged to the San Francisco Central Labor Council, regardless of the size of its membership. Most of these delegate were paid officials and conservative union members appointed by the union officials of the different unions. Thus, the mainline AFL leadership sought to undermine the movement for a general strike, which the longshore and maritime strike had created, by overwhelming the earlier strike committee with much greater numbers of conservative union officials, who were hostile to the general strike. The AFL Council then went on to create a committee of 25, all conservatives, as the executive committee to manage the strike.

These committees set up by the union bureaucrats went unchallenged. In fact, it was the logical extension of the smaller inter-union co-ordinating committee. Based on all the existing AFL unions, the bureaucrats obviously had the upper hand. This new committee set a strike date, for Monday, July 16.

Workers didn’t wait for the official start of the strike. On July 12, the day before the general strike was formally announced, San Francisco and East Bay Teamsters, numbering together over 4,000 joined the 25,000 striking maritime workers. The following day taxis disappeared from the streets, trolleys stopped running, many small shops shut down with window signs reading, “Closed Till the Boys Win.” Nearly 200 wholesale butchers on both sides of the bay also quit work. The next morning, they were joined by 1,500 retail and jobbing butchers, and on Sunday morning by 2,600 laundry drivers and workers.

At 8 A.M. on Monday, July 16, the first official day of the general strike, most of the remaining San Francisco unions walked out. They were followed the next day by those across the Bay in Oakland, Alameda and Berkeley. Even the civil service employees of the municipal street railway struck. The Key System, which supplied transportation across the Bay and in the East Bay towns, was shut. The strike committee imposed embargoes on gasoline and fuel oil. All told, some 130,000 workers had joined the general strike. The only exceptions were the Milk and Bakery Drivers, those who maintained medical and hospital services, the electrical people who supplied light and power, the Typographical Union (the publishers granted a 10 cent wage increase to keep their newspapers in print as the propaganda arm of the capitalist class), the ferry crews on the Bay, and the staffs of nineteen restaurants kept open by order of the strike committee. The department stores, hotels, offices, and above all, the markets remained open. Virtually everything else closed, including theaters, bars and night clubs.

However, Robert Hinckley, the head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration office in the city, reassured his superiors in Washington, “Everything is under control.”

The employers went on to assert their control, unleashing a fierce crackdown. The newspapers campaigned against the “Red Menace,” trying to justify the mobilization of government authority at all levels to break the strike. Vigilante committees formed and raided headquarters and meeting halls of socialist and so-called “radical” groups, beating everyone they found. The police, who arrived only after the vigilantes had left, promptly arrested those who had been beaten. Similar raids were carried out in other California towns.

On July 18, two short days into the general strike, union bureaucrats began to put the brakes to the strike, trying to use what influence they had to get workers back on the job. The “General Strike Committee,” dominated by AFL officials, voted to end the general strike the next day and submit the entire dispute to arbitration. On July 19th, the Teamsters, who had tied up the Pacific Coast since May 7th, voted to return to work on July 21.

Unions Recognition: for What Purpose?

As the Joint Strike Committee—whose delegates had at least been elected by workers in local meetings that decided on the necessity of a strike—as that committee ceded control, top union officials had been able to take over the strike and so end it. The enormous effort the workers put in was thus blocked, and this heightened the effect of the raids and arrests by police and vigilantes, creating the false impression that the workers could not make a generalized fight.

Because of the dramatics involved in the great terror which developed against the workers on the West Coast, workers throughout the country are of the opinion that the strike was broken by terror. That is very far from the truth. After the strike was already broken by the AFL fakers, the terror then became effective as auxiliary strike-breaking machinery. Every act committed by the General Strike Committee leadership was an act to liquidate the strike, to kill it,” Sam Darcy, the head of the California Communist Party, later wrote.

After the Teamsters went back to work, the Joint Strike Committee moved to end the strike. On July 21, Bridges and the ILA union officials agreed with the government’s proposal to put arbitration up for a vote by the ILA membership. They made this agreement behind the backs of the ISU, the union of the striking seamen, thus breaking apart any solidarity that the longshoremen had with the seamen.

Moreover, Bridges and the ILA agreed to allow the vote on arbitration to be conducted by a special board appointed by President Roosevelt, called the National Longshoreman’s Board, that had been set up to mediate labor disputes. The Board consisted of the Assistant Secretary of Labor, representing the federal government, the Catholic Archbishop, who had served as a mediator in the 1933 cotton strike, and the president of the Legal Aid Society of San Francisco. So, it wasn’t the union itself that conducted a vote by the membership in all the West Coast ports to see if the longshoremen were willing to submit to arbitration. In effect, the ILA leadership was agreeing to allow the government to make a key determination for it, another key concession.

In reality, the ILA strike leadership was demonstrating to the government that it was ready to act in a “responsible” way, that is, to submit its affairs to government authority, and through the government, to submit to the capitalist class. “In the United States the Department of Labor with its leftist bureaucracy has as its task the subordination of the trade union movement to the democratic state and it must be said that this task has up to now been solved with some success,” wrote Leon Trotsky in 1940.

On July 25, the results were announced: 6,327 to 1,471 for arbitration. Less than two-thirds of the total ILA membership had voted—a sign of a level of discontent or unease amongst the rank-and-file. But the workers remained on strike for three more days. By continuing the strike, the workers were voting with their feet. The strike ended July 28, 83 days after it started.

The arbitration was carried out by the National Longshoreman’s Board. The wheels of bureaucracy ground slowly. Not until October 12 did the Longshoreman’s Board render a decision. Some of what it granted on the economic level—such as a six-hour day (with overtime paid after six hours) and a thirty-hour work week—would appear to be downright “unrealistic” and “unattainable” to today’s workers. Those gains testified to the fear the workers had created among the whole capitalist class.

But these gains applied only to the longshoremen. After the ILA deserted the workers in the other unions, Bridges addressed a tempestuous meeting of the Sailors Union. He claimed that he personally had opposed arbitration and a separate agreement for the ILA. Instead, acting like a true bureaucrat, he blamed it all on the rank-and-file, who he said were “exhausted.” He then argued for the seamen to end their strike, despite the fact that the seamen had won nothing besides union recognition. This opened up a rift between the ILA and the ISU. Meanwhile, the MWIU, the red union, dissolved itself into the AFL’s ISU almost immediately after the strike.

The conclusion of the strike marked a sharp turn in policy for an important part of the capitalist class along the West Coast. The capitalist class had begun to realize that its interests could best be served by offering a few gains to the new union apparatus to get it to collaborate.

Certainly, official union recognition was a historic concession won by the workers in struggle. In exchange, the new “leftist” union apparatus agreed to make this concession as “business-friendly” as possible, agreeing to a framework that substituted huge and ever increasing amounts of bureaucratic and time-consuming red tape in place of the workers’ own self-activity and action, the very things that had enabled the workers to impose their unions in the first place.

This bureaucratic legal structure grew to include collective bargaining, a legal contract, the grievance procedure, mediation and arbitration, all of which required workers to look to the government and the courts. It was a legal apparatus, tying the unions to the state. And it turned the workers into passive spectators, watching union officials decide the workers’ fate, working with the government and the employers to do it.

Of course, the whole procedure wasn’t imposed overnight. The strike movement in California continued. There was a second longshoremen’s strike in 1936. The workers organized unions in warehouses and shops, on construction sites and in department and variety stores, as well as in hotels and restaurants. Faced with a growing strike wave, employers recognized unions quickly. Union membership doubled in San Francisco between 1933 and 1940. By the end of the decade, the AFL had nearly 500,000 members in California, and the CIO, the new federation based on industrial workers, had another 150,000.

But as the strikes proceeded, they were more and more carried out along predictable lines set up under collective bargaining procedures. If workers crossed the legal limits set up under those procedures, some of those new union officials acted as enforcers of those procedures against their own membership. In April 1938, when a sailors union defied a National Labor Relations Board ruling, Harry Bridges proclaimed: “You can’t strike against the government,” a slogan the government subsequently used over and over against strikers. In February 1940, Bridges introduced a “five year peace plan” offering a no-strike guarantee for five years in the maritime industry in return for a compulsory arbitration setup. The workers’ own leaders began to contain the workers’ movement just as it was spreading.

With good reason, Leon Trotsky, who had been one of the main leaders of the Russian Revolution, called the union bureaucracies, which developed along with the unions themselves in the 1930s, the bourgeoisie’s “political police.” (In an unfinished manuscript from 1940.)

Most of the militants who had led the workers’ fight—including most of those who considered themselves communists, socialists or radicals—viewed this framework as an important victory, a necessary step in the direction of the workers’ liberation. In a country with little political organization in the working class, a country without a labor party or any other mass party, most of those militants considered the establishment of a union to be the only “realistic” prospect, the step that had to be taken before anything else could be done. In fact, it was nothing but the old reformist hash, warmed over once again, made that much more destructive given that the workers, by their actions, at least, were beginning to call the capitalist order in question.

What was missing was a party, or at least the beginnings of one, that could have given the workers another perspective, allowing workers to understand that their movement could take them on another road, that is, that of the revolutionary possibilities their movement opened up.

In 1938, Trotsky had characterized this situation in the “Transitional Program”: “In all countries the proletariat is racked by a deep disquiet. The multi-millioned masses again and again enter the road of revolution. But each time they are blocked by their own conservative bureaucratic machines....” It was this situation that led him to conclude: “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.

From Organizing to Breaking Strikes

The acceptance of the capitalist framework by the new union apparatuses that had taken the head of the workers’ movement followed a certain very iron-clad logic. How that played out could be seen most dramatically in the aircraft industry in Southern California a few years after the San Francisco General Strike.

By the end of the 1930s, the aircraft industry was booming, as orders from England, France and the U.S. Army Air Force poured in. The aircraft companies had conducted a nation-wide recruiting campaign that resulted in a tremendous migration of young unemployed men to southern California. By mid-1941, over 100,000 aircraft workers were employed in the L.A. area alone. The pay was extremely low, and workers lived on the edge of hunger and starvation.

For decades, Los Angeles had been considered a “haven of the open shop,” where most unions had been viciously crushed. But during the 1930s, the workers’ movement had made some inroads. In 1933, a 26-day strike of 3,000 female garment workers won union recognition for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). And dockworkers in San Pedro, the Los Angeles port, had won union recognition during the 1934 Maritime Strike. But amongst aircraft workers there was little union organization other than a small presence of the International Association of Machinists (IAM), which closely collaborated with management at a few companies.

In 1939, the United Auto Workers union (UAW) sent Wyndham Mortimer, one of the most experienced and accomplished union organizers in the country, to Los Angeles to see what he could do with the rapidly expanding West Coast aircraft workforce. Mortimer had been one of the architects of the Flint, Michigan sitdown strike of 1936–37. In that strike, General Motors workers occupied their plant for 44 days and wrestled union recognition from the powerful and fiercely anti-union corporation. The strike was considered the “Gettysburg” of the union movement, because it galvanized organizing drives among the vast mass of unskilled workers throughout the Midwest. But even before Flint, Mortimer already had a long history of organizing unions under difficult conditions. At the founding convention of the UAW in 1936, Mortimer had been elected first vice-president of the union. Within a year and a half, the UAW had grown from 30,000 to 350,000. But behind the scenes, the UAW leadership was locked in bitter factional battles, and Mortimer, a longtime member of the Communist Party, was ousted from office at the second convention. Retained as an organizer, he was exiled to the West Coast, that is, as far away as possible from the UAW’s power center in Detroit.

Mortimer and several other UAW organizers who were also CP members exiled from Detroit, began a drive to enroll aircraft workers in the UAW. They published a paper called the “Aircraft Organizer,” which union organizers distributed weekly at the gates of many aircraft companies.

The organizers concentrated their efforts at two rapidly expanding companies: Vultee Aircraft, based in Downey, and North American Aviation, based in Inglewood next to what would become Los Angeles International Airport. At Vultee, which made 25% of all the U.S.’s military trainer aircraft, employment went from 500 in November 1939 to 4,000 in February 1940. The UAW quickly won union recognition over the IAM in an NLRB election, but the company refused to negotiate on a new contract. On November 15, 1940, the UAW committee called a strike that lasted 13 days, winning substantial pay increases, giving the organizing drive a big boost.

But the strike also brought down a shrill campaign of denunciation from the Roosevelt administration. Up until then, the Roosevelt administration had been careful to avoid open and direct intervention against strikes, with Roosevelt instead posing as the “mediator” and a “neutral” who could be won over to the workers’ side. But after the Vultee strike, with the approaching war, Roosevelt no longer kept up the pretense of neutrality. He himself directly attacked the organizing effort. His Attorney General, Robert Jackson, attacked the strike as Communist-inspired and “a blow to national defense.” The FBI denounced Mortimer and another of the organizers as members of the Communist Party.

On March 13, 1941, the UAW won union recognition at North American Aviation, one of the two main producers of fighter aircraft in the country, but only after a prolonged NLRB election procedure. Even so, the company stonewalled all negotiations, despite the fact its coffers were bursting with profits from new federal contracts. The company president arrogantly scoffed, “I don’t have to pay any more to my workers because most of them are kids who spend their money on a flivver and a gal.”

After being stalled for five weeks with this kind of talk, the union membership voted on May 23 for a strike. After being stalled still further by the government mediation board, the 12,000 North American Aviation workers went on strike on Thursday, June 5. The workers’ mood had already reached the boiling point. On June 5 at 3:00 A.M., as the night shift left work, the workers set up a picket line. By 6:00 A.M. it was swelled by the thousands of day-shifters coming to work. By noon the pickets ringed the huge plant and easily repulsed police attempts to break their line. Aircraft production ceased. It was the largest picket line in the state since the San Francisco general strike seven years before.

That night, Roosevelt ordered the workers to end their strike and announced he was sending in U.S. troops on Monday, June 9 to open the plant in the interests of “national defense.” Backing Roosevelt up were top UAW officials in Detroit. In a nationwide radio speech on June 7, Richard Frankensteen, the head of UAW’s aircraft department, urged a return to work. Parroting the Roosevelt administration “red-baiting,” he attacked the “infamous agitation and underhanded maneuvering of the Communist Party.” On Sunday night, June 8, Frankensteen addressed a meeting of 10,000 North American Aviation workers in a bean field near the plant, calling on them to return to work. The workers shouted him down.

The following morning, Monday, June 9, 6,000 angry workers massed at the plant. There to meet them was the first large contingent of what was to grow by nightfall into an army of 3,500 federal troops, hardened professional soldiers, most of whom had returned from long service overseas. The troops pushed the workers on the picket lines away with steel bayonets, and escorted the scabs into the plant. As the workers were driven back, the workers protested with angry cries like, “Heil Roosevelt!” By nightfall, the troops armed with trench mortars, anti-tank guns, machine guns, automatic rifles, and two anti-aircraft guns, had cleared a mile-wide area around the plant and established martial law. The troops then went on to arrest 16 strike captains and detained them in an army camp where they were stripped and beaten at great length. The army patrolled all the neighborhoods in which NAA workers lived. Troops also patrolled inside the plant, marching up and down the aisles. The officer in charge of the plant posted a notice calling for an unlimited speed-up.

The company and government worked hand in hand against strike leaders. Over 25 union officers, chief stewards, and stewards were fired, immediately reclassified by their draft boards so as to be drafted. The members of the NAA negotiating committee were fired, blacklisted and hounded by government investigators for many years to come. But the purpose this time, unlike all those times before, was not to get rid of the union, but to take it out of the hands of militants ready to defy the government and put it under the control of a loyal and pliant bureaucracy.

The UAW International demonstrated its willingness to being the “political police” the bourgeoisie needed. It fired Mortimer and suspended other organizers, condemning them for carrying out an “unauthorized strike.”

At the UAW Convention that followed the strike, many delegates voiced their support of the strikers and the strike leaders. “I am not so sure the California boys were wrong or made a mistake. They went out on a justified strike. You talk about unauthorized strikes. Why wasn’t it authorized? In Flint in 1937, we built this union with unauthorized strikes. The Ford workers went out on an unauthorized strike ... that’s how they built the union,” said a GM Fisher Body delegate from Flint.

The bureaucrats who ran the UAW convention managed to ram through a constitutional amendment barring from elective or appointive office anyone who belonged to a communist organization. There was a sizable vote of 1,062 against this anti-democratic amendment with 1,969 in favor. In three short years, the union apparatus went from seeming to organize strikes to openly breaking them, while sidelining and purging many of the union militants who had led the most difficult strikes and built the union. That apparatus truly had become the employers’ cops.

An Opportunity Lost—90 Years Ago

The big strikes in California from the early 1930s into the period right before the U.S. entry into World War II show what kind of fight the working class is capable of. It showed how quickly it could organize itself and carry out mammoth fights. Many of those fights carried within them the potential for a direct attack on bourgeois power. Trotsky called the rise of the CIO, “incontrovertible evidence of the revolutionary tendencies within the working class.”

Certainly, the militants who organized those fights showed tremendous organizational abilities. They were courageous. They took their stand on the side of the workers ready to fight, often at severe personal cost. Many faced prison and persecution, some, assassination.

But there were not enough militants whose goal was to give a political perspective and direction to those revolutionary tendencies that the working class exhibited in its fight to build unions. Certainly, many of the militants faced problems because of the twists and turns in CP policy. But the ones who led most of those struggles worked within a perspective that imagined the working class would go forward, one step at a time, one reform after another. Most lacked the conception that the struggles to establish a union drew their significance only to the extent they were a preparation for the workers to begin to build their own power to overthrow capitalist rule, what Lenin had called a “school for revolution.”

The fights in California illustrate how the American working class began to gather its forces to take on the capitalist class at a time of extremely deep crisis and social decay, in which economic depression, the rise of fascism and impending world war put capitalism itself on trial. Yet, those fights also illustrate how the political militants limited those fights to the building of trade unions—trade union apparatuses that the capitalist class almost immediately integrated into its own power structure. These union apparatuses were then used to divide and control the workers, with all of the consequences that are still felt today.

Today, 90 years later, the same questions are still posed, but even more sharply, since the working class—and all of humanity—has paid the price for the opportunity that was lost in those years.