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

90 Years Ago:
The San Francisco General Strike

Jul 1, 2024

In July 1934, workers in San Francisco staged a general strike that paralyzed the city. The San Francisco General Strike was the culmination of a struggle that had begun two months before with a longshoremen’s strike. The longshoremen’s strike spread quickly to other classifications of maritime workers, as well as other ports, shutting down the entire West Coast waterfront for more than two months.

The Longshoremen’s Strike

In the 1930s, working conditions in West Coast ports were some of the worst in the U.S. After defeating a coast-wide strike through police violence in 1916, the maritime companies had imposed an “open shop” hiring process, which the workers called “the slave mart.”

Under the so-called “Blue Book” system (named after the books the company union distributed to the workers), only a small number of workers found somewhat steady work in the docks, through favoritism. For the rest of the longshoremen, it was common to go without work for several days, and then work only two or three hours.

These workers were not even able to support themselves, let alone their families. For food, they relied on charities and even rotten throw-away produce. Many of them were homeless. As for the “favored” workers, it was common for them to toil 24 to 36 hours straight. Constantly exposed to exhaustion and injuries, they basically worked themselves to death.

After the 1916 strike, workers’ fights against these conditions had been led by the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), a militant union also known as Wobblies. But the bosses had been able to suppress these fights thanks to government repression. The U.S. government used the IWW’s opposition to World War One as a pretext to arrest Wobblies and deport some.

Workers’ struggles on the Western waterfront gained momentum again in the 1930s with the involvement of the Communist Party (CP). In 1932, some CP militants and former Wobblies began to put out The Waterfront Worker, a newsletter that echoed the workers’ complaints. The popularity of the newsletter indicated a defiant mood among dock workers, who were leaving the Blue Book union in large numbers and joining the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), a union based on the East Coast.

Worker militants in and around the CP also joined the ILA and began to play a prominent role in the union. But the ILA, like other old craft unions, was run by conservative officials who worked with the bosses and blocked workers’ attempts to fight for better wages and work conditions. In an attempt to circumvent the conservative ILA leadership and bureaucrats, militant unionists called an all-West-Coast convention in San Francisco in February 1934, to which paid officers of the union were not allowed as delegates. Besides a pay raise and a 30-hour week, the convention adopted union recognition and union control of hiring halls as demands.

Delegates set a strike date in March and elected a strike committee of 25, headed by Harry Bridges, who became the strike leader.

After several months’ delay (the maritime companies got U.S. President Roosevelt to request a postponement of the strike), the strike began among San Francisco dock workers on May 9. It spread like wildfire up and down the West Coast—by May 11, all waterfronts along the West Coast were on strike.

The strike also spread to other workers. Sailors, whose working conditions were at least as bad as the longshoremen, walked out with their own demands. San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles truck drivers voted to honor the longshoremen’s picket line. Boilermakers and machinists began boycotting ships that used strikebreakers.

When the companies brought in the police to break the picket lines, pitched battles ensued between strikers and cops. As the pickets stood their ground and stopped the ports from operating, passenger and freight lines cancelled services. All major ports along the West Coast shut down—except for one ship that Seattle strikers allowed to carry essential supplies to Alaska, where residents were completely isolated.

Bloody Thursday and the General Strike

Within its first week, the strike had already suffered its first casualties, when police shot and killed two pickets, Dick Parker and John Knudsen, in Los Angeles. In San Francisco, police opened fire on pickets on May 28, wounding many.

Clashes between police and pickets came to a head on July 5, notoriously remembered as “Bloody Thursday.” Police on horseback attacked pickets on Rincon Hill near the waterfront with batons and tear gas, and fired into the crowd also. Workers responded with bricks and rocks but had to retreat to the ILA headquarters downtown—where police surrounded them in the afternoon. Undeterred by tear gas, batons, and bullets, hundreds of strikers and their supporters fought with bricks, rocks and tear-gas canisters that they threw back at the cops and turned police cars over. The battle continued all day.

Police shot and killed two pickets, Nick Bordoise and Howard Sperry. Over 100 people, including many passers-by, were reported to be seriously injured. The real number of the injured was certainly much higher, since many wounded workers did not go to the hospital for fear of being arrested.

The California governor used the events of July 5 as an excuse to call in the National Guard. But the brutal repression outraged not just the workers but other parts of the city’s population as well. On July 9, 15,000 people marched through San Francisco in utter silence, turning the funeral of Bordoise and Sperry into a massive demonstration in support of the strike. Police and the National Guard were nowhere to be seen.

During the funeral march, life in the city had come to a stop. In the days following the funeral, the call for a lasting general strike resonated all over the city. Union workers in different sectors, one after the other, voted to go on strike, some of them in defiance of their own union leaders. Within two days, delivery trucks, trolleys and taxi cabs in San Francisco had stopped running.

The strike enjoyed support from shopkeepers as well. Many small shops displayed “Closed Till the Boys Win” signs on their windows.

By July 14, somewhere between 120,000 and 150,000 workers were on strike in the whole Bay Area, including many public sector workers. Only businesses in certain sectors were open, such as health care, food, the ferry across the Bay, department stores, hotels, and 19 restaurants that the strike committee had ordered to stay open.

The San Francisco Labor Council also called for a general strike on July 16, but only to turn around and call an end to the general strike two days later, leaving the longshore and maritime strikes isolated.

In fact, the conservative union officials, who made up the labor council, had been against any strikes from the beginning. But they were now officially in charge of the general strike—because the original strike committee, led by Harry Bridges, had turned over the leadership to them.

At this point Bridges and his fellow ILA militants agreed to an arbitration process—something they had said they would never do. They also agreed that U.S. President Roosevelt—a representative of the capitalist class—appoint the arbitration board. In effect, they were telling the workers to look to the government to settle their strike, instead of their own forces.

The labor council’s call on workers to go back to work coincided with another round of terror, carried out by police and bosses’ thugs (whom the bosses’ newspapers called “citizen vigilantes”). As newspapers tried to create mass hysteria against the strike with headlines claiming that “reds” and “radicals” sowed mayhem, police and thugs raided workers’ meetings, the headquarters of the ILA and the offices of the CP, ransacking buildings and beating strikers. Police arrested hundreds of strikers and threw them in jail.

The End of the Strike

It wasn’t the first time the workers were facing police terror. But the longshoremen’s strike effectively ended and workers began to go back to work when the bosses quietly agreed to the workers’ demand that hiring halls be controlled by the union.

When the arbitration board announced its decision three months later, it was a confirmation of this new status quo. Officially, the hiring hall was to be run jointly by the companies and the union but, since the ILA controlled the dispatching of work crews, it also effectively controlled who would be hired. This ended some of the worst practices of the old Blue Book system.

Bridges and the ILA also agreed to settle the strike for the longshoremen while the sailors were still out on strike. That meant they agreed to divide the workers’ fight—one more thing they had said they would not do. And when the sailors eventually settled, all they got was union recognition. In other words, the ILA leaders abandoned—in fact, betrayed—the sailors, even though the sailors’ joining had been crucial for the strength of the longshoremen’s strike.

The arbitration board claimed that it had granted and took credit for significant gains for the longshoremen. The workers won a pay increase, a six-hour day with overtime pay after that, and a thirty-hour week—gains many workers today would look upon with envy. But this shows the effect that the longshoremen’s massive, determined fight had on the capitalist class.

Over the following years, the workers went on many more strikes. There was a second waterfront strike in 1936–37, which lasted 99 days, which helped the expansion of the union into unorganized sections of the working class, such as the warehouse workers.

But these strikes didn’t have the explosive character of the 1934 strikes, in which the workers took the initiative. Instead, the strikes began to follow a more predictable path under government regulation, and with the collaboration of a new group of union officials.

Nonetheless, the 1934 longshoremen’s strike, which culminated in a city-wide general strike, shows us the power the working class has when it mobilizes and fights back together as a class—not only the power to defend its interests in the face of exploitation, but also to collectively run the whole society.