HARRY BRIDGES: AN ORAL HISTORY ABOUT LONGSHORING, THE ORIGINS OF THE ILWU AND THE 1934 STRIKE
Edited by Harvey Schwartz Curator,
ILWU Oral History Collection
This series of articles features the recollections of Harry R. Bridges. As the celebrated leader of the 1934 Pacific Coast maritime strike and the founding president of the ILWU, Bridges has been long recognized as one of the great labor leaders of American history.
These articles focus on Bridges’ memories of break-bulk longshoring in the pre-ILWU 1920s and early 1930s, the origins of the union movement that became the ILWU, and the 1934 strike. They are based on 20 hours of taped interviews conducted in 1978 by Bridges’ wife, Noriko (“Nikki”) Sawada Bridges, now Noriko (“Nikki”) Sawada Bridges Flynn. Harry Bridges had just retired the year before as ILWU International President after 40 years in office. We are all greatly indebted to Nikki for her extraordinary foresight and her outstanding contribution to ILWU history in recording these priceless conversations.
Thanks too to Professor Robert W. Cherny of the History Department at San Francisco State University. Professor Cherny, who is working on a scholarly biography of Bridges, helped provide guidance and access to the tapes during the preparation of the 2000 series.
Harry Renton Bridges (1901-1990) became world famous for leading thousands of longshoremen, sailors, and other marine workers to victory in 1934 in the monumental strike that revitalized unionism on the West Coast. As the oral history passages excerpted here reveal, Bridges and his followers made some extraordinarily shrewd decisions between 1932 and 1934 that guaranteed the Pacific Coast longshore union’s initial survival, early growth and spectacular success in the big strike.
In the long run, though, Bridges became a legendary figure because of what he stood for as much as for what he accomplished as a tactical union leader. Bridges was renowned for his militant stance and his scrupulous honesty. When the shipowners tried to bribe him during the 1934 strike, they found that he was not for sale. Instead, they learned of his uncompromising devotion to his union and his faith in the ultimate wisdom and triumph of his organization’s rank and file.
Bridges, it also became clear, was rigorously committed to the principles of union democracy. The ILWU traditions of direct election of officers, referendums on contracts and other major issues, and even open microphones at meetings, for example, all date back to the Bridges years.
The longshore leader also pushed the idea of working class unity on the broadest scale whenever and however he could. This was reflected in the union’s support of united fronts with other labor organizations in the 1930s and 1940s. It can be seen in the widest sense as well in the union’s historic slogan borrowed from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or Wobblies, that proclaims, “an injury to one is an injury to all.” Finally, it can be seen in the goal of international solidarity that Bridges advocated and the union still pursues.
By the late 1930s, Bridges was already a legend. He had come to symbolize his union’s victory in the great maritime strike, its expansion, or “march inland,” into uptown warehousing and distribution, and its inspiration and direct aid to a generation of workers along the West Coast that was organizing into unions outside of the ILWU's immediate jurisdiction.
In the mid-1940s, Canada’s Pacific Coast longshore workers joined the ILWU, making the union truly international. At the same time, the ILWU organized thousands of sugar, pineapple and allied workers in Hawaii and helped to democratize what had been close to a feudal social, economic, and political system in the Islands. Again Bridges seemed to symbolize his union’s ongoing success.
Even on the traditional trade union front Bridges “delivered the goods.” In the 1930s he promised the longshoremen pensions, health and welfare benefits, and a number of other gains at a time when such things were unheard of for workers. He had his critics and disbelievers at first, but eventually his predictions proved correct, and his legend was enhanced all the more.
Bridges was also an early and outspoken opponent of discrimination. It was known to all that he worked especially hard to make equality of opportunity a reality in his home port of San Francisco. He made sure, too, that the ILWU’s International Constitution contained clauses that clearly condemned discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin or political belief.
The longshore leader was famous in the mid-1930s as well for his staunch anti-fascism. He and his union made headlines years before World War II boycotting scrap iron shipments bound for Imperial Japan. Between 1936 and 1939, too, Bridges and the union backed the Spanish Republic in its bitter struggle against the fascist legions of Francisco Franco.
Before long, Bridges’ routine support of progressive causes that were before their time or were unpopular got him into deep trouble with the conservative powers of his day. It hardly helped that he was never shy about publicly discussing his belief that there was a class struggle, or that he openly admired the Soviet experiment in Russia.
The longshore leader received extra fire when he condoned Stalin’s agreement to a Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany in 1939, and then called for all-out aid to the Soviet Union when Hitler invaded Russia two years later. He was also severely criticized in 1950 for questioning America's involvement in the Korean War.
The upshot of all of this was that Bridges was hounded for 20 years by a series of government investigations, hearings and indictments. There were even movements to enact federal laws aimed directly at him. All of these attacks were based on the assumption that he was a dangerous Communist.
Between 1942 and 1945 Bridges enjoyed a short respite from his legal battles when he and his union vigorously supported the American military’s build-up for World War II. Bridges and the union even committed to a “no strike pledge” for the duration. Nonetheless, essentially Bridges’ legal problems lasted from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s.
With ILWU backing, Bridges survived all of the legal attacks, which reached the Supreme Court twice. Despite its cost in money, time, and aggravation, the “everlasting Bridges case” actually contributed to the Bridges legend by keeping the longshore leader’s name in the headlines for two decades.
Most of the members of the union, of course, assumed that Bridges was the target of every anti-labor faction in the land primarily because of his effective and militant style of leadership. By and large, they rewarded his long-term faith in them with unreserved support.
Bridges was an Australian national who was slow to finalize his application for American citizenship. Thus he was repeatedly charged with being a Communist Party member who should be deported as an enemy alien. Through it all, including a short jail term in 1950, Bridges always held that 95 percent of the evidence against him was true. “But,” he consistently added, “one thing I didn’t do. I didn’t happen to be affiliated with the Communist Party.”
Even as he was fighting his long legal battle, Bridges successfully led his union through a number of serious crises. In 1948 there was another major longshore strike. This time, when Bridges and the union prevailed again, the old Waterfront Employers’ Association (WEA), which had sought the removal of Bridges as ILWU leader, was itself a casualty of industrial warfare. It was replaced by the more amicable Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) and, as the saying went at the time, a “new look” of relative peace came to the waterfront.
Bridges led the union through yet another challenge in 1950 when the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) expelled its left-wing member unions, including the ILWU. Originally the Pacific Coast District of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), Bridges’ union had switched to the two-year old CIO in 1937.
It was during 1937 that the union took on its historic name, the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union. There were several reasons for the move to the CIO, but in part it came about because the CIO advocated inclusive industrial organization in contrast to the AFL’s more conservative and exclusive emphasis on craft unionism. Bridges, of course, became the new ILWU-CIO’s founding president.
The CIO’s 1950 purge struck many as a cynical effort to blunt attacks from the right during the McCarthy period. Most of the 11 unions purged from the CIO in 1949-1950 disappeared in raids by the AFL or the CIO, but the ILWU survived intact. It would be nearly 40 years before the independent ILWU would join the by-then merged AFL-CIO.
In 1960 Bridges negotiated the famous longshore Mechanization and Modernization Agreement (M & M) that traded long-standing work rules for certain guarantees and concessions from the PMA. The agreement allowed the shipowners to initiate the process of containerization without union interference.
Union members still debate the terms of the M & M contracts of 1961 and 1966. Today relatively few question Bridges’ original assessment that it was better to accept the machine and get what you could than to expend your resources fighting a battle you would surely lose in the long run.
When M & M was first signed, Bridges was hailed by the mainstream media as “a great labor statesman.” Since he still saw himself as a militant unionist with roots in the rank and file who was something of an outsider and a rebel, he clearly voiced his distaste for the label. True to his traditions, he was also critical of America’s involvement in the war in Vietnam during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In his last major battle as ILWU president, Bridges led his union through the 1971-1972 longshore strike. The results of that dispute were mixed and are still being evaluated. Five years later Bridges retired from his office as ILWU president. Even then, as a living legend, he remained an activist, for he took up the cause of senior citizen advocacy in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The strength of the tape collection Bridges made with his wife lies in its coverage of the early days, and that is the focus of the oral history selections printed here. In the excerpts that follow, Bridges first reveals in vivid detail how a notorious company-dominated union known as the Blue Book controlled and degraded waterfront workers in San Francisco from 1919 to 1934.
Ostensibly independent, the Blue Book functioned like a company union. This “non-union era” of Blue Book supremacy began with the defeat of the city’s old Riggers’ and Stevedores’ Union in a disastrous 1919 strike and ended with the revival of genuine waterfront unionism during 1933-1934.
Bridges then supplies a riveting account of his career as a struggling young San Francisco longshoreman and erstwhile unionist in the decade before the 1934 strike. His story is a reminder of how much the pioneers of the ILWU had to overcome and of how much progress the union has made since its early days.
Next Bridges illustrates how the hated shape-up hiring system worked on the San Francisco waterfront in the non-union years. He does not go into depth about all of the abuses of the shape-up. Instead, he takes it for granted that we already know something about the favoritism and kickbacks that characterized it. Bridges also assumes that we are familiar with the extremely long hours, the brutal speed-ups, and the shipowners’ callous neglect of safety provisions that marked longshore work before 1934.
On the other hand, Bridges does describe an unsavory wage payment system that was common on the San Francisco waterfront. He points out that the stevedore company bosses used to pay the longshoremen in brass checks instead of currency. In order to cash their brass checks, workers were forced to spend some of their earnings at Prohibition era waterfront bootleg joints. Bridges explains how the stevedore companies, the bootleggers and the Blue Book officials cooperated in perpetuating this exploitative arrangement.
Later Bridges explores the 1933 revival of the Pacific Coast District of the ILA-AFL that would represent waterfront workers during the 1934 strike. This was the organization, as noted, that became the ILWU-CIO in 1937. Bridges here outlines the series of important decisions he and his fellow activists in the Albion Hall group made during 1932-1933 that were crucial to the union’s early survival and long-term success.
The Albion Hall group called itself the Committee of 500, although its membership was actually about a tenth of that figure. When Bridges refers to “our rank-and-file group,” he usually has in mind the Committee of 500 as opposed to more conservative unionists from San Francisco and other West Coast ports. He does, though, sometimes use the term rank and file in the familiar, general sense.
Bridges at one point remembers calling for a rank-and-file convention for early 1934. This was actually the Pacific Coast District, ILA convention held that February. Bridges was seeking support, and the Committee of 500 did claim success because of the adoption of its pre-strike demands at the meeting. He also reviews why he pushed hard for a coastwise longshore contract in 1934, and, of course, delivers a detailed eye witness account of the strike itself.
The concern of the West Coast longshoremen for other maritime unionists on strike in 1934 is another important topic here. The longshoremen were joined in the big strike by thousands of sailors and other marine workers. The maritime unions agreed to stick together, and Bridges saw this solidarity as critical to victory for all. This is why he takes extra time to explore the Pacific Coast District, ILA’s rejection of a separate peace that was offered in what became known as the infamous June 16 agreement.
Shortly after the June 16 agreement’s repudiation Bridges was elected chair of the Joint Marine Strike Committee (JMSC), a newly created body set up to represent all of the striking unions in negotiations with their employers. Bridges’ role as head of the JMSC ensured his status as an international figure.
Today the last surviving member of the JMSC is Sam Kagel, the long-time Coast Arbitrator for the longshore industry. In an interview conducted for the ILWU Coast Committee during 1999, I asked Kagel who really provided the most insightful and important day-to-day leadership on the JMSC. He answered in a word: “Harry.” Bridges’ insight, of course, was not limited to 1934. Here, for example, he makes some fascinating comments about the nature of a strike as a small revolution.
As Bridges also notes, the revitalized West Coast longshore union resisted arbitration throughout most of the 1934 strike. This was because Bridges and other longshore strikers feared that arbitration by a supposedly neutral third party would fail to deliver the Pacific Coast District, ILA’s main demand for a union-controlled hiring hall to replace the hated shape-up.
Things changed when the San Francisco Labor Council voted to end that city’s four-day general strike called to protest the killing of two strikers by police on Bloody Thursday, July 5, 1934. With pressure mounting to end the maritime strike, Bridges and the ILA were forced to accept arbitration. Fortunately for them, the federal National Longshoremen's Board that arbitrated the strike recognized the justice of the ILA’s cause and established a jointly-controlled hiring hall staffed by union dispatchers.
Bridges also mentions some of the important developments that brought his union lasting fame for its progressive policies and its aid to other workers. He describes how the San Francisco longshore local took its initial steps toward the integration of Black workers in 1934, and remembers how ILA members helped organize thousands of other workers in the wake of the big strike. Finally, Bridges recalls the union’s early anti-fascist stance.
Because of the 1934 strike’s bloodshed and the dramatic landmark victory won by the workers, it is sometimes overlooked that the maritime unions struck again successfully in 1936. A major difference this time was that the strike was peaceful since the employers did not resort to the use of scabs or violence.
Bridges has some interesting things to say about building the broad-based unity among the marine unions that helped keep the employers in check in 1936. That unity was embodied in an organization called the Maritime Federation of the Pacific (MFP). Founded in 1935, largely through Bridges’ efforts, the MFP only lasted a few years. Yet Bridges felt that it proved quite useful during the 1936 crisis.
We pick up Bridges’ story in 1924, when he joined an unsuccessful effort to revive the moribund Riggers’ and Stevedores’ Union at the San Francisco port. He calls that union the ILA. His label is actually close to the mark, although technically the Riggers and Stevedores had disaffiliated from the ILA in 1916.
Bridges already had a union background in 1924. He had first seen San Francisco in 1920 and had gone to work on that city’s waterfront in 1922, when he was a 21-year old, Australian-born ex-sailor, a former member of the IWW, and a veteran of the nation-wide 1921 seamen’s strike. Here, in his own words, is Bridges’ story of his and his union’s early struggles.
We set up for the ILA union in 1924, prior to Labor Day, because we did march in the Labor Day parade. We had a membership of about 400. No contracts, 'cause we had a company union. It was set up after the 1919 longshore strike that was lost. You had to be a member of the company union to get work. It was a closed shop. We used to dodge paying as much as we could.
So we joined the Labor Day parade--they always had a Labor Day parade from the Ferry Building up Market Street to City Hall--and the company and union officers stood on the sidelines and marked down all the names they could. I don't know how they got mine; I wasn't anything special.
I was blacklisted, but I had enough to get by on, what with the Japanese lines, an occasional tramp ship that was gonna go to, say, Japan or Australia, the Alaska Packer Line, and some luck in the card games. Various shipping groups, like the Japanese lines, did not have to go along with the company union. We'd load their drums of lubricating oil, mostly from Richmond. We'd load cans of gasoline and kerosene in woodwork cases with two five-gallon cans in each case. Goddamn right they were heavy!
The ship'd be up there in Richmond a week, usually, loading top to bottom. See, if you caught one of them, that would be good for a pretty good payday. You make 50 or 60 bucks on a ship like that alone. We traveled and stayed up there. You'd have travel time to go up and your fare. They put you up at the boarding house, you see. They fed you. When you'd get paid, you'd knock off for lunch, and if you didn't have a box lunch you'd go ashore and eat in the boarding house. We used to eat like pigs.
It was awfully hard with the goddamn company union officials, but they were so busy watching card games and catching the chicks and making dough that they couldn't take care of these other things, like the tramp ships. They had a good enough thing without that.
Later on I was in the company union and I was no longer blacklisted. I used to work on the San Francisco waterfront then for California Stevedore and Ballast--that was the biggest stevedore company. I used to work the steel ships, the Argonaut Line, and a whole slew of things.
On paper, some of the company union conditions were very good. It was like some of the labor laws of Mexico; they were wonderful laws, but they weren't enforced.
The company union officials would come down to knock you off the job for not paying dues. They weren't bothering too much, but when they caught up with you, then you had to pay a year's dues, see--nine bucks. And that's all you got out of that; you didn't get nothing out of the union. The ones that were in the know went along with it and did get some service from the business agents. But if you had a beef against the company, everybody knew in advance that if you went to the company union and made a beef, you lost your job.
I broke my foot in '29 working in the hold. I was standing there on a pile, and we let a load go out, and my foot got jammed between two cases that came together. I worked for a couple days with it--couldn't afford to lay off, you see? But it swelled up so high that I couldn't work down there, so the boss put me on the deck. I couldn't even stand that.
At that time you were so afraid of reporting an injury that you stayed away. This is also part of the company union thing. You cost the company money by claims for injury and the company's insurance rates went up. So the word was around that you didn't go and make a claim for injury. That's the reason I waited for two or three days, but the foot got swollen so badly I couldn't limp around anymore.
When I did go on disability I was getting 25 bucks a week under worker's compensation. Finally the doctor ordered me back to work. I didn't want to go. Twenty-five dollars for doing nothing was more than I would make on the waterfront the way it was, see?
When the 1929 crash came, and the whole real Depression set in, what we were doing on the waterfront was struggling to make a buck, just trying to get a day's work. At that time I was married to Agnes and we were losing our house. Couldn't afford to keep it anymore. After that we moved down to a little flat on Harrison Street, and when that got too expensive--25 bucks a month--we moved next door for 15.
In '32 there was a program put together for city relief where you could go to work on certain projects for one week and you got three weeks of groceries. You got a box of groceries a week. And you got some small things like a couple of bucks to pay a contribution toward rent, or gas and lights or something like that.
I entered the city relief program and went to work at the foot of Seventh Street tearing down some old stables--they'd gone a way back to horse and buggy days. The foreman saw I was pretty handy as a rigger. He said he needed me, so I actually stayed on and worked about a month, which set me up for three months of supplies at a bag of groceries every week.
The shape-up for longshore hiring back then was right there at the Ferry Building, on the block between Market and Mission Streets. The streetcars used to turn around there. On the other side of Market, right on the corner there where that viaduct went over, there was another part of the shape-up. Certain longshore gangs used to shape-up there.
After 7:30, when there was no more picking up, then you'd go around and stand in front of the docks--you'd know where the ships were--in the hope that they'd need a few extra men. There was a smaller shape-up in front of the docks, see?
In the big shape-up, you just stood there and waited for the gang boss. If you were in a gang, when you knocked off the day before, the order from the gang boss was, "Ferry Building in the morning." And that meant you'd be right across the street from the Ferry Building at 6:30, 7:00 to get your order to get on at work, or the boss would come around and say, "Such and such a dock, 8:00." Or 12:00, or whatever it was.
Otherwise, they'd say, "Okay, go home. Nothing today." Then, if your boss said that, you might go around seeing if some other boss needed some extras, see? After that was done, you'd hang around in the shape-up and see if you could go to work somewhere else. And if you couldn't, then you'd go down beside the docks where there were ships, and there was a possibility of a few extra men needed.
In those tough times, once you got a job in a gang, you stayed there, because they were valuable jobs. There's about 16 men in a gang. I was working in a steady gang for American Hawaiian Steamship Company just before the 1934 strike. We was the "star gang" at pier 26; we worked number two hatch. There were steady gangs and what we called "fou fous," or casuals. Every company had a nucleus of steady gangs that worked all the time.
Along the waterfront near the shape-up there were bootleg joints, bookmaking joints, and poolrooms. There was even a shooting gallery right there. These were places we hung out at. We'd hang out at Paddy Hurley's bootleg joint, just drink there, and chew the rag.
We'd cash our checks at Paddy Hurley's. At one period, I kept on going about once every week, borrowing money from Paddy. He'd scream like hell. I was into him for about 60 or 70 dollars. I'd get ten bucks a week, and that was what we lived on. That was the same period I lost the house. I think I eventually paid him off.
Hurley used to do business with the company union, cashing brass checks. When you got a job, and you went to work, the boss had a bunch of brass checks. He'd give you a brass check and he'd put his name on it. That was to show it was a payroll check. It was a brass check with a number on it, you see. It had a hole in the top so you could put it on a key chain or something. You could take it down to the bootlegger and cash it in. The bootleg joint didn't take nothing out of your check before drinks. But you had to spend at least 50 cents. When you spent 50 cents, you got two shots of bootleg at 25 cents each and then one on the house.
Then the bootlegger used the company union agent to go down and collect his money from the stevedoring company. There was other guys that used to cash in brass checks down there too, and take a 20 per cent payment.
In the latter part of '32, at the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt being elected president, all over the country there was the beginning of talk about labor unions, the right of workers to organize, and all that jazz. On the waterfront there was a lot of talk on the job. The Marine Workers Industrial Union (MWIU) was talked about. That was a national Communist Party union. It had been organizing and was doing a pretty good job.
At the end of '32, early '33, we started to meet down at the Albion Hall. It was just a rank-and-file group. Later we called ourselves the Committee of 500. It was more or less under the direction of the MWIU and more or less indirectly under Party leadership. But that did not mean that all members of the group were members of the Party.
We were just a bunch of rank and filers with what experience we had. There were not many around at that time who'd been involved in these strikes and things. We used to have all kinds of people at the meetings. Everybody was welcome. Of course, later on the charge was that it was a Party group, but it was really a fraction that included non-Party members.
In '33 we took over the MWIU paper, The Waterfront Worker. The MWIU was putting out The Waterfront Worker for the longshoremen. We used to read it, too. But it was mostly concerned with seamen and international affairs, like revolutions overseas. So, it did not fit the situation. The decision was made to concentrate on the longshoremen.
When we started to print The Waterfront Worker it was a tremendous success. Everybody who worked on or near the waterfront read it. It didn't come out on the nose every two weeks. Eventually we got to publishing it every week.
We'd grind The Waterfront Worker out. All of us worked on it--John Shoemaker, Shoemaker's wife, who was a typist and a stenographer, Henry Schmidt and I and others. B. B. Jones, too. Some of the guys could type--including me, with one finger. We made a stencil each time and hand cranked the paper out from a mimeograph machine.
All we said on the top of the paper was, "Put out by a group of rank-and-file longshoremen." It was anonymous--we were afraid of being attacked and of being blacklisted again--but most everybody was getting an inkling of who was running the goddamn thing. We did name the bosses, the finks and so forth, and report their speedups, chiseling, forcing payoffs and things like that.
We had young guys from Skid Row--they were kids on welfare or something--that would come down and distribute or sell the paper. At first it was a penny--then the price was raised a hundred percent to two cents. The guys'd get about 50 cents for the job they did. They'd sell the paper during the shape-up and then around the docks.
The Waterfront Worker was clumsy and amateurish, but it had an important role in organizing the waterfront. And it played a tremendous role in getting the workers organized coastwise, or industry-wide. The guys in the other ports that were in cahoots with us would watch for the papers. They would distribute them in the so-called fink halls, which were waterfront employer hiring halls that existed in all the other ports. That made it easy to distribute, because that was the central place where all the longshoremen gathered, like the shape-up here.
See, The Waterfront Worker was loaded aboard vessels. There were some mailed out, very few; we didn't have enough money. But you'd put bundles aboard the ships. We'd just leave them in the hull. There'd be a bundle for the guys in the other ports to pick up and read. There was a handful of guys in all the ports that knew the score. They would go aboard the ships and look for the papers. Then they would distribute them.
The first issue that came up was to urge the guys to join the ILA. Now this created a collision with the MWIU. We said, the MWIU is one union of seamen, longshoremen, everything; that's not good, it won't work. We should forget the idea of the MWIU and having the longshoremen and seamen in one union. Instead, we should go along and build the union of longshore on an industry-wide basis like the pattern of the East Coast ILA.
I used my experience as a former Wobbly and member of the seamen's union, a veteran of the '21 sailors' strike, and being an Australian to get one union of longshoremen only. Being Australian helped because, especially on the waterfront here, Australia was well known as a union country. The one group of seaman and longshoremen that supported the 1919 San Francisco longshore strike which was lost was the Australian unionists.
Our difficulty was urging guys to join the ILA even though we took nothing back attacking it. It was a lousy, rotten, racketeering organization. We said, "We don't deny that, but let's join it. Just get in there and change it. Let's go in and take it over." The guys thought I was crazy, but we did. We took it over on the West Coast.
The ILA Pacific Coast District had autonomy. There'd been a battle back around 1908 when the whole ILA was organized on the West Coast, and the West Coast got autonomy within the ILA International structure. Technically speaking, we were in full command. We eventually proved it. We prevailed.
So in '33, we're out to sea. We had a meeting at the Labor Temple in San Francisco and we were sworn into the union with the oath of obligation. We were in the ILA, District 38, San Francisco Local 79. The initiation fee to join the union, I think, was 50 cents. Dues were a dollar a month. And as long as you signed up, you could delay paying the dues, see.
I recall a meeting that must have been later on in '33 with a report from Henry Melnikow, a Pacific Coast Labor Bureau economist who represented us. It was about these National Recovery Administration (NRA) code hearings in Washington, D.C. This was settling the thing by government decree. We, down below, said that's another lot of bullshit. The only thing that'll do the goddamn trick is to get organized, see, and negotiate--and strike if need be.
In 1933 there was a hearing before a National Recovery Administration (NRA) board to listen to charges against the company union of the Port of San Francisco. This challenge was organized by our first local ILA officials. The ILA argument was that the company union was illegitimate. The board found in favor of the company union, saying it was a legitimate union and its contract with the shipowners was good. This, of course, was before the Wagner Act, which seemed to offer labor more.
Our Committee of 500 group was saying--and especially me, with my Wobbly background--that we should put all our reliance on the solidarity of the rank and file and strike clout, and that all those hearings were a lot of shit. The guys who were our early ILA officials had faith in the new NRA code. They thought, "All you had to do was take a vote, and when they took the vote the shipowners had to deal with you."
We took a position, "To hell with that." This is what we adopted. On a certain day, we'd go down to the docks--the guys used to gather at the docks in a shape-up--and we'd say, "All right. All those guys that are members of the ILA or support the union stand over here outside the docks. And all those that are not, go inside. That's the way we have an election; that's the kind of election we want."
Now, the biggest anti-union and pro-company union outfit at that time was Matson Navigation Company. The key issue there was whether we had to belong to the company union or not to go to work. Matson insisted that nobody could work there unless they were members of the company union. The NRA board had ruled that the company union was a legitimate union, but at the same time they had had to rule that we had a right to be joining the ILA.
So when Matson fired four guys for not being company union members, our rank-and-file group tied them up for five days. We were trying to spread the strike all over the waterfront. The NRA had to move in then and try to arbitrate it, and we got the four guys reinstated.
This battle really got us off the dime. We'd shut down Matson and won our right to have the ILA there. This killed Matson's idea that you'd have to be a member of the company union, called the Blue Book, to work there. Piss on that. So, in no time at all, as a result of this battle, everybody that worked in Matson was a member of the ILA.
After the Matson victory, the general line was to give credit to me, and not only me, but a whole group, our rank-and-file group that had a rank-and-file program. This was a program of action on the docks with dock stewards and dock committees, see?
I was working at this time in a steady gang, that crack gang down at the American-Hawaiian Steamship Company at Pier 26. American-Hawaiian used to have a big fleet of intercoastal ships. Pier 26 was the first pier we had completely organized. One day we set aside, everybody would wear their union button on their hat. So, one day, we marched in there and the company didn't say boo. They didn't dare. This was after, I think, the tie-up in Matson.
One big thing a little before the Matson shut-down was to insist on the adoption of a set of bylaws and the election of officers for ILA 38-79, our longshore local in San Francisco. Lee J. Holman and a bunch of others who had applied for the ILA charter from the International in New York had set themselves up as temporary officers.
Holman and his people were conservatives who were putting all their faith in the new NRA code. Instead, we'd put together our rank-and-file group, the Committee of 500. When the elections were held, I was elected an executive board member for the local. The majority of the board members elected came from the Committee of 500. Lee Holman made it as president. We had three business agents--two were guys we were supporting.
At this point I spent all my time working and at union meetings. I went home to sleep, and that was just about all. So, home and family--they were just forgotten. I remember that. I'm saying it the way it was.
Just before the end of '33, we started a campaign at our local. We would call a rank-and-file convention of the whole coast, see? When I laid out the program, they--the rank-and-file group I was working with--thought I was crazy. This was way beyond what they were suggesting. They didn't understand the potential there.
So, we had a local meeting here in San Francisco, and we all showed up. We used to organize for the meetings to make motions and vote and so forth. We advanced our plan to have a coastwide rank and file convention. That was adopted. Two of us were elected to travel up and down the coast to line up the other locals. I was elected with Dutch Dietrich, who was another rank-and-file guy at that time, although later on he testified against me.
This trip was the first time I'd stepped forward and made public speeches outside of the San Francisco waterfront. We started off on the train. What we were paid was a day's pay, $6.80. That's all we got to pay our fare, the hotel rooms and everything. We had a meeting in Portland. They agreed to go along with the scheme. We went to Seattle, spoke at the regular union meeting, and got support.
We finally went to Tacoma, Washington. The ILA local up in Tacoma had kept going all the years since 1919. Tacoma was a union port where they had a union hiring hall. By now we were making headway and Tacoma's leader, Paddy Morris, had the reports. So, he's a conservative, but he's a smart guy; he went along with it. We went down south to San Pedro, too. The convention date was set for February 1934.
We went to our rank-and-file convention that February, right in the Building Trades Temple in San Francisco. We drew up a set of demands and came out with a program to set up committees, to negotiate and, if necessary, to strike.
Our demands were for a six-hour day, a wage increase and union hiring halls. We were pretty unanimous on that. There was no argument. Paddy Morris and the more conservative guys were smart, because they were all for these things. It was a matter of trade unionism, you see? So, we come out with a program, and then we set up a negotiating committee.
Bill Lewis, who was elected President of the Pacific Coast District ILA at the convention, was the head of the team to negotiate a contract. But the way Lewis' team did it, the owners agreed to meet with us, but only in San Francisco. The owners took the position that there was no coastwise organization of steamship companies. There was only port-by-port, see? And they refused to sit down with us on an industry-wide basis.
I was the one that drove the number one demand: We'd deal only as a district. That was the way we put it, but it meant we'd want one coastwise contract covering all the ports with the same wages set in, because wages and working conditions were different in each port. Like Pedro, wages for some were a dime an hour less.
I had also studied the background of the 1916 and 1919 longshore strikes, and one of the things that broke the strikes was the ability of the employers to play one port against the other. Ships are moving plants or warehouses that can pack the goods from one port to the other. It stands to reason that when one port is on strike, and the ship can move a few miles away and be worked by members of the same union, it's ridiculous.
So, it's a very simple thing, and I can remember one of our slogans: "One port down, all down." If we had to strike, strike all the ports at one time and all the ships at one time. That's why we wanted to have an agreement covering all ports.
The employers' position was they'd make an agreement for San Francisco and then urge the other employer associations to adopt it. That gave the other employer associations of the various ports like Portland, Seattle, and Pedro the right to reject it or to accept it with some exceptions. Now, we knew they were going to have certain exceptions, see?
So when the employers came out with this proposal for San Francisco, we said, "We don't want any part of that." We dumped that, and set a strike date. By this time, we'd been fighting Bill Lewis and our negotiating committee, too. We said they came up with a lousy program.
Then we got a telegraph from the White House urging postponement of the strike date so the government could do something. Well, the strike date was postponed from March the 23rd, the original date. They set up a federal mediation board at that time, and negotiations went on.
When we finally went on strike, May 9, 1934, we had four demands. I've got it written down on telegraph form. We'd deal only as a District. We wanted a six-hour day, a 30 hour week, $ 1 an hour, and the union hiring hall. We wanted the union hiring hall because of the shape-up.
When the strike started, we just worked day and night to get things in shape. The main thing was to get everybody out. The other side was all prepared, and they started to recruit strikebreakers. They had big ads. And "Navy" Bill Ingram, the football coach at Cal, organized all the young men. He said he'd train the football team workin' on the waterfront. Cal was one place they went for scabs, see? They recruited not just from the football team, but from the student body as a whole, and from other places.
The shipowners had a big boat tied up down near Pier 18. That's where the scabs used to live, on there. Our guys patrolled, 'cause the strikebreakers used to sneak ashore, get off the docks, and come uptown. We had squads that used to lay in wait for them. They'd find 'em uptown and dump 'em and roll 'em.
We had a hell of a time because picketing was illegal. One of the reasons is the waterfront was state property. We'd get out there with our flag, our union banner, and I think we had a couple of drums to march along. Then the cops would move in and beat the shit out of us.
The first big battle with the cops was May 28. But before that, a few days after we was on strike, we fought over the so-called longshore hiring hall of the waterfront employers. It was right down there on Mission Street just a couple of blocks from the waterfront. We marched up there and raided that place. And of course, the cops were there. That was our first clash with the cops. It was very small.
The big battle of May 28 started when we had a long mass demonstration parade from the Ferry Building down toward Pier 46. We had it all fixed to break into Pier 38. Somehow I think the word got out to the cops. We marched along in front of Piers 18 and 20. There was maybe 1,000 of us in a long line, three or four abreast marching with our flags and everything.
In the middle of the parade was me and a handful of guys, and on the end was another bunch of guys. Now the scheme was that as we marched past Pier 38, the middle of us would charge into the dock, kick the doors down, and scramble over the dock. Then both ends would close in and follow us in, see?
I'm in the middle of the parade to lead the break-in. When we get down to pier 18, the cops get out in front of us and utter an order, "Stop, no further." So the guys in front sent word--John Schomaker was in command in front--asking, "What do we do?" I said, "Let's go, move. Just ignore them. No trouble, keep on marching, go right ahead." When we started up, then the cops charged us and started to beat us up and dump us. That was the first real brawl on the waterfront.
In June of '34, with the strike a month old, Joe Ryan from New York seized his authority as the ILA International President to meet with the shipping companies and the mayor of San Francisco. He tried to settle the strike by himself.
Ryan was a conservative union leader who became a prisoner of the mob. In terms of money sell-outs, he got certain payoffs in one way or another. Ryan signed an agreement in the office of the mayor, Angelo Rossi, known as the June 16 agreement. It was supposed to settle for the longshoremen only. If the agreement was adopted, we'd all go back to work and leave the other maritime unions that struck with us behind.
So that would've meant breaking our agreement with the other unions to all stick together and win the strike. This essentially was the reason that the terms of the agreement were made fairly attractive, like acceptable wages, a joint hiring hall, and the discharge of scabs.
Ryan went to a special meeting we called in San Francisco on June 17. It was at the Eagles' Hall on Golden Gate Avenue. I was chairman of the meeting, and I had a hell of a struggle. I insisted upon Ryan's right as International President to be heard, saying it wasn't a question of whether we agree with him or not, it was the fact that he was the International President of the union. We at least owed him the courtesy of letting him have the floor.
So, Ryan took the deck. He droned on and on--he had a way of talking endlessly. And the longer he talked, why, the worse things got. Guys kept running up to me on the platform to complain. Sam Kagel, our advisor from the Pacific Coast Labor Bureau, says, "How long are you going to let this go on?" I kept on gaveling the guys down. Then, of course, an uproar would break out in the membership, with hootin' an' hollerin'. I'd have to gavel 'em to silence and say, "Look, fellas, the President's gonna have his say."
The meeting ran to a close and a vote was taken. I insisted upon a secret ballot. I was rejected by an overwhelming vote. I think there was something like 2400 opposed and a couple of hundred fors. Coastwise, the June 16 agreement was rejected in all ports except one. That was Los Angeles, or the port of San Pedro. They voted for it, in a referendum, by a small margin.
Practically all the locals outside of San Pedro voted the June 16 agreement down in special meetings by refusing to take a referendum. They said it was so lousy they wouldn't waste the time and the money. Anyway, this killed the famous June 16 agreement. That was when Ryan left San Francisco. He left town with a blast, too, saying that the Commies had taken over the strike.
Right after Ryan left town, we set up the Joint Marine Strike Committee (JMSC) for the 12 unions on strike. I was elected chairman. With the June 16 agreement repudiated, we served notice on the employers that they'd have to meet with us and negotiate. So then we took over the negotiations. I was the chief spokesman.
The JMSC used to meet every morning for an hour. Then, right across the street from where the San Francisco Post Office Annex is now, not far from The Embarcadero, there was a vacant lot. So we called the lines together there and I'd get up on the soapbox and make a report to our guys before they scattered and went on picket duty along the waterfront. Maybe I'd take five minutes, a half-hour, whatever it was, and give 'em a day-by-day report from the strike committee.
Of course, by this time the whole idea of us being a Communist group and the whole thing being a Communist revolution was being picked up by the press. Then the strike committee, over my objections, would have drawn up--this is some of the reactionary guys on the committee--a resolution condemning Communism. This would then be introduced into the San Francisco Labor Council, again over my objections. As soon as it was adopted that was a good sign that the cops would move in and beat the shit out of us again.
I tried to tell the guys; I said, "Look, fellas, you're asking for it." I didn't know too much. I wasn't too politically apt, you see? But I knew damn well to avoid tryin' to appease the fucking press. The worst outfit then was the San Francisco Chronicle. And sure enough, as soon as we passed one of those resolutions and it was in the paper, the cops would come in and beat the shit out of us.
By and large, we were all greenhorn amateurs. The one who had a little actual past union experience was me. One time we were marching, and the attitude of the guys was the cops would never shoot us. I couldn't convince them otherwise, because they knew all the cops. Then they took all the old cops off the waterfront and sent some new ones down.
Suddenly shots rang out. One of our guys falls right down, and he's squirting blood. And, of course, my partner, who was a real anti-Communist guy, said, "Hey, he's been shot!" I said, "Of course he's been fucking well shot. I've been trying to tell you that."
Then my partner wakes up and says, "Let's go!" We break away and run across the vacant lot and around the corner. Just when we turned the corner, we heard shots go through the corner of the building. It missed us by about six inches. Just got around the corner. Then I was looking around over my shoulder and I could see the cop with the gun.
There were a lot of mounted cops back then, too. But we had a few tricks ourselves. One of our maneuvers was that when we had enough dried peas or marbles we'd scatter them around so that the horses would fall over. There was the horses scattering in every direction.
Of course, once that happened to a horse, he got extremely nervous, and he was scared to move. We also had something--I forget what it was--to hit the horse's belly with, and especially his prick if it was a male. They had geldings, see? So that's how we disarmed the horses.
We also developed a way of handling tear gas bombs. At first the cops didn't have tear gas guns like they had later. They threw round tear gas bombs that were glass. They'd break, and the tear gas would come out. So, we got brooms like you'd sweep the floor with. We was out there like a bunch of baseball players. When the bombs came, we'd smack them and hit them right back into the middle of the cops.
Hitting the glass tear gas bombs with the brooms didn't break them. But when they hit the deck they broke. We also had buckets of water so that when the bombs fell and broke on the cobblestones near us, we threw water on them. I don't know what good that did!
There was another thing we did. Right down there across from Pier 46, they had torn down a building. A big vacant lot was being built up there. There was small stacks of bricks all over this vacant lot.
It was just perfect, because you got in there, and then the cops couldn't charge. The horses couldn't come in. We were there with a ready made load of ammunition if we had to make a stand. It was made to order, you know? You didn't have to have many fuckin' brains to figure out how to handle that.
When we buried Nick Bordoise, the cook that got killed on Bloody Thursday, Sam Darcy made a fighting speech. I liked his tone. Darcy was the regional head of the Communist Party. He said, "We didn't come out here to cry, and Nick wouldn't want us to cry. What Nick wants is, `The fight must go on. We're just gettin' started.'"
This was Darcy's line. You bet your life. He said, "These are casualties, sure. But what Nick wants is, `No more casualties; we only want the casualties from the bosses, not from us anymore.'" That was no goddamn speech of here we're burying a martyr and we start saying prayers. Bull shit, no.
You see, in a small way, temporarily a strike is a small revolution. A strike is a very serious thing. The strike weapon should never be used except as a last desperate resort, when there's no way out. It simply means a form of revolution because you take over an industry or a plant owned by the capitalists and temporarily you seize it. Temporarily you take it away.
That's another way of saying to an employer or an industry--in this case, we said it to the shipowners of the whole world--"You might be worth millions or billions—we don't say you own this until we tell you to operate." But never do that unless you're sure you're able to do it. Therefore, we approach a strike, at least I do, as a very serious thing. I approach it from the point of it being a small revolution, and takin' over that industry or plant, we own it the while. We seize it until we get our price.
In late June of 1934 the National Longshoremen's Board was set up by President Roosevelt to mediate the strike, and then later on to arbitrate it. That's what they eventually did. We fought arbitration all the way down the line, 'cause one of our demands was that we shall not arbitrate. But the San Francisco general strike was settled with arbitration.
We went back to work at the end of July. The arbitration hearings took place, and the decision came down on Oct. 12, which was a big resounding victory. The union-controlled hiring hall we won officially went into effect around the spring.
We were the first union that called things together and took the position that nobody would shape up at the docks anymore. Of course, at first we didn't have a hiring hall, but by taking action, we forced hiring through the union hall near Mission Street and The Embarcadero.
After we returned to work there was an awful lot of activity. Half the time we'd be taking job actions over conditions and tying up ships to get scab seamen off.
All longshore strikebreakers had to be laid off, fired, but there was a distinction. Longshoremen that had been working before and didn't go on strike were called "loyal employees" and the order did not apply to them. They were officially longshoremen on the waterfront. The other guys were just called scabs.
I thought the loyal employees deserved another chance. I went and appeared before the gang bosses in San Francisco who'd stayed on the job and said, "You should be judged from what you do from here on in. You didn't understand, we weren't able to get to you the right way. Now, join the union and fly right from here on in. Everybody's welcome."
I went on, "You weren't the guys who actually came to break the strike. All the scabs were fired. At least you guys were already here. After this, we all work together. That's the name of the game from here on in."
But I also told them, "Now, if we want to get rid of you guys, we can. We can hard time you. So straighten up and fly right." Then I went and fought it out with the membership and got their agreement. And most of those guys turned out to be the best union men we ever had.
Same old principle--you're going to make mistakes. We can all make mistakes. We're not better than that. It was the same with the San Francisco Black guys who were loyal employees and stayed in, except I had a tougher time settling the membership thing.
I had to go into the whole question of Blacks. I said, "Look, fellas, the only way these guys ever got a job was as scabs. The bosses saw to that. Let's right now say, `You've got a job as a working stiff. No discrimination.'"
Same thing, see? But the Black guys had a hard time. We came to register as longshoremen one day down at the Ferry Building. These poor bastards had to show up to get registered too, and they dumped the hell out of them. The cops stood by there and didn't raise a finger.
The way we integrated our local was we had some Black gangs that we pulled out in the middle of the strike. So, we started off with a small number and built it up as we went along.
When the strike started all the Black gangs at certain docks stayed in. They didn't come out. Luckenbach dock and the Grace Line dock were the two main Black docks. These Black guys had been imported to break the 1919 longshore strike. That's how they come onto the docks in the first place.
So in 1934 we concentrated on getting them out. After we'd been on strike about a month, they'd come out. Some of them, not all of them. But by the end of the strike I think we had all the Black gangs out.
It was the same thing with many of the guys we organized later. Some licensed officers sailed all during the strike. When we set up the Maritime Federation of the Pacific in 1935 to get all the marine unions united, we had to say, "Look, we gotta count them in." That's how we put together the Federation. We said, "Forget what they did do from here on in."
That's why, in 1936, when the maritime unions struck again, it was solid as a rock. No trouble at all. It was the end for the employers. After '34, they never, never tried to use scabs again.
So after '34, this thing paid off. Giving those guys a chance meant they closed ranks and just served notice on the employers that they didn't dare operate in 1936. They couldn't get scabs in the area anymore, either. We made the rounds of the colleges and the unemployed down on the Skid Row and said, "Don't scab." We covered all those places, and we lined up the labor movement.
Don't forget, 35,000 workers joined the union movement during the four days of the San Francisco general strike in '34. And we organized the city's streetcar lines. There was the municipal line, and then there was a private Market Street railway. That was a line with a bad record, too. It was tough to organize, but we organized it.
We were organizing during the `34 strike and afterwards. The guys used to take time off to go into restaurants and organize, and into all kinds of places all over the waterfront. They used to ask, "Where's your union card?" at a bar, or at this, that or the other plant, like the American Can plant and various places like that.
We're the ones that organized and shut down the big store at 5th and Market Streets in San Francisco. That was Hale's back then. We were working with other unions and the Labor Council.
After the '34 strike we also held anti-fascist, anti-Nazi demonstrations. We started on the scrap iron beef where we boycotted exports to fascist Japan.
By this time the Nazis had taken over in Germany. A new German cargo ship came to Oakland. On every German ship there was a couple of storm troopers and they really run the ship. Now a lot of the crews were Communists on the QT. So, I forget the ship's name, but she sunk over there in Oakland.
She was fully loaded, and after we finished the job and got all our people off, she quietly went down alongside of the dock. She was a brand new ship on her maiden voyage. Fritz Wiedemann was head of the German consul in San Francisco. He screamed that we deliberately sabotaged her. We called it a complete accident!
My last time working on the waterfront was just before the '34 strike. When the strike was over, as chairman of the strike committee, I didn't go back to work. I stayed on negotiating, and elections took place, and I was elected president of the San Francisco longshore local.
In office I always felt that the ones that direct everything is the rank and file. And I'm its spokesman, that's all. The rank and file is the power of the union, see. They're the ones that can shut things down.
Everybody was pulling together in 1934. We had across the board unity of all kinds of guys that later on turned vicious and red baiting and so forth, but not then. We had a beautiful united front.