The 1934 San Francisco General Strike

Then, As Now, CLC Tops Were Main Obstacle to Victory

The 1934 San Francisco General Strike

[First printed in Workers Vanguard #109, 14 May 1976]

The recently defeated San Francisco craft workers’ strike induced many comparisons with the S.F. general strike of 1934. International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (lLWU) leader Harry Bridges, who played a key role in sparking the 1934 strike, remarked ironically at one point: “Well. I came in during a general strike, and it looks like I may be going out with one.” Although this year’s conflict never reached the proportions of the earlier struggle which proved the major event in making San Francisco into a union town for several weeks it teetered on the brink of becoming a general strike. It was above all the actions-and inaction of Bridges and his cronies that stood in the way,

The most important of the lessons of 1934, confirmed this year as well, is the need to defeat and take leadership away from the treacherous pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy. In 1934 Teamster president Michael Casey and Central Labor Council head Edward Vandeleur sold out the general strike. If the struggle for union recognition did not suffer an irremediable setback it was only because the leadership of a key section of the workers– the maritime workers– was in the hands of rank-and-file militants who were able to at least conduct an orderly retreat. In 1976 every union was controlled by hardened bureaucrats– from CLC head John Crowley to Harry Bridges, the completely domesticated militant of yesteryear– and there existed no elected strike committees at all, a fact which is central in explaining the total rout of the workers. The whole bunch of labor fakers, moreover, give political support to the Democratic “friends of labor” who are among the most dangerous leaders of the union-busting crusade.

How It Began

The general strike of 1934 grew out of the shipping companies’ determination to smash the reviving dock workers’ union. In the years since the destruction of the AFL longshoremen’s union in 1919, employers had a free hand in dictating working conditions on the waterfront. Longshoremen were forced to join a company union to get work, militants were blacklisted, the speed-up was grueling, and bribery and favoritism were the rule in the daily “shapeup.”

By the middle of 1933, however, partly under the impetus of the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA), of which section 7(a) purported to guarantee the right of union organization, there was a mass influx of longshoremen into the virtually defunct AFL union, the International Longshoremen’s Association (lLA).

The union’s demands, which were circulated up and down the Coast and used as the basis for recruiting new members, included: union recognition, union-controlled hiring halls with preference for ILA members (closed shop), a six-hour day /30-hour week, and a wage increase from 85 cents per hour to $1 (with $1.50 for overtime). By early March 1934 the employers had already decided to oppose these demands unconditionally, provoke a strike and break the union. After an initial delay, a coastwide longshore strike began on May 9 and rapidly gained support from the other maritime trades, tying up shipping on the entire coast.

The shippers retaliated by using oldline AFL leaders, principally ILA president Joseph Ryan, to compel arbitration of the key issues. When that failed, they attempted to open the S.F. port by force. But the strike held solid for 80 days. When police killed two strikers and the governor sent in the National Guard, the result was a three day general strike in San Francisco.

These events did not occur spontaneously, however. Supporters of the Communist Party and the” Albion Hall” group (named after their meeting place) around Harry Bridges, provided the driving force behind the struggle to build the union. It was these militant trade unionists who, while unable to present a program of consistent class struggle, pushed the strike forward. Their serious errors led to the betrayal of the general strike by the treacherous AFL misleaders, but without these militants the strike probably never would have happened in the first place,

The Communist Party, by that time a pliant tool of the Stalinist counterrevolutionary bureaucratic usurpers in the Kremlin, was still operating on the basis of the ultra-left sectarian “Third Period” line laid down by Stalin in 1929. Following this policy both the New Deal and the AFL union tops were denounced as “fascist” and dual unions were the order of the day, The Stalinist dual union on the West Coast waterfront was the Marine Workers Industrial Union (MWIU), composed of both seamen and longshoremen.

After 1933, however, the Stalinist line began to shift in an empirical reaction to Hitler’s unopposed march to power in Germany. Already preparing to build “popular-front” alliances with liberal bourgeois politicians, the Stalinist parties began to reconsider working in the unions dominated by old-line bureaucrats. Thus when longshoremen flocked to their historic AFL union in 1933-34, CP cadres followed and were thus able to link up with Bridges’ group, rather than being totally isolated in their own sectarian “red” union.

The longshoremen who began joining the ILA in 1933 faced difficulties at once. The employers defended the “Blue Book,” a company union formed after the defeat of the 1919 strike, and fired workers for wearing ILA buttons on the job or for not having their “Blue Book” dues paid up. The newly elected ILA leadership advised workers to refer such disputes to the NRA administration, which promptly ruled that the “Blue Book” was a bonafide union! It was the “Albion Hall” group which actually built the AFL union by organizing job actions and a successful strike against Matson Lines in 1933, to reinstate four fired workers.

Membership dissatisfaction with NRA stalling was evident and a coastwide ILA convention was called for February 1934. Bridges prepared for it by making a tour of the Northwest ports, discussing the issues and urging the election of militant delegates from the ranks. As a result, the convention adopted a democratic constitution and called for the federation of all unions in the industry, which drastically cut across craft-union prejudices. The interunion solidarity prepared for by the militants at this convention was critical: seamen had crossed longshoremen’s picket lines in 1919, while the longshoremen scabbed on seamen in 1921.

Following the employers’ flat refusal to bargain- based largely on the assessment that the West Coast union was in the hands of radicals who had to be smashed- and the taking of a coastwide strike vote, Bridges initiated an elected strike committee in the San Francisco Bay area. Delegates, who were elected from the docks and gangs on both sides of the Bay as well as from casuals totaled nearly 50 in number. The need for such a measure became even clearer when the head of the ILA Pacific Coast District. “Burglar Bill” Lewis, unilaterally called off the strike in March on a request from F.D.R.

The Key: Inter-Union Solidarity

The strike finally got under way on May 9, and inter-union solidarity of maritime workers was the key to its initial success. The MWIU led its members off the ships as they hit port. This sparked general walkoffs of seamen, even from foreign ships, and the eventual sanctioning of the strike by the AFL seamen’s union. Other maritime crafts also walked off in sympathy and a joint strike committee, as called for by the ILA convention, was set up, with each union pledging not to return to work until the others had settted. Shipping on the entire West Coast was halted.

Despite this militant maritime solidarity, support from truck drivers remained critical to the success of the strike. The shippers immediately recruited scabs ·-many of them students from the University of California dubbed the “scab incubator”- to unload the ships, while police armed with an anti-picketing ordinance kept the strikers at a distance. Over the vigorous objections of its president, Michael Casey, however, the S. F. Teamsters local voted not to move scab goods off the piers. By May 27, there were at least 25,000 workers out, and the San Francisco port alone was losing $100,000 per day because of the strike.

While maritime workers were marching on the Embarcadero, ILA president Ryan, a fossilized craft unionist who defended the “shape-up” system against hiring halls, flew into town at the request of government mediators and attempted to convince longshoremen to arbitrate wages and hours and accept a jointly controlled hiring hall (i.e., leaving control in the employers’ hands) with no closed shop provision. Though roundly voted down in all ports, he proceeded to sign an agreement to this effect about two weeks later in San Francisco Mayor Rossi’s office, pledging the longshoremen’s compliance with the agreement. But the dockers rejected the deal, and Ryan was booed off the platform in the San Francisco local. More importantly, Ryan’s treachery made the need for militant leadership clear, and the joint strike committee established earlier was empowered by the ranks to replace the regular executive board in handling negotiations.

At this point, city rulers represented by the S. F. Chamber of Commerce and the Industrial Association decided to open the port by force. Trucking goods from the piers to the warehouses was the employers’ immediate tactical objective, so they focused on breaking Teamster support for the strike. Police formed cordons for scab trucks and attacked strikers. For two days clubs flailed, and on “Bloody Thursday,” July 5, two strikers were’ killed by police bullets. The port was immediately occupied by the National Guard.

Bridges and the Communist Party (CP) had already begun agitation for a general strike in response to the employers’ “open the port” declaration, and now the movement mushroomed, although stalling AFL leaders prevented immediate action. Bridges and 1,000 longshoremen and seamen were present at a July 11 Teamster meeting, despite protests from Casey and CLC president Vandeleur, who argued vigorously against the strike. Through rank-and file pressure, Bridges was allowed to address the Teamsters, and an overwhelmingly pro-strike vote was taken following his speech.

Similar delegations of up to 75 strikers were sent to other unions throughout the city, with similar results. Sympathy strikes were declared by ship boilermakers, machinists, welders, butchers and laundry workers. By July 13, 32,000 workers belonging to 13 unions were on strike. Some of them, like the Market Street streetcar employees, put forward their own contract demands.

The Central Labor Council was rapidly being forced to revise its tactics under this intense pressure. Earlier in June it had passed a resolution demanding that the ILA “disavow all connections with the communistic element on the waterfront.” However, to undercut the rising general strike sentiment after “Bloody Thursday” the CLC set up a Strategy Committee, which stalled for a week while supposedly “studying” the possible implementation of a general strike. The CLC also sent a whining telegram to the governor, saying that the National Guard wasn’t necessary because the city police were well-equipped to do their job. And this, after they had just murdered two strikers!

General Strike!

The maritime strike committee had called a mass meeting for July 7, to which all Bay Area unions had been urged to send delegations for the purpose of implementing general strike action and forming a broad strike leadership. The support for a general strike was solid, but when the establishment of the officials’ Strategy Committee was announced the maritime committee decided to postpone action in order not to undercut the CLC which was apparently taking steps toward a general strike. This deferral by Bridges and his CP supporters to the Labor Council bureaucrats handed the strike leadership to labor fakers whose sole aim was to betray the strike. This was the critical mistake of the militants, from which disastrous consequences inevitably followed.

The CLC began to feel an increasing pressure for strike action. Finally, the Strategy Committee asked all city unions to send five delegates each to a meeting July 14, at which a vote of 315 to 15 authorized a general strike for July 16. A strike committee was appointed by the Labor Council, consisting for the most part of salaried union officials who were chummy with the top AFL bureaucrats.

On Monday, July 16, the city was seriously crippled, but the CLC began to sell out the general strike from the very first day. Employees of the Municipal Railway (Muni) were told to return to work on the grounds that striking would jeopardize their civil service status. Phone, telegraph and power workers were never called out on strike, leaving communications in the grip of the bourgeoisie. Printing union leaders dangled the restoration of a 10 percent pay cut before the eyes of union members, convincing them to stay at work. Moreover, since the CLC did not publish a central strike bulletin, the city’s workers were totally dependent for news on the bosses’ press, none of which supported the strike. A publisher’s committee censored all newspapers to make sure the strike was slandered and red-baited from every column. The Hearst papers in particular were so vicious that several unions took boycott action and their members refused to read them!

Sheet metal workers were told by the CLC to repair police cars, a traitorous act providing direct aid to the military fist of the class enemy. While originally only a few services, such as hospitals and milk deliveries, were allowed to function, permits were soon given to hundreds of owner-operators of trucks, amid charges of scandals in issuance of permits. Numbers of restaurants were allowed to open, feeding the rich, while many small groceries were kept closed.

In addition, squads of police agents, posing as dissatisfied workers, were organized to carry out a vicious witchhunt. On the second day of the strike (and with at least tacit support of the AFL bureaucracy), these provocateurs went on an anti-communist rampage, smashing the offices of the CP’s Western Worker, the IWW and the MWIU. The police who “mopped up” after them arrested more than 300 “radicals” in one day. Militants were even pulled out of picket lines and victimized. These activities had a demoralizing effect on the strike, and the CP’s isolation from the labor movement plus its tactical sectarianism made it difficult to mobilize a broad defense against these “red scare” attacks. Meanwhile, Bridges’ strike committee had already undercut the defense by affirming that, while it was willing to accept support from any source, it was an “anti-communist” organization (Charles Larrowe, Harry Bridges, 1972).

Bureaucratic Sabotage

On July 17 the CLC strike committee presented a resolution to the city unions calling for arbitration of all issues in dispute. This passed the assembled body of delegates, over the protests of the maritime unions, by a hand vote of 213 to 180. The labor brass then met with General Hugh Johnson, head of Roosevelt’s supposedly “pro-labor” National Recovery Administration, who had just denounced the strike in violent terms. With such “leadership,” it was easy to call off the general strike only three days after it began. Even so, the vote was close and the ranks never voted to return to work.

With the general strike over, the Teamsters could then be pressured to end their strike on July 20, but only after verbal assurances from Casey that this would not mean handling scab cargo. Yet the next day truck drivers found themselves going through picket lines under armed guard, while Casey’s goons helped police protect them from the strikers! This final blow forced the longshoremen to vote to accept arbitration on July 21 and return to work ten days later. In the intervening period, however, they provided a dramatic display of solidarity to other maritime unions. Although they had voted to go back, the longshoremen honored their commitment to stay out until all other maritime unions had also voted. When the maritime workers returned, they all marched across the Embarcadero together, as an unbroken group.

Although the general strike was sold out and the dockers were forced to accept arbitration of all their demands, the workers had built powerful union organizations and decisively smashed the company unions. The strikes strengthened the entire Bay Area labor movement with an influx of new members. And in the following months, maritime workers (both longshoremen and seamen) were able to establish the closed shop and union-controlled hiring halls through militant job actions, despite the fact they they lost on these points under the arbitration award.

Although the leadership provided by the Albion Hall group and CP was decisive at several points in preventing defeat of the 1934 strike at the hands of ILA chief Ryan and his cronies- and in laying the basis for the later creation of the Maritime Federation of the Pacific- both faiIed at the critical point to prevent domination of the general strike by the AFL bureaucrats. The AFL tops, in turn, after spending months trying to cram arbitration by Roosevelt’s NRA down the throats of the longshoremen, only took over leadership of the general strike because they were afraid of losing control of their organizations.

The Communist Party admitted shortly afterwards that:

“The Party. at the decisive moment when the bureaucrats stood isolated and the workers were rallying for the General Strike in the first meeting at which the General Strike leadership was elected, did not develop a struggle against the misleaders and saboteurs. It allowed them through this course to place themselves at the head of the General Strike and overcome their isolation by feigning support for the General Strike.”

-“Lessons of the Recent Strike Struggles.” CP Central Committee, 5-6 September 1934

Thus at the same time as it was victimized for its ultra-leftism, the CP adapted opportunistically to trade union militants within the maritime unions. The politics of the CP longshore fraction was indistinguishable from “rank-and-file” activists like Harry Bridges, who strongly distrusted the AFL bureaucrats but shrank from the task of challenging them for leadership at key points. Though militant, Bridges was never more than a practical trade unionist, ready to check the AFL leaders, but lacking a full political program for smashing the bureaucracy by building a class-struggle leadership.

Throughout the entire strike, although it lambasted the AFL, the CP refused to criticize Bridges’ conciliationist failures. And within a few short months, the “fraternal” alliance between Bridges and the CP became part of the Stalinists’ trade-union back-up for a “popular-front” alliance with Roosevelt, under which it ceased to play a militant role even on a trade-union level. Though persecuted for years as an “alien” and “Communist,” Bridges was soon transformed into a trade-union bureaucrat.

1934 and Today

The few general strikes that have broken out in the history of the U.S. labor movement have been of a localized and defensive character. This was true of San Francisco in 1934 and characterizes the situation today as well. Responsibility for the defeat of these strikes lies squarely with the reactionary leadership of the unions.

This year’s craft workers’ strike proves once again the treacherous role of the legalistic and cowardly union bureaucracy, which acts as the labor lieutenants of capitalism in sacrificing the most fundamental union gains and betraying the most bitterly fought struggles. These class traitors’ support for the bourgeoisie extends from obstructing the movement for a general strike to opportunistically seeking to take it over for the purpose of derailing it.

The task of revolutionaries is to begin now to lay the groundwork for ousting these dangerous fakers, by educating the working class in the need for uncompromising independence from the capitalists, exposing the betrayals of the present misleaders and providing militant leadership for the workers movement in its vital struggles. Only a strategy of consistent class struggle can lead to victory—the “realistic” conciliators have nothing to offer but defeat.