The Strike of 1934

The Strike of 1934

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The Strike of 1934

On May 9th 1934 a organized labor strike started in San Francisco that would snowball into a city crippling strike. The International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) declared a strike for all longshoremen on the west coast, until they received better wages, a union-administered hiring hall, and union membership as a prerequisite for employed longshoremen. The Strike of 1934 lasted for three months, stopping maritime trade in the ports of the Western United States, from San Diego to Seattle. The clash was between the Industrial Association (IA), composed of big business and employers wanting to break the strike, and the ILA, along with other unions that dealt with maritime trades. The Strike of 1934 displayed the power the organized labor had, and how the mistreatment of labor can shut down an entire city and coast.

The timing was just right for the maritime workers to strike. The grips of the Great Depression fueled laborers to maintain and improve their quality of life and security for their families. Congresses investigation into the 1934 San Francisco Strike concluded that “the aspirations of labor which led to the strike were directed from the change in public opinion expressed in the National Industrial Recovery Act. The potentialities of a protected right to bargain collectively were quickly perceived by waterfront workers.”[1] The shift in public opinion came from the need for the government to be more socially responsible to insure survival of the nation during the depression. The depression was as devastating as it was due to the lack of government involvement, a welfare state was needed. According to the Congressional investigation, “The first notice that forceful demands would be made by the longshoremen appeared in December [1933] when the local voted on the question of participating in a coast-wide strike. Lee J. Holman, then president of the local, stated the longshoremen would demand a 6-day, 30-hour week at a minimum rate of $1 per hour.”[2] Such demands were modest when considering the necessity of waterfront workers to a maritime based economy. This was at a time when the Bay and Golden Gate bridges were still under construction. Before the bridges, overland travel in the San Francisco Bay Area was longer, slower, and couldn’t carry as heavy loads as sailing across the bay.

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Perhaps the waterfront labor unions say the construction of the bridges as a shift of power in the future that made it necessary to strike and gain their demands before they became less important to the Bay Area circulatory system.

The waterfront labor unions strike knocked a blow to the city and gained support from other laborers and the citizens of San Francisco. Little by little the momentum of the longshoremen’s strike expanded. Gradually all the unions involved on the waterfront were involved, “the Teamsters’ Union, on May 10, [the day after the strike was ordered] began support of longshoremen, in progressive stages…On May 14 boilmakers and machinists voted a sympathy strike. On May 15th, a sympathetic strike was called by the sailors and marine firemen’s union, involving 4,000 men, and 700 marine cooks and stewards took similar action the next day.”[3] Support of the longshoremen had taken over the coast to the point that “not a single freighter left a Pacific coast port ‘for the first time in history.’”[4] Mike Quin, a reporter, reflects on the events of the 1934 Strike and how “hastily scribbled signs and placards in the windows of most shops and restaurants read: “CLOSED TILL THE BOYS WIN;” or WE’RE WITH YOU FELLOW...STICK IT OUT; or CLOSED TILL THE LONG SHOREMEN GET THEIR HIRIGN HALL; or “CLOSED. ILA SYMPATIZER.”[5] The strike was felt not just on the water front but all over the city. Clearly the citizens of San Francisco felt that the strikers were in the right, and deserved the better working conditions they demanded. Even non-waterfront related unions joined in the strike, such as; the Musicians’ Union. In the Musicians’ Union Report on the General Strike “the five delegates of the Musicians’ Union, Local Six, composed a part of the General Strike Committee, were happy to take part during the debates of this great convention.”[6] Musicians had leverage in local politics in a time before jut boxes, DJ’s, and sound systems. All aspects of city life were affected by the general strike from night time entertainment, to shopping, dining, and travel. This was a sign that big business and the IA seriously misjudged how powerful organized labor could get.

Large newspapers and the press, all funded by big business, tried to gain support outside the city by propagating that the strikers were communists. Few people other then those involved in the demonstrations knew what was actually going on the waterfront. The press was able to say almost anything with only the strikers, who the press discredited, to challenge what was reported. An example of how the newspapers promoted fear of the strikers was in a San Francisco Chronicle article, which stated, “In a terrific surge of violence climaxing the twentieth day of the longshoremen’s strike, nearly 1,000 stevedores staged a bloody pitched battle with police yesterday afternoon on the San Francisco waterfront.”[7] The article demonizes the strikers as a force of chaos attacking the police to disrupt order. The press and its sponsors wanted the people of the United States to believe the strikers were apart of a communist takeover, and San Francisco would soon be a colony of Moscow. In reality the unarmed strikers, who were not communists, were defending themselves against the violent police actions. Another example of the role the press played was in the coverage of two police officers; Lieutenant Joseph Mignola and Captain Arthur DeGuire. After a violent episode the two officers gave their accounts of how the outburst proceeded, and how they thwarted it. The problem with the officers’ highly publicized accounts was; that they were two different stories of the same event. Even though the reports were contradictory they “were accepted as the official truth about the waterfront conflict.”[8] Despite their efforts to persuade public opinion the press could not stop the strikers. The longshoremen and fellow strikers knew what was really happening in the city, and wouldn’t back down from their demands. In the end public opinion outside of the city mattered little, and the lies of the press did little to stop the strike

Employers and big business pressured the city of San Francisco deal with the strikers, rather than give into the Unions’ demands. Both Mayor Anglo Rossi and the Police Chief were sympathetic to the employers and did what they could to stop the strikers. The stress and anxiety of the situation caused out bursts of violence, which the police and city administration had to deal with. Reporter Mike Quin wrote that “gangs of vigilantes roamed the city smashing halls and homes where communists were known or supposed to gather. Over 450 persons were packed into a city jail built to accommodate 150.” Frustration grew as the strike carried on. On Memorial Day some three weeks after the strike was ordered a demonstration of young people was gathered on the Embarcadero. “It was strictly a young people’s occasion and no adults were in attendance other than strikers who were naturally in the locality and looked on with interest. The speaker began the message, ‘Comrades and fellow workers--’ Instantly the police were down on them with clubs and saps.”[9] This was a typical episode of the clash between the police and demonstrators. Where ever a mass of strike supporters gathered the police, anxious to restore order, used excessive force to break up the crowd. Violence by the police was responded by more violence by the everyday person involved in the demonstrations. In one instance the police chief, William J. Quinn, “had a narrow escape when a brick crashed through the side window of his car, missing him by inches.” [10] Lacking clubs, tear gas, and guns the attacked demonstrators made use of brick piles, and anything else they could get a hold of to retaliate. A break was taken from hostilities to celebrate the 4th of July holiday. This would be the calm before the storm for the next day, Thursday July 5th 1934, the most violent battle occurred. “Before guardsmen arrived on July 5, a fierce and bloody riot took place between the police and strikers near the longshoremen’s hall, near the waterfront. Two strikers were killed that day and 109 people injured.”[11] The day would be remembered as “Bloody Thursday”. Bloody Thursday left the strikers with martyrs to rally around, while leaving city officials and the IA with an idea how violent the strike could get.

Bloody Thursday showed the city and nation how much the strikers were willing to fight, and that there was no turning back. While the causalities were low, the strikers had their martyrs and weren’t going to back down. California Governor Merriam ordered the National Guard into San Francisco stop the riot of Bloody Thursday and to ensure another violent encounter did not occur. With the Guard stationed the violent tempers of all sides of the strike cooled down. By late July an agreement was worked out and the ports of San Francisco were opened once again. While the battle was over the struggle continued. Congress investigated the actions of the press and found that it was in the wrong to portray the strikers as ‘Reds’. In fact the longshoremen and other strikers were the opposite of Communists; they were American’s trying to make a decent living. I conclude with a quote from the Musicians Union Report on General Strike; “since we must all cooperate, the only successful way to stamp out Communism is through the unions, as proven, and not through capital, because it is a fact the unions had to eliminate the extremists and also has a to keep a step ahead of Industry to save industry from itself.”[12]


Congress Investigates the 1934 San Francisco Strike. History Matters Collection. City College of New York. New York.

Musicians’ Union Report on General Strike. The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco. San Francisco, CA.

POLICE BATTLE STEVEDORE MOB, ARREST MANY. The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco. San Francisco, CA.

Quin, Mike. The Big Strike: A Journalist Describes the 1934 San Francisco Strike. History Matters Collection. City College of New York. New York.

[1] Congress Investigates the 1934 San Francisco Strike

[2] Congress Investigates the 1934 San Francisco Strike

[3] Congress Investigates the 1934 San Francisco Strike

[4] Congress Investigates the 1934 San Francisco Strike

[5] Quin, Mike. The Big Strike: A Journalist Describes the 1934 San Francisco Strike

[6] Musicians’ Union Report on the General Strike

[7] Quin, Mike. The Big Strike: A Journalist Describes the 1934 San Francisco Strike

[8] ibid

[9] Quin, Mike. The Big Strike: A Journalist Describes the 1934 San Francisco Strike


[11] Congress Investigates the 1934 San Francisco Strike

[12] Musicians’ Union Report on the General Strike

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