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The Big Strike: A Journalist Describes the 1934 San Francisco Strike

by Mike Quin

On May 9, 1934, International Labor Association (ILA) leaders called a strike of all dockworkers on the West Coast who were joined a few days later by seamen and teamsters, effectively stopping all shipping from San Diego to Seattle. San Francisco would become the scene of the strike’s most dramatic and widely known incidents, aptly described in one headline as “War in San Francisco!” On Bloody Thursday, July 5, 1934, two strikers were killed by the San Francisco police. A mass funeral march of tens of thousands of strikers and sympathizers four days later and the general strike that followed effectively shut down both San Francisco and Oakland (across the bay). Mike Quin, a self-described “rank-and-file journalist,” offered a sympathetic picture of the striking workers actions in The Big Strike, a collection of his published articles. Here, Quin described the events leading up to Bloody Thursday, and what happened in its aftermath.

CHAPTER I “General Strike, A Camera-eye View” In San Francisco, July 1934, the laboring population laid down its tools in a General Strike.

An uncanny quiet settled over the acres of buildings. For all practical purposes not a wheel moved nor a lever budged. The din of commercial activity gave way to a murmur of voices in the streets.

Along the Embarcadero and in front of the National Guard Armory self-conscious-looking schoolboys wearing steel helmets and ill-fitting khaki uniforms paced up and down fingering heavy automatic rifles.

Highways leading out of the city bore a continuous stream of expensive cars carrying well-to-do refugees to distant sanctuaries. They were fleeing from bombs and rioting mobs.

There were no bombs.

There were no rioting mobs.

These existed only in the pages of the daily press which characterized the event as a Bolshevik revolution, and conjured up visions of tempestuous throngs sweeping, torch in hand, through the city streets.

Telephone and telegraph wires burned like an inflamed nervous system.

Unconvinced pedestrians bought copies of newspapers whose headlines exceeded the signing of the Armistice. These papers declared that the city was in control of communists who were threatening bloodshed and ruin. In residential sections some uninformed citizens were frightened out of their wits; they barricaded their doors and trembled in expectation of chaos.

But the people, in general, were unimpressed by headlines that screamed of communist violence. They knew better. They could look around and see for themselves that the General Strike was disciplined and orderly. Mobs and bombs had no part in it.

True, the city during preceding days had been shaken by violent industrial warfare. Major battles had been fought in the streets and innocent spectators as well as unarmed strikers had gone down before police gunfire. A general maritime strike had paralyzed all shipping up and down the Pacific Coast for more than two months; the merchant marine was tied up in the harbors like so many dead whales. The town bristled with bayonets and hospitals were jammed with the wounded. Clouds of tear and nausea gas had swept through business districts, penetrating windows and driving panic-stricken throngs from the buildings. Pedestrians running for shelter had been winged by stray bullets and crumpled to the pavement. The sounds of shouting, running crowds, pistol shots, screams, breaking glass, and wailing sirens had filled the streets.

All these things had happened before the General Strike; and still more violence was to come in the form of vigilante and police raids— buildings were to be wrecked and skulls fractured. It is not surprising that sections of the population expected almost anything to happen.

As a matter of fact, the streets were orderly and unalarming. No streetcars were running. Gasoline stations were closed and few automobiles were abroad. Children and adults on roller skates swayed up and down Market Street. Workingmen were out in holiday clothes, with celluloid buttons glistening on every coat lapel. Here and there a truck was tipped over and its merchandise scattered on the streets when business houses sought to move their goods with scab drivers; but these incidents were too few to make much impression on the population as a whole.

Saloons and liquor stores were closed “By order of the General Strike Committee. ”

Hastily scribbled signs and placards in the windows of most small shops and restaurants read: “CLOSED TILL THE BOYS WIN”; or WE’RE WITH YOU FELLOWS.. STICK IT OUT; or CLOSED TILL THE LONG SHOREMEN GET THEIR HIRING HALL; or “CLOSED. ILA SYMPATHIZER. ”

Larger establishments simply stripped their windows of merchandise and pulled down the shades. The big department stores remained open but unpatronized.

Nineteen restaurants were allowed to remain open “By permission of the General Strike Committee. ”Each had its long line of waiting customers.

Outside the Labor Temple the street swarmed with union men anxiously awaiting snatches of news from within, where the General Strike Committee was in session.

All was not perfect harmony inside. Behind those doors two opposing points of view were battling it out within the committee. The newer and more determined union elements viewed the strike with confidence; they wanted to organize essential public services under control of the strikers in order that undue hardships be spared the public, so that the strike could hold out till the unions won their demands.

The older, more conservative union elements viewed the strike with alarm and were making every effort to loosen its grip.

Every few hours the newspapers issued blazing extras announcing: BIG STRIKE BROKEN!

The strike was not over, and there was no reason to suppose it was. But these extras served to create restlessness among the strikers, confusion among the general public, and a weakening of the solidarity behind the strike.

Demands of the striking unions were ignored in the vast chorus of prominent voices declaring that Moscow was trying to seize San Francisco as a colonial possession.

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.

This is a surprising spectacle for a civilized American city to present. There must be some logical explanation for it, even if the events themselves are a little mad.

General strikes on a small or partial scale had occurred before. In Seattle, just before the World War, a general strike of considerable proportions took place. But none of these strikes was on a scale with what happened in San Francisco.

We shall go back and follow the development of these happenings from the germinating seed to the full-grown tree heavily laden with the fruits of turmoil.

. . . . Ever since the first day of the walkout the strikers had paraded their giant picket line of 1,000 men up and down the sidewalk in front of the docks. The orderly procession marching behind the American flag was a daily spectacle and went a long way toward impressing everyone who saw it with the discipline, unity, and strength of the union men.

True, there was an ordinance in San Francisco prohibiting picketing. But it was generally regarded by authorities as impractical and had never been enforced stringently, especially in major strikes like this one. Throughout the whole period of the maritime strike to date no effort had been made to enforce it, nor had anyone given the slightest indication that such an effort would be made [ILA President Joseph].

Yet at precisely the same time that Ryan and other officials were putting through their settlement, the police, without any warning, decided to enforce the defunct and almost forgotten anti-picketing law. When the giant picket line reached Pier 18 and swung over to the sidewalk to continue their customary parade, they were met by a heavy detail of police on foot and horse who sought to drive them away from the pavement.

John Schomacher,, who was leading the parade, was the first to meet the onslaught and he answered back with his fists. He was a big man, over six feet tall, and gave a good account of himself, pulling two policemen from their horses before he was beaten to the ground. The police applied their clubs freely and the pickets responded with their knuckles. In an instant the Embarcadero was converted into a battlefield. Huge reserves of police appeared suddenly and began flailing with their clubs. The strikers stood their ground, felled officers with their fists and pulled them from their horses.

When the police drew back and released a barrage of tear gas, the strikers retreated across the street to a vacant lot and replied with a hail of bricks.

The battle spread over a wide area, bricks flying, fists thwacking, clubs swinging, and tear-gas shells whistling through the air. As the men drew back to their union hall on Mission and Steuart streets, the police opened fire, shooting one man in the back and wounding many.

A few minutes after the incident the Hearst Cell-Bulletin was out on the streets with a very generalized description of the clash and an account of how Harry Bridges, who was leading the parade, was clubbed down by police. Harry Bridges was nowhere near the scene. He is a slightly built man and no one could mistake the towering bulk of Schomacher for Bridges.

Later on the Hearst San Francisco Examiner reported:

Gas bombs exploded; a sawed-off shotgun roared; clubs smashed against heads, and cobblestones flew along San Francisco’s waterfront yesterday as police and strikers clashed in the fiercest battle yet produced by the coast-wide maritime strike.

The Chronicle said:

In a terrific surge of violence climaxing the twentieth day of the longshoremen’s strike, nearly 1,000 striking stevedores staged a bloody pitched battle with police yesterday afternoon on the San Francisco waterfront. Casualties were many as officers and strikers battled savagely at close quarters.

With the strikers still in a threatening and ugly mood, Chief Quinn took personal command at the waterfront last night. His first move was to issue this significant order:

“Henceforth all pickets must remain on the town side of the Embarcadero, across the width of the Embarcadero from the piers. ”

Under command of Lieutenant Joseph Mignola,, a squad of police armed with sawed-off shotguns fired into the ranks of a group of strikers who were attempting to cover their advance on Pier 18 under a barrage of bricks and cobblestones.... Six asserted participants in the fracas were arrested on charges of “participating in a riot.” ....Splotches of blood appeared on scores of faces. Police suffered heavily from the barrage of bricks and stones. Their own clubs wreaked equal damage.... Lieutenant Mignola gave his men orders to fire. The officers drew pistols and fired over the heads of the strikers.

When the barrage continued they leveled their sawed-off shotguns and fired directly into the line.

Lieutenant Mignola afterward stated to the press:

“If the strikers come back for more, you’ll find some of them in the morgue after the next time.”

The police were on duty and instructed to stop all rioting. These strikers —more than 600 of them, I would say—began a rush on Pier 20.

They began throwing bricks and cobblestones, and when I saw several policemen struck I shouted to them to fire their pistols into the air and use their clubs freely if they were in danger. Then I ordered some of the boys with shotguns to fire into the crowd....

We weren’t out to hurt anybody seriously, but those men were looking for trouble and they found it. If they come back, I’ll not take any chances of their injuring policemen. If bricks start floating at us again, somebody will wind up in the morgue, and I don’t think it will be any of us.

Captain Arthur DeGuire,, commanding the Harbor District, also made a public report:

There was an indication of trouble when the strikers formed their parade yesterday about as usual. They started with a large escort of police, in the same orderly manner that has marked the other parades.

But when the parade was approximately opposite Pier 18 the marchers broke up into a mob. Besides the officers on foot, there were several police cars with inspectors on the scene.

The strikers became a howling mob. They began to surround the police cars and tried to drag the inspectors out. From then on it was a case of everybody for himself.

At this time I don’t know whether anyone issued orders to use tear bombs. If anybody did, it would have been Lieutenant Joseph Mignola, who was in the center of it.

But these officers were all police-trained and no orders were necessary. In a situation like that, with the mob trying to pull the inspectors from their machines, the officers as a matter of training would use tear bombs to disperse the mob.

Further, the mob seemed to be led by communists. A lot of the banners carried in the parade had signs about “down with this” and “down with that.” And when the fight started, the paraders ripped the banners from the poles and used the poles as clubs.

When the mounted officers arrived it was a general melee. Any officer was justified in doing what was done in this riot.

But as later events proved, these two officers found themselves unable to justify manifold indecencies and corruptions. At this moment they were the heroes of the day and were hailed by newspapers and leading citizens as brave defenders of the public good. Their contradictory and ridiculous stories were accepted as the official truth about the waterfront conflict.

However, sometime later both Lieutenant Joseph Mignola and Captain Arthur DeGuire were discovered to be in league with the underworld. Their complicity with the prostitution shakedown and other criminal grafts resulted in their being removed from the force and dismissed in disgrace. The fact that they both are not in the penitentiary is accountable to—well, read the summary of the Atherton investigation back in Chapter II. I am not making any statements that are not already proved, so I shall refrain from drawing any conclusions of my own.

The International Longshoremen’s Association delivered a protest to the Board of Supervisors in which they stated their version of the affair:

For no reason whatsoever the mounted police this afternoon rode into the parade and attempted to disperse it. The attack was carried out by the police with tear gas, drawn guns and revolvers. Several men were shot, and many clubbed and beaten to the ground, and, even after they were lying unconscious on the sidewalks, were kicked and beaten by the police.

Inasmuch as the strikers carried no weapons of any kind, unless the staffs of the American flag and the ILA banner carried at the head of the parade could be called weapons, and were violating no laws or ordinances, but peacefully parading, we insist that as one of the heads of the city administration, you take some immediate action to stop this unwarranted incitement to riot.

The Board of Supervisors immediately authorized Mayor Angelo J. Rossi to appoint a committee of five to investigate. However, the Mayor refrained from making the appointments and the investigation was never made.


“The Memorial Day Attack, The First Parade, San Francisco Newspapers”

The open-air meeting this year was to be held on the Embarcadero, as it had been the year before. It was also intended that, in view of the strike, it would combine anti-war speeches with expressions of student and youth solidarity with the unions. Although given no publicity in the daily papers, it had been circularized widely by leaflets and invitations. 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.

As the hour approached for the meeting to begin, it was noted that hundreds of policemen had been concentrated in the vicinity. A request for a permit to parade had been denied, and the scene looked ominous. It was decided to call off the meeting.

Later on a committee representing twenty-two organizations and church groups, under the chairmanship of Reverend Alfred C. Fiske, Ph.D., held a thorough investigation of the incident, taking testimony from all available witnesses. They described the scene:

On one corner a crowd of 250 youths and girls stood irresolute and confused. It was May 30, the National Youth Day, a day of speeches against war and fascism, but something was wrong, there were no speeches. The crowd waited.

Presently a young man mounted on the shoulders of a comrade. It was his duty to tell the assemblage why they could have no meeting like that of former years on the same day and place. The young man was supported in his precarious position by a young girl. The speaker began the message, “Comrades and fellow workers— ”

Instantly the police were down on them with clubs and saps. They swarmed in a blue-coated mob over the handful of youths, some of whom were no more than children, laying open skulls right and left with their heavy riot sticks.

So overwhelming in numbers were the police that escape was almost impossible. Sixty-five young boys and girls went down with broken heads. Kids in corduroys crouched on the sidewalk trying to shield themselves while police beat at them with blackjacks and nightsticks. Longshoremen who had been watching from the sidelines were so enraged at the spectacle they leaped into the melee and began felling policemen with their fists.

Some of the young people broke through the lines and tried to run. They were pursued into alleys off the Embarcadero and clubbed to the pavement.

Since the crowd presented every variety of dress, some being students from universities and high schools and others being young workers, the police were unable to discern between who had come to attend the demonstration and who were merely pedestrians. Consequently a large number of mere bystanders were clubbed down.

A talented young local sculptor, Peter Macchiarini, was thrown into the police patrol bleeding from the ears with a fractured skull. Despite the entreaties of other prisoners that he was dying, he was thrown in a cell and not removed to a hospital until many hours later, when his cellmates gave evidence that if something were not done about him they would shake the bars off the cage and scream the roof off the jail.

It was many months before Pete’s head mended, and when he was able to get around again he had to face trial on charges of rioting.

One young student described his experience:

I left Berkeley with my wife to go to San Francisco. We got off the ferry and started to walk up Market. When we got to Steuart, I saw some mounted police crossing the street. There was a crowd there, and suddenly a big man pointed at me and said, “Here’s a dirty kike son-of-a-bitch!” He grabbed at me and struck me on the back of the head with something. I started to run, but one of them grabbed my arm and started beating me. As he held my arm, he kept shouting for me to run. I naturally couldn’t because he was holding me. I twisted away and ran into another group.

They slugged me and one of them hit me in the mouth with a blackjack. It cut my lips very badly and broke off two teeth.

In the meantime, they struck at my wife and called her a “bitch.” She dodged them and managed to get away somehow. [Testimony from the report of Rev. Fiske’s committee.]

Mr. J. D. Jordan testified:

“I was at the corner of Embarcadero and Mission when I saw a crowd of people at the corner of Steuart and Mission. I started to walk toward them intending to see what it was all about. As I approached I noticed I was followed by a large number of men who were obviously plainclothesmen. As they overtook me, one of them started swearing at me in the vilest manner I have ever heard. There must have been at least ten of them who jumped upon me and started beating me. Not all of them could hit me at once and they seemed to go crazy with rage. I only had time to think that they were tearing me to pieces.... They knocked me down and I got to my feet, blood streaming down my lace and clothes.”

The worst slugging took place in the street right outside the headquarters of the ILA.. Many longshoremen witnessed it from the windows in the second story, and one of them testified:

"I was in the hall on Wednesday, and I want to tell you people right now that I have seen violence and brutality in many forms all over the world.

I’ve been a seaman and you get to see plenty of things like that. But I want to say that I have never seen anything like that attack upon those kids last Wednesday. It was nothing but murder.

We were locked in the hall, but we saw plenty from the window. Those cops just slugged and beat everybody they could reach. Nobody had a chance. They seemed to go crazy and we just about went crazy watching them."

Other typical bits of testimony were:

Q. What is your name?

A. Leonard Pressel.

Q. How old are you?

A. I’m fifteen, going on sixteen.

Q. Leonard, what are you doing here in San Francisco? I mean, what and why are you here, are you working, etc.?

A. I’m not working. I’m just—

Q. You are on the bum, so to speak?

A. Yes.

Q. Why did you leave home?

A. Well, I couldn’t get work and no money for school.

Q. Now, Leonard, tell us what happened to you on Wednesday when you were thrown in jail.

A. I was walking up Howard near Second Street when a big car full of men drew up and some of them jumped out. One of them shouted at me and they started running towards me. I didn’t know what it was all about. They grabbed me and one hit me over the head with a club. It knocked me down, but two more grabbed me and held me up and I got hit again. I broke away from them and started running and I ran right into another bunch. One of them grabbed my arm and hit me in the back of the head while another one hit me in front. I don’t remember much then except them hitting me. I had blood all over my face and I could feel it running down the back of my neck. They left me for a moment and I finally got up again. This time, another bunch that had come up got me and hit me real hard. I was taken to the jail, but I don’t remember much.

And again, from Miss Frances Rabin:

"My sister Alice was run up on the sidewalk by a policeman who hit her over the head with his club and knocked her down. I ran behind a machine. Another policeman on foot ran to where my sister was lying on the sidewalk and was going to hit her again when I screamed—and he came over after me. I kept on screaming and he let her alone and wanted to hit me.

I picked up my sister and took her to a store at 36 Steuart Street. Three boys in there gave us some water and towels."

While all this was going on, Mayor Rossi was out in the National Cemetery at the Presidio orating:

"We are thus drawn together in a contemplation of the great glories, the lofty deeds and the weighty sacrifices which have been the foundation of our national life.... The impressive scene we have just witnessed, the silent ranks of veterans who have assembled to honor those who died in the service of God and their country, should leave in our hearts a spirit of thankfulness that the memory of their valor is not forgotten.

It seemed to me today as I looked into the resolute faces . . . that nothing ill can befall a country whose citizens accept their patriotic duty in so cheerful and steadfast a spirit. . . if we enshrine in our hearts the devotion we owe them, we will have little time to harbor thoughts of revolution, of the destruction of governmental fabric and running after false Gods.

The Examiner rushed into print with a blaring extra: “17 MAIMED IN S. F. RED BATTLE.”

The story read:

“Fierce rioting marked San Francisco’s observance of Memorial Day yesterday as more than 250 Communists clashed with 100 policemen in a series of skirmishes that raged over the area bounded by the Embarcadero, Second Street, Market and Howard. ”

The San Francisco News read:

"Clubs flailing, police broke up a possible demonstration of striking longshoremen on lower Market Street today, injuring one unidentified 16- girl and sending 24 men to the hospital with head injuries.

Trouble started, according to witnesses, when a party of longshoremen began a march, either toward the waterfront or up Market Street—the destination was indefinite. "

The Chronicle said:

“Two hundred and fifty communists and police staged a bloody battle yesterday afternoon near the Embarcadero—the second major riot to mark the longshoremen’s strike this week.”

Nineteen persons were treated at hospitals as a result and two youths were reported to have been shot and subsequently spirited away in the ensuing confusion. Scores of others were injured.

Lieutenant Mignola was credited in all papers as commander of police forces on the occasion.

The strikers immediately dispatched a telegram to Acting Governor Frank Merriam and issued the same as a public statement:

“Local 38–79 of the International Longshoremen’s Association vigorously protests the insane brutality of San Francisco police in clubbing children and aged women into insensibility and in clubbing peaceful picketers and innocent bystanders. We recognize this unprovoked attack as an attempt to intimidate the longshoremen and we demand the right to arm in self-defense. As acting governor of this state we hold you personally responsible for future violence on the San Francisco waterfront.”

By this time the strike dominated the minds of the whole population. San Francisco was living and breathing strike. Everyone was discussing it. Everyone was trying to understand it. Everyone had something to say about it and something to ask about it. Homes, restaurants, and public places became virtual open forums, and people were rapidly taking sides. Bitter disagreements were splitting homes and friendships; at the same time new bonds of sympathy and common viewpoint were being forged—bringing people together, creating new ties.

Despite garbled accounts in the press, the public was able to get an impression of what had taken place, if not a specific picture. And that impression was a bad one, so far as the employers and the civic administration were concerned.

On the following evening the International Labor Defense held a mass protest meeting in California Hall. Every available seat and all standing room was packed, and overflow crowds jammed the sidewalk outside. More than a score of young people with bandaged heads occupied chairs on the platform. Eyewitnesses described the events of the day before, and the crowd was addressed by speakers representing the striking unions, various local organizations, and the Communist Party.