home | many pasts | evidence | www.history | blackboard | reference
talking history | syllabi | students | teachers | puzzle | about us
search: go!
advanced search - go!

Congress Investigates the 1934 San Francisco Strike

The nationwide labor upsurge of 1934 reached its peak in San Francisco. On May 9, 1934, leaders of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) called a strike of all West Coast dockworkers, demanding a wage scale, a “closed shop” (union membership as a requirement of employment), and union-administered hiring halls. A few days later seamen and teamsters joined the strike, effectively stopping all shipping from San Diego to Seattle. Enraged employers, backed by a sympathetic mayor and police chief, used every means available to open the waterfront and protect strikebreakers, whom they imported in large numbers. Working closely with local politicians and the press, the employers set out to convince the public that the strike was controlled by “Reds” intent on overthrowing the government. These scare tactics led to an investigation of employer actions by a Senate subcommittee. Violations of Free Speech and Rights of Labor, the subcommittee’s 1942 report, described the concerted efforts of the Industrial Association, the newspapers, and the San Francisco police to discredit the strike.

The activities and policies of the Industrial Association of San Francisco, described previously, were carried forward without abatement despite the enactment of the National Industrial Recovery Act. However, the control exercised by the Industrial Association over labor relations was weakened in the waterfront strike of 1934. Its activities and those of agencies it had enlisted in its support were put to the test in the general strike which grew out of the longshoremen’s dispute and foreshadowed the ending of employer-dictated labor policies in San Francisco. The employers' association policy revealed in that strike is therefore of considerable significance. It should be noted that the flagrant destruction of many of the records of the Industrial Association, described in the General Introduction to this report, effectively prevented the Committee from obtaining full documentary evidence on the activities of the association.

The aspirations of labor which led to the strike of 1934 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. As soon as the act was signed, the all but defunct International Longshoremen’s Association burst into activity and met with immediate success. As early as August 31, 1933, the waterfront was beginning to sense its new-found strength, and demands were made by the sailors, firemen, oilers, water tenders and wipers, cooks and stewards for better wages and hours, and for a closed shop. These demands were apparently used to test employer reaction, for although summarily denied, no further action was taken. In October 1933, the longshore union tested its strength against the Matson Line when 400 men struck in protest against alleged discrimination against its members, a practice that had been long endured. It is significant that the dispute was as submitted to arbitration immediately upon the threat of longshoremen to support the strikers and that settlement was effected the same day; all, including the four stevedores allegedly discriminated against, were reinstated by decision of the arbitrators. Organization of the longshore workers had meanwhile proceeded along the entire coast and membership was extended to include “checkers, seniors, weighers, lumber handlers, grainmen, and warehousemen employed on the waterfront.”

The first notice that forceful demands would be made by the longshoremen appeared in December 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. This action followed an adverse finding on a complaint made to National Recovery Administration officials several months before that the “Blue Book” was a company union. In the meantime, longshore organization had been carried out on a coast-wide basis and in February of 1934, a convention of delegates from all West Coast ports, held in San Francisco, decided to take a strike vote unless wage-and-hour demands were met.“ The Waterfront Employers Union, a federation of ship owners employing much dock labor, refused to meet with representatives of the longshoremen even to hear their demands, until complaint was made to the National Recovery Administration’s Regional Labor Board, whose chairman, George Creel, arranged a meeting on March 5. The two demands of the longshoremen to wit, (1) that the Waterfront Employers Union negotiate for all Pacific Coast ports and (2) that the International Longshoremen’s Association be given a closed-shop agreement, were refused on the ground that the Waterfront Employers Union did not have authority to negotiate for any ports other than San Francisco and that closed-shop agreements were contrary to the National Industrial Recovery Act. A vote was thereupon taken and a majority of members in all the West Coast ports voted in favor of a strike to be called March 23. The Waterfront Employers Union took no further steps to avert a strike, but a few days before March 23, through Thomas G. Plant, its president, informed the public of its position in full-page advertisements in local newspapers. President Roosevelt, however, on March 22, prevailed upon union officials to suspend the strike call pending investigation by an impartial fact-finding body, and as a result the ”April 3 agreement" was signed. Under the terms of this agreement the Waterfront Employers Union accepted the International Longshoremen’s Association as the representative of a majority of longshoremen in the Bay District for purposes of collective bargaining; the mediation and arbitration provisions of the proposed shipping code were to be employed in the existing dispute; a dispatching hall under joint management was to be inaugurated; and the problems of each port were to be considered separately.

Representatives of the district council of the International Longshoremen’s Association met with representatives of the local immediately after the signing of the April] 3 agreement. As a result of this meeting it was insisted that all settlements relating to wages should be coast-wide in effect. Another difference arose over the details of the administration of the dispatching hall. It had been determined that a date should be set after which registration at the dispatching hall was to be ineffective to qualify workers for employment. Employers wished to set this date as early as the preceding July when, it should be noted, the reorganization of the International Longshoremen’s Association was in its infancy and the majority of the waterfront workers were members of the “Blue Book” union. The employers furthermore refused to agree to establish wages on a coast-wide basis. On these issues negotiations deadlocked, and were discontinued on May 5.

A. The Waterfront and General Strikes of 1934

The strike was called May 9, 1934. Once again the employers took steps by way of newspaper advertisements to inform the public of their position before the strike was actually called. These were the forerunners of a publicity campaign waged by employers throughout the strike designed to enlist public support and sympathy. No punches were pulled. The employers painted the strikers in the garb of radicalism. They publicized their own position throughout the negotiations as one of fairness, reasonableness, and conciliation, while the longshoremen were asserted to be arbitrary, unreasonable, and irresponsible. In all this the Industrial Association of San Francisco played an important part and, once the strike had assumed major proportions, it moved to take over the struggle for the employers almost completely replacing the Waterfront Employers Union.

The strike of the longshoremen might have been defeated except for the support given it by other unions, particularly the teamsters, who succeeded in tying up the commerce of the waterfront effectively. Nonunion labor replaced the strikers on the docks to an extent sufficient to keep cargoes moving, but the Teamsters‘ Union, on May 10, began to support the longshoremen, in progressive stages. The first step of the Teamsters’ Union was the passage of a resolution permitting the hauling of cargoes to or from the piers, but not inside them. Three days later, it decided not to transfer cargo to and from the docks. This action congested the docks and forced employers to use the State-owned belt-line railroad, which operated along the waterfront. On May 14, boilermakers and machinists voted a sympathy strike. On May 15, 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. Ferry boatmen, masters, mates and pilots, and marine engineers first struck against several companies for higher wages and a closed-shop contract, and subsequently the entire local was called out in a body. Not a single freighter left a Pacific coast port “for the first time in history.”

About this time the Industrial Association of San Francisco determined that the controversy was a “community problem” and on May 21, it undertook through a specially appointed committee to handle strike problems on behalf of the “business community.”

Public meetings were held during May, and in June “full responsibility” for the conduct of the strike was officially placed in the hands of the Industrial Association. While it publicly sought to maintain an impartial position, its publicity advisers, the firm of McCann-Erickson, Inc., subpoenaed by the Committee, from the beginning had difficulty in directing its activities in a manner calculated to convince the public that it was truly impartial. In a preliminary memorandum, McCann-Erickson, Inc. outlined the position which it desired the associations to assume:

Since its establishment the Industrial Association has maintained that it does not represent one side or one interest to the exclusion of the other side or interest in any dispute, but rather that it represents the welfare of the community as related to both sides.

In the furtherance of this position it has frequently, and of necessity, followed its own course as distinct from the desires of either or both disputants, and at times has imposed its decisions on both sides alike. This is inevitable, if the Industrial Association is to maintain an actual identity.

In pursuance of its established policy, the Industrial Association will necessarily contact both parties to the present dispute, maintaining its own identity, and earnestly seeking a basis for Industrial Security first of all, from which all matters now in dispute may be settled.

Nevertheless, the public relations adviser in its memorandum of June 12— . . . . was amazed to find a great reluctance on the part of the organization to meet or confer directly with the strikers.

It appears obvious that McCann-Erickson, Inc. desired the association to conduct itself in a manner at least apparently independent of the employers. In a report to its New York office the following appears:

Saturday morning I talked to Boynton along the lines of the attached memorandum . . . [Among] the points I brought up to him were that the Industrial Association, if it is what it pretends to be, is bound to confer with both parties to the dispute. . . . but as [to that] he said that he was doubtful if the steamship people would be willing to have the Association confer with the strikers, inasmuch as they felt it was their fight and they should not be interfered with.

And in a letter dated June 15:

There is unquestionably a great deal of feeling on both sides that this would be a swell time for a complete showdown, and that makes things difficult.

It is significant that the employers sought to compromise the issues on several occasions through international and district officers of the longshoremen after the locals had clearly indicated in May that proposals were to be referred back to the local membership before being accepted. Consequently, the publicity value of continued conferring with Joseph P. Ryan, international president of the longshoremen, was early perceived even though his proposals had been repudiated. A meeting was arranged and Mr. Ryan signed an agreement with employers without referring it to the local membership. Newspapers proclaimed a strike settlement. The locals however, voted to reject the settlement in San Francisco, Portland, San Diego, and Tacoma, but in Los Angeles, where the strike was not effective, the settlement was approved by a small majority.

It may be inferred that the value of the “settlement” had been calculated from an interoffice communication of the Industrial Association’s publicity agent, which contains the following:

The strike settlement blew up yesterday with a loud bang when the Longshoremen unanimously refused to accept the agreement made for them by their International President, Mr. Ryan. They now stipulate they will not settle anything unless all the other marine unions now on strike are included and taken care of.

Under the agreement for the strike settlement, the Industrial Association guaranteed that the ship owners would perform, and several other people, including the Mayor, the head of the Teamsters' Union, and a couple of Federal mediators guaranteed that the Longshoremen’s Union would perform, all of which is in a way rather ridiculous but seems now to serve the purpose. [Italics supplied.]

The real purpose of the employers seems to be clearly reflected in another of McCann-Erickson’s interoffice memoranda, stating in part:

It is unhappily true that a good many of our best citizens feel that this is the time to “fight the thing out,” although it looks very much as if they would come out at exactly the same place whether they fight or not.

Thanks for your telegram. I am enormously concerned about this situation, and most regretful that there is so little sincere determination to settle the strike without violence.

That preparations for a violent struggle were under way was evident from the activities of the Industrial Association, which rented warehouses, purchased and hired trucks and other equipment for the purpose of moving freight from the docks. Considered in the light of other steps taken at the same time by employers in Los Angeles to suspend all negotiations and by officials and employer spokesmen in the other cities affected, to open their respective ports, concerted action to avoid a negotiated settlement plausibly appears to have been determined.

The strikers' response to this activity of the employers was the formation, on June 19, of a joint strike committee in which all striking maritime unions were represented. Provision was made for these union representatives to constitute the negotiating committee for their respective unions. Mr. Plant stated that the Waterfront Employers Union had no jurisdiction to consider the demands of the seagoing crafts. This position was later supported by the Pacific Foreign Trade Steamship Association.

Meanwhile congestion at the docks had increased despite the use of the belt line railroad. On June 23, representatives of the Industrial Association, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, the board of police commissioners, the chief of police and the board of State harbor commissioners (the last, having jurisdiction over the belt line railroad) conferred, and the following day Mayor Rossi of San Francisco issued a statement to the press that plans, necessitating the cooperation of State and local police, were being made to open the port. This release followed one issued by Acting [California] Governor Merriam stating that plans had been made to call out the National Guard to open the port, if negotiations failed. Since all prior negotiations had been fruitless and since the employers had decided “to fight the thing out,” such statements served only to prepare the public for the strife that was to be thrust upon it. In spite of the request of the Longshoremen’s Union to Mayor Rossi to lessen the increasing friction, the Industrial Association made its intention clear:

Nobody is going to move us from this position [to do whatever is necessary to open the port], and nobody is going to get away with any misrepresentation of it.

The Industrial Association drew attention to the violence during the preceding 47 days of the strike, and declared the unions wholly responsible for it. While inferentially charging the strike leaders with violence, the Industrial Association must have been aware that the employers were not guiltless. An agent for McCann-Erickson, Inc. had previously written:

I am reliably informed that the day before yesterday certain ship owners took a crew of men down to the docks, beat up six unarmed pickets, put their men aboard ship, and started her out. I am very glad to say that not a line of this has been printed, and, in fact, very few people seem to know anything about it, and I certainly have not stirred it up, and you can see where we would be if it had busted.

After repeated postponements, the desired show-down began on July 3 when trucking was finally started by the Industrial Association through the Atlas Trucking Co., a company created by the association and manned with nonunion drivers especially for this occasion. The trend of events and possibility of a general strike had tempered the viewpoint of many in official positions, but the Industrial Association was in no mood for compromise. It is reported that the Atlas trucks were driven by unarmed and unaccompanied drivers, assured however, of adequate police protection. Those clashes which did occur were between the pickets and the police, who maintained an open way for the trucks.

On the Fourth of July no trucks were operated, but the belt line attempted to move cargo and was stopped by swarms of pickets. Acting Governor Merriam then called out the National Guard. It is interesting to note in connection with the Governor’s action that the groundwork for his assistance had been laid earlier by the Industrial Association’s public relations counsel. In a memorandum dated June 25, when it was perceived that “events may be expected to take a rapid course,” the following step, among others, was suggested:

State intervention: Arrangements should be undertaken now for an announcement from the Governor, either by newspaper or radio or both whenever we release our decision to move goods across the waterfront. What we need most from the Governor is for him to point out that this is an unusual and outstanding disturbance because it involves the right of the public to use its own, property. It is, therefore, much more than an ordinary strike. There is no difference in principle between refusal to permit use of the waterfront and refusal to permit use of a public street or a highway, which would not have been tolerated for a single day. This is our widest ground for sympathetic appeal, and the Governor is the best man to keynote it with the declaration that he will proceed in his capacity as Governor to protect the public property of the State for the use of the citizens of the State whenever it becomes necessary for him to do so.

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, 65 in the various struggles which surrounded the efforts to move goods. Whatever carefully laid plans had been evolved to win public support were thwarted completely by the killing of the two strikers. A public funeral on July 9, attended by thousands of workers and witnessed by tens of thousands, provided the impetus, according to Mr. Eliel, “that made the events which followed as inevitable as though the human beings involved in the subsequent drama had been moved by vast physical forces over which they had no control.” It is doubtful that the funeral, which Mr. Eliel characterized as a “brilliant and theatric piece of propaganda,” had any effect other than crystallizing public opinion. Events had long proceeded beyond the stage of compromise, for on July 5, the teamsters called a general membership meeting to consider a general strike and on the 6th, the San Francisco Labor Council distributed a bulletin declaring a general strike to be the only effective weapon to force the issue. On July 7, 14 local unions were reported to have taken action to support a general strike and on the 8th, the teamsters voted to strike July 12. On the 15th, 63 of 66 voting delegations (49 others were unauthorized to vote) approved a resolution for a general walkout. The general strike began on the 16th and was terminated by the general strike committee on the 19th. Labor presented a solid front and the usual commerce of the entire bay district was virtually held in abeyance. While no very serious disturbances were attributed to labor, the presence of 6,000 of the National Guard on duty in the Bay Area and augmented police forces in all the cities did not prevent the outbreak of violent attacks upon alleged Communists and radicals at their homes and meeting places by “unknown” vigilantes who always managed to keep one step ahead of the police.

B. The Results of the Strike

The resolution of the general-strike committee which ended the strike was conditioned upon acceptance by the waterfront employers and shipowners of the proposal for arbitration which had been offered by the National Longshoremen’s Board. This was agreed to by the employers the following day, and by the

Source: "Opposition of San Francisco Employers' Associations to Collective Bargaining, 1933–35," Chapter 2, in Committee on Education and Labor. 77th Congress, Second Session, Report No. 1150, Part 2.; Pursuant to S. Rs. 266 (74th Congress) Employers' Associations and Collective Bargaining in California. Part II: Organized Antiunionism in California Industry prior to the passage of the National Labor Relations Act. (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, April 3, 1942), 117–125.