Black-white solidarity key to San Francisco’s 1934 general strike
Published Jul 9, 2011 5:55 AM
Photo: ILWU archives
Workers call it “Bloody Thursday.”
On July 5, 1934, San Francisco port bosses pulled out all stops trying to break
a two-month West Coast dock strike. The workers fought back.
Police that day killed Nick Bordoise and Howard Sperry — two of seven
workers killed between May 15 and July 20. The capitalist-class assault on the
longshore strike angered rank-and-file workers from 100 unions in the Bay Area.
They voted to strike in support of the port workers, overruling conservative
On July 16 the four-day San Francisco General Strike began as strikers and
National Guard battled for control of the shut-down city.
This is commonly described in labor history. What is not so well-known or
emphasized is the conscious and concerted outreach to the African-American
community by longshore strike leader Harry Bridges, which for the first time
brought Black workers into the longshore union.
Bridges’ pledge is noted in “An Historical Exhibit by the
ILWU,” a traveling art exhibit that commemorates the 1934 strike. A small
panel depicting a handcuffed Black worker beside a cop is captioned,
“Racial unity is key to the strike’s success and becomes a guiding
principle of the union. After the strike, Bridges states that if only two
longshore workers are left on the docks, one would be black and the other
Keeping a promise to Black workers
Thomas C. Fleming, co-founder of San Francisco’s African-American weekly,
the Sun-Reporter, wrote about his experiences. “In 1934, one of the low
years of the Depression, blacks could only work on two piers in San Francisco
— the Panama Pacific and the Luckenbach Line. If you went to any other
pier down there, you might get beaten up by the hoodlums. ...
“The system on the docks then was called the shape-up, in which the
bosses on all piers selected whom they wished to hire on a daily basis. They
held absolute power. No one had a guarantee of a daily job, unless he was a pet
of the dock boss, or paid a sum of his daily earning. ...
“Before this time, I clung to views that the trade union movement was
just formed to continue racial discrimination. But Bridges ... felt that by
keeping the unions lily-white, there would be a steady reservoir of black
potential strikebreakers whenever strikes were called, which would weaken the
unions when negotiations broke down.
“Bridges went to black churches on both sides of San Francisco Bay and
asked the ministers: could he say a few words during the Sunday services? He
begged the congregation to join the strikers on the picket line, and promised
that when the strike ended, blacks would work on every dock on the West Coast.
“The waterfront strike ended on July 31 when the International
Longshoremen’s Association [now the ILWU] was recognized by the ship
owners. Bridges kept his word: all piers were opened to blacks. They began to
get the same work as everyone else, and some later became union officers. As
part of the agreement, the [union] got its own hiring hall, which it
controlled, and the men got a minimum 30-hour week and a raise to $1 an
This year on April 4 the rank and file of Harry Bridges’ ILWU Local 10
honored the labor movement’s call for “no business as usual”
in solidarity with Wisconsin public workers. The union’s motto, “An
injury to one is an injury to all,” and Bridges’ working-class
solidarity and unity pledge echoed through the 77 years. They did not report
No cargo moved at the international ports of Oakland and San Francisco for 24
hours, respecting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated on
that date in 1968 while supporting African-American sanitation workers in
Memphis, Tenn., who were striking for collective bargaining rights. That
strike’s symbol was the deeply expressive “I am a Man” picket
Dr. King was an honorary member of Local 10 and spoke to workers there only six
months before he was assassinated in Memphis.
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