Waterfront strikes

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Waterfront strikes are confrontations between unions and management for control of the workplace in ports.

West Coast 1934

In May 1934, dock workers and longshoremen along the West Coast went on strike for better hours and pay, a union hiring hall and a coast-wide contract. Communists were in control of the union, the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA), led by Harry Bridges (1901-1990) and the Communist Party's district organizer, Sam Darcy. . The unions rebuffed mediation efforts by the Roosevelt Administration. The key union demand was a "closed shop," meaning that only union members could be hired.

Shipowners, supported by the local chambers of commerce and the Industrial Association, were determined to break the strike as they had done in 1916 and 1919. They realized the strikers were Communist-dominated, and they utilized almost every strike-breaking weapon available, including tear gas and newly developed weapons. The strikers, particularly the longshoremen, were equally determined to achieve their demands for a union-run hiring hall, union recognition, and the closed shop. The unions distrusted the New Deal-appointed mediator and the AFL-appointed mediator who had primarily eastern experience and did not understand the problems of the more radical-minded western labor leaders. Bridges was castigated by all sides except the longshoremen. While he was willing to accept support from the Communist-dominated Marine Workers' Industrial Union, he constantly maintained his own independence and leadership.

Bloody confrontations broke out up in major ports. On "Bloody Thursday", July 5, 1934, San Francisco was swept by the bloodiest rioting in three quarters of a century. Striking maritime workers, pitting themselves against police, terrorized half of the waterfront and the warehouse area of the city. Fires were set. Windows were smashed. Traffic was tied up. Trucks were overturned. For an hour, police and strikers and their sympathizers fought with fists, clubs and finally riot guns, revolvers, tear-gas and at last a vicious, nausea-creating gas recently introduced into police work. At least 34 people were shot, two killed and hundreds injured by the San Francisco police in the fights between the city's police force and strikers. The governor finally sent in the California National Guard to quiet the violence. The union responded by calling a "general strike"; it lasted four days, during which numerous unions not connected with the waterfront strike refused to work.

The West Coast Waterfront Strike lasted 83 days with longshoremen returning to work on July 31. Arbitration was agreed to and it resulted in a victory for the strikers. and the unionization of all West Coast ports in the United States. For 19 years afterward, the federal government tried to deport Bridges, a native of Australia, but were unable to prove his Communist connections.[1]

Further reading

  • Cherny, Robert W. "Prelude to the Popular Front: The Communist Party in California, 1931-35." American Communist History 2002 1(1): 5-42 online at EBSCO
  • Larrowe, Charles P. "The Great Maritime Strike of '34". Labor History part 1: 1970 11(4): 403-451; part 2: 1971 12(1): 3-37
  • Larrowe, Charles P. Harry Bridges; the rise and fall of radical labor in the United States (1972)
  • Nelson, Bruce. Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and Unionism in the 1930s (1990)
  • Quin, Mike. The Big Strike. "This book's title, of course, refers to the 1934 west coast longshore strike that developed into a general strike that shook the Nation." "...The classic book on the great struggle out of which ILWU was born, and contains much of the early history of the union" quoted in Scope of Soviet Activity in the United States Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act, Committee of the Judiciary United States Senate, GPO, Washington, D.C. 1957, p. 2825.


  1. Newly opened Soviet archives show that Bridges was indeed a Communist Party member who took orders from Moscow. Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes: "Communists and the CIO: From the Soviet Archives," Labor History, vol 35, no. 3 (Summer 1994).