THE BIG STRIKE – When Workers Shut Down San Francisco

In 1934, San Francisco workers waged a city-wide strike demanding better wages and working conditions. Today, our circumstances are similar to the 1930s. Many are laid off, and the employed endure cuts to their benefits and pay. Like the 1930s, we hear there is no money. Unlike the workers of the 1930’s, however, we have yet to fight back.

The Great Depression devastated workers across America. By 1933, over half of America’s workforce were unemployed, while others with work were at the mercy of the bosses.  The San Francisco longshoreman were among the many frustrated people, working 72-hour-days in deadly conditions. Forced to deal with a hiring method called the shape-up, they crowded the ports every morning like cattle, as employers had no rules or minimum wages to follow. The workers were fed up. It was time to do something.

A handful of longshoremen made a newsletter called The Waterfront Worker, which linked a network of workers in various ports who wanted to fight back. The newsletter echoed the frustrations felt by the workers. The belief they could change things spread like wildfire.

By 1933, the organized longshoremen led a walk-out on the job, demanding higher wages, guaranteed work days, shorter hours, and a hiring hall controlled by the union rather than the bosses instead of the shape up.  Other ports along the coast were prepared to demand the same conditions. On May 9th, 12,000 dockworkers shut down the ports.

Seamen and truck drivers joined the walk-out and soon, the power of the strike was unstoppable. Within months, other workplaces joined in as well and in July, 1934, the city San Francisco shut down in a General Strike.

Workers used the Waterfront Worker to fight the media’s ferocious propaganda campaigns against the strikers, who were labeled anti-American in the newspapers. The police also attacked, arresting and brutalizing many militants active in the strike. Workers organized pickets to defend themselves against anti-union thugs and scabs, paid by bosses to deflate the movement.

The 84 day strike inspired a wave of other strikes across the US.  Finally on July 20th, 1934, the strike was called off. The longshoreman won a six-hour day, better wages, and partial control of the hiring halls. The seamen also won demands of their own. In fact the 1934 strike led to contracts and better conditions for workers all over the city, revealing what’s possible when different workplaces organize together.

The 1934 General Strike inspires us to rely on ourselves against the attacks on our lives. The working class has only won better conditions by fighting back collectively. The conditions we face in 2011 are the same. We can work together to reverse the attacks we face. The need for a fight back is the same—in San Francisco, in Oakland, and in fact, in the whole world.