Since the economic crisis in 2008, millions of people have lost their jobs, their homes, and are struggling to put food on the table. These are the harsh consequences of this economy, a system that puts profit before people’s needs. This isn’t a new story. In 1934, San Francisco workers also endured threats to their livelihoods and as a result, they waged a city-wide strike insisting on reliable jobs, better wages, and reasonable working conditions.
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 shows what workers can do if we organize against layoffs, evictions, and unemployment. We need to build this kind of movement today. If we do we can begin to fight back, and challenge this exploitive system that serves the interests of the wealthy.