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Workers Vanguard No. 1051

5 September 2014

1934 Strikes

Class-Struggle Leadership Made the Difference

Then and Now

(Part Two)

Correction Appended

Part One of this article appeared in WV No. 1050 (8 August).

The 83-day West Coast maritime strike was launched on May 9. It was the eve of the second Minneapolis Teamsters strike, and the second Toledo strike was on. The largest and longest of the 1934 citywide strikes (Minneapolis and Toledo were discussed in Part One of this article), the West Coast labor action involved ports from Los Angeles to Seattle. But the decisive events, first and foremost a four-day general strike, unfolded in San Francisco. A battle that would transform SF into a union town for decades to come, the strike has been the subject of countless labor histories, academic studies and other works. Mike Quin’s The Big Strike (1949) provides probably the most thorough account. It is also addressed at some length in such books as Art Preis’s Labor’s Giant Step (1964), Jeremy Brecher’s Strike! (1972) and Bruce Nelson’s Workers on the Waterfront (1990), which is also a superb study of the history of “seamen, longshoremen, and unionism” up to and including the 1930s.

Regarding the 1934 West Coast maritime strike, Nelson argues:

“Among the many threads that were part of the Big Strike’s dynamism, four stand out as crucial: first, the strikers’ militancy, steadfastness, and discipline in the face of an adversary who wielded an arsenal of weapons ranging from private security forces and vigilantes to the bayonets and machine guns of the National Guard; second, a solidarity that swept aside old craft antagonisms and culminated in a general strike; third, a rank-and-file independence and initiative that came to mean frequent defiance of AFL norms and officials; and finally, in the face of an increasingly hysterical and violent wave of anti-Communist propaganda, a willingness to assess the Red presence in the strike independently, from the workers’ own standpoint, and a growing tendency to view Red-baiting as an instrument of the employers.”

There is no gainsaying the determination, combativity and courage of the ranks of the union. But it was critical that the workers had a leadership that was animated at the time by a program of class struggle. The workers were aware of the importance of this leadership, which is why they didn’t buy into the bosses’ anti-Communist hysteria.

Prior to the strike, San Francisco was known as one of the most open shop cities in the U.S., the product of the crushing defeat of a 1919 longshore strike. Dock workers labored as little more than slaves under the whip of the “Blue Book” company union. This “union” enforced the rule of corrupt gang bosses who called the shots in handing out work to men made to assemble for the daily “shape up.” Up until 1933, the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) in SF had been little more than a paper union. Nationally, the union was ruled with an iron fist by ILA president Joseph Ryan. In the pocket of shipping bosses and capitalist politicians who handsomely rewarded him for his services, Ryan was notorious for hiring thugs and murderers to literally dispose of union militants and keep the New York port strike-free.

After joining the ILA, together with thousands of other West Coast longshoremen, in the summer of 1933, the Communist Party (CP) supporters in the Albion Hall group emerged as a caucus that would successfully challenge Ryan and his stooges on the West Coast for leadership. The group’s Waterfront Worker (WFW) newsletter had run articles preparing the membership to take on the employers and the government. Voicing the growing anger and fighting spirit of the longshoremen, it put forward a strategy for victory. It stressed not only the need to smash the hated “Blue Book” company union, but also to break through the AFL bureaucracy’s lily-white craft unionism, which had led to the repeated defeat of strikes by longshoremen and seamen as well as other maritime and port workers.

The WFW frontally took on the historic racism of the West Coast longshore union, especially its refusal to allow black workers to join. This racist exclusion made black workers ready fodder for the employers’ strikebreaking wars. In 1934, black longshoremen in San Francisco were few. Isolated in segregated gangs on two docks, they were widely distrusted, if not openly hated, for their role as scabs in previous longshore strikes. Addressing the deadly danger of this racial animosity to the union’s fight, the WFW called for integrated gangs on the docks and demanded a fight to bring black workers into the union.

Gaining authority through its leadership of several job actions on the SF docks, the Albion Hall group put forward a series of demands. The chief one was the call for a union hiring hall to break the employer’s total control over hiring in the slave-market “shape up.” In addition, the group sought to end the pitting of port against port, and worker against worker, by securing a coastwide agreement and cementing the fighting unity of all organized and unorganized maritime and port workers. At a February-March 1934 convention of rank-and-file delegates representing 14,000 longshoremen on the West Coast, the Albion Hall group’s demands were adopted. Following the convention, the union ranks overwhelmingly voted in favor of a strike. Members of the Albion Hall group were elected to the strike committee in San Francisco, with Harry Bridges as its leader.

After repeated efforts by the Federal government of Franklin Roosevelt and the ILA misleaders to head off a strike through an arbitrated settlement, on May 9 longshoremen up and down the West Coast walked off the job. Seamen’s unions, which had their own contract demands, quickly joined them. By the end of May, at least 25,000 maritime workers were out. In the first few days of the strike, the employers had recruited nearly 1,000 scabs in San Francisco, including a sizable contingent from the UC Berkeley football team. Critical to stopping the movement of scab cargo off the docks were the Teamsters. Defying the longtime head of the SF Teamsters local, Mike Casey—a trusted ally of the employers and the city’s rulers who had ordered his members to scab on previous longshore strikes—the Teamsters membership decided to honor the strike.

On the first day of the strike, Albion Hall member and strike leader Henry Schmidt, together with one of the few black members of the SF ILA local, went to the pier where most of the black longshoremen were still working and called on them to join the strike and the union. Some 75 black longshoremen were signed up, many returning to their neighborhoods to convince others not to get taken in by employer appeals for scab labor. Breaking through the racist color bar—which was and is a central weapon of America’s capitalist rulers in their bid to divide and conquer workers in struggle—the strike leaders wrote an important page in U.S. labor history, one that would prove vital to the upcoming Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) union organizing battles. The growing ranks of black longshoremen in the Bay Area longshore local became a militant backbone of the union as a whole.

The San Francisco General Strike

Given the importance of shipping to the U.S. economy, the West Coast maritime strike had to counter even greater government intervention than the strikes in Minneapolis and Toledo. Roosevelt personally intervened to postpone the first strike deadline, to which the ILA bureaucrats agreed. After the strike erupted, the Assistant Secretary of Labor, Edward McGrady, was sent in to try to end it. Ryan and other AFL leaders worked in cahoots with the shipping bosses and the government, both nationally and locally, providing a graphic example of the treachery of the union officialdom. Early American socialist Daniel De Leon popularized the apt description of the AFL tops as “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class.”

Ryan flew to the West Coast in order to foist deals on the membership that he had cooked up in backroom negotiations. He was roundly repudiated by the ranks amid catcalls and cries of “fink” and “faker.” Teamsters leader Mike Casey, who was also part of those negotiations, had vowed to get members of his union back on the job moving scab cargo. After witnessing the reception given to Ryan by longshoremen, Casey quickly backed off his promise.

As the economy reeled under the impact of the strike, San Francisco’s Industrial Association—a conglomerate of the city’s most powerful financial and other capitalist interests—moved in to take charge of the strikebreaking and open the port. A torrent of red-baiting attacks on the strike leadership was unleashed in an effort to prepare “public opinion” for a bloody onslaught against the workers. The Hearst press blasted the strike as “COMMUNISM VS. AMERICAN LABOR,” while California’s Republican governor, Frank Merriam, raved against the “horde of irresponsible, professional agitators” leading “sabotage strikes.” Such rants were echoed by the leadership of the SF Central Labor Council (CLC) which passed a motion on June 22 “strongly advis[ing] the International Longshoremen’s Association, its members and representatives, to disavow all connections with the communistic element on the waterfront.”

The main battle took place on July 5. With the city’s rulers promising to open the port that day, more than 2,000 strikers massed at the docks to stop the movement of scab cargo. An army of cops and deputies unleashed tear and “vomit” gas on the crowd. Driven back, the picketers retreated up Rincon Hill. Armed with only sticks and stones, they built barricades, fought off the police and retreated to higher ground. After hours of fighting, the strikers made their way to the ILA union hall. Here they were ambushed by hundreds of cops who opened fire on those outside the hall and hurled tear gas canisters inside, to drive other workers out into the line of gun fire. Over 70 workers were shot, most in the back. ILA member Howard Sperry and Nick Bordoise, a CP supporter and member of the Cooks Union, lay dead on the blood-drenched street.

At the end of the day, Governor Merriam ordered in the National Guard to occupy the waterfront. Some 2,000 troops were supplied with bayoneted rifles and machine guns and issued orders to “shoot to kill.” The balance of forces had dramatically shifted to the disadvantage of the strikers. As Harry Bridges said, “We cannot stand up against police, machine guns, and National Guard bayonets.”

But that equation would soon change. With support already building for a general strike of union members around the Bay Area, a signal event set it off. On July 9, tens of thousands of workers marched silently and solemnly up Market Street in San Francisco in a funeral procession for the two slain picketers. Even the official record of the Industrial Association spoke to the impact of this powerful display of proletarian discipline: “As the last marcher broke ranks, the certainty of a general strike, which up to this time had appeared to many to be a visionary dream of a small group of the most radical workers, became for the first time a practical and realizable objective” (quoted in The Big Strike).

The Teamsters, once again defying Casey, went on strike on July 12. By then over 60 unions had voted in favor of a general strike. Amid an avalanche of working-class anger and a determination to strike, the local AFL officials on the CLC moved to contain it by designating themselves the leaders of the “strike strategy” committee. The general strike began on July 16 and ended four days later. Strikers manned picket lines on highways leading into the city. Nothing was supposed to move without permission of the strike committee, and the workers maintained proletarian order and discipline. San Francisco was crippled, with at least 100,000 workers out. But the employers and the government had an ace in the hole, the treacherous AFL bureaucrats.

Throughout the general strike, CLC head Edward Vandeleur maintained direct contact with SF city officials and with the head of Roosevelt’s NRA agency, General Hugh Johnson. Just two days into the general strike, the CLC strike committee put forward a resolution calling for government arbitration of all issues in the waterfront strike. Despite the bitter opposition of longshoremen and seamen, the measure narrowly passed in a disputed vote.

The same day, the police, National Guard troops and strikebreaking vigilantes launched an anti-Communist reign of terror. A series of raids began on the CP’s Marine Workers’ Industrial Union, the offices of the party’s newspaper, the Western Worker, and many other radical organizations and meeting places. Offices, furniture and equipment were smashed and those inside beaten bloody, leaving a trail of victims who were then rounded up and arrested.

Raising the prospect that martial law would be declared and union delegates arrested, on July 19 the CLC bureaucrats put forward a motion to end the general strike. Narrowly passing by a vote of 191 to 174, with most delegates abstaining, the strike was ended after four days. California governor Merriam gave thanks that “the sane, intelligent, right-thinking leadership in the labor organizations has prevailed over the rash counsel of communistic and radical agitators.” Mayor Angelo Rossi joined in celebrating “the real leaders of organized labor” and was, in turn, congratulated by ILA president Joseph Ryan.

With their backs against the wall, longshoremen voted to accept arbitration on July 21. Honoring their commitment to stay out until all the maritime unions had voted, the longshoremen delayed going back to work for ten days. Returning to work on July 31, maritime and dock workers marched together across the Embarcadero, a disciplined and unbroken proletarian corps.

Although forced to submit to the very arbitration process they had repeatedly rejected, the longshoremen and seamen went back armed with confidence in the power of their class. Through repeated job actions over the months to come, they drove all the scabs off the waterfront and established work rules and conditions in defiance of the conditions of the settlement.

The arbitrated settlement had granted hiring halls run jointly by the employers and the unions. Under this arrangement, the ILA was put in control of job dispatch but employers were still allowed to choose among the available workforce. With the union in charge of dispatch and the longshoremen ready to take on any employer who refused to hire candidates from the hall, the union would solidify its control of hiring. However, the very strike leaders who had politically armed the workers to take on the bosses and their government would soon come to embrace Roosevelt’s Democratic Party administration and subordinate the workers’ struggles to it.


The 1934 Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco strikes opened the road to the class battles later in the decade that finally organized workers in the mass production industries into the CIO. Originally set up as a committee inside the AFL by John L. Lewis and other union officials, unions associated with the drive to organize industrial workers were expelled from the AFL in 1936, reflecting the commitment of the craft-union bureaucrats to only allowing skilled workers into the “house of labor.” The AFL and CIO would remain separate federations for close to two decades.

In his book John L. Lewis: An Unauthorized Biography (1949), Saul Alinsky described what led Lewis to spearhead the CIO organizing:

“Lewis watched the unrest and flare-ups of violence through the summer of 1934. He saw the Dunne Brothers in Minneapolis lead a general strike of truck drivers into a virtual civil war. Blood ran in Minneapolis.

“In San Francisco a general strike spearheaded by Harry Bridges’ Longshoremen’s Union paralyzed the great Western city for four days.

“Before that year was out, seven hundred thousand workers had struck. Lewis could read the revolutionary handwriting on the walls of American industry. He knew the workers were seething and aching to be organized.”

The fact that the three 1934 citywide strikes had been led by leftists alarmed Lewis, who was determined to cut off Communists and Socialists from gaining leadership of the radicalized workers. Despite his political conservatism and contempt for union democracy, Lewis was at the same time a more farsighted bureaucrat who perceived the need to organize industrial unions in the mass production industries.

Lewis—who had driven reds out of the UMW and exterminated every vestige of opposition to his dictatorial rule of the union—now saw the usefulness of the talented and experienced CP unionists in the fight to build the CIO. The political precondition for Lewis bringing CP members and supporters on board as organizers was the party’s 1935 turn to supporting Roosevelt as the representative of a so-called “progressive wing” of the American bourgeoisie. The impetus for this turn was the coming to power of Hitler’s Nazis in Germany in 1933, a monstrous defeat for which the policies of Stalin’s “Third Period” bore no small responsibility.

The Stalinists and Social Democrats in Germany, who commanded the allegiance of millions of workers, did nothing to mobilize them in united action to smash Hitler’s brownshirts. The leaders of the Social Democratic Party had long ago gone over to the side of their “own” bourgeoisie in opposition to the fight for workers power. For its part, the CP criminally equated the Social Democrats with the capitalists’ fascist shock troops. After the resulting disaster in Germany, Stalin dumped the ultra-radical rhetoric of the “Third Period.” By 1935, in the name of the “popular front against fascism,” the Communist Parties around the world were ordered to ally with the “democratic” bourgeoisie against Nazi Germany.

Having many years earlier abandoned Marxist class principles in the service of the policies of the Moscow Stalinist bureaucracy, few Communists in the U.S., or for that matter anywhere else, objected. They were all too accustomed to changing their political positions on a dime. In many ways, Darcy, Bridges et al., who broke with the CP’s “Third Period” denunciations of the AFL unions as “social fascist” and went into the ILA, were simply premature popular frontists.

CP supporters would be among the leaders of the gigantic working-class struggles that forged the CIO in the late 1930s. Carrying the American trade-union movement to unprecedented heights, these strikes set the stage for the further development of class consciousness in the working class, the most advanced elements of which were receptive to the idea of forming a workers party in opposition to the two capitalist parties. But the Stalinists and other strike leaders channeled these workers into support for FDR’s Democratic Party. As Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky succinctly wrote in “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay” (1940):

“The rise of the CIO is incontrovertible evidence of the revolutionary tendencies within the working masses. Indicative and noteworthy in the highest degree, however, is the fact that the new ‘leftist’ trade union organization was no sooner founded than it fell into the steel embrace of the imperialist state. The struggle among the tops between the old federation and the new is reducible in large measure to the struggle for the sympathy and support of Roosevelt and his cabinet.”

Only the Trotskyists of the CLA, whose supporters led the Minneapolis Teamsters’ strikes, remained true to the principles and program of revolutionary Marxism. The A.J. Muste-led American Workers Party (AWP) had merged with the Communist League of America following the Toledo and Minneapolis strikes to found the Workers Party of the United States in December 1934. But Muste soon returned to the pulpit of religious pacifism and later preached the strategy of nonviolence to future liberal leaders of the civil rights movement and, in his final years, to Vietnam antiwar protesters. Other leaders of his organization made their own kind of peace with capitalist society. Nonetheless, a number of the AWP veterans of “The Battle of Toledo” remained adherents of Trotskyism, that is, to the ideals and goals that had inspired the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Spreading out from their base in Minneapolis, the Trotskyists were at the forefront of organizing truckers throughout the Midwest, transforming the weak, craft-divided Teamsters into a powerful industrial union. This course was obstructed when the Roosevelt administration, aided and abetted by Teamster president Daniel Tobin, brought sedition charges under the Smith Act against the Trotskyists for their opposition to the interimperialist slaughter of World War II. The central union leaders in Minneapolis as well as national Trotskyist leaders—29 in all—were convicted and jailed. Criminally, the CP supported the government’s persecution of the Trotskyists.

While the Stalinists have long portrayed WWII as a great democratic war against fascism, the Trotskyists recognized that, like World War I, it was a conflict between the imperialist powers to redivide the world. Calling for the defeat of all the imperialist combatants, the Trotskyists took no side between the competing Allied and Axis powers. At the same time, they fought steadfastly for the unconditional military defense of the Soviet bureaucratically degenerated workers state.

In contrast, the Stalinists were among the most rabid supporters of U.S. imperialism during the war, portraying it as a supposed “anti-fascist” ally of the Soviet workers state against Hitler’s Germany. In the West Coast longshore union, Bridges enforced a no-strike pledge and massive speedup on the docks as part of the war effort. He also played a major role in smashing a 1944 strike by Montgomery Ward workers in the Midwest. Ordering the now CIO-affiliated International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) on the West Coast to ship scab cargo, Bridges went on to urge all of labor to make a permanent no-strike pledge, not only during the war but “indefinitely thereafter.”

For a Revolutionary Workers Party!

Crime, as they say, does not pay. A few years after the end of the war, leaders of the Communist Party were themselves prosecuted under the Smith Act as purported advocates of the “violent overthrow” of the U.S. government. Bridges himself was repeatedly hauled into the courts and threatened with deportation on charges of being a CP member. We take no satisfaction in the bitter irony that the Stalinists were themselves prosecuted under the very laws that they had urged the capitalist state to bring down on the Trotskyists. These trials were opening shots in the first Cold War against the Soviet Union, U.S. imperialism’s “ally” in WWII.

Communists and other militants who had led the CIO organizing battles were driven from the unions. This witchhunt was codified in the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which demanded a “loyalty oath” from union officials and outlawed sympathy strikes, hot cargoing and other class-struggle weapons that had built the unions. In 1949-50, eleven unions associated with the CP, including the ILWU, were expelled from the CIO. The red purges cemented the leadership of a hardened pro-capitalist, anti-Communist bureaucracy whose first loyalty was to U.S. imperialism.

The bureaucrats condemned, and continue to condemn, Taft-Hartley as a “slave-labor act.” But the union misleaders themselves helped put on the shackles and have bowed before the government’s strikebreaking laws ever since, sapping the fighting strength of the unions. A watershed was when the labor tops let Reagan get away with smashing the PATCO air traffic controllers strike in 1981. While mouthing impotent words of “solidarity,” the AFL-CIO leadership did nothing to mobilize the powerful airline unions in strike action to shut down the airports. The aftermath has been a three-decade tsunami of union-busting that has devastated the ranks of organized labor.

The AFL leaders of old abhorred the class struggle. Today, the union tops argue that it is simply not possible for labor to struggle. Instead, to preserve their diminishing dues base, they engage in dog-eat-dog jurisdictional disputes with other unions, a throwback to the backstabbing of the craft unions that had to be surmounted to organize industrial unions. Rather than mobilizing for battle against the capitalist rulers, the bureaucrats peddle the lie that the workers have a stake in maintaining capitalist profitability. This class collaboration is codified in the subordination of labor to the parties of the capitalist class enemy, particularly the Democrats.

To be sure, it is not easy for the workers to win in the face of the forces arrayed against them. The situation is all the more daunting given the ebb of class and social struggle, a condition reinforced by the decades of betrayals by the trade-union bureaucracy. But the rulers, aided by their labor lieutenants, cannot extinguish the class struggle that is born of the irreconcilable conflict of interests between workers and their exploiters. The very conditions that grind down workers today can and will propel them into battle, together with their allies, against the class enemy. Winning these battles is, at bottom, a question of leadership.

The 1934 strikes showed what militant unions could accomplish in a period of growing class and social discontent. Under a leadership that grasped the class nature of American capitalist society and the social power of those whose labor makes it run, the workers fought against improbable odds and won. These are the kind of battles that will need to be waged today to organize the growing masses of unorganized workers. For the workers to prevail over their exploiters, it is essential to win them to a Marxist political program that links labor’s fight to the building of a multiracial revolutionary workers party capable of leading the struggle to do away with this whole system of wage slavery through socialist revolution. Although our forces are currently small, it is the purpose of the Spartacist League, as it was of our Trotskyist forebears, to win the workers through patient education and in the course of struggle to the program and perspective of forging the party of international working-class revolution.


In Part Two of “Then and Now” (WV No. 1051, 5 September), we wrote that 29 Socialist Workers Party leaders and Minneapolis Teamsters officials were convicted and jailed under the Smith Act for opposing World War II. In fact, of the 29 charged, 18 were imprisoned. (From WV No. 1052, 19 September 2014.)


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