The Industrial Revolution was not easy. It was a difficult time in American History. It was a time when workers’ rights had not yet been formalized, when unions were being formed, and when America was working hard to become the world leader it is today. It was a period of progress broken up by turmoil when America was going through its growing pains.
Part of this turmoil took the form of regular labour strikes by newly formed unions trying to bring workers rights to hard labourers and some order to the chaos that accompanies rapid industrialization. This included the Wheatland Hop that occurred 101 years ago in Wheatland, California that resulted in 4 deaths and Bloody Thursday that occurred 80 years ago today as part of the 1934 West Coast Longshoremen’s Strike.
This strike lasted eighty-three days and began on May 9, 1934 when longshoremen in every West Coast port walked off the job. They were joined by sailors a few days later. It was a heated and aggressive strike on both sides. As per the Wikiepedia entry, the employers recruited strikebreakers, and in response to this, strikers attacked the stockade housing the strikebreakers on May 15. This resulted in employer’s private guards shooting and killing two strikers.
Due to the impact of the strike (as a significant amount of trade has passed through west coast ports for the last century, which is also why Billions [are now] at Risk as West Coast Port Contract Ends), the Roosevelt administration tried to broker a deal to end the strike, but the membership of the newly formed unions rejected the agreements brought to them twice.
This resulted in the employers deciding to force a reopening of the port in San Francisco on July 3, sending trucks through the picket lines which resulted in fights between police and strikers. Then, on July 5, eighty years ago today, the employer’s Industrial Association tried to force a further re-opening of the port. In this attempted reopening, which started in the morning, police shot tear gas canisters into the crowd of strikers, picketers, and supporters, and charged with mounted police. Picketers threw the canisters and rocks back. Both sides then suspended aggressive actives, refortified, and took stock.
But then hostilities resumed in the afternoon outside of the ILA strike kitchen. Eyewitness accounts differ in the exact accounts that transpired next, but the end result was that police ended up firing shotguns, striking three men, and killing two — and giving us Bloody Thursday.
At this point, the California Governor called in the California National Guard to patrol the waterfront and federal soldiers stationed at the Presidio were placed on alert. The picketers pulled back and trucks and trains were, after 58 days, allowed to move without interference. But the strike didn’t end. On July 8, teamsters in both San Francisco and Oakland voted to strike. Then, on July 14, the San Francisco Labor Council voted to call a general strike, and the Mayor declared a state of emergency. This was probably unnecessary, as the Labor Council strike only lasted four days.
When the Labor Council voted to end the General Strike, it also recommended that unions accept arbitration of all disputed issues. This resulted in the National Longshore Board making the same proposal that passed in every port except Everett, Washington. At this point, only one point and striking seamen were left in the lurch. This was the beginning of the end of the strike, and the arbitration award on October 12, 1934 cemented the ILA’s power, which still exists today in the ILWU, which was formerly known as the ILU which broke off from the ILA in 1937 and which covers the west coast district.
The ILWU continues to recognize this day by shutting down all West Coast ports every July 5. Let’s hope they, and the employers, never forget what happens if both sides don’t sit down for as long as it takes to resolve disputes and work out a deal.