1934 San Francisco General Strike


July 5, 2018 marks the 84th anniversary of “Bloody Thursday,” when two workers supporting the 83-day West Coast Maritime Strike were murdered as the police attempted to brutally crush the strike. Those two deaths catalyzed a general strike that completely paralyzed San Francisco (and Oakland) for four days.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) was founded with another strike two years later, protecting the general strike victories and giving the union sole control of the hiring hall for work dispatched to the docks. Another strength of the ’34 “Big Strike” was the seeking of the solidarity of African American workers, with the promise of breaking the color line and integrating longshore work (ILWU Local 10 in the Bay has a membership that is predominately African American today). The ILWU had 1,399 legal and illegal work stoppages until another major strike consolidated all those gains in 1948.

So the ILWU was born and became the “Lord of the Docks” with direct action, and that alone, and had near-total control of the work process. But this form of struggle didn’t come out of nowhere. Maritime and waterfront workers in San Francisco had repeatedly attempted to create class-based organizations of all workers, the first during the 1886 waterfront strike, then again with a strike of all waterfront workers in 1893, then with another near-general strike in 1901, then again in 1916 (in reaction to this labor organizer Tom Mooney was framed for the Preparedness Day bombing, sending him to prison for 22 years).

The successes of ’34 had its roots in waterfront organizing in the 1850s and continuous attempts to create not only an industrial union, but to build links of working class solidarity with all other sectors along the transportation chain. As Carey McWilliams put it in “California: The Great Exception,” workers conceived these struggles as “class-against-class.” The ILWU’s earlier victories in the class war resulted in their having the highest industrial wages — and some of the best work conditions and benefits — in the U.S. today.

As Tech Workers Coalition attempts to organize all workers in the technology sector, the legacy of the “Big Strike” offers invaluable lessons for an inclusive industrial organizing strategy to fight back with the weapon of working class solidarity. This 2-hour walking tour will visit the sites of the battles of ’34.


Discussion Questions

  1. In 1934, organizing “industrially” meant solidarity pacts between longshore, maritime workers, and teamsters — which drew in “uptown” workers as the strike generalized. What parallels exist in organizing industrially in the tech sector today? What non-tech sectors could be drawn in?
  2. Waterfront workers, acting in concert, could paralyze a vital chokepoint as San Francisco was the West Coast’s primary entrepôt. How could tech workers exert a similar leverage in the industries of the 21st century?
  3. In the early 20th century, race was used a wedge to break strikes when bosses used workers of color as scabs. Striking longshore workers overcame that tool of the bosses by integrating the union and making ILWU Local 10 the most diverse of all the locals on the West Coast. How can that lesson be applied to tech? What other wedges are used by bosses and how can links of solidarity be built to overcome them?
  4. Capital has dispersed production and reproduction globally, so that today the whole world is the shopfloor in a factory without walls. The chokepoints aren’t only physical, but are highly dependent on digital networks as well. How could this be taken into account, and how can we envision international working class solidarity in the spirit of ’34?

Additional Resources