By Stan Weir
(a.k.a. “Unions with Leaders Who Stay on the Job,” originally a chapter in “We Are All Leaders”: The Alternative Unionism of the Early 1930s)
By Staughton Lynd
The essay by Stan Weir that follows is the concluding essay in a book I edited called, “We Are All Leaders”: The Alternative Unionism of the Early 1930s (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1996). The book is full of interesting stories of a time when there was no National Labor Relations Act, and no CIO, and workers had to turn for help to other workers in the same locality.
The way Stan came to be a part of this book is a story in itself. He would often telephone me long distance from California to tell me a new joke. But this time when he called he was upset. He had heard about the book, and he wanted to ask me: Why wasn’t he a part of it?
Stan wasn’t a part of the book—as I initially imagined it—because the contributors I had lined up were professional historians, most of them young and not yet published. But when thought about it I decided that Stan was right. I had always believed that history should be a matter of activists reflecting on their experience together and deciding how to do better the next time. Stan was such an activist. He wanted to reflect out loud on a critical chunk of his life as an organizer.
My wife Alice and I had previously recorded Stan’s life story in a book called Rank and File: Personal Histories by Working-class Organizers (still in print with Monthly Review Press). This would be different. This was going to be Stan himself taking the initiative, not sweeping broadly over several decades of his life, but as it were sending a mine shaft down into one particular experience.
I believe the story Stan tells in the pages that follow was precious to him because it was the closest he ever came to the self-governing workers’ world in which he believed all his adult life. A ship at sea is a little community cut off from the rest of the world. On the S. S. Hanapepe, workers turned their ship into a floating classroom with older workers—the ’34 men —systematically instructing younger ones. And of course, the ship could be such a forum for workers’ self-activity only because of the collective direct action with which the crew had made manifest their collective power before going to sea.
The Oakland general strike of 1946 then became the closest thing in Stan’s experience to a generalizing of what happened on the Hanapepe, to a local general strike of the entire Oakland, California working class.
I don’t want to say much more about Stan, or about the process of editing his manuscript. What sticks most in memory is his telling me that he wrote this essay with tears streaming down his face.
In Latin America, when a comrade dies his friends and colleagues call his name and say of him, “Presente” — he is present.
So I say, “Stan Weir—presente.”
– Staughton Lynd
Class War Lessons: From Direct Action on the Job to the ’46 Oakland General Strike
By Stan Weir
It was noon, an hour and twenty minutes before the scheduled sailing time of the freighter SS Hanapepe, September 28, 1943. I went to the crowded mess room and took the seat left vacant for me. My arrival meant that all eleven members of the Deck Gang were present. We did not order lunch. The on-ship delegates or representatives of both the Marine Firemen, Oilers, Watertenders and Wipers union (MFOW&W) and the Marine Cooks and Stewards union (MC&S) looked at me, the delegate of the Deck Gang and the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific (SUP), and nodded.
I put on my white cap. With that signal we of the Deck Gang got up, walked to the gangway and down off the ship. In doing so, we all made eye-to-eye contact with the men of the Black Gang (Engine Department), and with all the messmen and cooks of the Stewards’ Department about to serve the crew members, who would for a time remain seated. The barely noticeable smile and nod from each of them, and from each of us in return, was a reaffirmation of the pledge we had all made, an unrehearsed and emotional admission of camaraderie.
Once on the dock we walked to an imaginary line parallel with the ship’s side and about fifty feet from it, just far enough away so that we wouldn’t have to look up at too sharp an angle during the exchange we were about to have with the ship’s officers. Facing the ship in a line, we waited, a bosun, a ship’s carpenter, six able bodied seamen (ABs), and three ordinary seamen.1 Each of the three sea watches was made up of two ABs and an ordinary.
With the exception of Blackie Soromengo, the bosun, and Chips Costello, the carpenter, we were a little jumpy. They were twenty years or more older than the rest of us and veterans of the 1934 “Big Strike” that had stopped West Coast marine cargo movement for eighty-three days and had won recognition for all maritime unions on the West Coast.2 But the term ’34 man meant much more than strike veteran; it identified a member of what had been a very real movement that became clearly visible three years before the 1934 strike. These men did not wear buttons for identification, but a mark of honor was on them all. The instruction they gave to the younger men who entered the industry during the war revealed what they had learned: the power and hilarity of overcoming long years of submission and their terror of losing hold of that power. The strength and the anxiety of the ‘34 men were with us that day on the dock.
The bosun and carpenter well understood that we wanted to be able to tell others our own stories of direct action. We were anxious to establish our generation’s reputation in the union and the industry. But they also knew the seriousness of what we were doing and the weaknesses as well as strengths of our eagerness. They gave us room and seldom used their authority to showcase themselves. We were forging an open alliance between the two generations standing there together on the dock.
The war and the shortage of seamen had given us “young men” our first union jobs and full-time work. We had never before been able to stand up and fight back openly. Such terms as direct action or job action were new to our vocabularies.
In the fall of 1943 the only unemployed were people between jobs or en route to military induction centers. Mobilization for total war production was increasingly a part of daily routine. Movie theaters, markets, and cafes in industrial areas were open around the clock. Workers in factories and shipyards were being pinned with “E for Efficiency” buttons after breaking all production records in competition with themselves. The young men of their families were the main source of both draft and volunteer recruitment for the armed forces. At the same time employers receiving “costs plus ten per cent profit” from government defense contracts were using advertising agency forms of patriotism to eliminate the protective work rules won by employees in the decade before the war.
Because of the unconditional no-strike pledge union leaders had declared and negotiated in union contracts, strikers were commonly dealt with as if their needs were unworthy of respect. The Roosevelt administration had early on hired scores of lawyers and professors to arbitrate all labor conflicts. Yet more strikers would go on strike in 1943 than during any year in the 1930s.3 A big contradiction in what has been called “the good war”—though never mentioned in the media—was that during the so-called war for democracy neither employers nor union officials showed concern for the democratic rights of working people in the United States.
During the first year of the war there were still enough old-timers among West Coast seamen for them to pass on to new seamen the need to enforce both the formal and informal work rules won in the 1930s. In 1943 the number of U.S. merchant ships tripled. At the same time the mortality rate among merchant seamen in the war was proportionately higher than in any of the armed services.4 Veterans of the 1930s maritime strikes came to be vastly outnumbered by new shipmates not long parted from high school and part-time jobs. In an attempt to overcome their disadvantage the older men sometimes sought to instruct by more formal methods than the usual bull sessions. Teaching their history of conflict with both the shipowners and official union leaders came easily; they had lived it. But most of all, the instructors sought to teach by involvement with their younger shipmates in job actions.
On the Dock
The appearance on deck of the chief mate interrupted my thoughts.5 He stood above the main deck, where the men of the Engine Room, Stewards’ Department, and Navy Armed Guard who manned the ship’s guns were gathering. He was big, lean, and in his fifties. After a harrumph he yelled to the bosun, “Why is your gang on the dock?” He continued before the bosun could answer: “I want the appropriate helmsman from the 12 to 4 watch to come to the flying bridge at one o’clock sharp and stand by ready to take the wheel the moment the pilot comes aboard. And bosun, you and the men off watch must be standing by at the same time ready to haul up and make fast the gangway, then send three men to the bow and three to the stern to slack off, and then haul in the mooring lines when the longshore linesmen on the dock let them go. There will be steam in the windlasses.”
“The appropriate helmsman”? “There will be steam”? Had they gotten this guy from central casting? We were all choking back laughter, yet none of us moved. The bosun broke the silence: “You’ve got it wrong, Mate. You’ve been going to sea long enough to know better. When you see us out here like this you have to deal with our elected delegate, Red, who is standing right here. Until you do that anything you want to discuss must wait.”
(A delegate performs the same function that a shop steward does in union workplaces ashore. But because all ships have stewards’ departments whose members prepare and serve three meals and a light lunch a day, in addition to making the officers’ beds and cleaning their rooms, a second use of the term would create confusion.)
I took two steps toward the ship ready to speak. At the same time the mate turned and walked quickly into the midship house. The captain came out onto the wing of the bridge moments later. He glared down at us from beneath a navy officer’s hat with all the trimmings, “scrambled eggs” included, on the bill. “As master of this ship I order you to come aboard immediately and go to your assigned stations ready to work as directed.”
I heard grunts of anger behind me. Louder noises came from other members of the crew standing two decks below the captain, just out of his line of vision. His head jerked with the realization that almost the entire crew was witness. The audience had given me what I needed. “No, Captain, there are questions of health that have to be taken care of here and now.”
“Do you think you are running this ship?”
“Captain, do I have to explain to you what our roles are supposed to be as Deck delegate and captain? Your regular authority established for the operation of this ship is one thing. During any bargaining process it is suspended, and we are equals. If you are asking me to go over the history since crews like this one began to revive the unions ten years ago, then you will soon see the Black Gang out here on the dock, too. If there is any trouble after that, the room steward who makes your bed and the cooks and messmen who feed us will follow.”
The captain went white in the face, then recovered to ask, “All right, Weir, why aren’t you at your assigned duties instead of out here on this dock?”
He had quit stammering when using my name and so had taken a step toward admission that each of us was a representative. “A reminder, Captain. The delegates from all three departments came to you with complaints almost two weeks ago. You put us off then and three times more. The responsibility for the problem you now have is not ours. And, we are all on lunch hour.”
“Is this the bedbug thing again?”
“Only in part. Bedbugs have been found in several of the mattresses of the unlicensed personnel and the Navy Armed Guard. All of the mattresses are very old, soiled and lumpy. Remember that we live three men to a fo’c’sle in a space half the size of your room. Remember, too, that unlike those used by you who live topside, the mattresses were two feet wide, six feet long and two inches thick when they came aboard many trips ago. Now they are longer and thinner. They have to be replaced.”
“Have you appointed yourself delegate for all three departments and the navy men?”
“I can get two other delegates out here right now if you like.”
“But we’re about to sail.”
“You have a telephone that’s strung from the dock to your room. There are ships’ chandlers in the East Bay just like there are in San Francisco along the Embarcadero. You can get all the items we need from any one of them in less than an hour.”
With head tilted to one side and sugary voice, the captain went for what he probably thought was his biggest weapon: “There’s a war on, you know.”
A “fuck yoohoo” delivered slowly in a near-singing voice wafted aloft from the main deck gallery. Then, short, hard, and square-built Chips, who had been on two ships sunk by U-boats in the Caribbean, broke in, “The ship you are standing on is your first since you took an office job with this company when the war started.”
The blows to the captain’s credibility showed on his face. But even if I had wanted to, I couldn’t afford to let his cheap shot go with only two responses. A document citing the articles of war was attached to the ship’s articles we had signed two days earlier. We had discussed what to do if this came up.
“Yes, Captain, we know, and because of the war there is the War Shipping Administration [WSA] which pays this company and others for all costs connected with operating ships for the war effort. Your company has one of the many ‘costs plus ten percent profit’ contracts. You know, having worked in the office, that for every dollar your outfit spends on food and the other needs of the crew it gets back at least a dollar and a dime. If you have outfitted this ship as it should be, and have reported to the WSA as required, why is it that we lack so many needed food and sanitation items?”
The captain took too long to respond. Laughter exploded from the gathering on the main deck and ceased momentarily only when the identifiable, rough voice of Matt, the lanky and multitattooed deck engineer from Gulfport, Mississippi, drawled, “Okaaay, it’s time for all of us y’alls to go out on the dock!”
“No, tell him that won’t be necessary, uh, will it Red?”
Red? Was he giving in, using my nickname to bait me, or just out of control? Could it be that our ship’s accounts at some ship supply house would show we had full stores of good grade food aboard? The fink probably had a deal going to supplement his salary. “No, it won’t be necessary as long as you get the things I’m ready to list.”
“You want more than mattresses?”
“Yes. Get fresh milk and good coffee aboard. Fresh vegetables besides cabbage.” The purser had appeared at the captain’s side and was making a list. “Add plenty of citrus fruit and fresh meat besides mutton to the list.” He looked at the captain, got a nod, and went back to writing.
“Good, is that it?”
“No. You are aware that the showers need simple repairs. It is hard to get more than a trickle out of them. A lizard could piss a bigger stream than they put out now. This means we have to stand in line in the passageways waiting turns. Get four new shower heads, some good bar soap, a strong lye soap, five cases of Clorox in gallons, and two five-gallon cans of kerosene.”
“What’s the kerosene for?”
There was a chorus of guffaws from the main deck. “Is he going to tell us he’s never had a dose of crabs?”
I said, “If you haven’t got them up on your deck yet, you will during the trip if we don’t get kerosene aboard. We bought some kerosene with our own money the first thing when we came aboard. We washed down all the toilets. There’s no guarantee we got all the eggs. They may make a comeback. Just in case, order six dozen of the small jars of McKesson’s A200 Pyrinate, at least one for every man. The chandlers will have it. It comes in jars, just like Vicks.”
“Is that it?”
“Yes, except for a matter that can’t be fixed by a purchase. It has to do only with the Deck Gang. We would have taken it up with the chief mate directly, but he didn’t stay long enough for me to mention it. He is to stop watching us like some kind of gumshoe when we’re working on deck. We think you will understand that it can slow down the work.”
“I understand. I will take the matter up with the chief mate, and the purser will order the items you have listed. And so, while he’s doing that, you can all come back aboard and go to work.”
I hadn’t expected that he would again try to get us to refuse a direct order to go to work, even though it was lunchtime. I was out of patience, afraid my anger would show if I had to offer still another explanation for our refusal to go aboard. I moved back into the line of men behind me. Several of them began to talk to me out of the sides of their mouths at once. They wanted to bring it all to a halt, right then.
I looked at the bosun and Chips, who hadn’t spoken. They smiled. We all turned as a group and walked toward the Dock Cafe just outside the piershed on the Embarcadero. All its windows had a view of the dock road.
The captain was yelling. We continued on our way until we heard him wail, “Where are you going now?”
The bosun didn’t turn his head but bumped my shoulder with his: “You mind if I take this one?” I deferred to him without any show of my touch of resentment. As bosun, he was officially in charge of all work assignments for the entire Deck Gang when the ship was in port. We all stopped. The bosun and I turned around together, and he yelled back at the still figure on the ship’s bridge, “It still isn’t one o’clock, Gilchrist, our lunch hour isn’t over. We’re going to the cafe for a decent cup of coffee. And remember, there’s nothing to do until a ship chandler’s truck arrives.” The bosun and I did another turnaround and rejoined the gang. The open piershed door just ahead drew us.
At the Dock Café
Once inside, our attention turned to the problems ahead. The captain had suffered a defeat, but official power was still on his side.
The three ordinaries had volunteered to run ahead and grab the cafe’s big table for us. As first trippers, they felt the isolation of the noninitiated and were dependent on each other for support. If we all got to make this trip together, they would by natural process develop a new identity. Each of them would live in an eight-by-ten-foot room, which by tradition was still called a “fo’c’sle” (forecastle), with two ABs. Four hours on and eight hours off, eight to twelve, twelve to four, and four to eight, seven days a week, they would come to know the ship’s routine. They would learn from us who to wake up for the next watch, when it was their turn to make coffee, and how to stand lookout and steer the ship. Days on deck, the bosun and Chips would lead the instruction about lines, knots and splices, chipping rust and red leading.
We already liked the ordinaries. Berto’s father had come to Oakland from Portugal via the Hawaiian Islands, as the bosun had. Anthony and Bruno were from San Francisco’s Italian neighborhood in North Beach. They were physically bigger than their fathers, who were commercial fishermen, but also were thickset from “helping out on the boat.” Hard work didn’t bother them.
By the time we arrived at the entrance of the cafe they had eleven chairs and cups of coffee at the table. We paused just inside the door. They were so involved in replay and laughter about what we had all just done together that they didn’t notice our arrival.
“Did you see the look on the captain’s face when someone sang, ‘Fuck yoohoo’? He had a good voice, for god’s sake.”
“Yeah, but the best was when the captain went dirty. It was like he was singing it, ‘There’s a war on….’ What shit!”
“But Jesus, we just walked off and left him, and he wails, ‘Where are you going?’ Just like he was a little kid.”
It was contagious. They were acting out what we felt. They went silent as soon as they heard our laughter. Together and still standing, we reached for our coffees and all drank at once.
The bosun did not sit down with the rest of us until he took a hard look all around the cafe. “Good job out there today. Good job. But remember, you didn’t do it, not alone you didn’t. We were the guys who got to do the grandstanding. What we did was a hell of a lot easier than what those men back aboard the ship are having to live through right now. Always keep in mind that in actions like this the Deck Gang gets the spotlight because our jobs are out on deck. At sailing time, we are the ones who have direct contact with the longshoremen, the tugboatmen, and that special bunch of older longshoremen called linesmen. They let go the mooring lines of ships that are about to sail, take them off the bollards on the dock. Deckhands like us then haul the lines aboard using the power windlasses. They do the reverse operation when ships arrive at the dock, take ships’ lines from us deckhands and put the eye splices of the lines over the bollards.”
Blackie Soromengo was no longer speaking to us as bosun. All the detailed instruction on tying up and letting go of the lines was for the benefit of the ordinaries. The rest of us already knew what he had just gone over. He wanted to show them respect, to pull them into the group, show them they were needed, here and now, in this action. But then he leaned further over the table to signal that he was about to address us all.
“See the two old-timers at the bar? They happen to be the linesmen for our ship. They came onto the dock a little after eleven. I know the short one. When they saw us walk out onto the dock all in a line, they got out of sight. Here, they will not look at us. The same from us, to them, for the time being. They will go out on the dock and stand by fore and aft only if they see us go aboard. But, when that rust bucket that we just left gets out into the stream with us on it, we will take off our hats both to them and the gentlemen on the tugs. And if you ever see any of them ashore, you pay for the drinks.
“You see, the men in the other departments of the crew don’t get to do these kinds of things very often. This is one of the commonest kinds of direct action. Their work can only be performed inside the ship. We are all on deck at sailing times. To ask that the oiler fireman and watertenders shut down the ship’s engine, when they are down below with two engineer officers at sailing time, is asking a lot. And think what its like to sail down below in hundred-degree heat spending a third of your life getting your air through a windscoop and not able to look out at the ocean.
“It’s harder yet for the people in the Stewards’ Department. They are the cooks, bakers, waiters, and janitors for the rest of us, the lowest paid and the takers of the most crap. In ’34 they were some of the hardest fighters we had. Now it’s headed back toward the way it was before. When the officers are around, too often it’s shut up and make no eye contact. Or worse, make a smile. Notice anything different about them? See any people on the deck or in the engine room whose ancestors came from Africa or Asia? No, only in that part of a ship’s crew that does what too many of us think of as menial labor.”
Like many southerners, Chips had good timing. He interrupted the bosun without it being a discourtesy. “Okay, there are a couple of things we have to get out of the way right now. Okay? All of you on that side of the table can see a half-mile of dock road in either direction. About forty minutes to an hour from now a truck from a ship chandler’s may come into sight. Talk all you want, but keep your eyes on that road starting now! Whenever it comes, we want to stop it here before it gets down the dock in sight of the ship. Got it?
“That brings up another thing.” Chips’s wiry frame was an advantage. You could tell what he had to say was serious by the veins pumping at the sides of his neck. “The first time you’re in on something like this, your asshole can get awful goddamned tight. Relax just a little. They need to get that ship there away from the dock and out to sea, soon! To fire us now they’d have to hire a whole ’nother crew. The time for them to make their move against us will most probably be at the end of the trip We’ll get boarded by a couple of men dressed in U.S. Coast Guard uniforms, not regular military servicemen, more like FBI men in costume. They’ll go to the captain and ask if he had any ‘troublemakers’ this trip. All he has to do is mention the names of the men he wants to hurt. Then the shipowner will hold all the money you made this trip, and the boys in blue will hold up your seaman’s papers until you’ve gone to a military-style hearing up in some fucking federal building. If you screw up and give ’em the opportunity, they will really go after you, but if we are all real careful and look out for each other, they will cite only a couple of us that they think are leaders. Probably there won’t be any charges mentioned. It’ll just be that a couple of gold braids will hint around for about half an hour that you are probably some kind of communist. Their favorite question is ‘Do you ever let your union activity go beyond union activity?’ They’ll finally let you go. You can usually cut the visit short by demanding the charges, again and again. Remember, even if you ask the union to represent you, there won’t anyone come. That means that those of us who are not cited stay in town to make sure nothing worse happens to the guys they think are the leaders. In fact, we’ll reserve a table in the federal building cafeteria. Anyone who doesn’t show is a fuckup or has shit in his blood.”
Seeing Chips was finished, Blackie looked into each of our faces. “There will be plenty of time for us to go over this later. I agree with Chips that the captain probably won’t make his move against us now. It seems we have the captain at some kind of disadvantage, like Chips and I suspected we could when we first came aboard and did our own private inspection. Not one of us can afford to make a mistake. No coming aboard drunk, ever, not this trip. Work hard, work good, and mind what you say when you’re standing wheel watch at night with only the mate on your watch up there to talk with. If the captain can get something on only two or three of us, he will give them to the ‘three letter boys.’ With hostages they will seek revenge against all of us for what we did today.
“We are going to clean up this ship and its gear, make it truly shipshape. We will lead careful lives for ourselves and all those in it with us. Red here and his partner, Big John from the Bronx, sailed with Chips and me early last year. Young Finns Waino and Paavo, I knew your fathers, Finn Waino and Finn Walter from the Finnish Brotherhood Hall in Berkeley. There were two halls, yours was the one just a little up the hill east of San Pablo Avenue, the one that had the IWW and some Trotskys, right? They let me flop there several nights during the 1935 tanker strike. We were helping out up in Richmond. I sailed with both of them on the lumber schooners. Walter was in the Centralia strike, a man who read everything he could get his hands on.”
Blackie spoke in the same way to Nils and Carl, who he said were “from stump ranches somewhere around Coos Bay,” and to the three ordinaries. “Berto, from our talk on deck the other day I know your folks are Portuguese from the Cape Verde Islands, the same as me, and that we all came to the States about the same time. Anthony and Bruno, you were both altar boys at Peter and Paul Cathedral across from Washington Square in North Beach. The definition of sin when out at sea is complicated. You may find some nonbelievers among us, yet I’m sure they try to live by what amounts to the Golden Rule. I know your dad and mom, Bruno, they have that fine old-style Italian grocery and deli with the Ensalada Tea on the window in big enameled letters. It’s across from the bakery that’s in the basement on Grant Avenue at Green Street. That reminds me, let’s eat our sandwiches.”
Someone at the bar said “amen,” and the laughter returned.
Only days ago we had had our election for Deck Gang delegate, and the bosun was for the moment so caught up in what we were doing that he had lost sight of what we were trying to accomplish in the long run. Besides, there was a little matter of pride. I was elected Deck delegate, I felt sure, because the gang knew that by electing me they were getting two people, me plus Big John. We already had a modest reputation. On a ship where a chief mate had ordered the Deck Gang to break out the cargo booms in a rough sea just before coming into the San Francisco harbor, we shut off all the steam on deck, and no gear got rigged until the ship was tied up at the dock. When we signed off, the captain turned us in to the Coast Guard. The matter never came up at a union meeting, but word had gotten around. The bosun and Chips had to realize that while they were our mentors and the thirties established their identity, the war period was creating ours. Because we were doing the same work and represented each other’s hopes, we had to treat each other as allies.
Nils raised his hand. “Blackie, only you and Chips have done any of the talking. This is a meeting. Every one has to have a chance to speak.”
Nils looked straight at me. I had become the chairman. The instant I nodded in his direction, he began to speak: “Suppose no truck shows, then what? We can’t just play this by ear.”
Blackie opened his mouth to speak and would have done so, but I waved him off. Finn Waino took the floor.
“We need for one of us to keep an eye on the ship in case something goes wrong there. For an instance, if something happens, we might need all hands again. Blackie, you said you knew one of these linesmen. Could you get him to scout the ship for us?”
All eyes moved to Blackie. He got up without a word, went to the bar, ordered a beer and spoke to the linesman. The man listened to Blackie without looking at him, then got up and left the cafe.
Blackie returned to his table without his beer to announce, “It’s a risk for him, but he’ll do it carefully and be back in a few minutes.
I took the floor. “Let’s assume that the captain gets one or two suits and ties down here. We can’t go over the whole thing right now, but we have to have the beginnings of a plan. If authority comes, in suits or uniforms, as delegate I have to talk to them. I need witnesses with me. I move that Big John, Blackie, and Chips be the ones. Again, if authority comes, they will probably drive right to the gangway and try to go directly to the captain. He should not get first crack at them. We should stop them here in the shed. The other seven of you go out the little door behind the bar and right down the apron of the dock. Once you’re aboard, get all hands on deck. Then we…”
“Yeah, but Red, wait a minute. You, me, and Blackie and Chips should come aboard at the same time as the rest. Every time we make an appearance out there we should do everything to make them see us as a group.” It was Big John. Somewhere in his New York upbringing he had developed a sixth sense about the powers of a crowd, even a small one.
All heads were nodding, and smiles were beginning to return.
“Okay, instead of talking, you want a full show of strength to be what speaks most for our case?”
“Right!” was sung in chorus.
“Good. Then let’s go on. John, anything else?”
“Yeah. Remember, if a ship chandler’s truck arrives, we stop it right here and see what it has aboard. That leaves one more thing to consider. What if it turns out that somehow they pull a power play, and it looks like it’s going to be what Cade the Night Cook and Baker calls our ‘natural asses’?”
We were under time pressure. I didn’t wait for an answer. “It will then be up to all of you who can to round up as many men as you can from all three unions. Marine Cooks, Marine Firemen, and the Sailors’ Union.” I was looking at Blackie and Chips. “The more ’34 men the better. Get them to the Alaska Fishermen’s Building and march them through the offices of the officials of all three unions. Make them know that if they don’t save whoever’s arse is at stake, the news will spread to the memberships of every port on the coast.”
“Red, that’s a big job.”
“That’s right, and it can be done with you and Chips in action.”
Blackie raised his hand to say, “We’ll do everything we can, everything.”
Paavo put up his hand. “We know you and Chips will do all you can, Blackie, but don’t forget the ordinaries. Enough of this shit from the union that you have to be a full book member of the union before it can protect you.”
Bert, Bruno, and Anthony were again laughing with this show of respect from what they felt were two older generations.
“Wait a minute, Red! In that case you don’t want Blackie and Chips with you out there. They should stay back in case they have to cop a sneak off the dock to organize a delegation that will pack our great leaders’ offices. And another thing. You’re right, there should be four men to speak for us, but it ought to be you and the delegates from the other two departments on the ship, not just the Deck Gang.”
Waino’s hand went up, and he spoke without knowing if Paavo had finished. “Hey partner, we are all forgetting about what John said. It would be a hell of a lot more effective if any suits or uniforms that come aboard get surrounded by the whole crew, then one by one, five or ten of us tell them, no rough stuff, how we feel.”
“The power of an intelligent crowd!”
I didn’t get to see who made the remark and did not recognize the voice.
“Red.” It was Carl, and he was laughing. “The crowd can handle it!”
Blackie was laughing quietly to himself. I looked around. No sign of anyone who wanted to speak. Carl had his arms wrapped around his head in mock submission. Several short guffaws broke the tension, and I took the opening. “Hey Carl, short haul, what you did just now is not easy for me to take. But you’re not only saving me some sweat down the line, you’re doing a favor for an idea that can make life easier for us all.”
There were no laughs. Every face in the house was straight, and still no one wanted the floor.
We all rose from our chairs. Carl came to the bar with John and me. We bought preassembled roast beef sandwiches. I took one and laid it by my place at the table, then headed for the restroom.
Anthony came in while I was drying my hands and followed me back out into the cafe. “Red, wait up. Let’s stand over here for a minute. Listen, how come you guys didn’t even mention getting someone from the union out here to do something about all this?”
“That’s what we are forced to try to avoid, Anthony.”
“But you pay dues.”
“I know. But if we got a patrolman [business agent] out here from the union hall, he would have to tell us that if we took any kind of direct action we would be violating the contract, that we would have to hang on and make the best of it till we got to Honolulu or back here at the end of the trip. Keep in mind the bosun and Chips picked this ship in the first place because it’s in East Oakland at a seldom-used dock.”
“You mean you guys had this all…?”
“Don’t say it. See you in a few minutes.”
“No, wait, who are these guys, the bosun and Chips?”
“Two of the men who actually rebuilt the Sailors’ Union in ‘32 and ’33 before the Big Strike, two of them anyway. They were both organizing hit-and-run job actions whenever they could, particularly when guys who had been quiet for years began to dare to speak. Hey, we’ll be talking more about this. Right now we’re under the gun. Let me go eat my sandwich.”
“No, Red, one more thing, how could Chips know that the captain had taken an office job in the company office as soon as the war started?”
“Were you ever in one of those cheap waterfront hotel rooms where most of the old-timers stay between trips? When they were our ages, they never made enough to have a home and a marriage. Most of those rooms are lit by a single light bulb hanging down from the ceiling with no shade on it. The dinginess drives the renters down to the lobbies, where they exchange stories, particularly about the ships they just came off of. Now we eat.”
Anthony agreed. I got my sandwich and moved to one of the small tables. Others were doing the same. Paavo walked down the aisle behind me and stopped to press hard on my shoulder, then kept going. He came back a couple of minutes later and sat down across from me to say that Shorty the linesman had come back. The ship had looked peaceful. He couldn’t get too close, but half of the Black Gang were sitting out on Number 4 Hatch shooting the breeze with two messmen and the deck engineer.
It was ten minutes to one. A half-hour to go before we were all supposed to be back aboard and working. Waino saw me look at my watch.
“Red, fuck it, don’t try to carry it all. We all got into this with our eyes open. Take it all too seriously and you lose your sense of humor.”
“I didn’t know it was showing on me that much. But yes, we’ve got a lot riding on this one. If we lose this one, the ordinaries may never get another ship.”
“We’ll find a way. Don’t try to take all the responsibility; it’s not good for any of us, them included.”
We both smiled and waved each other free. I was beginning to understand that my overconcern got in the way of full participation in our decision-making process.
“Hey, all hands out here, now!” It was Paavo, who had just come through the cafe door yelling. “Yeah, all of you, a chandler’s truck is coming, now. Arise and shine!”
We Win a Battle
I went out the door with the others at a full run. The back doors of the truck were already open. The driver was reading to Bruno the list of items to be delivered. Nils and Carl had not been able to wait. They were opening cases and yelling out the contents to anyone who might be listening. “Good,” came the announcement from Nils. “They got All-Bran and Wheaties instead of Grapenuts, and it’s all here: milk, vegetables, coffee, the kerosene, ahah, A200 Pyrinate, tested on the inmates at San Quentin before release for public consumption. We owe those guys, and it’s no laughing matter.”
Then I noticed Big John. He was grabbing whomever he could get his hands on, then throwing them into the truck. It was the adrenalin of the small crowd. He was smiling, without trying to hide the legacy of a lifetime without going to a dentist. His excitement was catching, and his leadership was easy to accept. After he had thrown four or five of the gang aboard the truck, he made known his plan: “Don’t ever turn down a free ride in a Trojan horse!”
The rest of us jumped in. John yelled, “Now!” The driver started his truck and took off. When he made the turn out of the shed onto the apron of the dock, we all fell over one another. Upon arrival at the gangway he hit the brakes hard, and we were on the floor again. We came to a full stop, and he made no move to get out, just sat there looking straight ahead and cracking up.
The crew on the ship had seen us coming. About a dozen of them surrounded the truck. By the time they opened the doors, John had us jump down, to the skin of the dock, all with bright new blue-and-white-striped mattresses over our heads, half hanging down our fronts and half down our backs. Cheers went up!
We didn’t talk, not then. The members of our greeting committee each took a piece of the truck’s cargo and ran up the gangway single file. The cargo was all aboard after two more trips down and up the gangway. The driver got the chief steward’s signature, looked up to give us a quick wink, and drove away.
The tug’s whistle blew. It was John’s turn at the helm. The rest of us split up to go to the bow and stern. It was time for us to slack off the lines so that the linesmen on the dock could take our mooring lines off the bollards. Paav stretched his arm out to show me his wristwatch; it was almost one-thirty.
I looked up at the inshore wing of the flying bridge from where I was standing on the stern. The captain caught my look, then smiled and waved as if returning a greeting initiated by me. I looked away, wondering what it must do to those among us who have jobs demanding that they wrong those they supervise or govern, all the while knowing that when they go home to their mates and children, they cannot let them see their full identities.
Paavo motioned me over to the rail. The linesmen had just dropped our lines into the water. We waved our appreciation to them with our hands close to our chests and our backs to the bridge. The third mate saw it all in a glance but looked the other way. We hauled in the lines by windlass and flaked them out neatly on deck by hand so that they would dry without “assholes” (tight kinks).
The tugmen and their boat pulled us away from the dock. Once we were out into the estuary between Oakland and Alameda, the tug whistle blew. Anthony went to the offshore side and let go of the tugboat’s line. It was his first opportunity to display his new skill in action. He did not look at us, but he was smiling. I let the warmth of the moment register as I positioned myself beside him at the rail. Anthony yelled at the two men on the tug’s stern as it moved toward the open bay. When they looked up, we took off our white canvas “stetsons,” faking sweaty foreheads to deliver our respects. They made no eye contact as they hand-signaled that what they had done was nothing special.
An hour later we ducked under the Golden Gate Bridge and out into view of the Farallon (“Far and Alone”) Islands. Our connection with official life ashore was all but severed. We were no longer full citizens of the United States. By signing the ship’s articles when the man from the shipping commissioner’s office came aboard, we had lost much of the protection of the U.S. Constitution. We were now, and until we returned to the port of voyage termination in the States, governed by the nation’s special maritime laws as interpreted by the smiling man whose name was on the framed master’s license that hung in the wheelhouse. This was more than compensated for by our certainty that on this trip there was little likelihood of any friction among the unlicensed crew. In a matter of days we had begun to learn the need to respect each other across the long-established boundaries that divide seamen of each ship into three parts: those who prepare and serve the food and maintain the living quarters; those who keep the ship’s engine, electricity, and water supply running; and those who steer the ship, rig its gear, and keep its decks fit for sea.
Classroom Aboard Ship
At no point during the entire trip to the Southwest Pacific and Australia did the captain or any other deck or engine room officer mention our “walk-off.” We had demonstrated that we saw ourselves as an independent decision-making unit on all matters of safety and working and living conditions. Not one of the captain’s pretended attempts at a conciliation with us met with success. We were polite to him in a way that kept the official reality of our relationship with him out in the open.
Unposted but almost regularly scheduled gatherings took place during the entire voyage. There was informal instruction in ship safety, seamanship, and union history and organization (both official and unofficial), sometimes in the presence of two or three Navy Armed Guardsmen, all out on deck as weather permitted. At no time did the presence of an officer create an interruption. The enthusiasm, especially among the young first trippers, was noticeable. They had seen that we were introducing them to more than a unionism by which they could protect themselves on the job. We were also passing on a life-style in which they could carry themselves with more dignity and power.
The sense of self-improvement was not limited to the new seamen. The interdependence of the three departments demonstrated during the walk-off brought different rewards to each of the age-based groups in the crew. Cade, the night cook and baker from one of the sea islands off the coast of Georgia, and Londos, the four-to-eight oiler who had come from Greece as a young man, were ‘34 strike men like the bosun and Chips. They all rediscovered each other and became one of the tightest social groups on the ship. It was a small-scale reenactment of the formation in 1934 of the Maritime Federation of the Pacific, when the MFOW&W, the MC&S, and the SUP led all the offshore maritime unions on the coast in the preformation of an industrial union.
The oiler, night cook and baker, bosun, and Chips the carpenter determined the subjects they thought would be most valuable to all crew members younger than they and discussed their choices informally with the rest of us. Each of them then began meeting the men in his department two or three at a time for instruction and discussion.
John, Anthony, and I met with the bosun and Chips as a watch. We were in their room for a little over two hours. The bosun began by going over what he considered the three primary rules of conduct.
“Learn your trade. Work good and work hard. Particularly when lifting or carrying at sea, give one hand to the ship but keep one for yourself.
“I’ve already told you the following things, I think, but I want to go through them now systematically. Never, but never, walk away from a beef. For example, do not pay off from a ship in the middle of a fight with an officer or captain. If you do, you leave it for the next crew that comes aboard. It will catch them off guard, as a surprise, and they will be at a double disadvantage because topside will know the history of the beef and they won’t.
“But worst of all, if you walk away, you contribute to the breakdown of solidarity where it counts most, among the people on the job. They see that you didn’t look out for them, and that makes it easier for them to do the same to others. The big breakdown in morale began when we let our leader Harry Lundeberg negotiate contracts that gave our port patrolmen or business agents control over grievance settlements. If this task gets left to people who don’t do the same work we do, it’s not going to get done right, if at all. If on each ship, each trip we solve our beefs by ourselves, solidarity, our primary weapon, remains within reach.
“The next and last reminder of standard rules for now is that when a trip begins to get old, and the night wheel watches up there on the bridge get long and lonely, keep a distance between yourself and the mate on watch. Be thrifty with your words, stories, and the content of the ideas that you express. You and that man are each witness to the other’s boredom and sense of aloneness. That is not the stuff of brotherhood or comradeship, even though you both belong to unions. No matter how decent or well-meaning that other also needy man may be, he will almost certainly do what he has to do to keep his job. Part of that job is to supervise or keep watch on you. It is not unusual to learn, often too late, that the biggest advantage the ruler of the ship has in getting at those he looks upon as troublemakers is from information obtained by officers who got it earlier from helmsmen on their watch who unburdened themselves of shipboard or personal problems. Those guilty of this stoolpigeonry are often reluctant betrayers.
“One more thing. You too have a responsibility in all this. Don’t go putting out on the open table any of the personal-private things you were told in confidence by a ship’s officer. If you do, you lose your ability to be indignant at injustice.
Passing on the Lessons of the 1934 Strike
“The importance of the strikes of the 1930s, including the seamen’s strikes, has been exaggerated,” Blackie went on.
“All through the 1920s we were held down. The lack of dignity we experienced on the job, plus the pitiful wages that denied us homes or families, kept us from achieving what we were capable of. At first we blamed it on each other. We talked worse about those laboring alongside us than about anyone else.
“Later we recognized that it was the condition of our industry. In the early twenties the government was giving away or taking ships out of service. Our small merchant marine was shrinking and our jobs along with it. We lived with that idea for several years.
“Then came the 1929 crash of the stock market. We were already on the bottom when it hit. The thing about the Big Depression that followed was that no matter what direction you looked, there was a failure of leadership of all the nation’s institutions. That went for the people who headed our unions as well as those in political parties and the government. We began to notice that the main message from our union leaders was that ’nothing can be done, the entire government is on the employers’ side, all we can do is go along and hope that by causing no trouble some concessions will be thrown our way.’ Somehow we believed them.
“We’d had Wobblies with us in maritime since 1905. A few old ones are still around. They’re members of the Industrial Workers of the World. They were the only bold and independent idea bunch among us. There weren’t many Communists around in the late 1920s. They looked pretty good for a while. Yet, neither group was enough to make a big difference. No noticeable change began to take place in us until the depression showed that none of the nation’s established political leaders had any ideas on how to stop the suffering.
“You went to coffee with the regular guys who had been close-mouthed for as long as anyone could remember, and they were complaining about why the leaders ‘don’t do this and never do that.’ By 1932 we could feel just from the change in attitudes of our own people that something big was happening. Regular guys were becoming more radical than the radicals, talking about the need for a different kind of union. In the early spring of 1934 you didn’t need inside dopesters to know that there was going to be a big strike. It was only then that the radicals began to see the size of their audiences increase significantly. We gave them the chance to grow. And we made them listen, for a while.
“When the longshoremen went on strike that spring, they knew that it was going to be easier for them to pull off a strike than it was for us seamen, because they were ashore all the time and had better communication with each other. Still, they knew we were going to be out there with them, that it was as much our battle as theirs.
“A problem for us was that our seamen’s unions were affiliated with the International Seamen’s Union, or ISU. The main leader of the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific at that time, Andrew Furuseth, was also an official in the ISU. He had a good reputation, had lobbied in Washington, D.C., for years, and had gotten new laws replacing those that made seamen an outright part of the ship’s property while you were signed on. It’s still partly that way, but believe me, it’s a lot better now than it was then. Anyway, the national union officials of the ISU refused to let us go on strike with the longshoremen, and Furuseth agreed with them. That meant we had to take things directly into our own hands.
“We formed ‘meet and greet committees’ without the union’s consent. Ships, mainly steam schooners from the lumber ports up north, would come into San Francisco and San Pedro and be boarded by committees. The crews would then pack up and go down their gangways with the members of their boarding parties. Let me tell you it was like some special holiday, even though times were tough. Some guys would hear about it and form a committee of their own.
“The union lost control and had no way of stopping us. Harry Lundeberg is now head of our union, but around that time he sailed as an unlicensed or ‘waivered’ third mate on the steam schooner James Griffiths. I went to San Pedro for a couple of weeks, and the next thing I heard he was a leading meeter and greeter. Charlie Gates, who was an SUP patrolman in Frisco not so long ago, was on a committee, too.
“Within a couple of weeks the California ports were full of tied-up ships without crews. Ships stopped loading lumber up north and were paying off crews. We were all out on strike. It was one of the best times to be alive; we were getting back at them for all the insults we’d taken to our minds and our bodies through hard work, long hours, bad food, loss of sleep, and filthy fo’c’sles, in addition to spoken and sometimes physical abuse.”
At this point the bosun paused, as if he planned to stop for discussion. This is what we had wanted until he got onto the subject of the “meet and greet committees.” Now Big John broke our silence: “No, no, keep on going as long as you’re into describing this action, for god’s sake; discussion later.”
“Good, I understand. It was our strike. The entire power structure felt threatened, maybe not by revolution like the newspapers were saying, at least not at first. But then in addition to the police and scabs they brought out the National Guard, Legionnaires with tear gas guns, and armed vigilantes. Strikers were getting shot.
“You hear most about the two who were killed in San Francisco on ‘Bloody Thursday,’ July 5, 1934. Four days later there was a funeral procession up Market Street from the corner of Mission and Spear, where the guys were shot I was affected more by that than by any other single day of the strike.
“The official strike leaders had little to do with organizing it. We were the ones who planned everything. Guys were doing things to make the march work right, and no one assigned them. I met a lot of people in the formation area who didn’t have jobs or union cards. During the entire procession none of the thousands of marchers said a word. I didn’t know whether to growl or cry. All the way up Market Street total silence divided a major American city.
“The waterfront strike in San Francisco became general five days after the funeral. Nobody really called it that I can remember. It was just that working people all over town were out joining us. There was a machine shop on the Embarcadero near Mission Street. A SUP sailor got shot out on the sidewalk in front of its door. He was saved because some machinist ran out and pulled him inside by his legs. I’ve always believed that the machinists in that shop were among the people who joined us.
“It was in those weeks that men and boys shining shoes and selling papers on the corner formed their own unions and stopped work. One of them is a good member of the SUP today. His name is Bill.
“When our strike in San Francisco became general, strange as it may hit you at first, in part it hurt us. By the wonderful act of joining us, the uptown working class of people unknowingly gave their union officials—and there was nothing bold about most of them—the chance to take control of the entire strike, including the maritime part of it. That we needed to build an alternative organization to the city’s AFL Central Labor Council, in addition to all the other things we were doing, never occurred to us.
“The general strike ended on July 19, and it was fast downhill from there. Harry Bridges, the longshoremen’s leader, began making speeches about how tired his rank and file was getting. We couldn’t see why he was doing this. There were some among the longshoremen we talked to everyday who you could tell were ready to go back to work, but they were a minority. But who knows? The guys I was picketing with thought Bridges made the guys feel they’d lost their leader. Within days the longshoremen voted to go back to work and arbitrate all unsettled issues.
“We seamen didn’t like what the vote meant, but we went back to work with them. We didn’t want to see our unions go back to doing things separately again. The ISU officials had been against us striking from the start, and we did it anyway. Then after Bridges’s speeches and the longshore vote they got a second wind, and Andrew Furuseth, who had done so many good things as a leader of the Sailors, was acting like a regular ISU stiff. Our strike ended on July 31.
“The longshoremen wound up getting joint fifty-fifty control over hiring along with the employers, union recognition, better wages, and more. By comparison we seamen wound up with no contract, but with direct action control over hiring.”
“Take it easy, I’ve only got one more part to finish, and you’ll have the whole 1934 to 1936 panorama before you. This is the vital piece of the failure we are a living part of today. It’s all but impossible to discuss this bit by bit. Indulge me. This is the first time I’ve ever presented it this way, the way Chips and I and others have had to live with it. I have to get it all out.”
I looked at Anthony and then at John. They looked like they felt as bad as Chips looked sitting there in his silence. I broke in on the bosun: “I have a suggestion. If either of you don’t feel right about it, let’s forget it and go on like we have. How would it be if Chips did the last part of the story?” Anthony and John nodded agreement. The bosun’s face fell, and he looked at his partner for the first time during the session. Chips cut him off before he got a chance to speak to my suggestion.
“No, no, it’s already arranged that I’ll cover this same history for the other two watches tomorrow. You’re just about finished, partner, and we have to get this hunk of it completed now. Okay you guys?”
I looked at John and Anthony again. They shrugged that it was all right with them, and the bosun continued.
“Forgive me, partner….Like I said, the longshoremen got an arbitration award from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s National Longshoremen’s Board. It gave them full recognition on the Coast as the exclusive bargaining representative for all members of the longshoremen’s union, improved grievance arid collective bargaining procedures, joint control of hiring. For this they gave up their fight against labor-saving devices like the jitney or power-pulled, four-wheel carts. There was more to it, but that’s it in a nutshell for now.
“The problem for seamen was that compared to the longshoremen the seamen were getting only the salt that comes from sweat. There were no more fink books, and we had our own halls in the Alaska Fishermen’s Building between Clay and Commercial streets, 150 feet from the Embarcadero. We felt we could make it so that those halls were the only places the employers could get crews. If they tried anything else, we’d shut their halls and throw scab crews off any ship they boarded. And that’s what we did, even though it took us about two more years.
“The government and the shipowners were smart. By offering the longshoremen official recognition, they began to cause a split between us. By comparison, Harry Lundeberg looked great in that period. For us to get anything like the longshoremen got, we were going to have to continue our fight, and the only way we could do that was to go outside the channels created by the government bureaucrats and the law itself. Lundeberg accepted that reality and was willing to lead the way we wanted him to, until after we won. (Then we went to living in the new channels the shipowners and government had dug for us.)
“We seamen were different from longshoremen, even though there were many ex-seamen among them. Compared to them, few of us had homes and families to care for. More important, we weren’t involved in regular politics, but we were radical in the kind of politics that grows out of the job. We live where we work, on one ship at a time out at sea. We brought the kind of politics ashore that you learn in dealing with the people topside. Up to the time of the strike we’d been taking it without the power to fight back openly and under full steam. Somewhere along the line in the years before the Big Strike we decided we weren’t going to live like that anymore. Shit! We surprised a lot of people; some of them didn’t even know we could read.
“Yes, back then Lundeberg had the guts and ability to do what was necessary according to the time, no matter the risks. Just like us. Christ, he didn’t even get his citizen papers until ‘34. Again, it was his willingness to lead the way we wanted him to lead that brought us the real excitement.
“As reports of the locations of ships with scab crews came in, guys taking their turns as dispatchers sent groups of us to the sites. We went up gangways with professional scabs waiting for us on the top landing. We weren’t tough guys. We were young, and we knew what we were doing was right.
“The ISU officials went crazy. They wanted to stop us as much as the shipowners did. Nothing we did was official until we won. We got rid of the ISU piecards [paid union officials]. Old Furuseth got voted down and, with tears running down his cheeks, left the meeting and our hall forever. We were glad to see him go because we knew it was necessary. Lundeberg became holder of the SUP’S top office, secretary-treasurer.
“No presidents in our union. The two or three unions on the West Coast before ours had some radical ideas, and then came the Industrial Workers of the World. The two of us paid dues to them until 1936.
“During the almost two years that we were fighting for our own hiring halls by job actions the Maritime Federation of the Pacific was being formed. Bridges and Lundeberg worked good together at first. It was going to be one big industrial union for us on this coast. But at the same time that we were throwing scabs off ships and stopping the ships, Bridges was beginning to discipline his guys if they did the same as us. In my opinion this is the main thing that brought bad blood between him and Lundeberg and broke up the federation.
“We got our 100 percent control over our own hiring halls put into writing in the contracts that ended the 1936 strike. At no time during the fight did the leadership of the longshoremen get in with us and go for 100 percent control their hiring. They got that indirectly in ’39, I think it was, when they won the right to elect their own job dispatchers. But still, you go into their hall right now and you’ll see employer suits come in and look over the dispatchers’ shoulders from time to time. Those Waterfront Employers’ Association people wouldn’t dare to come up the stairs in our hall. It’s all ours.
“And I don’t blame the regular working longshoremen. Study their situation long enough and you can understand the fix they’re in. They have many of the same problems regular shoreside people have to contend with. They don’t eat in cafes and live in cheap hotels. A lot of them sit down to meals with their families. Besides, the situation in our seamen’s unions is just as bad, for a reason that is the same as in their unions and is the hardest to change: our unions are all led by bureaucrats.
“Now maybe you can see why we emphasize direct action. We know it’s what you need in order to keep the new bureaucrats from taking the unions to their offices.”
We’d listened all we could. At this point we didn’t want to do anything but get off to ourselves and sort out for ourselves what the bosun had told us. We thanked him and Chips, set up a time for our next meeting, and left to go wash up for lunch, feeling somewhat guilty about Chips not getting to speak.
Talking It Over
The next morning John and I were both awake early. He noticed that Anthony was hard asleep and motioned that we get up and out of the fo’c’sle without any talk. The eight-to-twelve watchman with last relief below had just done his duty and made a fresh urn of coffee. I drew two cups and handed one to John. He didn’t want to sit in the messroom. I followed him out of the midship house. We sat, drank, and smoked. I waited for whatever it was that he obviously wanted to talk about.
“You know what the bosun said yesterday about the separation between us and officers?” He waited for my nod and went on. “I think that’s why Joseph Conrad’s books are usually centered on the life going on inside his characters. I’ve read only five of his books. But I didn’t get the feeling that there were a couple or three dozen people present on his ships. As I recall, most all of them were officers, and they were loners.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“I had never thought about it before last night. England being a country with colonies, the officers in British ships probably never got to sail in the fo’c’sle. They went to an officers’ school, and then when they got assigned to a ship, the unlicensed crews were from their colonies. Maybe it’s the separation. The bosun’s right, but what limited lives are led by both sides! On our ships the officers are at least from where we’re from in most cases, and they’re some kind of company, even if we can’t afford to get too familiar with them. There’s a sadness to all this. Red. Do you think I’m right about Conrad?”
“I’ve only read three books by him, but yes, I don’t remember anything about crew life. There was none of the life like on our ships, but maybe ours were more like theirs before real unions were organized. He was a genius in ways. I could feel the thick heat of the flat summer Red Sea in Lord Jim, and the feeling has stayed with me. He didn’t pull me back to read much more of his writing, though.”
“The same with me and also about his description of the Red Sea. To think of the labor of the ship’s screw trying to cut its way through that hot salt soup almost brings a sweat. Do you think he was saying that the alienation of life aboard ship caused a strange unhappiness that carried over into all his experiences?”
“That could be. It didn’t hit me then. I’d have to go back and read him again to say, and I’d probably read him differently now than I did on my first ship.”
“Yeah, that’s right. But listen, do you think we’ve got a chance to accomplish what these ’34 men have set out for us?”
“I don’t know, but I like trying.”
“Me too, Red. Don’t get me wrong, life’s been more interesting since we sailed with Bosun and Chips last year. But listen to me better. No matter what we try to do, we can only do it if the opportunities that make it possible have already developed. There would have to be more opportunities than there are right now.”
“You’re probably right, but there may be some big changes at the end of the war.”
“But that’s only a hope.”
“Right, but should you and I be doing something else?”
“No, but still you’re not listening. I could do much, much more, if I thought our chances of winning were really good. I think what we’re doing is right, and I don’t think it’s dumb. I’m talking about something entirely different, like I told you. People like us right here on this ship and on all the others, for example, can do big things to make life better, but to get into doing it full ahead, they have to see with their own eyes and no one else’s, growing evidence that there is a chance to win.”
“But what if things just get worse and worse and all we can see ahead is still fewer chances?”
“Good point. But that means we have to find better ways to talk to the people around us. What can we say to people that will make them feel better about themselves? Every buck they make is an honest one, yet they don’t give themselves any credit.”
“But every time the strike men talk to us you can see that the experiences they had gave them more self-respect than the people they were before the strikes.”
“Yeah, but that’s just what I’m talking about. Look how long it took them. What are the chances that another period of change for the good will arrive when the war is over?”
“Are you asking me?”
“Then we had better get something to eat before we go on watch. You and Anthony are on deck with the bosun, I’ve got first wheel?”
John and I didn’t talk anymore to each other about the bosun and Chips’s presentation for about five days. We were too busy talking with the men of the other two watches who had heard the same lecture we did. Then there were the men of the Black Gang, including the deck engineer, who had had their class with Londos, the oiler, and the Stewards’ Department had sat down with the baker for a couple of hours.
We were trying to learn how different or alike our responses were to the ideas put before us, regardless of the departments we worked in. We lived on one ship but in three departments, which we had till then looked upon as separate units. Now we had all gotten essentially the same history lesson on nearly the same day. All at once we involved ourselves in individual and group discussions that crossed departmental lines. We had broken into open discovery of ourselves as a group and as individuals.
Up to that time we had been so focused on the accomplishments of the older generation that we could not see ourselves in our new world of work; we were invisible in its history. Then that all changed. The older men had given us their history not only to use as weaponry but also to show us that the world we had recently entered belonged to both the generations represented on board.
By the time we began the run for home from Brisbane, our last Australian port, the normal routine of shipboard social life had reestablished itself. There was a change from the first part of the trip: the constant interchange of members in the self-selected social groups of the unlicensed crew members. This was visible in the combinations that went ashore while in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane.
One night in Melbourne John, Anthony, and I of the twelve-to-four watch all returned to the ship separately but at about the same time. Anthony had bought himself a bottle of whiskey. He had it stuck in his belt still unopened. We shared it with him. Soon we were comparing impressions of the still-new mix of members of the deck, engine, and steward departments. We had each overheard conversations comparing the three departments, which was the best to sail in and the different relationships with officers in each.
The second meeting of what turned out to be a series of three classes led to leaving our student status behind. The instructors did a lot of listening. I talked with the bosun about it later when he had just come from a get-together with the baker and Londos, the oiler. They had been a little hurt when we briefly took the classes away from them after the first session. At first they had not understood, but then the baker had pulled them aside to talk about “the need for autonomy in us all.” The bosun ended by saying, “I think the baker’s been to college,” and broke out laughing.
Two days out of San Francisco I was working on deck close to where Matt, the deck engineer, was repairing the cylinder of a steam winch.
“Red, the young guys in that Deck Gang of yours are suffering from the worst case of ‘channel fever’ I’ve ever seen.”
He was talking about the extremely painful need of every crew member to get ashore near the end of a voyage. We all had it, regardless of department or age. I already knew from talks with Anthony and then Bruno and Bert that they couldn’t wait to get back among their families and close friends to reveal what they felt were their new strengths and selves. They were expressing feelings shared by all of us, including the men who had spent lifetimes making sea voyages. Each homecoming to families or friends in some way provided another chance at a better life.
The Farallons were now at our stern. We went under the Golden Gate Bridge and just after lunch came into sight of one of the main landmarks for Bay navigation, the Campanile on the University of California in Berkeley. By three o’clock we were moored north of the Ferry Building on the southside of Embarcadero Pier 23. The longshore linesmen who had helped us tie up were walking down the pier away from us, still wondering why we had given them such a big greeting. As soon as the cargo gear was rigged, we all went ashore, cleaned up for eating at such places as Tadich’s Grill or the Tivoli, New Joe’s, and Big Ben’s Fish Grotto in nearby North Beach.
We were all back aboard two days later at two o’clock sharp. A strange silence came over us. It was more than just the knowledge that we would soon be visited by a Coast Guard team and then have to say our “so longs.” We were no longer interdependent on a ship at sea. Many of us would see each other again in the union hiring hall, and some of us might again sail together so we would have the witnesses that help preserve memory.
Yet we were breaking up a winning combination. In some ways it would have been better if we had all stayed with the ship and for a while longer remained a steady crew. But seamen’s jobs were plentiful during the war. Until the war once seamen got jobs, many of them made homes aboard particular ships to obtain security. This often required demeaning concessions to shipboard authorities. The seamen who avoided this trap felt revulsion for the victims, although they understood why it occurred. In times of full employment, to “homestead” brought ridicule and isolation.
The opportunity to demonstrate our collective independence from the shipowners and their officers was irresistible. It meant that they had to go to the trouble of getting another crew and developing working relationships with all of its members. It also meant that for a time we would be ashore free of their authority.
Two Coast Guard petty officers walked down the dock and up our gangway an hour before payoff time. We were all at the rail, expressionless, but stared at them until they disappeared into the officers’ dining room. Their refusal to glance in our direction indicated their discomfort. Fifteen minutes later they went down the gangway and to their government car under the same tension. An hour later the shipping commissioner had us sign off the ship’s articles. All hands were then paid off in full. For reasons we would never really know the captain had not reported our work stoppage, and the chief mate had not disputed payment of a single hour of the overtime hours we had worked. The two of them stood side by side to say their goodbyes to us with toothy smiles.
Less than three minutes after we left the Officers’ Dining Salon we made our “suitcase parade” down the gangway and along the dock to the Pier 23 Inn on the Embarcadero. There was no longer any reason to have a meeting of the group we had formed in case any of us were cited by the Coast Guard. There were no ships at the adjoining piers, and longshore gangs had not yet been assigned to the Hanapepe. The entire barroom was ours. We had decided beforehand that we would not order any drinks until after the three speeches we had decided upon were ended. The bosun went first.
“Remember that the job ahead is to make it possible for us union members who are working seamen to protect ourselves from both the shipowners and the union officials. We have to have unions, but not like we’ve got now. That can’t be done if the only place where we can go to participate in the power life of the union is the local union meeting. The union halls are on their turf. Up on these ships is where we have the foundation for authority over them. If we establish that, then we can take our power to the meetings with us. Even better if we choose the place to meet, like at a central pier. Our goal has to be to win respect. The goal of our officials has become to win respectability, uptown.”
Londos was next. I introduced him as Oiler—of bearings on “three legged” engines.6
“I was a seaman for the old country. We held a meeting of the crew. They accused us of mutiny. I had to leave my country and family.”
I introduced the night cook and baker as Gabriel Cade, as he had requested.
“On this ship we have eliminated a corruption, at least for a time. I am proud to be part of that, but it is not enough. The kind of contracts that are being signed have built a different kind of union that can’t be ours. By design it eliminates our control.”
It was time to wrap it all up. We all began drinking to one another, this time with fairly good whiskey instead of coffee from Oakland’s Dock Cafe. The thoughtful frowns after Cade’s speech were gone.
Minutes later I was standing between Bruno and Bert facing out into the large room. I could see Big John and the baker toasting three of the seven Navy Armed Guard sailors who had come in. They hadn’t felt free to talk with us since we had entered home port. Now they took the chance because we no longer had any official attachment to the Hanapepe. There was a group around Londos listening, at that point, to one of the wipers. It was beginning to get dark outside and booze was becoming a substitute for food as the discussion groups got smaller. The bosun and the baker had moved to one side, and the baker was calling the bosun “Hector.”
Someone noticed that the street lights had come on. The fast drinking ceased. Personal goodbyes were in progress. Big John was filling a third taxicab with our guys and their gear. The bosun was with him telling a group that no ship ever came into port cleaner or more shipshape. Minutes later Chips got the bosun into a booth and pushed John and me in with him. Then Anthony arrived to reprimand us.
“Hey, you guys have been saying goodbyes with only a ‘so long’ and that’s it. How do you know if you’ll ever see any of us again?”
“It all stays with you longer when you don’t talk it out, Anthony.”
Anthony took about three steps back and with Bruno and Bert said “so long,” and they left.
Chips opened our discussion. “Blackie and I aren’t going to get another ship for a while, maybe three months or so. We have a woman friend who is a doctor in East Los Angeles. She runs a small clinic. We’re going to let her give us a 90,000-mile checkup. We’ll do some repairs on her place and use it as a ‘snug harbor’ for a while.”
“Chips, you know we have to get a ship within a month.”
“Yeah, John. So when you guys get back from your next trip, check the Toscani or the Galileo Hotel in North Beach.”
“When you talked us into taking that ship, you told us you were building something for the long-term. We may not be able to get a couple of ’34 men to crew with us.”
“Then do it by yourselves whatever way you can, but do it, long-term.”
“How much longer have we got?”
“Who can say, Red? There may come a time when the smart thing to do will be to lay low for a while to prepare for the next chance. You’ll know if it comes to that. For maybe another year it will be possible to pull off these kinds of actions, longer if the breaks come our way. You’ll do it differently than when we’re with you. Maybe you’ll find better ways. But listen, before we all pile out of here there’s something else “
“Cape Verde Islands. I saw both of you go a little pop-eyed when I mentioned my home. It means that I’m Portuguese by culture, but by blood I’m part African. Ten years ago when we were building new unions on the waterfronts up and down this coast, the regular guys got more open-minded on a lot of things. Like so many others, I didn’t grab the opportunity of that time. I suppose many of the men I sailed and walked picket lines with figured I was a Mexican because of my straight hair. I let it slide. My name isn’t Soromengo, it’s Soromenho—Portuguese, not Spanish.
“That’s enough about that. Another thing: The piecards took the hiring hall away from us by putting goons like ‘Johnny Loudmouth’ in control of job dispatching. His specialty is to intimidate the guys up in age. It’s a way of destroying memory. We don’t write our history. Those guys are it.
“Notice that more and more the union leaves the job when the patrolman goes down the gangway, if indeed it came aboard with him. At union meetings our job is to sit and listen. But as long as we take control like we did on this one, even if only briefly on one ship in twenty, we keep them from having it all. The word’s out that Lundeberg is beginning to hang out with Republicans, for god’s sake. Enough, we have to get out of here. Be careful. Red, be careful, John.”
“Hold it, Chips, you too, Bosun, John and I are going to tell you a couple of things that have been on our minds. When John and I first came into the SUP, it was like getting a new look at what our lives could be. Before the war neither of us were ever able to talk back to a boss without getting fired. We both still carry this around with us. We can see the strength that comes from job action, but it’s hard to give up on Lundeberg completely. And it’s the same for some of the longshoremen who are critical of Bridges.”
“That’s right.” John was chuckling to cover his tension. “Me and Red didn’t ourselves live those times before the war. We’ve lived them through you. Since we first got into the union is the best job security we’ve ever known. Maybe when the war is over, guys like Lundeberg will get better again.”
Chips was pulling on Blackie’s coat so hard that he slid him out of the booth and on to his feet. “All right, both of you, test what I’m saying goodbye to you with. Bureaucrats can never undo what’s happened to them. They can’t go back to being who they were. The reason bureaucracies get built is to avoid making the good fight. This changes everything about them. You don’t have the same job protection now as when you first joined, and you now have full membership books in the union, not trip cards or probationary books. What do you think it means that the union doesn’t provide representation when its members get called in by the Coast Guard? The Coast Guard’s supposed to protect us from subversives, saboteurs. Bullshit! Actually, they’re the government’s trial run at a labor police force. The National Maritime Union has given them an office right in the headquarters’ union hall in New York, and there’s no campaign against them by the leadership of our West Coast unions. Double bullshit!”
Chips Costello and Hector Soromenho looked at us and saw that finally we were ready to break it up, too. They came toward John and me with good smiles. We all knew we couldn’t do any more by talking. We shook hands, and they were out the door. We waited long enough for them to get a cab and then went out to get one for ourselves.
The Oakland General Strike
John and I missed the support and ideas that were ever present when Chips and the bosun were close at hand. At the same time we were glad for our independence from them.
Never again did we get so good a chance at winning as the one they found for us by preliminary exploration of several ships and then the discovery of the Hanapepe. Nevertheless, John and I helped to seed changes that improved the lives of crews, ourselves among them, on several more ships. These modest victories became harder to achieve as the war got older.
We never did get into more than what at the time seemed only a little trouble. Only when John and I were not sailing partners did I wind up appearing at Coast Guard tribunals. There was the time I was temporarily taken off my ship by Scotland Yard and British Naval Intelligence just before the ship went through the locks at Liverpool. Another time came when our crew on a coffee ship mustered to be silently stared at by twelve Americans in civilian clothes while at anchor on the Panama City side of the Panama Canal. But charges were never pressed against anyone in the crews. Nor were my seaman’s papers or the papers of any of my crew mates ever confiscated.
A little over a year after we left the Hanapepe, Chips wrote us that the bosun had died of cancer. He said our letters had given them big kicks, made them proud. Chips was at home in Azusa, California, and said his seagoing toolbox had gotten a lot heavier. He had a new ’34 partner. Henry Woods, a Native American from Sutter’s Mill. Chips did not write again, and there were no return addresses on the two letters he sent us.
In late 1945 John and I began sailing up and down the coast on the steam schooners that brought lumber from the Northwest to build the new cities that came with the Gold Rush. On our first trip to Coos Bay, Oregon, the Empire Mill quit sending out wood. We deckhands were the longshoremen. The mate ordered all hands to chip rust and paint the ship’s side because there was no lumber. We all went to Empire’s one bar and stayed there for three hours until the mate apologized and canceled his “request.” John and I did not lead the action. We were greenhorns on the schooners.
It was the end of the schooners’ long lives. War surplus LST boats with a single 300-foot open hatch forward of the superstructure on the stern allowed stowage by bundles instead of by the piece, the first step toward automation on the West Coast.
John went home after a schooner run to Central America for a load of rare wood. The talk we had before he left revealed we both wanted to quit going to sea for a while. The main reason? The restrictions that life at sea put on our social lives. We were each beginning our serious search for a wife.
I moved from an apartment in San Francisco’s North Beach to a duplex near the Southern Pacific tracks in West Berkeley and got a job at the Chevrolet assembly plant in East Oakland. During my first months working there I used public transportation. A bus and a streetcar took me to downtown Oakland, where I would transfer to the Oakland bus that would drop me in front of the plant at 73rd Avenue and Foothill Boulevard.
Morale in this industrial area of the city was high during the strike wave in spring 1946. Then it became clear that Walter Reuther, vice president of the United Automobile Workers (UAW), had not been serious about his “GM Program,” with its slogans of “wage increases and no price increases” and “open the corporation’s books and prove you can’t afford to pay us a decent wage.” Life in the plant became boring as well as hard. I had become an assembly line spray painter and active in Local 76, UAW. We had to get to work at least half an hour before the line started at 7:12 A.M., earlier if we wanted to get the pushcart man with his donuts and coffee.
One Monday morning I arrived downtown on the streetcar, and our motorman and conductor got off. They were standing in the still-dark street talking to other car men, local bus drivers, the drivers of big trucks, and San Francisco Bridge trainmen. I got down off the streetcar with several other passengers to figure out what was happening.
It was unbelievable. The Oakland police had been escorting scabs and merchandise into Oakland for delivery at Kahns and Hastings, the two department stores where retail clerks had been on strike for many weeks. The union drivers of streetcars, buses, and trucks refused to watch two strikes being broken. By stranding thousands of work-bound people in the heart of the city, they had called the Oakland general strike. It was December 2,1946. No officials had announced or were leading it. It was just that we were all unable to get to work.
Our block began to organize within the next hour. The same was happening in other blocks we could see across Telegraph Avenue. Bars could stay open if they served only beer and turned up their jukeboxes. The prescription counters inside drugstores were open. Hamburger stands and coffee shops would remain open, but large restaurants were encouraged to close. Dancing in the streets started slowly because there were more men than women standing around. It was in full swing a short while later as women convinced the men that they knew how to dance.
By nine o’clock there were still no union leaders in sight. We were laughing about a comment from somewhere in the crowd on the sidewalk: “If some of you don’t get serious, some of them are going to come and get us.” I called Harry Lundeberg from a pay phone and told him what was happening. Within an hour a carload of Hawaiian SUP members found me said “Hello Red Weir,” and gave me a paper bag with several hundred large buttons that read “SIU-SUP Brotherhood of the Sea.” They drove off laughing. I knew only one of them and never saw any of them again. The buttons were gone in minutes, used on hats as decorations and as badges of authority when downtown was cordoned off before noon. Anyone could leave town, but an active union card was needed to get in.
Later in the day I saw a Chevy worker called “Cousin Bill,” an ex-SUP friend. He said he was going to sleep downtown and had already found a place. I told Bill I would go to work the next morning because our plant would probably be shut down, and a lot of us could then come back downtown. At 7:12 A.M. I was spray painting hoods and fenders again. No committeeman came near our department or, I later found out, any other. Nor did our Local 76 president make contact with the plant.
I was back in downtown Oakland by 5:00 P.M. Word was out that the officials of several unions planned to put out a strike call and that there might be a mass meeting that night at the Oakland Auditorium. Laughter spread with receipt of the news. No one had yet seen any of the official leaders. Their absence no longer created uneasiness. At the same time everyone was planning to attend the meeting.
Some of us bought tacos from a street vendor that we ate as we walked toward the meeting. We arrived to find the Oakland Auditorium surrounded by thousands of strikers. All the seats inside had been filled for over an hour. A public address system piped the speeches being made out to the crowd surrounding the auditorium.
All but one of the speakers had trouble addressing the audience. Harry Lundeberg alone spoke with the anger and boldness befitting a general strike. He called the city councilmen “super finks,” who had ordered the use of the city police as “scab herders.” In a heavy Norwegian accent he said they had been “taking lessons from Stalin and Hitler.” Lundeberg ended by promising that the three ships at the army base would not get crews to sail them while the strike was on. (He didn’t mention that longshoremen in the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union had walked off those ships the night before only to find that their union immediately sent new gangs to replace them.)
But none of the officials, including Lundeberg, had any plan of action that would use the power of the general strike to improve the conditions of employment of the people represented in the audience or to win the long strike of the women at the Kahns and Hastings department stores.
The mass meeting was adjourned, and the strikers left without instructions for protecting themselves and their occupation of Oakland’s core area. The radio commentator Gabriel Heater had said twenty-four hours earlier, “Well, Oakland’s a ghost town tonight.” We knew that all official authority wanted us to quit the downtown area. If union officers had honestly offered to lead us, they would have lost their bit of sovereignty in their “working relationship with the employers.” But they knew that if they did not lead us, they would lose our respect. Because of their dilemma, they did not tell us either to leave or to stay.
Ideas about what to do passed among us. The process was at work during the walk back to our midtown blocks. Some would spend the night, and others would relieve them the following morning on Wednesday, the third day of the strike.
Puzzlement was the condition of the people downtown on Wednesday. The number of strikers was down. There was nothing real to do. The fun of Monday was gone. The 300 bus and streetcar men wearing their Eisenhower jackets as work uniforms who had marched on city hall in close-order drill, demanding to speak with the mayor, were still present but as individuals.7
Somewhere the union officials were meeting with the employers and city government. Representatives from several blocks regularly went to Kahns and Hastings department stores throughout the day to talk with the striking retail clerks. The clerks were still being told that they had to be patient.
Late Thursday morning a sound truck hired by the AFL Central Labor Council of Oakland drove up and down our blocks telling everyone to go back to work. “The strike is officially over,” it blared. We heard that Oakland’s city council and mayor had agreed that there would be no more scab herding by the Oakland police. There was an agreement to arbitrate the differences in the retail clerks’ long strike.
I got to Kahns early that evening. The picket line was still going. Demonstrators, many truck drivers among them, continued to march with the betrayed women. I was told that many of the women wept at the morning’s announcement. I listened to one woman while she sat on a folding chair to put on clean sweat socks and air her white tennis shoes. She told a handful of us nonclerks that if the unions’ leaders couldn’t get a good contract for them with a general strike, then what they had gotten to end the strike wasn’t any good either. There were almost a dozen clerks, standing nearby, who nodded their heads before she finished.
The woman with the white tennis shoes was right. She, her friends, and all the other retail clerks of Local 1265 had to stay out another five months, until May 13, 1947. Even then they did not win but went back out of exhaustion and demoralization. The contract negotiated for them had a grievance procedure so weak that it was useless. The AFL officials of Oakland, Alameda County, and the entire Bay Area were embarrassed by their failure in the retail clerks’ strike.
Looking back, I must also note that at no point during the strike did any of us downtown Oakland strikers—radical politicals included—climb up on a parked car and express the ideas that were already kicking around among us: “We can lead this strike ourselves.” “Let’s send out a dozen committees from one block to the other blocks to say this out in the open.” “Our leadership will be the representative committees from every central downtown block.” “Their meetings will be out in the open for all of us to see and hear, and clap or boo, as we agree or disagree in reaction to their ideas.”
Eighteen years later, students at the University of California at Berkeley embraced versions of these ideas adapted to their time and circumstances. Mario Savio, who became the best-known of the student leaders, was part of the crowd that held captive a police car containing a student under arrest, Jack Weinberg. When Savio jumped up onto the car’s roof and called for a strike organization independent of absent student body officers, the free speech movement was born. It spread to campuses across the nation and remains an inspiration for initiatives from below.
The shame of the CIO unions was just as great. Not long after the general strike I was an elected delegate from UAW Local 76 to the state CIO convention in Santa Cruz. On the last day of the gathering I took the floor and identified myself by name and local union, explaining that the Chevrolet-Fisher Body units of my local represented the largest single group of industrial workers in the East Bay, over 3,000 persons. There was also a Ford assembly plant in Richmond, an International Harvester plant in Emeryville, and many more, none of them over a half-hour drive from downtown Oakland.
I asked, “Where were you during the Oakland general strike?” There was a quick silence. Chairperson Dick Linden recognized Paul Schlipf, secretary of the state CIO and director of its Political Action Committee. Schlipf, who was a delegate from the Fisher Body section of Local 76, answered, “It wasn’t a general strike. We weren’t in it.” Dave Jenkins, the majority whip, gave the signal, and there was applause. Linden hit the podium with his gavel to close discussion and go to the next matter on the agenda.
The union bureaucracies have put a good deal of effort into writing about the Oakland general strike. Time has been on their side. The rank and file of their unions do not often write books. Students and professors have difficulty finding rank-and-file participants in the strike and tend to rely on union officials and people to whom the officials direct them.
Paul Schlipf himself has written about the strike.8 He stresses the Oakland Voters’ League formed by the AFL and CIO in the immediate post-strike period. He states correctly that four out of five labor candidates of the League were elected to the nine-member Oakland City Council. What he does not say is that the successful candidates were no more bold or effective in community politics than the union officials who selected them had been as strike leaders and collective bargainers.
Union officials seek to hide the evidence of the intelligence, organizational skills, and solidarity shown by regular hourly working people in the Oakland general strike. The officials of business unions find it necessary to believe that their members are meek at heart and incapable of thinking through anything other than simple problems. This belief justifies union representatives when they lie to and manipulate the members who pay their bills.
One of the most bitter aspects of this mythmaking is to be found in the claim that the Oakland general strike began not on December 2,1946, the Monday morning when all transportation halted without instruction from union officials, but on December 3. In 1991 the Labor Studies Program of Laney College in Oakland held a celebration of the 1946 Oakland general strike. A proclamation by Oakland’s Mayor Elihu M. Harris on that occasion declared that the strike took place “from December 3 to 5,1946” and was “called by the American Federation of Labor Central Labor Council,” with support from other organizations, including the CIO.
Unions with Leaders Who Stay on the Job
I phoned Big John a few weeks after the Oakland general strike ended. He was thinking of moving to Florida for a job painting bridges. No one I ever knew was better working high in the air. I told him some of my thoughts about the strike, and the discussion that followed took us back to the SS Hanapepe. We recalled that the bosun, Chips, and the baker blamed union officials themselves for becoming bureaucrats. But now, because of what we were seeing on jobs ashore, John and I were starting to blame the vertical form of union structure the AFL and CIO introduced. Rank-and-file workers like us were electing union officials who were then taken out of the workplace and put in offices where they had little contact with us. They were more often around employers, government bureaucrats, and lawyers. John told me it was the same or worse in the building trades.
Big John is now dead. I never got to tell him what I learned from the historian Lorin Lee Cary: that in 1936 General Motors rank and filers wanted to build a semiautonomous stewards’ council and then got pressured out of it by Adolph Germer, John L. Lewis’s lieutenant in the UAW.9 The papers Germer left to the Wisconsin State Historical Society show that the new CIO leaders fought all rank-and-file attempts to build new industrial unions on a horizontal rather than the old vertical model, in which local unions had to go to top officials for permission even on many routine matters.
John and I knew differently. We experienced it on the SS Hanapepe in 1943 and on several more ships during the next three years. I experienced it again in the Oakland general strike; again in 1982, when I attended the Sixth Congress of the rebel European Harbor Workers in Aarhus Denmark, and encountered the Spanish longshoremen’s new union, La Coordmadora;10 and yet again in the formation of rank-and-file “coordinations” during the Air France strike of 1993 by union and nonunion workers acting together.11 There can be unions run by regular working people on the job. There have to be.
There have to be unions with leaders who stay on the job because the scandal of the Oakland general strike has been repeated too many times. Union members use their power to develop a victory over employers, but union officials refuse to accept or act on the victory. Instead, they give away what was never theirs. Once in office full-time, officials are no longer a living part of the industry.
There have to be unions run by hourly-paid people on the job because Hector Soromenho and Chips Costello were right in believing that union bureaucrats cannot go back. Top union officers build cliques among their members and keep themselves in office by means of favors. They give concessions to employers and get help from the corporations in return. They build first-name relationships with politicians. All bridges are thus burned. Any attempt at reform by the head of a bureaucratic union organization would be seen as a betrayal by his or her supporters inside and outside the union.
The isolated individuals at the top of union bureaucracies are attracted by the kind of personal peace to be bought by making deals. The deals are made in places where union members cannot go.
My own difficulty in accepting what the bosun said about union bureaucracy spotlights the problem. I and others had the advantage of a special education from older peers. Yet when I was stranded in downtown Oakland as the general strike began, my first thought was to get it an official leader. I phoned Harry Lundeberg and asked him to become involved. It may be that I was not the first one to call him, but excuses are beside the point. I made the call, risking possible injury to the strike, because I feared that “leaderless workers” downtown that early morning might be unable to handle the strike by themselves. Experience proved otherwise. It is true that Lundeberg was the only leader with a ready rhetoric and the courage to use it standing before a crowd. But the result of his appearance was to leave the audience with the impression that at least there was someone among the officials capable of leading.
It was while watching the behavior of leaders of the California State CIO at the Santa Cruz convention shortly after the Oakland general strike that I found myself wanting to go to a phone and arrange a reunion of the crew of the SS Hanapepe at Pier 23 Inn. Blackie and Chips had explained why bureaucrats can’t possibly clean up their bureaucracies. Unfortunately I had been unable to learn the lesson from them. A return to classrooms aboard ship would do no good. There was no point in hearing the instruction again. I had to learn this most important of the lessons Blackie and Chips taught us from my own experience.
1 Bosun is a commonly used contraction of boatswain. On West Coast ships of the common 4,000- to 10,000-ton class before the containerization (automation) of the 1970s, the bosun supervised all maintenance and repair work done on the main deck and above, with the exception of work on the cargo winches, which was done by a nonlicenced crew member called a deck engineer. After the Big Strike of 1934 the bosuns no longer had full supervisory powers buy instead were “first among equals” because they then got their jobs out of hiring halls owned and controlled by the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific (SUP).
2 A ship’s carpenter is seldom referred to by any other name than “Chips.” Other than carpentry, his duties were to care for and operate the anchor windlass and to take the soundings in the ballast tanks. On liberty ships and other standard freight ships, the chips and the bosun shared the same room, or fo’c’sle. Neither of these men stood watches as the regular seamen did. They were often the older men of the Deck Gang.
Able bodied seamen (ABs) in the 1930s and the 1940s carried either a blue AB certificate that required one year of seatime or a green certificate requiring three years of seatime. Additional certification of efficiency in the handling of lifeboats was also required.
Ordinary seamen, called “ordinaries,” are seamen who have less than the required seatime needed to get AB papers. With the ABs they stand sea watches for eight hours, four hours at a time twice in every twenty-four hour period on one of the three watches; eight to twelve, twelve to four, and four to eight, A.M. and P.M. From the ABs and the bosun, the ordinaries learn deck duties, ship routine, how to steer a ship, and how to stand lookout. Those hands not at the wheel during daylight watches work on deck with the bosun. Ordinary seaman is an official rating listed on seamen’s paper, like the others mentioned here.
3 Almost 2 million (1,981,279) workers struck in 1943. In 1942, the first full year of the war, 2.8 percent of the nation’s labor force became strikers. In 1945 the figure climbed to 12.2 percent. “Work Stoppages Caused by Labor Management Disputes in 1945,” Monthly Labor Review (May 1945), 720, cited
in Martin Glaberman, Wartime Strikes (Detroit: Bewick Editions, 1980), 36.
4 “The hazards of sailing the merchant fleet were not so great in 1944 as in former years, because of better protection afforded convoys. The 1944 losses in personnel [brought] the total number to 725 killed, 4592 missing and 581prisoners of war. Despite the lower rate of losses and a greater number of men, the ratio of casualties was 1 in 33, a rate proportionately higher than the armed services.” Vice Admiral Howard L. Vickery, vice chairman, U.S. Maritime Commission, “The Merchant Marine in the War in 1944,” Proceedings of the American Merchant Marine Conference, vol. 1 (New York: U.S. Propeller Club,
5 The chief mate is the mate from four to eight A.M. and in the P.M. The chief mate is the executive officer right behind the captain and oversees the deck crew’s work.
6 Reciprocating steam engines with three pistons.
7 For more on the march to city hall and the general strike, see Stan Weir,“The Informal Work Group,” in Rank and File: Personal Histories by Working-Class Organizers, ed. Alice Lynd and Staughton Lynd (Boston: Beacon,1973), 193-94.
8 Paul Schlipf, “Building the UAW and the CIO in Oakland: An Activist Remembers, 1933-1950,” New Labor Review, no. 5 (Spring 1983), 139-40.
9 Lorin Lee Cary, “Institutionalized Conservatism in the Early C.I.O.: Adolph Germer, a Case Study,” Labor History 13 (Fall 1972), 493, 495. According to Sidney Fine, it was suggested just before the UAW convention in April-May 1936 “that delegates from the GM plants should caucus and consider the establishment of a GM council, made up of representatives of the various GM locals, to present a united front to the organization.” Fine concurs that it was on Germer’s advice that GM delegates at the convention took no action on a resolution calling for the formation of a GM council. Sidney Fine, Sitdown: The General Motors Strike of 1936-1937 (Ann Arbor. University of Michigan Press, 1969), 92, citing Germer Diary, April 28,1936.
10 See Stan Weir, “Rank and File Networks: A Way to Fight Concessions, Labor Notes 48 (January 27, 1983), 13; Stan Weir, “Spanish Waterfront Workers Are Building a New Type of Union,” Labor Notes 77 (July 1985), 5; Stan Weir, “Introduction to La Coordinadora,” Radical America 22 (January-February 1988), 53-55; and Don Fitz, “La Coordinadora: A Union without Bureaucrats,” in Within the Shell of the Old, ed. Don Fitz and David Roediger (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1990), 88-96. La Coordinadora operates out of a building a few blocks from the Barcelona hiring hall. It has 8,000 members, representing 80 percent of the nation’s longshoreworkers. Local delegados and national officers work on the docks and make the same pay as other longshoreworkers. There are only two full-time union staff people, who are
not officers, have no other function than answering letters, and receive longshoreworkers’ wages. Decisions are made by periodic assemblies, which can be attended by any member and at which any member can vote. Each local union is autonomous. “The only way a national port strike can occur is for each autonomous union to recognize that a threat to another port is a threat to itself.” Fitz, “La Coordinadora,” 93-94.
11 David Bucah, “France Grass Roots Shake the Union Tree,” Financial Times (London), October 30, 1993, 3.