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A Bloody Day in San Francisco

San Franciscans are observing the 75th anniversary of “Bloody Thursday” this year — that day in July of 1934 when open warfare raged on the city’s waterfront, a key day in the struggle of workers everywhere to form effective unions.

The battle pitted 1,000 heavily armed policemen against several thousand striking longshoremen and their supporters.

Acrid clouds of tear gas enveloped the combatants. Gunfire crackled. Trucks were overturned and burned, boxcars set on fire. Shouting , screaming men grappled, swung clubs and sticks, tossed bricks and stones. Dozens fell bleeding on the docks and nearby streets.

At day’s end, 2,000 National Guardsmen in full battle dress, armed with bayoneted rifles and machine guns, marched in at the governor’s order to occupy the battle zone. But by then two men were dead, killed by police bullets, and more than 100 wounded or seriously injured. More than 800 people were under arrest.

The blood was shed, the fierce battle waged because of the determination of waterfront employers and their government allies to break the strike that had kept the Port of San Francisco and the West Coast’s other ports closed for two months.

In those days, virtually the only workers with their own unions were craftsmen, a relatively small number of men who had particular skills to sell to employers in exchange for higher pay than went to the mass of unskilled industrial workers.

Some unskilled workers were in unions, but those generally were “company unions” controlled by employers. The longshoremen, who were forced into such an organization, called the strike to demand a union of their own.

The longshoremen’s company union afforded them no protection. They were not even guaranteed jobs, no matter how experienced they might be. They had to report to the docks every morning for the daily “shapeup” and hope that a hiring boss would pick them from among the thousands of other desperate job-seekers who jammed the waterfront in those dark days of the Great Depression.

Bosses rarely chose those who raised serious complaints about pay and working conditions or otherwise challenged them, but were quite partial to those who slipped them bribes or bought them drinks at nearby bars.

Even those who were hired often weren’t sure how many hours they’d work. They might be needed for only a few hours or for as many as 18, sometimes even more, usually worked at top speed and without breaks. Serious injuries were common.

For all that, they were paid a mere 85 cents an hour. That brought the average longshoreman about $10 a week, low pay even by Depression standards.

What the longshoremen wanted above all was to end the indignity and insecurity of the “shapeup.” They wanted to decide for themselves how the dock work should be allocated, so as to give each of them a fair share and enable them to work regular hours on a steady basis, at decent pay and with pay and working conditions determined in negotiations between their union and employers.

The 32,000 dockworkers and their leaders — Harry Bridges, a young Australian sailor turned longshoreman the most prominent among them — were denounced by conservative union leaders, employers, politicians and the press as Communists bent on violent revolution.

Finally, 57 days into their strike, employers — backed by state and local government officials — issued an ultimatum: Call off the strike or they would bring in strikebreakers, in trucks and by rail, to forcibly open the ports.

Which is what the employers attempted on that bloody Thursday in 1934, using police and National Guardsmen to pave the way. But the fierce opposition of the longshoremen and their allies kept the strikebreakers away.

The opposition continued to mount, until 11 days later it erupted into a citywide general strike, one of the very few in U.S. history. For four days, San Francisco was at a virtual standstill.

Soon afterward, an arbitration panel appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt granted longshoremen almost all they sought.

Employers were required to formally recognize and bargain with the dockworkers’ union, raise pay, establish a standard workweek and abolish the “shapeup.” All hiring was to be done through a union-operated hiring hall, with jobs rotated so as to give every longshoreman an equal amount of work with adequate rest periods.

The longshoremen’s victory, their fierce determination to continue the struggle despite violent government and employer opposition, even despite the blood shed on July 5, 1934, were inspirational signals to working Americans everywhere, they who were just beginning the massive unionization drives that won for millions crucial rights that had so long been denied them.

Dick Meister, former San Francisco Chronicle Labor Correspondent, has covered labor issues for a half-century as an author, reporter, editor and commentator .

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