75th Anniversary of Bloody Thursday

While Americans are celebrating the 4th of July Holiday few also realize that tomorrow is a day to be remembered. It is the 75th anniversary of “Bloody Thursday” or the West Coast Longshore Fisherman’s strike, a day in which that led to the unionization of all West Coast ports. The fight was contentious and bloody. A newspaper article from that day title read:

3 Killed, 31 Shot in Widespread Rioting

Officers Pour Gunfire Into Crowd; Women, Children Periled by Bullets; 2000 National Guardsmen Get Arms

The fight began on May 8th, 1934 when the Bay Area (San Francisco, Oakland) and Northwest (Portland, Seattle) longshoremen walked off the job. The strike escalated during the immediate months and reached its pinnacle on Bloody Thursday with strikebreakers being brought in from the outside and longshoremen, led by Harry Bridges, who had nothing left to lose.

After a quiet Fourth of July the employers’ organization, the Industrial Association, tried to open the port even further on Thursday, July 5. As spectators watched from Rincon Hill, the police shot tear gas canisters into the crowd, then followed with a charge by mounted police. Picketers threw the canisters and rocks back at the police, who charged again, sending the picketers into retreat after a third assault. Each side then refortified and took stock.

Hostilities picked up again that afternoon, when a group of strikers surrounded a police car and attempted to tip it over. The police fired shotguns in the air, then fired their revolvers at the crowd. One of the policemen fired a shotgun into the crowd, killing a striking seaman and a strike sympathizer, Nicholas Bordois and Howard Sperry.

Strikers immediately cordoned off the area where two picketers had been shot, laying flowers and wreaths around it. Police arrived to remove the flowers and drive off the picketers minutes later. Once the police left, the strikers returned, replaced the flowers and stood guard over the spot.

As strikers carried wounded picketers into the ILA union hall police fired on the hall and lobbed tear gas canisters at nearby hotels. At this point someone reportedly called the union hall to ask “Are you willing to arbitrate now?”

Under orders from California Governor Frank Merriam, the California National Guard moved in that evening to patrol the waterfront. Similarly, federal soldiers of the United States Army stationed at the Presidio were placed on alert. The picketers pulled back, unwilling to take on armed soldiers in an uneven fight, and trucks and trains began moving without interference. Bridges asked the San Francisco Labor Council to meet that Saturday, July 7, to authorize a general strike. The Alameda County Central Labor Council in Oakland considered the same action. Teamsters in both San Francisco and Oakland voted to strike, over the objections of their leaders, on Sunday, July 8.

Eventually, the strike was called to arbitration and the negotiations continued throughout the oncoming months and eventually led to the creation of the ILWU. From SFGate:

The general strike followed, and then, eventually, a settlement. The unions got most of what they wanted. Within five years, San Francisco had turned into a union town; “a place,” said historian Chris Carlsson, “where even the coffee shops were organized. The coffee was made by a union cook and served by a union waitress.”

For years, the government tried to prove Bridges was a Communist and to have him deported. He was tried four times, finally cleared in 1953.

Back then, as Starr points out, San Francisco was a manufacturing town: Coffee was roasted here, fruit and vegetables were packed in San Francisco, ships were built in the city, San Francisco made steel, door locks, mattresses and metal cans.

It all gradually faded. San Francisco, some said, had turned into a mini Manhattan, but the memory of 1934 stayed alive, with memorials every year.”

As well it should. I realized that as HR, we do our best to avoid the unionization of our employees, but the strike in 1934 led to a number of workplace rights that we and our employees enjoy today.

More information on the memorial of Bloody Thursday and the General Strike of 1934 can be found here.