July 13, 2004
Seventy years ago this week, nothing moved in San Francisco for four days. The general strike of 1934 taught the workers of that era about power -- that working people could get it, and could wield it with devastating effect, if they understood the fact that the world depends on them.
Today, as our modern labor movement struggles to regain the power it's lost, those four days shine as a beacon. They point out that the way workers won their power proved to be as important as what they did with it.
The strike was a social movement from the bottom, fueled by the anger and dissatisfaction of workers themselves. They were mistrustful of the old labor hierarchy that had lost the power to improve the lives of rank-and-file dockers and sailors. So the first thing the dockworkers did was to create a new organization -- the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
Longshoremen built a union they were sure could never be hijacked from their hands. The key was one of labor's most democratic institutions, which survives to this day: the longshore caucus. Every time the union sits down to negotiate a new contract with multibillion-dollar transportation companies, each local union in each port elects delegates. Together they decide what the union will demand, and choose the committee to do the talking.
The 1934 strike produced a single, coastwise agreement, with dockworkers from San Diego to Seattle acting as one. The secret of their power was combining local democracy with the ability to shut down the whole coast at one time. Today many workers pay a terrible price when they lack the ability to act together. Just last year grocery workers successfully shut down supermarkets throughout southern California, but were defeated when their employers kept stores open everywhere else.
The coastwise contract was designed to prevent this from happening in the ports. It is no accident that, when the Bush administration sided with ship owners in the 2002 west coast lockout, its biggest threat was forcing the union to negotiate a different contract in each port.
The general strike and the creation of the ILWU had a ripple effect. Other workers saw dockers win a hiring hall, freeing them from the humiliation of begging a job from gang bosses every morning.
The workforce was integrated -- today black, Latino and Asian workers are the majority in big ports, and women drive huge container cranes. People considered bums and derelicts in the 1930s had some of the best-paying jobs in industrial America by the 1950s.
As a result, a wave of union organizing spread inland from the ports, inspiring everyone from department store clerks to farm laborers. That movement transformed the politics of California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii.
Forced to recognize the longshore union, employers went after its leaders, and politicians in the pocket of industry spent two decades trying to deport Harry Bridges, the ILWU's first president, an immigrant from Australia accused of being a communist.
In the 1950s, McCarthyite legislation sought to impose a ban on communists and left wingers holding office in unions. ILWU Local 10 challenged these undemocratic laws, later declared unconstitutional. These were some of the first and hardest political battles that eventually ended the witch hunts of the early cold war.
Today's unions, debating what to do about the Patriot Act and the scapegoating of immigrants and political radicals, might remember this history, as well the legacy of internationalism sparked by the general strike.
In the 1930s, dockworkers refused to load scrap iron bound for fascist Japan and its brutal war in China.
In the 1980s, a new generation refused to unload cargo from apartheid South Africa, or coffee used to finance President Ronald Reagan's illegal war in Nicaragua.
And last fall the ILWU not only condemned the U.S. war in Iraq, but Local 10 leader Clarence Thomas went to Baghdad to offer help to unions that remained banned under the Bush-appointed occupation authority.
The ILWU, like most unions, is now an island of high wages and workplace rights, surrounded by a sea of unorganized workers who have neither. A labor movement devoted mostly to defending the interests of its own members will soon disappear. But if it inspires the tens of millions of working people outside its ranks by building a social movement defending their interests, they will join as surely as did the veterans of 1934, transformed by the general strike.
David Bacon is a west coast writer and photographer. His book "The Children of NAFTA" was just published by the University of California Press. He can be reached at email@example.com.