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Born in struggle

"Bloody Thursday" and the Birth of the ILWU

In 1934, the longshoremen affiliated with the International Longshoremen Association went on strike in all ports of the West Coast. Strike, that started on May 9th, sought better conditions and pay. The companies, with the help of the police, tried violently to end the strike on the 3rd of July. On July 5th, Sperry, a longshoreman, and Bordoise, a cook volunteering in the strike kitchen, were killed when the San Francisco police opened fire on a group of striking longshoremen. 

The General Strike

At their funeral procession, thousands of workers, family members and supporters marched down Market street in San Francisco. The procession was over a mile and a half long. 

As a response to the police and employer violence, both the San Francisco and the Alameda Labor Councils voted for a General Strike starting on July 14th. A General Strike is when all workers, regardless of employer or contract status, walk off the job. 

The Bay Area was virtually shut down for four days. The strike ended in tremendous victory for the workers and laid the foundation to the creation of the ILWU.

We should always remember the struggles and sacrifices of those that built this union. They fought for a better life not just for them but for generations to come. The 1934 strike changed the landscape in the Bay Area, creating a stronger union that expanded beyond the waterfront for better conditions for all workers.

The March Inland

 The warehouse workers, working near the docks and handling cargo brought on and off the ships by longshoremen, also helped build the ILWU and shared in its achievements. 

By the spring of 1935 the new union was firmly established on the waterfront and already moving uptown and ‘marching inland.” By the end of the year, dramatic signs of the union’s growth were evident: warehouse workers at the huge C&H sugar refinery in Crockett, California broke the company’s stranglehold on the town and sign up with ILA Local 38-44.

But these organizing efforts were brutally opposed by the warehouse employers and by AFL officials who insisted that the uptown warehouses, as well as those on the waterfront, were their exclusive jurisdiction. All through 1935 in the San Francisco Bay Area employers, police and AFL vigilantes waged battles against the efforts of Local 38-44. From Crockett to Stockton, where strike leader Ray Morency was killed, warehousemen politically and physically defended their organization and their affiliation with the longshoremen. 

The San Francisco Bay Area warehousemen struck with the maritime unions in October 1936, and emerged with gains in organizing as well as bargaining. After 67 days out the warehousemen won one of the most unusual victories in American labor history. To protect themselves during the strike the warehousemen aggressively organized workers in nearby non-union warehouses and ended up almost doubling their membership in the process. Moreover, through the strike action they won the union hiring hall, a substantial wage increase, paid vacations, and seniority rights in place of the continuous turnover that had always characterized the industry. 

The warehousemen returned to work on January 5, 1937, but the maritime crafts were still out. In a demonstration of solidarity, the San Francisco Bay Area warehousemen contributed $1,000 each week to the joint strike fund until the maritime strike ended successfully on February 4. This victory in the San Francisco Bay Area inspired warehousemen up and down the coast. New organizations spread widely in every port city and later in many key communities in the interior of the United States and on the East and Gulf Coasts as well.

At the prompting of the head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) Dave Beck and ILA leader Joe Ryan, the national AFL tried to strip the West Coast longshore union of its warehouse affiliates in 1937. Warehousemen and longshoremen alike fought back. The longshoremen recognized that the loss of the warehousemen would not only have ended effective union organization in that industry but weakened the waterfront unions as well.  

THE ILWU AND THE FIGHT FOR EQUALITY

Though Black workers were allowed in the ILA in 1918, putting an end to racial oppression requires more than a policy. In the 1920s and 30s, bosses at the Ports of Oakland and San Francisco pitted white and Black dockworkers against one another. Bosses took advantage of racial division, employing Black workers to break up picket lines. This strategy and a climate hostile to organized labor in general kept unions relatively weak; prior to 1934, strikes had rarely been successful. 

Union leader Harry Bridges realized that his union wouldn’t win the strike without the support of Black workers. He went to Black churches and community centers to make a case for the strike, promising Black workers an equal chance at jobs. The workers agreed; their support was instrumental to the success of the 1934 strike, and laid a foundation for racial unity that would be part of the union’s legacy for decades.

“To a great degree, the stance on inclusiveness goes back to Bridges and goes back to that great strike in 1934,” said Harvey Schwartz, a historian of the ILWU. “Harry Bridges insisted that you had to have Black workers invited into the union on an equal basis. And he made it stick. He had to argue with his membership at times, but he made it stick.” 

Bridges would play an outsize role in shaping the values of the union in the decades to come. He was famously quoted saying, “If things reached a point where only two men were left on the waterfront, one would be a black man.” 

Bridges served as president of the ILWU from its inception until 1977. During his forty-year tenure, the federal government filed four lawsuits against him for being an “alien radical communist”: two of those cases went all the way to the Supreme Court, according to Schwartz. The San Francisco local would see many different presidents over the years, but Bridges’ influence has always been strongly felt. San Francisco was Bridges’ home, and his legacy on the broader ILWU left its greatest mark on Local 10.

Bridges’ stance on racial unity and his commitment to progressive ideals would continue to attract leftist workers to the union. “Many of the earliest recruits were radicals of one type or another,” Howard Kimeldorf wrote in his study comparing the ILWU to other unions. 

Black Americans found a home in the international union, which banned racial discrimination at its first convention in 1938, according to Willis. The union often defended Black workers against racism: in 1943, ILWU Local 10 found a naval officer guilty of racial discrimination after using a racial slur against a Black worker, and the union called for the officer to be court-martialed. Over time, Black membership grew in the union writ large and in the San Francisco local in particular, especially during the second Great Migration of African Americans away from the South. ILWU Local 10 eventually became a majority Black chapter, though it is one of few in the union. Its current members keep alive the union’s history of racial unity as a mechanism for fighting power. 

“The only threat to people controlling society is to inject systemic oppression and system racism into society. If the powers that be can get one group of poor people to hate another group of poor people, it’s a good way to distract them. The ILWU learned its lesson about that in the 1930s,” Willis said. “People are sick of systemic racism — not just Black people. Everybody’s standing up against systemic racism.” 

Excerpt from “One Union’s Century-Long Fight for Justice, by Majority

Picture: Curtis McClain, first black Business Agent and President of Local 6, and first black Secretary-Treasurer of the ILWU. 

Growth and Change - From the 1940s to the Turn of the Century