The General Strike of 1934: A Milestone in American Labor History

The General Strike of 1934

The images in this collection capture events that were pivotal in the growth of a militant labor movement across America in the 1930s and 1940s. The general strike of 1934 began on July 16 when the International Longshoremen’s Association struck for control over hiring halls and better pay and hours.

The Cause

Until 1934 most workers in the United States had never experienced a mass strike. But the determination and militancy of the rank and file members of the International Longshoremen’s Association ignited an 83-day struggle that shut down 2,000 miles of the Pacific coastline from Bellingham to San Diego, defying local business leaders, the federal mediators appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt, and the conservative AFL union leadership.

The strike’s outcome was a triumph, but the fighting that broke out between strikers and police was brutal and bloody. Strikers were beaten and sprayed with bullets, killing two men – 20 year old “Dickie” Parker and John Knudsen. Gangs of vigilantes roved the city, smashing halls and homes they believed to harbor Communist sympathizers.

The rioting of July 5 became known as “Bloody Thursday.” Despite these bouts of violence (shown in this collection), strikers, led by Harry Bridges, refused to break their resolve. In the end the ILA agreed to binding arbitration, conceding a majority union hiring hall and shorter hours, ending the general strike.

The Strike

The spring and summer of 1934 saw an unprecedented escalation of conflict between workers and employers. Many mill owners feared that workers who joined unions could become disloyal, and they frequently fired or forced out union representatives and organizers. In response, workers began a series of walkouts that eventually escalated into a general strike in San Francisco that brought the city to a standstill and would have a pivotal impact on the growth of militant labor in America during the 1930s and 1940s.

The strike started on May 9, when dockworkers of the International Longshoremen’s Association walked off the job, crippling West Coast shipping. Throughout the course of the 83-day strike, the city became a tinderbox of violence as police clashed with strikers, and the press accused radical “Reds” of being behind the violence. The worst clash occurred on July 5, known as “Bloody Thursday.” The strikes resulted in the deaths of two longshoremen and a series of raids by police, who arrested hundreds of suspected “radicals” and “subversives.” The images presented here document the events leading up to that day.

The Final Countdown

What started as a dispute between longshoremen and ship owners morphed into one of the most sweeping industrial conflicts of the Great Depression. On May 9, 1934, International Longshoremen’s Association workers launched a general strike that shut down 2,000 miles of Pacific coastline from Bellingham to San Diego. The 83-day conflict defied President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s federal mediators and the conservative leadership of the AFL union.

The images in this collection record a pivotal episode in the rise of organized labor in the United States. It was the first time a major port city was completely shut down by a strike.

The strike’s success fueled public sympathy for the longshoremen. Among other things, it highlighted the brutality of employers and police in clashes like the one that took place on July 5, “Bloody Thursday,” when two strikers were killed. This tragedy and the solemn dignity of the strikers’ funeral march (pictured in two photographs) inspired radical labor leader Harry Bridges to call for a nationwide general strike.

The End

On May 9, 1934 West Coast longshoremen of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) struck, shutting down docks along 2,000 miles of coastline from Bellingham, Washington, to San Diego, California. Powered by the determination and militancy of rank-and-file members, this 83-day struggle defied the employers’ Industrial Association of San Francisco, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s federal mediators, and the conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL) union leadership.

The deaths of two strikers on what became known as “Bloody Thursday” inflamed public sentiment for the workers. Thousands of working men joined the funeral march—some eight abreast—in a moving display of solemnity and dignity.

But the tide turned quickly. As the general strike drew to a close, employers won concessions from the ILA in return for arbitration of their claims. Eventually the union dropped their demand to control hiring halls and ended the general strike. Nonetheless, the event sparked new movements for workplace democracy and improved conditions for workers in the United States.

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