The General Strike Can Teach Unions How to Grow

San Francisco, CA – Archie Brown was first a ship scaler, and then a longshoreman – a dockworker all his life. He was there 70 years ago, when thousands of maritime workers closed west coast ports from San Diego to Canada. He saw the tanks and guns deployed by shipowners to fence off the docks at the height of the strike. And he remembered what happened next, when police shot into crowds of strikers, killing two union activists, as they sought to break picketlines and escort struck cargo off the piers.

The deaths of Howard Sperry and Nick Bordoise came at the peak one of the longest and bitterest of the labor wars of the 1930s. In shock and grief, thousands of San Francisco workers marched silently up Market Street behind the two caskets in a huge funeral procession. Then they shut down the entire city in the famous general strike.

For four days during that summer of 1934, nothing moved in San Francisco. Long afterwards, whenever he tried to explain what it was like, Archie talked about how quiet it was when all the work stopped. The important thing about the silence, he said, was not its contrast with the city’s normal cacophony. It was the fact that he and his fellow workers created it themselves, by doing nothing. Not working may seem a passive form of protest, yet their action gave them a sense of power they never lost.

“Without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel can turn.” Archie must have sung this verse to Solidarity Forever, the hallowed union anthem, hundreds of times on picketlines in the decades that followed. To him and other veterans of the general strike, these were not just words. They expressed a reality experienced first hand. The strike taught these wharf rats about power – that working people could get it, and wield it with devastating effect, if they understood that the world depended on them.

Seventy years later, as our modern labor movement struggles to regain the power it’s lost, these four days shine as a beacon. They point out that the way workers won power proved to be as important as what they did with it.

The maritime and general strikes were social movements that came from the bottom – from the anger and dissatisfaction of workers themselves. They were mistrustful of the old labor hierarchy that had lost the power and will to improve the lives of rank-and-file dockers and sailors. So the first thing Archie and his coworkers did was create a new organization – the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

They built a union they were sure could never be hijacked from their hands. The key was one of labor’s most democratic institutions, one that survives to this day – the longshore caucus. Every time the union sits down to negotiate a new contract with multibillion-dollar transportation companies, every local union in every port elects delegates. Together they decide what the union will demand, and choose a committee to do the talking.

The 1934 strike produced a single, coastwise agreement, in which dockworkers from San Diego to Seattle act as one. The secret of their power was combining local democracy with the ability to shut down the whole coast at once. Today many workers pay a terrible price when they lack this ability to act together. 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 intervened on the side of the ship owners during the 2002 longshore lockout, its biggest threat was legal action to force 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 humiliating shapeup, when workers had to beg a job from a gang boss every morning. The workforce was integrated. Today Black, Latino and Asian workers are the majority in big ports like San Francisco and LA, and women drive huge container cranes. People called bums and derelicts in the 20s and 30s had some of the best-paying, most secure jobs in industrial America by the 50s and 60s. As a result, a wave of union organizing spread inland from the ports, a social movement inspiring everyone from department store clerks to farm laborers.

That movement transformed the politics of California, Oregon, Washington, and especially Hawai’i, where it ended the domination of five big plantation-owning families over the state’s political system. As a result, today Hawai’i has a greater percentage of union members than any other state. And when the Pacific Rim is called the left coast, it’s a tribute to the political changes sparked by the general strike.

These changes were not welcomed by the shipping companies, the banks and the big newspapers that were their voice. They were terrified by the general strike, and invented an imaginary invasion of communist troops from Mexico to scare the public. Their real fear was more prosaic – company owners didn’t want to listen to anyone, especially bums on the waterfront.

Forced to recognize the union, they went after its leaders. Employers and their government allies spent two decades trying to deport Harry Bridges, the ILWU’s first president – an immigrant from Australia accused of being a communist. They failed. In the 1950s, McCarthyite legislation sought to ban communists and left wingers from holding office in unions. Archie Brown and ILWU Local 10 challenged this undemocratic law, which was later declared unconstitutional. The Coast Guard screened maritime workers for loyalty, and blacklisted and drove hundreds off the ships and docks. ILWU members like Don Watson picketed the Coast Guard every week, fought them in court, and eventually ended the vicious practice. These were some of the first and hardest political battles that eventually ended the witch hunts of the cold war.

Today’s unions, debating what to do about the Patriot Act and the scapegoating of immigrants and political radicals, should remember this history. They might remember too the legacy of internationalism sparked by the general strike. In the late 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 Ronald Reagan’s illegal war in Nicaragua. And last fall the ILWU not only condemned the US war in Iraq, but Local 10 leader Clarence Thomas went to Baghdad to offer help to unions there banned by the Bush-appointed occupation authority.

Unfortunately, labor can’t rest on past achievements. The political machines built by radical unionists in the 30s and 40s have been strangled by subservience to politicians who accept workers’ votes, but scorn their political demands. The flexible, independent and radical politics born from the general strike need to be reinvented – to elect a new administration that ends the Iraq and Afghan wars, rejects new free trade agreements, and wins national healthcare.

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 tens of millions of working people outside its ranks by building a social movement defending their interests, they will join as surely as did Archie and the workers of 1934, electrified and transformed by the general strike.

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