Chapter XVIII: The 1936 Pacific Coast Maritime Strike

The San Francisco waterfront was alive with activity. Longshoremen were working day and night shifts as the employers stepped up the pace to get as much cargo moving as fast as possible and their ships out to sea. Negotiations between them and the workers were to start, and the employers knew that a strike was looming, one that would tie up the entire West Coast from Alaska to Mexico.

There was no doubt about it: the shipowners were bursting at the seams in their desire to take on the unions and once and for all bust them. In July they had informed the unions that they were dissatisfied with the existing contracts and did not want to renew them. Here it was August 20 and negotiations were getting nowhere, because the shipowners kept telling the unions that they wanted to go back and restore the pre-1934 strike conditions. They insisted that the unions give up control of the hiring halls and that the longshoremen give up the six-hour day they had won in that strike.

While the shipowners pressed on with their "to hell with unions" attitude, the sea-going unions were demanding the eight-hour day aboard ships with paid overtime and also many other long-sought conditions and improvements. The shipowners' reply was that the whole matter be resubmitted to arbitration and, in the interim, the pre-1934 conditions be re-imposed. Earl King, speaking for the Firemen, told the shipowners to "go to hell."

It was nice to be back in San Francisco. I got myself a room in a cheap Embarcadero hotel, stowed my gear and went to the union hall to register and pay some dues. King, secretary of the Marine Firemen's Union, met me as I entered the hall. "Just the guy I wanted to see," he said. "When you get squared away with your book, let's go out and have some coffee. I want to talk to you."

King was one of the most honest and progressive union leaders on the West Coast. He was a big, roly-poly, soft-hearted guy who had worked his way up the union ranks. He managed to involve the rank and file in every action of the union.

"You know," he said to me in the waterfront restaurant, "we're about to get shafted by the shipowners. Negotiations ain't going nowhere. These bastards are hell-bent on locking us out. Up to now they haven't been able to bust up the unity we built on this coast. they think a long strike will split us apart. If things continue this way, we'll set up a strike committee and you better get on it."

"Why me?" I asked. "What about all the old-timers? Shouldn't they be on it?"

"Of course," he said. "But we want some young guys on it that have a lot of spunk and energy. Don't worry; the old-timers will be in the background shoring you up. Don't worry about them. Right now I want you to stick around and help with the union paper, the Black Gang News. It's only a mimeographed sheet, but it has a lot of potential. There are still a few weak cracks in our armor, and we don't have much time before the employers come down on us hard. We better get ourselves in ship-shape to meet them. There's too much at stake. You have your job cut out. I'm going to have you work with the guy that's editing the paper now, so you can get a grasp on things. How about starting in the morning?"

I agreed.

King kept me abreast of what went on daily. It was my job to help write the news for the union paper. Aside, he told me what was going on behind the scenes and why the shipowners were taking this hard-nosed attitude toward the unions. First of all, the shipowners had assessed all their members with a tonnage tax since 1934. That money was put into a fund to "take on the unions." It now amounted to well over $200 million. They were well-prepared. The Firemen's bank account amounted to less than $2,000.

Except for the San Francisco News, newspapers were blasting away daily with scare stories of the impending disaster the unions intended to "let loose on the people." The Red bogeyman was being revitalized in their stories and "Communist conspiracies" were being "uncovered" daily. The waterfront, according to these scare stories, was rife with "insidious plots."

The man the shipowners hated most in Washington, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, referred to as "that Red in the White House," was coming up for reelection. The employers hoped that Alf Landon, a Republican candidate, would beat Roosevelt. The employers were also counting on rifts in the ranks of labor like the one Harry Lundeberg, head of the Sailors' Union, was creating. Lundeberg and Harry Bridges were feuding over policy; the employers intended to widen this rift and take advantage of it.

The present contract was due to expire on September 30. At this point, with only 33 days of negotiations left, anything could happen. On August 27 I was working on a story for the paper. At the far end was King's office. he was hard at work preparing some data for a negotiating session in the afternoon. I looked up and saw five uniformed officers charging through the main office and into King's office. They were not ordinary cops but gold-braid lieutenants, captains and an inspector. I could not hear what was being said, but King came out of the office handcuffed and was hauled off to jail. It was a shock that rocked the waterfront.

The afternoon papers carried the headlines: "Union Leader Arrested in Murder Conspiracy." The article told of a ship's chief engineer who was stabbed to death on board the SS Point Lobos while it was tied up in Alameda. The killers got away. All of this had taken place some five months earlier. The police had tracked down and arrested one of the killers in Texas. He was supposed to have confessed and named not only Earl King, but Ernest Ramsay, a minor official, and Frank Connor, a ship's delegate. The papers played up the story as the murder of an anti-union engineer by a union goon squad.

Those familiar with the three men knew that they were incapable of such an act. If the employers figured on their arrest as being an instrument to divide the ranks, they were mistaken. The ranks became welded closer than they had ever been. Our union membership was convinced down to the last man that the shipowners had something to do with this plot to remove our able progressive leader in the middle of negotiations and a strike-threatening situation.

When word went out that King had been arrested, all the Communists in the Marine Firemen's Union met to map a strategy for the upcoming meeting of union agents. Late into the night we discussed the roster of union agents that were to attend that important meeting. About 15 of us attended. There were some brilliant men among this small group of Communists who had earned their spurs in the past struggles of the labor movement. We knew the union officials who were to attend this meeting and we had a good background of their work.

After a seemingly endless discussion, we agreed to throw our support behind John Ferguson who we know had a fine record of leading the Firemen's Union and who was a close buddy of King. King himself had proposed from jail that Ferguson take charge. The rest of the agents, though fine men, lacked either the ability or the charisma to keep the ranks together. An emergency call went out to all union branches on the West Coast to meet in San Francisco within two days to designate the replacement. The meeting was a big one. Every fireman came off the ships in port to attend. The hall was jammed. It was impossible to move around in the meeting hall a half hour before the meeting began. No one gave that any thought, since we were all concentrating on the long-term program of keeping the union together.

After all the facts of the arrest were made known to the union membership and a report was giving on the progress of contract negotiations, a motion was made to throw the floor open for nominations for a replacement to fill out King's term, a period of three months. Two nominees accepted, John Ferguson of Portland and Barney O'Sullivan of San Pedro. O'Sullivan had attached himself to a small group of right-wingers in San Pedro who were constantly critical of the militant policies emanating from union headquarters in San Francisco. Many of these right-wingers were connected with the American Legion and had made it quite clear that "Red-hot militants" were not welcome in that port. It was a foregone conclusion that O'Sullivan would not be able to divorce himself from this group if he were elected to lead the Firemen's Union in the militant path that King had chosen.

Ferguson won better than five to one. It was a great victory. Ferguson would continue the policies of King. When King was informed of the outcome he was elated. Ferguson was no Johnnie-come-lately. He was a seasoned Scottish-Irish seaman who had spent years stoking the coal-burning boilers on ships around the world. He had weathered some turbulent fighting for human rights in the forecastle. Above all, he was willing to take on the shipowners in the battles which loomed ahead.

If he had any major weaknesses, they were not apparent--although he did like to visit the racetracks and bet on the bangtails, and he enjoyed the taste of good Irish whiskey. Lots of members loved the same things. He was willing to work with anyone who was willing to fight the shipowners and that included Communists. Since that was the common denominator, I found myself working closely with Ferguson and learned much from the man.

Meanwhile, negotiations continued with the shipowners becoming more confident. To them it was just a matter of playing out the time until the contracts expired. On the 23rd of September, in the midst of negotiations, the shipowners informed the unions that on September 30 they would no longer accept ships' crew replacements from the union halls. They would only accept them from the pier heads. That was all the rank and file needed to hear. They were ready then and there to walk off the ships, but their desires and feelings were quelled for the moment.

There was another week to go on the contract. We did not want to give the employers an excuse to say we provoked the lockout. With only a few more days to go before the men would officially come off the ships, word came from the federal government to continue negotiations until October 15. Both sides agreed. The charade of negotiations went on.

On October 13, Washington again requested that negotiations continue and promised some investigative machinery to be put into effect and finalized by arbitration. This request was relayed to the rank and file. The union knew it was important to keep the public on our side; we also knew how vital it was to keep the onus of responsibility for a strike on the employers' shoulders. The membership up and down the coast was polled: should we allow the extension, and if no results were forthcoming by October 29, should we strike? The vote was overwhelming: extend the cut-off day to the 29th.

Not a single man on the entire waterfront had illusions that the shipowners would cave in by the 29th. We elected our strike committee and prepared for the showdown. I was elected to the Firemen's strike committee which consisted of ten men. From our own craft strike committee we elected delegates to the joint strike committee. I was also elected to that important group.

On the West Coast, the waterfront unions had a unique labor unity. After the 1934 strike, it had been agreed by the unions that there should be one overall labor body to coordinate the actions the unions undertook. This one centralized body came to be known as the Maritime Federation of the Pacific. Each union elected delegates to meet weekly and review all impending actions against the shipowners. Once an agreement was reached in this body, all unions were then notified of the proposed action. The Federation strengthened all craft unions in the maritime industry.

Men were still irritated by the deliberate slowness of the shipowners in living up to their part of the contract since the '34 strike. Before the Federation, the frustrations of the rank and file had erupted weekly into spontaneous picket lines at different ships or piers. At this rate, it was difficult for anyone to get a full weeks' work. You did not know from day to day whether you would be confronted by some craft union's picket line around your job. The Federation eliminated much of this "job action."

While this helped to stabilize the shipping industry for the employers, the employers still hated the Federation. They welcomed chaos in the industry. They were screaming for Washington to do something about "this mess." The more disruptions on the waterfront, the better for the employers. They feared stabilization, and the Federation was sticking in their throats like a bone.

At midnight on October 29, 1936, every facet of maritime transportation, with the exception of a few steam schooners working under separate contracts, came to a halt. Hundreds of firemen, engineers, mates, cooks, sailors and longshoremen stopped work up and down the coast.

The problems of conducting a strike of such magnitude were great. Many obstacles had to be overcome. Feeding and housing thousands of seamen away from their homes was a major one. Discipline had to be maintained. A health-and-welfare plan for strikers had to be organized. Committees on almost every facet of life were set up. Volunteers accepted responsibility. A huge empty loft on the Embarcadero was rented. Members of the Marine Cooks and Stewards took over the job of cooking thousands of meals for the strikers. For three months, progressive farmers and ranchers near San Francisco donated a large part of the food needed to feed the strikers. No strikers went hungry.

A committee dealing with housing contacted landlords to ask for their cooperation in allowing the strikers to stay housed in their hotels and apartments without pressure of meeting rent deadlines. A written guarantee was made stating that rents would be paid when the men were again earning paychecks. This satisfied the landlords and hotel keepers and alleviated pressure on the men.

Doctors and nurses were asked to donate time to care for the men's medical needs. They responded with enthusiasm. Those needing clothing had their problems taken care of by a special committee which solicited donations from many of the clothing shops near the waterfront that catered to the seamen in good times.

A security committee which became known as the Maritime Federation Patrol appeared on the front. Their job was to keep drunks off the front and to maintain order and discipline. Throughout the strike, not one man was arrested, nor any bloody noses counted. If someone became inebriated and showed signs of disorientation, he was escorted back to his waterfront hotel by the union patrol. If he persisted in threatening the tranquility of the waterfront, his union book was taken from him and he faced a disciplinary committee of his union peers. The men came down hard on the offender. Two weeks of peeling potatoes or onions or washing pots and pans encouraged most to stay sober and out of trouble.

From the very first we were well aware that it could be a long strike. All the unions settled down for a war of attrition. All paid officials were immediately cut off the payroll. They, like us, ate at the soup kitchen. Requests for funds from the treasury were scrutinized before being fulfilled.

The word along the front was, "Watch out for provocateurs," and "An injury to one is an injury to all."

Our publicity committee was housed on the upper floor of the Union Recreation Center. Here some 25 members of the committee worked on daily bulletins. Leaflets were sent to different communities in the city, and articles and fact sheets were sent to newspapers and unions throughout the country. We even supplied information about our strike to unions in foreign countries. Every hour of the day someone was working at one of the two dozen typewriters in the Center. Artists donated sketches or cartoons for the paper.

My job was publicity. I was in the midst of some of America's best trade union strategists. These old-timers were experienced fighters for trade unions and human rights. Most of them had been in the front ranks of the 1934 strike. What I had experienced in the past was child's play compared to what I was engaged in now.

It has been said that the 1934 strike was one of blood and class struggle from its inception, while the 1936-37 strike was fought with the typewriter.

The shipowners issued daily bulletins to the press that characterized the strike as "another Moscow takeover" or a "training ground for the Bolsheviks." Our publicity committee had to counter these assertions with facts and figures showing the strike for what it was, a matter of survival for the seamen and longshoremen.

One outstanding leaflet issued by the strike committee showed how to become a millionaire: simply get a loan from the government, rent or buy a ship, then get a government subsidy to run the ship. No need to risk a penny.

Facts and figures were given about the millions of dollars paid to shipping companies to keep their buckets of rust afloat and profitable while conditions for the men were intolerable. At first strikers merely answered the attacks of the shipowners, defending themselves against the gross charges leveled at them. But soon they took the offensive.

It had been common knowledge before the strike that a number of smaller shipowners had a strong desire to avoid the strike by meeting the demands of the unions. The three main companies on the Pacific Coast, the Matson, Dollar and American and Hawaiian Lines, however, whipped the smaller companies into line. Thus the seeds of discontent among the shipowners had been sown, and it was this that the unions took advantage of. We called them the "Big Three," and much of our propaganda was directed against these powerful companies. From a publicity point of view, the shipowners were losing the battle.

The shipowners also counted on several good hole cards that they hoped to play. One was the presidential election. But that hope was smashed to pieces when the voters reelected Franklin D. Roosevelt by a landslide.

One day a striker came running into the Firemen's hall shouting that 200 strikebreakers were marching down to the Embarcadero to enter the piers. Within seconds the union halls emptied as we dashed into the streets to intercept them. I was surprised to see a long column of negroes veer in from Market Street toward the waterfront. I and a dozen other men approached them. "Where you guys going?" we asked.

"We're going to work. That's where we're going," the leader replied.

"Not on this front, you're not. Not while there's a strike going on," we said.

"Since you guys don't allow blacks to work on the front when there is work, we have every right to work now," came the adamant reply.

Within seconds dozens of black longshoremen and members of the Marine Cooks and Stewards converged on them. "Take a good look at us," they said. "We're black and members of the unions, and it'll be a cold day in hell when we allow any of you to take our jobs when we're on the picket lines."

We attempted to explain how they were being used as strike breakers by the shipowners. They were hell-bent on making their way to the front. The black strikers laid down the law and between hot words a few punches were thrown. Their ranks broke and they fled back toward Market Street.

If the shipowners had hoped for some sort of "race riot" they were wrong from the start. They forgot the fact that the waterfront unions had long before adopted a pledge of no discrimination based on race, creed or color, and blacks were now a small but active part of the life and vitality of some of our trade unions, like the Longshoremen's and Cooks'; others, however, like the Sailors' Firemen's and Officers' unions, would remain "lily white" for years.

Having failed thus far to weaken the unions, the shipowners had another gimmick up their sleeves. They figured that if they negotiated contracts with one or two unions they could divide the workers. One day Lundeberg of the Sailors' Union and Ferguson of the Firemen's Union were called to a conference with the shipowners and they negotiated contracts for their two unions.

The Firemen held a special meeting and Ferguson made his report about the new contract. While the terms seemed favorable, the rank and file demanded that we stick to the pledge made before the strike, that "We all came out together; we'll all go back together." The rank and file quickly recognized this maneuvering for what it was, a way of playing one group against another, divisive union splitting that played into the shipowners' hands. Under no condition was the rank and file of the Firemen's Union going back to work while the rest of the unions lacked contracts. Even the rank and file of the Sailors' Union, over Lundeberg's objection, took this position. Again the shipowners were rebuffed.

The Communists in the Firemen's Union had urged the rank and file to support Ferguson for secretary. What had gone wrong with Ferguson? Were there flaws in his character that we failed to detect before his election? We discovered later that he had entered the country illegally. Investigative work by the FBI and the Department of Naturalization, urged by the shipowners, uncovered this. He was given the choice of a long prison term and deportation or playing ball with the shipowners. He chose to play the shipowners' game.

Since Lundeberg was anti-Bridges, the shipowners were inclined to favor him. Lundeberg lured Ferguson over to his camp and bit by bit cracks in the tight unity of the unions started to show up. Lundeberg had one way of dealing with the shipowners. He would simply tell them, "Come across with a good contract for my sailors or the Communists will take control of the union." His method paid off with good contracts for the sailors, with conditions unequaled by any of the other seagoing unions. With Ferguson now being drawn over to Lundeberg's tactics, the shipowners were not hesitant to play ball with him.

One of the sharp differences of opinion between Lundeberg and the rest of the maritime unions was related to the issue of releasing perishable cargo. The shipowners called perishable cargo still lying in the ships' holds as cargo "vitally needed by the people." It was a gimmick they felt would arouse anger against the unions. Many people, not realizing it was a ruse, did react favorably to the shipowners' propaganda and urged the unions to reconsider their policy of leaving the cargo in the holds. There was not actually that much perishable cargo remaining strike-bound, but irritation against the strike was beginning to be felt.

The matter came before the Joint Strike Committee and we debated it for several hours. The representatives from the Sailors' argued for Lundeberg's policy of not moving one ounce of the cargo. But the more mature on the committee urged that the cargo be worked so that one more argument of the shipowners could be deflated. The majority of maritime workers were in agreement.

Another thing that Lundeberg found fault with was the way the committee conducted publicity for public support. He felt that this method of conducting a strike was hogwash and playing footsie. But on this issue, too, the majority of the strikers agreed with the Joint Strike Committee. They believed that every conceivable legitimate weapon should be used by labor to win this strike; publicity from the workers' viewpoint could play a major role in winning support for our cause. Lundeberg eventually boiled everything down to two viewpoints: his and the "Commies'." With Ferguson a vacillating element in the Firemen's Union, the Communist within had to be on guard to prevent further sweetheart deals.

Lundeberg and Ferguson went to Washington, presumably to consult with some pro-labor congressmen. They wired back that the congressmen urged that unless the strike were ended, anti-labor legislation would be forthcoming. They urged the rank and file to make immediate peace with the shipowners. When these telegrams were read, the membership, enraged, called for Ferguson's resignation. Ferguson got the message. He returned to San Francisco and never mentioned the Washington caper again.

While things looked peaceful in the shipowners' ranks, the opposite was true. Since all the major policies were engineered and pushed through by the Big Three, much discontent was voiced from the smaller operators who wanted to settle and get their ships to sea. The unity of the strikers could not be broken, and the smaller companies began to exert pressure on the Big Three for an end to the strike. Finally the shipowners caved in and negotiations began in earnest. Agreements were worked out with all the unions and the terms put to a vote. The strike that had lasted 90 days came to a victorious end, and all crafts went back to work at the same time.

Overall, the results were good. All unlicensed crafts received a monthly increase of $10. The shipowners offered us nothing. We won the right to control and operate our union hiring halls. The shipowners had opposed this vigorously. Furthermore, we had won the right to receive pay for any overtime. Previously, the shipowners had offered us only time off in port. The officers also won a wage increase.

The cost to the shipowners of the 1934 strike was estimated at slightly more than $500 million. The 1936-37 strike had cost them around $686 million. Aside from their financial losses, there was a rebellion of small shipowners against the Big Three prompting the resignation of T. G. Plant, the president of the employer group. (T. G. had earned his nickname during the 1934 strike by standing and smiling while police lobbed tear gas shells at the strikers--Tear Gas Plant.)

The Party evaluated victories and defeats after every major battle in order to draw lessons for the future. Two days after the strike was ended, such a meeting was called for all Party functionaries and members within the waterfront unions. The meeting hall was packed. The last such meeting had been called a week before the strike. The attendance at this one was twice as large. Success breeds success.

The report at the meeting characterized the strike as an effort by the employers to smash the unity of the strikers and their unions. Reports were made about the strength of the Party forces in various crafts, the difficulties they faced and how they overcame them. After three hours of discussion the chairman summed it up: we, the members of the Party, had done an excellent job throughout the strike. In forging unity within the ranks of labor, we had upheld the best traditions of the revolutionary working class. The plot of the shipowners to destroy the waterfront unions had been dealt a crushing defeat. As Communists, we had won the respect of our fellow workers and trade unionists. In the eyes of our fellow workers we had conducted ourselves responsibly, honestly and courageously. To safeguard the gains won in the strike it was necessary to increase our influence by continuing to distribute Marxist literature and recruit new members among the workers.


Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.

The Kid from Hoboken: Book Two