The 1934 longshore strike, along with the Minneapolis Teamsters strike and the Toledo Auto Light strikes of the same year, paved the way for a sort of (incomplete) revolution in America, in which the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement became possible. These three disputes all led to citywide general strikes, in the two midwestern cities mentioned above, and in San Francisco. These struggles are a part of our rich heritage as radicals today--they paved the way for us--but most people in our generation know nothing about it.
The San Francisco Longshoremen's and General Strikes were WTO-like events in terms of the police brutality and the actual street fighting that went on. Two strikers, Howard Sperry and Nick Burdoise, were killed in the fighting that resulted from a police riot on July 5th. Cops shot them in the back as they were trying to get away from danger. The big difference between the SF General Strike and the WTO in Seattle is that our side made substantial gains and institutionalized them in a union contract. Those gains included the union hiring hall, a system of workers' control over hiring.
These gains are what gives the longshore workers today the power they have to intervene in struggles for justice by shutting down ships from time to time, or when necessary, shutting down international trade on the entire West Coast. These solidarity actions have resulted in enormous changes around the world, including the release of African National Conngress leader and political prisoner Nelson Mandela from a South African prison, thus contributing to the smashing of the racist apartheid system.
These gains, this power to act in solidarity, is what the longshore workers are fighting to maintain now, in the face of unprecedented onslaughts against workers' rights internationally, under WTO trade agreements, IMF structural adjustment policies and trade deals like the FTAA. The radical/left movement on the West Coast at least, should understand that the longshore workers' power on the job, and the struggle that led to it, are part of our heritage and a powerful weapon in our arsenal today. That's why we all need to pitch in and help the longshoremen defend their contract rights. When we defend the longshore workers, we defend ourselves.
This is an inspiring and instructive story about average, exploited working people taking their destiny into their hands, and taking back control over their own lives. If they could do it, in the middle of the Great Depression, we can do it today.
The ILWU Story - Six Decades of Militant Unionism