1933 the economic depression that started in 1929 had hit the
nation full-force. Longshoremen, who had long suffered their
own special kind of depression through chronic job insecurity,
now experienced even deeper hardship. Genuine union organization
became a matter of survival. An employer controlled blue-book
union was not the answer. The demands were very simple: a union
controlled hiring hall that would end all forms of favoritism.
An end to contrived shape-ups and kickbacks. An end to saloon
deals for Straw-bosses in exchange for dispatch favors.
An equalization of work opportunities for all members regardless of race or religion, a fair wage for protected work hours, and a six hour work day under improved safety conditions. The biggest part of the demands was coastwise recognition. Employers knew that going coastwise would become a major union tool, should organization become a reality. Ship owners refused every demand on the table and were hell bent to quash the attempt to reach any kind of a deal.
Finally in may of 1934 both the longshore and seafaring unions voted to go on strike. In response, the employers mobilized private industry, state and local governments and police agencies to smash the union and their picket lines. Tempers and tension continued to mount as the strike days passed. Attacks by goon squads and counter attacks by longshoremen , seamen and other supporters only added to the buildup of what would be the final conflict. Unprovoked police attacks up and down the embarcadero were commonplace. It was unsafe to travel the streets alone. Especially in the Barbary Coast district along Pacific Avenue for fear of attack by hired goon squads made up of paid college students and out-of-town thugs.
On July 5, 1934 at 08:00 just as Mayor Rossi and Governor Merriam had promised, a Belt Line locomotive began nudging two refrigerator cars towards Matson Line docks on Pier 30. A crowd of between two and three thousand strikers tensely watched. In an effort to clear the track police resorted to clubbing strikers who refused to yield. In retaliation strikers began to pelt the police with rocks and bricks. Being outnumbered the police drew back. While scuffle continued a small group of pickets managed to set the boxcars afire. When fire trucks arrived the police turned the high pressure hoses on the crowd then advanced into broken picket ranks, clubbing those who stood their ground, or not.
Meanwhile, further south on the Embarcadero at Piers 38 and 40, trucks from Atlas were being loaded with cargo by scab workers, destined fort a nearby warehouse. Just as had happened at Pier 30 the pickets failed to make way , fighting broke out. The scene soon became a clubbing frenzy being countered by fist wielding longshoremen. Sirens wailed, shots range out from revolvers, shotguns, tear gas and vomit gas grenades. At about nine-thirty strikers were dispersed and began to regroup on Bryant street near Rincon Hill.
Under the direction of Henry Schmidt , strikers assembled a barricade across Bryant Street, using bricks from a recently demolished building to make way for the soon to be built Bay Bridge. Harry Bridges took charge of another contingent of strikers.
Noon: As if a work whistle had blown, the encounters and fighting ceased. Each side withdrew. The longshoremen retreated to Steuart Street, to what they mistakenly assumed was neutral ground, for a bite to eat and tend to their wounded. Littler did they know, a bloody and hostile easement was about to take place. The imaginary line in the sand was about to be crossed. Around one o’clock police had encroached as far as the restaurants and soup kitchens where strikers were strikers assumed was a safe haven. Once again fighting ensued. Tear gas canisters along with rifle and pistol fire rang out. The game had become dangerously real, as Harry Bridges watched from his restaurant window. Accounts vary as to how this fateful moment unfolded. However coroner's inquiries seem to bear out the following scenario. A police officer jumped out of a car and taunted the crowd, “If any of you sons of bitches want to start something come on!” He then began to fire at the crowd, dodging around his car like a man shooting birds. As Harry Bridges saw it, the officer wheeled around and shot in three directions
Three men fell to the sidewalk. One dead, one dying, one wounded. Howard Sperry, a striking sailor, died instantly a few doors from the ILA headquarters at 113 Steuart Street where he was heading to have his strike card punched after working the lunch shift at the same union kitchen where Harry Bridges had eaten. Longshoremen Charles Olsen, shot in the arm, face and chest lay alongside the body of Sperry. This historic photo (left) shows Sperry half raised. Nicholas Counderakis, an unemployed merchant seaman (known as Nick Bordoise ) fell to the sidewalk mortally wounded. However his death did not occur at the same location where he was shot with the others. He staggered to the next corner at Spear Street where he fell dead.
The morning after “Bloody Thursday,” Strikers chalked a memorial where the two slain comrades fell, and decorated it with a few bunches of gladiola and wreaths. The inscription read “2 ILA MEN KILLED-SHOT IN THE BACK.” On each side of the inscription, chalked in large letters, were the words “POLICE MURDER.” Soon afterward the police scattered a crowd that had gathered to view the spot. They kicked the flowers into the gutter and rubbed out the memorial. They were unable to remove the large ghastly blood stain that covered the pavement nearby. Strikers immediately returned and rewrote the inscription. They picked up the soiled gladiola from the gutter, brushed them off with their sleeves, and relaid them on the spot respectfully. (A replica of that historic memorial is painted on the sidewalk at the main entrance of Bay Area Longshoremen’s Memorial Association building.)
This fateful day proved to be the final cement that bonded
the rank and file to continue it's endeavors. Not only in
San Francisco but the entire pacific coast. A General Strike
was called approved and initiated. This strike proved to be
the straw that broke the camels back. Public outcry along
with had-nosed negotiating was the icing on the ratificational
cake. The success of the new union also came from it’s
unique solidarity and from it’s complete democracy.
They stood together through the worst of times. The Pacific
Coast ILA, soon became the ILWU. Based on the accounts in
the history of this great labor organization, it's no wonder
as to why they are considered one of the most militant unions
ever organized in American history.
Date: Third Thursday Every Month
Time: 7 p.m.
Place: Union Hall