Oregon Experience

How a 1934 waterfront strike was a major turning point for West Coast labor

By Nadine Jelsing (OPB)
July 11, 2022 6 p.m.

Eighty-three days during the summer of 1934 will be honored forever by men and women of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union – the ILWU. It was a time when longshoremen fought, fell and ultimately triumphed together despite the odds against them.

It was called “The Big Strike.”

THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:

At 8 a.m. on May 9, 1934, more than 12,000 union members of the International Longshoremen’s Association walked off the job from Bellingham to San Diego, crippling West Coast shipping.

A black and white image of men holding signs with messages about a strike who stand on a dock, with a large boat or ship visible behind them.

Striking longshoremen on picket duty along Portland's waterfront. Oregon Historical Society.

Courtesy Oregon Historical Society, bb01347

I call it the closest brush that Portland had with class warfare.

Michael Munk, Historian

At the time longshoring – loading and unloading cargo from ships in port – was dirty and dangerous work. Heavy loads moved by hand, hook and brute strength. Discriminatory hiring was rampant. Work shifts lasted up to 36 hours.

It was the middle of the Great Depression. Competition was fierce, not only for jobs, but among the shipping companies vying for profits. Workers competed against each other to keep their jobs and were forced to accept wage cuts and working conditions or be blacklisted.

Fed up with miserable conditions, rank and file longshoremen began to secretly organize along the West Coast. Led by radical labor activists, new ILA local chapters emerged and old ones regrouped under the unified banner of the Pacific Coast District.

By early 1934, San Francisco labor leader Harry Bridges had called for a coastwide convention to draft prestrike demands which included a coastwide contract, union-controlled hiring halls, and increased wages.

A strike weapon should never be used except as a last desperate resort. There’s no way out.

Harry Bridges, labor leader

Negotiations collapsed, and longshoremen, coastwide, voted to strike in solidarity.

The strike, which would last nearly three months, hit Oregon hard. The work stoppage paralyzed commerce. Lumber and grain exports ceased and nearly 50,000 workers lost jobs – including as many as 15,000 people working in the Portland area.

Shipowners and waterfront employers faced mounting financial losses as ships idled in ports and cargo sat unmoved from northern Washington to southern California.

Although it was the Depression, shopkeepers, farmers and unemployed workers provided critical support to the strikers by joining picket lines and donating food and supplies.

The biggest boost to morale came from the community support which was displayed daily.

Norm Diamond, Historian

Other maritime union members joined the strike in a strong show of solidarity. Leading businessmen and waterfront employers were determined to open the ports – by force if necessary. Violent clashes erupted between picketers and police up and down the coast.

In San Francisco, two strikers were shot dead and hundreds were injured in a July 5 battle that became known as “Bloody Thursday.”

Portland would endure its own “Bloody Wednesday,” when Mayor Joseph Carson and Police Chief Burton Lawson attempted to open a strategic shipping terminal in the north end of town. Four longshoremen were badly injured during the battle that ensued in an adjacent park.

The boldness and carelessness that the police had to open fire in a public park is in part what compelled so many Portlanders to condemn the police action.

Ryan Wisnor, local historian

A curious young woman named Julia Ruuttila lived near the terminal in the sawmill town of Linnton, about 8 miles northwest of downtown Portland. She visited the battle scene and saw the bullet-scarred trees and blood-stained ground. Returning home she typed up a petition – which was ultimately unsuccessful – to oust the police chief from his position.

THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:

Ruuttila would later declare that what she witnessed that day would help propel her lifelong career as a prominent Northwest labor and peace activist.

Another Portland woman, 62-year-old Dr. Marie Equi, a longtime radical activist for human rights, made headlines when she left her sick bed to stand in solidarity with the longshoremen. She presented them with a $250 check – worth about $5,000 today – to help with the cost of medical care.

“The 1934 Waterfront Strike: Solidarity on the Docks,” from OPB’s “Oregon Experience.”

On July 31, 1934, longshoremen tentatively returned to work after both sides in the strike agreed to arbitration by a national board appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt. Two months later the board would award the strikers a victory – a coastwide contract, union-controlled hiring halls and increased wages.

The 1934 waterfront strike was considered a major turning point for West Coast labor. The success of the longshoremen would stand as an example for further union organizing by other workers in many different industries.

In 1937, the Pacific Coast District of the ILA would form the independent International Longshoremen & Warehousemen’s Union. Today the ILWU remains one of the strongest unions on the West Coast.


Additional resources

Bigelow, William and Norman Diamond. “Agitate, Educate, Organize: Portland, 1934,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol 89, No. 1, pp.4-29.

Buchanan, Roger. Dock Strike, The Working Press, 1975.

Helquist, Michael. Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions, Oregon State University Press, 2015.

MacColl Kimbark E. The Growth of a City: Power and Politics in Portland, Oregon 1915-1950, The Georgian Press, 1979.

Markholt, Ottilie. Maritime Solidarity: Pacific Coast Unionism 1929-1938, Pacific Coast Maritime History Committee, 1998.

Munk, Michael. “Portland’s ‘Silk Stocking Mob:’ The Citizens Emergency League in the 1934 Maritime Strike,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol 91, No.3 (2000) pp.150-160.

Nelson, Bruce. Workers on the Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and Unionism in the 1930s, University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Polishuk, Sandy. Sticking to the Union: An Oral History of the Life and Times of Julia Ruuttila, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Quin, Mike. The Big Strike, Olema Publishing Co., 1949. Reprint: International Publishers, New York, 1979.

Schwartz, Harvey. Solidarity Stories: An Oral History of the ILWU, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009.

Schwartz, Harvey. The March Inland: Origins of the ILWU Warehouse Division 1934-1938, Inkworks Press, 1978; reprint, 2000.

Waterfront Workers History Project, Longshore Workers and Their Unions.

The ILWU Archives.

Pacific Northwest Labor History Association.

THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:
How Oregon Dungeness crab make the journey from sea to table.
THANKS TO OUR SPONSOR:

Related Stories

Unions flex political muscle, secure wins under Democratic one-party rule in Olympia

If America’s unions are dying, no one told labor leaders in Washington. The state ranks fifth in the nation for union membership. That strength also translates to political power. In recent years, organized labor has helped Democrats solidify one-party rule. In turn, unions have notched a succession of legislative victories.