OPB, a member-supported public media organization in the Northwest, has premiered a new historical documentary about a 1930s labor strike that proved to be monumental in Oregon’s history and that of the entire West Coast.
On May 9, 1934, members of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) walked off the job at all West Coast ports, crippling maritime shipping. At the time, longshoring – loading and unloading of cargo from ships in port – was dirty and dangerous work. Discriminatory hiring was rampant. The dock workers’ demands included a coastwide contract, union-controlled hiring halls – a placement office where jobs are allotted to applicants – and increased wages.
It was called the “Big Strike” and it hit Portland, Oregon hard. Lasting nearly three months, commerce was paralyzed, lumber and grain exports ceased and nearly 50,000 workers lost jobs, including up to 15,000 in the Portland area. Shipowners and waterfront employers were facing heavy financial losses.
Despite occurring during the Great Depression, shopkeepers, farmers and unemployed workers offered solidarity and provided critical support to the strikers by joining picket lines, donating food, and offering services on credit.
Just as determined were those who tried to stop the strike. Leading Portland businesspeople formed a Citizens Emergency Committee which would vote to recruit and fund “special police” to guard the strikebreakers.
In San Francisco, the largest port at the time, the strike would result in open warfare on the docks between picketers and police. Two strikers were killed in what would be called “Bloody Thursday.” Violent clashes occurred in the major ports up and down the coast, along with one at a public park in Portland that injured four unarmed strikers.
The strike ended on July 31, 1934, when both the waterfront employers and the dock workers agreed to federal arbitration. The strikers won a coastwide contract, union hiring halls and higher pay. The strike was considered a major turning point in labor history and was used as an example for further organizing by other workers in many industries.
In 1937 the Pacific Coast District of the ILA would form the independent International Longshoremen & Warehousemen’s Union — the ILWU. It remains one of the strongest unions on the West Coast.
“The 1934 Waterfront Strike: Solidarity on the Docks” is the latest episode from “Oregon Experience,” an original OPB series that explores Oregon’s past and helps to provide a deeper understanding of the historical, social and political fabric of the state and region.
This new, one-hour program is available to watch online now at opb.org/oregonexperience, on watch.opb.org or on OPB’s YouTube channel. It will air on OPB TV Monday, July 25 at 9 p.m. Stream this and other favorite OPB shows by downloading the PBS Video App.
It is produced by Nadine Jelsing and edited by Lisa Suinn Kallem. All “Oregon Experience” episodes are made possible by the generous support of OPB members. For more information, please visit opb.org.