The 1934 Strikes: The historic struggles that got us union recognition rights and social welfare programs

By Florence Oppen
In this article we will review the three victorious strikes of 1934 and the major lessons we can draw from them today to fight back against the renewed anti- union forces we encounter today. The 1934 local and city-wide strikes inaugurated a wave of labor unrest in response to rising unemployment and wage loss faced by millions of US workers during the Great Depression. This organized rank and file revolt was the social force behind the major conquests for workers in this country, including union rights and social welfare programs. It also gave rise to a new model of unionism, a democratic and militant one we need to revive today.

1934: The Turning of the Tide

In the 1930s, the composition of the U.S. working class and the state of the labor movement was quite different from today. In a context of the rapid expansion of capitalism, the major labor federation, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), defended a model of craft unionism only, leaving millions of industrial workers unorganized. The AFL was also a racist and top-down union federation, which defended a model of business unionism, that is to say of conceiving of union activity as a private service of representation for which workers pay out of their wages, and not as an organized movement from below of workers who collectively and democratically unite on the job and organize to improve their working and living conditions.
While the social composition of the U.S. working class has changed, both in the kind of labor performed by wage workers, and also the gender and racial composition of the class, the shortcomings of the AFL model of unionism are unfortunately still present today in the current AFL-CIO. In some cases these problems have been exacerbated. But history teaches us that our political and social institutions are not pre-fixed and eternal, rather  they are a product of our struggles and material conditions.he working class, which not only unionized themselves, but all wage-workers, part-time and full time, as well as prison labor, reproductive labor, and the unemployed have the key to shape and vitalize their own class institutions – including labor unions. The uprising of Wisconsin public workers in 2011 and the West Virginia strike of 2018 are the proof of that.
A similar process of rank and file rebellion occurred in the 1930s as an organized response to the 1929 economic crash and its consequences. By 1932, it is estimated that one third of the working class was unemployed and 75% was living in poverty.  Beginning in 1933, workers organized strikes to fight for their immediate needs without waiting for the green light or support from the AFL labor officials. Many times, as we will show, they did it against the AFL leadership.
Socialist historian Sharon Smith shows that it was with organized rank and file strikes, mass actions and real solidarity that workers made their right to have a union a reality:
“In 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt granted workers the right to organize into unions in Section 7(a) of the National Recovery Act, and workers rushed to join unions. But everywhere the employers put up violent resistance. In 1934, when 400,000 East Coast textile workers went on strike to win union recognition, the bosses responded with a reign of terror, provoking one of the bitterest and bloodiest strikes in U.S. labor history. In the South, the ruling class unleashed a torrent of racism and anti-communism, while armed mobs attacked strikers. … But these early defeats were not decisive. If anything, they strengthened workers’ resolve to fight back, as the center of struggle shifted away from hunger and unemployed marches toward strikes for union recognition in industry after industry. In 1933, there were 1,695 work stoppages, twice the number of the year before, involving 1,117,000 workers, nearly four times more than the previous year. In 1934, the figures rose still higher: 1,856 strikes involving 1,470,000 workers.”[1]
1934 was a decisive year for the US labor movement. We propose to examine the three major strikes that took place in the country, which began as local strikes which then gained city-wide mobilization, and achieved national attention and historical significance because of their victorious end. These strike efforts show the road to a renewed labor militancy that could ‘get the goods’ and set the path to a broader anti-capitalist transformation.

The San Francisco Longshoremen Strike

On May 9th, 1934 the International Longshore Association (ILA) went on an 83-day strike as roughly 14,000 longshoremen from Seattle to San Diego, walked out, shutting down port shipping along the entire West Coast. On February of the same year, the ILA Convention voted to organize a strike for a pay increase, shorter work hours, and union recognition. The longshoremen strike was followed by a four-day strike in the city of San Francisco between June 2nd and June 5th as a response to the violent repression from the police. The port workers were able to convince rank-and file truckers and other maritime workers to support their strike. On July 5th, police and employer militias launched a violent assault and repression against the picket line, opening fire on a crowd of strikers. Four workers were killed, hundreds were injured and this day became known as “Bloody Thursday.” In response, the SF Strike Committee called on other unions to join in a sympathy strike. On July 15th, 115 local unions voted to join in a general strike against the instructions of the AFL President who publicly disavowed the labor action. On the first day of the SF General Strike, 130,000 workers walked out of their jobs, yet unfortunately the Central Labor Council and labor bureaucracy infiltrated the Strike Committee and managed to shut down the growing strike on its fourth day. Despite this betrayal of the labor leadership, the general strike had disrupted enough maritime business. As a result, by October the union won a raise to $.95 per hour, a 120-hour month, and the effective union control of the hiring hall.

The Toledo Auto-workers Strike

In Toledo, Ohio, at the Auto-Lite factory, around 6,000 workers joined the auto-workers picket line of the AFL affiliated 18384 local, from April 12th to June 2nd of the same year. The first strike began in February for union recognition but it met the staunch opposition of the national AFL leadership, and the employer, thus it quickly ended. Auto-workers then decided to organize the unemployed in the Lucas County Unemployed League to support their strike. Violating a court issued injunction, initially 1,000, and then 4,000 and finally 6,000 unemployed workers joined the picketers to defend the auto-workers strike. At its peak, 10,000 workers participated in the picket line. As in most such union actions, the National Guard was called in, killing one worker and injuring 200 others. Between May 23rd and May 30th the workers resisted the ever growing assault against them. Troops attempted to break the strike with gas bombs, company thugs armed with iron bars, and fire hoses directed at them as water cannons – workers used bricks and stones in defense. Many strike leaders were injured and arrested after this confrontation, and on May 31, 40,000 workers marched in the city to demand their immediate release. The company finally caved in on June 4th and was forced to recognize Local 18384 as its exclusive bargaining agent, sign a 6-month contract, give a 5% wage increase, and rehire all the workers. According to labor historian Sidney Lens, “The path was opened for organization of the entire automobile industry…With the Auto-Lite victory under their belts, the Toledo auto workers were to organize 19 plants before the year was out, and, before another 12 months, were to lead the first successful strike in a GM plant, the real beginning of the conquest of General Motors.”[2] Toledo remains today one of the most unionized cities in the United States, with a 30% union rate, more than twice the national and state average.[3]

The Minneapolis truck drivers strike

In Minneapolis, the Teamsters local 574 organized a wave of strikes to win higher wages and the recognition of their local: In February, the truck drivers went on strike shutting down 65 of the city’s 67 coal yards; then the truck-drivers and warehouse workers struck on May 16th, and finally there was a massive strike in July. The success of this strike eventually led to the unionization of truckers regionally and nationally. On the second wave of strikes on May 20th, also with the goal of wining union recognition and material gains, 35,000 builders and taxi drivers joined the 5,000 truckers in a sympathy strike. Similar to San Francisco and Toledo, this strike expanded to other sectors. The Minneapolis strike gained national reputation for its tight organization of the pickets which were in constant communications, its regular mass meetings, the organization of food supplies and material support for the striking workers, and the provision of medical services. Workers seemed invincible and were set to defeat the pro-business lobby, Citizens Alliance, that wanted to keep Minneapolis an anti-union town. In response to the third wave of the strike launched on July 16th, the cops fired on the crowd on July 20th, killing two workers and injuring more than 55. This was termed, “Bloody Friday.” Gov. Olsen sent in the National Guard who raided the union headquarters and arrested the strike leaders. In response, a big mobilization of 40,000 workers demanded their immediate release and on August 22nd the employers caved in. The Minneapolis victory had enduring effects for the Teamster union, which went from a 75,000 member union nationwide in 1934 to a 400,000 strong national union five years later.

Some Common Traits and Lessons of the 1934 Strikes

These three strikes share some notable characteristics that need to be analyzed today, for we can extract some important lessons. We need to demystify the labor militancy of the “radical thirties” as something of the past, and instead identify the key features of the success of these struggles to adapt and apply them for the present day.

The 1934 Local Strike Wave Managed to Get National Gains

These were victorious strikes in that not only did they win for these workers the recognition of their local unions, and got workers a binding contract with their employers, but they had a national impact on workers rights,  eventually gaining labor recognition at the national level, with the later passing of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. These three strikes, as part of the 1934 strike wave, were conceived as fight backs aimed at enforcing the union recognition rights established by the 1933 National Recovery Act. They proved in practice that the first Roosevelt Law was ineffective and misleading.
These strikes also laid the ground for the next strike wave of 1936-1937 (the sit-down strikes in the big industrial corporations) and eventually to the formation of the CIO between 1935 and 1938. The CIO broke with the conservative model of craft unionism that only wanted to unionize ‘deserving’, skilled workers. Industrial unionism on the other hand, had the idea that all workers of every branch should be part of the same union, regardless of the level of skill, gender or race. This was an important step forward. Because it was born out of militant strikes the CIO locals were initially more democratically managed and militant than AFL union locals, despite the attempts of the CIO leadership to control the ranks.

Rank-and-file Democracy and Strike Committees Were a Key to Success

Second, all of these three strike waves were initiated by rank-and-file workers despite their local or their national union leaderships. In all cases, the workers managed to impose the strike action as a matter of fact, as a collective action that could not be reversed or stifled from above, and that controlled the strike process at the local level. This is because, in all cases, workers attempted to build strong local strike committees and involve a maximum number of workers and community members in the planning and executing of the strike plans. Strikes were not decided last minute by two people in a bargaining committee, they were the matter of daily discussion in the workplaces and sometimes in the city as a whole.
In the Minneapolis case, striking workers elected a 75-100 member strike committee which was composed of both rank-and-file workers and union officials that reported every day to the ranks at nightly mass assemblies. This mechanism of democratic control by the rank-and-file ensured the unity of workers in their actions, prevented the cooptation by politicians and the AFL leadership, and gave confidence to workers. They were deliberating, voting and acting together; experiencing their own power. It also allowed them to extend the strike to involve other sectors.
In San Francisco, however, the SF Labor Council attempted to contain the strike by imposing from above a “Strategy Committee of Seven.” They did so after more than a dozen unions voted to support the longshoremen into what was becoming a city-wide strike. This committee of seven had no actual union leadership in support of a city wide general strike.  As Todd Chretien explains in “The Battle for the Docks,”[4] this committee, which was tagged by Communists the “Tragedy Committee,” wanted to impose its leadership over the 50-member strong Joint Maritime Strike Committee (JSC). Unfortunately “the JSC deferred to representatives from the Strategy Committee of Seven under the (mistaken) impression that the Labor Council would finally now move decisively towards a general strike. Darcy claimed that confusion surrounding the Strategy Committee’s role was so great that even the Communists at the meeting failed to argue against handing strike authority over to the Seven.” Despite this first maneuver, the Teamsters joined the city wide strike on July 12th , spurring 60 other locals to join in. At this point the Labor Council “realized that the Strategy Committee did not have the power to prevent the general strike from taking place. Therefore, late in the evening of July 13th, it announced the formation of a General Strike Committee, consisting of five delegates from every union in San Francisco. The Labor Council set the first meeting for 10 a.m. the next morning, intentionally making democratic elections of delegates impossible. Labor Council officials stacked the General Strike Committee with paid officials and conservative workers–and in this way, succeeded in capturing control over the general strike movement….The Labor Council leaders used their authority almost immediately to begin undermining it, sending individual unions back to work, bit by bit. The strike was called off after only four days on July 19, before any of the unions’ key demands had been met, and leaving the maritime workers to stand alone.[5] The Communist Party failed to instill in the rank-and-file the determination to defend the democratic and bottom up organizing and leadership of the strike, because CP members in the ILA union were not trained in a defense and practice of workers democracy as were the SWP members.
One key take away of these strikes is that first workers had to build their own strike committees, their own union rank-and-file bodies, formed of rank-and-file and the most active and committed labor leaders to lead and expand the strike. These strike committees were key, as was their independent from state and national labor leaderships. The second lessons is that those committees had to be democratically elected, and had to be able to coordinate the defense of the strike, the negotiations process and the inclusion of new sectors in the struggle.

The Strikes Mobilized and Involved other Sectors of the Working Class

Third, all these locals who organized the strikes from below sought to win the support of other unions and to forge alliances, appealing of course to solidarity, but going even further by using the strike committees to develop a united workers front with common demands. This  united the working class at the city-wide level to reverse the relation of forces with big employers and city politicians. What is most remarkable about the Toledo strike is how it united employed and unemployed workers, as the Minneapolis strikes did to bring women into the strike activity, also delivering their demands and militancy. In all cases, these local strikes grew into general strikes, that is into a generalized mobilization of the city and region to support the strike.

Workers Won Because they Organized their Own Independent Power and Self-defense

Fourth, all of these strikes were met with very violent repression. In response, workers sought the solidarity of other unions and community members to organize worker power inenforcing the strike and self-defense to defeat the attacks and grow their movement. In the case of Minneapolis, workers created “flying squads,” that is to say mobile pickets of workers and supporters. The pickets stationed throughout the city were dispatched from the central headquarters by telephone to enforce the strike and prevent scabs from crossing the picket line. These pickets guarded major roads and prevented the entrance of non-union trucks. Furthermore, the strike committees organized the supply of food (for up to 10,000 people), and established a clinic with two doctors and three nurses.
Workers did not, and could not, appeal to the sympathy of a higher institutional authority to protect them (the state, the media, the courts). They had to trust in themselves and their class to organize their own self-defense of their material interests and dignity. The government and employer intimidation and military repression were met with both fierce, mass self-defense tactics from the workers and also by a growing wave of solidarity. This is the challenge of the strike, to the reactionary forces of state power and the ruling class which pulls the levers through a myriad of organized tactics, and also to the bureaucratic union leadership structure, which is now relearning where the true power lies: in the workers themselves.

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