SF History Center
Language and Assorted Other West Coast ILA Strategies and
Tactics in the Success of the 1934 Great Strike
Sam Darcy was angry. He wasn’t having it. Two days earlier, on what became known as “Bloody Thursday”, the striking longshoremen had been attacked by mobs of police. Hundreds of workers, and even passersby, were indiscriminately savaged with batons and shot at. Those who fell were kicked mercilessly about the groin, head and stomach.
A tear-gas manufacturer cheerfully showed up to demonstrate his company’s newest products against the laborers. When a well-fed police detective emerged from his unmarked car, and began to fire into the crowd of striking workers, one observer remarked that it looked “like a man shooting birds.”
That detective’s bullets lodged themselves in the bodies of three workers. Two of the victims died from their wounds: Howard Sperry, a WWI veteran, and Nick Bordoise, a marine cook who had come out to show support for the strike.
And now the longshoremen, shaken, angry and injured, were gathered all the way out in Colma to bury Nick Bordoise. They had taken a huge collective risk and now one of their casualties was waiting to be buried. Not everyone was so sure it had been worth it.
But Darcy was. “We didn’t come out here to cry!” Darcy bellowed. “And Nick wouldn’t want us to cry!”
Darcy probably guessed right about Nick. “Nick Bordoise" was merely the Communist name chosen by the marine cook, long before he was killed by the police detective’s bullets. The cook, whose real name was Counderakis, had immigrated to the US from a country where people had a habit of fighting back against more powerful forces - it wasn’t necessarily courage as much as it was a reflex.
Darcy had a good enough measure of his fellow communist to gauge his determination even in death, making a strategic choice to refer to the dead man only in the present tense. “What Nick wants is, ‘the fight must go on. We’re just getting started.”
Darcy himself had come to the US from the Ukraine with his parents as a toddler, and his radical politics stemmed in part from witnessing his father, a union member, sustain a brutal beating by New York City police while walking a garment workers picket line. When Darcy went to work at 12 years of age at the O’Sullivan Rubber Heel Company in Lower Manhattan, he immediately began organizing his fellow child laborers. At sixteen, he formed the Young Workers League. The year he read Darwin and Karl Marx, he became a Communist; he was not yet 18.
Which is to say, from a very young age, Darcy was a believer. When his penchant for truth-telling got him booted from a Communist leadership position in New York, he got himself “exiled” to California, and now here he was, on the wave of the most successful labor strike in US history, performing yet another miracle: he was carrying messages from the great beyond, a metaphysical improbability.
“These are casualties, sure. But what Nick wants is,” Darcy continued, again using the present tense for the fallen comrade: “No more casualties. We want the casualties from the bosses, not from us anymore.”
At this, the grief, fear, and despair of the crowd shifted to determination. Yes, let the owners take the casualties for once! Harry Bridges later praised Darcy’s fighting tone as exactly what was needed, “That was no goddamn speech of ‘here we’re burying a martyr, and we start saying prayers.’ Bullshit. No.”
In the beginning, was the word. For Bridges and the strike committee leadership, language itself was an organizing tactic. If there was anything that helped Darcy and Bridges rise above more charismatic and forceful men, it was their command of the vernacular.
Author Charles Madison described Bridges’ unique “ability to verbalize their yearnings and concretize their goal.” Bruce Nelson, wrote: “…it is remarkable how often longshoremen and outsiders alike referred to the effectiveness of (Bridges’) use of language… His speeches were “cold,” “clean,” clear,” “rapid-fire,” “precise,” with every word “like the blow of a hammer,” building an orderly and readily comprehensible edifice for his listeners.”
Longshoremen John Olsen recalled a meeting in San Francisco: “All the officials of the old ILA were there opposing Harry. They all spoke first. Harry finally got up and said, ‘It’s me against all of them.’ Then he took something out of his pocket, and he read it. When he got through talking, he had the whole meeting on his side. He had that ability to draw you to him that very few men have.”
In more flowery terms, Harvard’s Dean James M. Landis described Bridges’ testimony at his own deportation hearing as “a fighting apologia that refused to temper itself to the winds of caution.”
When Bridges and his allies established “The Committee of 500” they were again employing language strategically. In truth, the Committee didn’t number more than 50, but 500 had a better ring to it. The 50 included some women, and that inclusion no doubt helped in producing one of the Committee’s great vehicles, The Waterfront Worker.
Waterfront Worker, Vol. 2, No. 15, June 12, 1934
One of the legendary underground newspapers in labor organizing, The Waterfront Worker was written in the exact language of the actual longshoremen. The Committee of 500 had taken over the paper from the MWIU (Marine Workers Industrial Union), the Communists’ organizing vehicle on the San Francisco waterfront but, as Harry said, the Communists’ language was ‘too left and revolutionary” a line, “it went right over the longshoremen’s heads.”
Darcy, having recognized that Bridges was the more natural leader, formed an alliance, and not only let Bridges liberate The Waterfront Worker from doctrinaire hacks, but helped Bridges organize the West Coast ILA. Although they were few in number, it was the presence of Communists and militants within the nascent West Coast ILA that helped it lean far left enough to take big, radical risks, primarily in racially integrating the union, which turned out to be critical to its success.
Although much academic work has been written about The Waterfront Worker, the secret to its success was simple: a narrow focus on issues vital to longshoremen, written in a style they enjoyed reading. About four “rank and filers” produced it along with Bridges, but it carried no bylines. The “masthead” proclaimed only: “by a group of longshoremen, for longshoremen.”
Hemingway couldn’t have typed a better line.
As Bridges explained of The Waterfront Worker’s anonymity: “We were afraid of being attacked and being blacklisted again - but most everybody was getting an inkling of who was running the goddamn thing. We did name the bosses, the finks, and so forth, and report their speed-ups, chiseling, forcing payoffs, and things like that.” The Waterfront Worker wasn’t just providing vital information for surviving the job; by reinforcing the longshoremen’s own best ideas about how the situation should change, it was building confidence that it could.
The cheap, mimeographed newspaper cost so little to produce that its street price was first set at a penny. When the kids who sold it for the longshoremen recognized its popularity, they started changing two cents. Copies that were intended for San Francisco sold out within a day. But separate stacks were reserved for ships slated to depart for other ports on the West Coast; San Francisco longshoremen snuck them in bundles onto the cargo holds. When they reached other ports on the West Coast, local longshoremen raced into the holds to secure the precious cargo of underground newspapers, and distributed them from San Diego to Seattle and beyond.
In this way, Bridges and his team were able to spread their “gospel” up and down the West Coast. In early 1934, as if on a tour to promote a new album or a book, Bridges personally followed the path of the underground Waterfront Worker newspaper, speaking in the Northwest ports, which helped spread the message, as well as build his own popularity.
Perhaps one of the most important sermons in this “gospel” was: “One port down, all ports down.” That is, if a strike were organized, they would not repeat the errors of the coast-wide 1916 strike, when owners simply played one port against another. Bridges’ prescience with regard to “not being played off one another” wasn’t just a matter of ports, but of workers. One man up, all men up: the more longshoremen who could be convinced the union had a spot for them, with no discrimination, the stronger the group.
The solidarity Bridges built up and down the West Coast almost perfectly anticipated Section 7A of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 (NIRA), which allowed workers to have unions of their own choosing. Although it was a weak act, Bridges raced to make as much use of it as possible in forming the West Coast ILA. It would be replaced by the National Labor Relations Act, or Wagner Act, in 1935.
What’s striking about the success of The Waterfront Worker is its improvisational style, which mimicked so much of the rest of the group’s’ tactics. Their improvisation was based on common sense reactions to changing, not always predictable scenarios.
As Bridges recounts in Harvey Schwartz’ Solidarity Stories: An Oral History of the ILWU: “One time, we were marching, and the attitude of the guys was the cops would never shoot us. I couldn’t convince them otherwise, because they knew all the cops. Then they took all the old cops off the waterfront and sent some new ones down.
"Suddenly, shots rang out. One of our guys falls right down, and he’s squirting blood. Of course, my partner, who was a real anti-Communist guy, said, “Hey, he’s been shot!” I said, “Of course he’s been fucking well shot. I’ve been trying to tell you that.”
While the strikers didn’t have a strategy to deflect police bullets, Bridges described their tear gas response: “At first, the cops didn’t have tear-gas guns like they had later. They threw round tear gas bombs that were glass. They’d break, and the tear gas would come out. So we got brooms like you’d sweep the floor with. We was out there like a bunch of baseball players. When the bombs came, we’d smack them and hit them right back into the middle of the cops. Hitting the glass tear-gas bombs with the brooms didn’t break them. But when they hit the deck, they broke.”
The longshoremen weren’t just swatting away tear gas canisters, they were also pitching bricks as necessary: “Right down there across from Pier 46, they had torn down a building. A big vacant lot was being built up there. There was small stacks of bricks all over this vacant lot. It was just perfect, because you got in there, and then the cops couldn’t charge… We were there with a ready-made load of ammunition (bricks) if we had to make a stand… You didn’t have to have many fuckin’ brains to figure out how to handle that.”
Pantry items and children’s toys also came in handy in neutralizing mounted police: “One of our maneuvers was that when we had enough dried peas or marbles, we’d scatter them around so that the horses would fall over. Of course, once that happened to a horse, he got extremely nervous, and he was scared to move.”
One thing that is striking in reviewing the photos of Bloody Thursday is the absence of Black strikers, even though the Black longshoremen were in solidarity with the ILA, which had promised to integrate. It would indeed have been strategic on the part of the ILA to have utilized only white strikers if the concern was that the presence of Black strikers would have elicited an even more violent beat-down by the entirely white police forces brought in to subdue the strike.
Bridges’ tireless outreach to the Black community in San Francisco had been critical, as San Francisco was then the biggest port on the Coast. That means there were no Black strike breakers in San Francisco - a historic first that was established with a promise.
We’ll examine this promise and what it took to fulfill it in the next installment (Tough Guys, Part III: The Rise of Cleophas Williams.)
POSTSCRIPT: When Bob Silvestri, the editor of The Marin Post, read this, he wisely asked me to explain why I was writing about this now - what made it relevant, for me. I’m embarrassed to admit that it hadn’t occurred to me to explain the why - to a working-class woman such as myself, it seemed painfully obvious that many of the dire conditions of the 1930’s are echoed in our current era. And once again, as in the 1930’s, the poor, the youth, and people of color are forming left-leaning coalitions, and taking on the status quo.
Being part of that coalition, I’m not alone in viewing the coordinated self-discipline of the ’34 Strike as a model for how the left can achieve its goals. What was most valuable about the strike wasn’t that a few strikers threw bricks in self-defense, but that the vast majority of the strikers were willing to place their unarmed bodies against the blows of batons and police bullets. This peaceful, physical stoicism had everything to do with reinforcing the mass public support they received for their cause.
There is plenty of evidence that many of them didn’t think it could work at all, and willingly put their unarmed bodies in the line of fire, anyway. Sam Darcy hints at that paradox in his funeral speech for Counderakis. Thus, the strategy and tactics only worked because people were willing to implement them on principle.
To be clear, I would never advocate for violence, period. However, I do believe in civil disobedience, in placing my own aging body in coordinated, peaceful, public protest with others - a form of communion that requires something more than hope.
The historian Mike Davis reinforced this in a recent interview:
“I actually don’t believe that personal morality and character should be grounded on hope. That is, in some calculated probability of things working out the way that you want them to work out. We must act on what is necessary in the most basic sense for the survival of ordinary people. Maybe these are strange or antiquated values. But I still believe in character: that people produce themselves through the moral choices and actions that they take, irregardless of calculations of success, wealth, or anything like that. Actions that are rooted in solidarity, and love for other people in the common condition.”
That kind of platonic love isn’t a term that is traditionally paired with strategy or tactics, but it under-girds so much of the resilience of the workers in the 1934 Strike, and we will see it come up again and again as we examine how the ILWU began the hard work of fulfilling its promise to become a racially integrated union.