The general strike can teach unions how to grow - David Bacon

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Wed Jul 14 2004 - 18:49:08 EDT


The general strike can teach unions how to grow

By David Bacon

San Francisco, CA - Archie Brown was first a ship scaler, and then a
longshoreman - a dockworker all his life. He was there 70 years ago, when
thousands of maritime workers closed west coast ports from San Diego to
Canada. He saw the tanks and guns deployed by shipowners to fence off the
docks at the height of the strike. And he remembered what happened next,
when police shot into crowds of strikers, killing two union activists, as
they sought to break picketlines and escort struck cargo off the piers.

The deaths of Howard Sperry and Nick Bordoise came at the peak one of the
longest and bitterest of the labor wars of the 1930s. In shock and grief,
thousands of San Francisco workers marched silently up Market Street behind
the two caskets in a huge funeral procession. Then they shut down the entire
city in the famous general strike.

For four days during that summer of 1934, nothing moved in San Francisco.
Long afterwards, whenever he tried to explain what it was like, Archie
talked about how quiet it was when all the work stopped. The important thing
about the silence, he said, was not its contrast with the city's normal
cacophony. It was the fact that he and his fellow workers created it
themselves, by doing nothing. Not working may seem a passive form of
protest, yet their action gave them a sense of power they never lost.

"Without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel can turn." Archie must
have sung this verse to Solidarity Forever, the hallowed union anthem,
hundreds of times on picketlines in the decades that followed. To him and
other veterans of the general strike, these were not just words. They
expressed a reality experienced first hand. The strike taught these wharf
rats about power - that working people could get it, and wield it with
devastating effect, if they understood that the world depended on them.

Seventy years later, as our modern labor movement struggles to regain the
power it's lost, these four days shine as a beacon. They point out that the
way workers won power proved to be as important as what they did with it.

The maritime and general strikes were social movements that came from the
bottom - from the anger and dissatisfaction of workers themselves. They were
mistrustful of the old labor hierarchy that had lost the power and will to
improve the lives of rank-and-file dockers and sailors. So the first thing
Archie and his coworkers did was create a new organization - the
International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

They built a union they were sure could never be hijacked from their hands.
The key was one of labor's most democratic institutions, one that survives
to this day - the longshore caucus. Every time the union sits down to
negotiate a new contract with multibillion-dollar transportation companies,
every local union in every port elects delegates. Together they decide what
the union will demand, and choose a committee to do the talking.

The 1934 strike produced a single, coastwise agreement, in which dockworkers
from San Diego to Seattle act as one. The secret of their power was
combining local democracy with the ability to shut down the whole coast at
once. Today many workers pay a terrible price when they lack this ability to
act together. Last year grocery workers successfully shut down supermarkets
throughout southern California. But were defeated when their employers kept
stores open everywhere else.

The coastwise contract was designed to prevent this from happening in the
ports. It is no accident that, when the Bush administration intervened on
the side of the ship owners during the 2002 longshore lockout, its biggest
threat was legal action to force the union to negotiate a different contract
in each port.

The general strike and the creation of the ILWU had a ripple effect. Other
workers saw dockers win a hiring hall, freeing them from the humiliating
shapeup, when workers had to beg a job from a gang boss every morning. The
workforce was integrated. Today Black, Latino and Asian workers are the
majority in big ports like San Francisco and LA, and women drive huge
container cranes. People called bums and derelicts in the 20s and 30s had
some of the best-paying, most secure jobs in industrial America by the 50s
and 60s. As a result, a wave of union organizing spread inland from the
ports, a social movement inspiring everyone from department store clerks to
farm laborers.

That movement transformed the politics of California, Oregon, Washington,
and especially Hawai'i, where it ended the domination of five big
plantation-owning families over the state's political system. As a result,
today Hawai'i has a greater percentage of union members than any other
state. And when the Pacific Rim is called the left coast, it's a tribute to
the political changes sparked by the general strike.

These changes were not welcomed by the shipping companies, the banks and the
big newspapers that were their voice. They were terrified by the general
strike, and invented an imaginary invasion of communist troops from Mexico
to scare the public. Their real fear was more prosaic - company owners
didn't want to listen to anyone, especially bums on the waterfront.

Forced to recognize the union, they went after its leaders. Employers and
their government allies spent two decades trying to deport Harry Bridges,
the ILWU's first president - an immigrant from Australia accused of being a
communist. They failed. In the 1950s, McCarthyite legislation sought to ban
communists and left wingers from holding office in unions. Archie Brown and
ILWU Local 10 challenged this undemocratic law, which was later declared
unconstitutional. The Coast Guard screened maritime workers for loyalty, and
blacklisted and drove hundreds off the ships and docks. ILWU members like
Don Watson picketed the Coast Guard every week, fought them in court, and
eventually ended the vicious practice. These were some of the first and
hardest political battles that eventually ended the witch hunts of the cold

Today's unions, debating what to do about the Patriot Act and the
scapegoating of immigrants and political radicals, should remember this
history. They might remember too the legacy of internationalism sparked by
the general strike. In the late 1930s dockworkers refused to load scrap iron
bound for fascist Japan and its brutal war in China. In the 1980s, a new
generation refused to unload cargo from apartheid South Africa, or coffee
used to finance Ronald Reagan's illegal war in Nicaragua. And last fall the
ILWU not only condemned the US war in Iraq, but Local 10 leader Clarence
Thomas went to Baghdad to offer help to unions there banned by the
Bush-appointed occupation authority.

Unfortunately, labor can't rest on past achievements. The political machines
built by radical unionists in the 30s and 40s have been strangled by
subservience to politicians who accept workers' votes, but scorn their
political demands. The flexible, independent and radical politics born from
the general strike need to be reinvented - to elect a new administration
that ends the Iraq and Afghan wars, rejects new free trade agreements, and
wins national healthcare.

The ILWU, like most unions, is now an island of high wages and workplace
rights, surrounded by a sea of unorganized workers who have neither. A labor
movement devoted mostly to defending the interests of its own members will
soon disappear. But if it inspires tens of millions of working people
outside its ranks by building a social movement defending their interests,
they will join as surely as did Archie and the workers of 1934, electrified
and transformed by the general strike.

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