SAN FRANCISCO ― The 75th anniversary of one of the most dramatic episodes in U.S. labor history ― the 1934 San Francisco General Strike ― is being celebrated this summer with a stunning exhibit commissioned by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the union born of labor struggles that shook the West Coast in the 1930s.
“So much has already been done about the 1934 strike,” said photographer Richard Bermack, who designed and produced the display. “There have been films and books about it; it’s probably one of the most famous instances in American if not world labor history. So I wanted to do something that would be bolder, different, more contemporary.”
The result, “The Men Along the Shore and the Legacy of 1934,” is on display through this month at the main San Francisco Public Library. Here is a treasure trove of historic photographs, posters, murals, cartoons, paintings, front pages of newspapers including the Communist Party newspaper, the Western Worker (a predecessor of the People’s Weekly World) and other labor, left and commercial newspapers. Emphasis is on the visuals; a spare, crisp text sets the historical narrative.
Beginning with the history of dockworker organizing from the mid-19th century, the exhibit dramatizes the abysmal working conditions for longshoremen in the years before 1934. Here, too, are the galvanizing effect the Industrial Workers of the World had on West Coast union organizing in the early 20th century and the sharp, unrelenting corporate and government repression of the union movement during and after World War I.
Vividly portrayed are vigilante and Ku Klux Klan violence against unions, the demeaning and corrupt “shape-up” hiring system, the impetus given union organizing by New Deal labor laws, the violent police repression and workers’ fightback during the longshore strike and the General Strike that followed, and finally victory, as the strikers win all their key demands, including a union-run hiring hall and a coast-wide contract.
During the strike African American longshoremen were recruited for the first time into the International Longshoremen’s Association, which preceded the ILWU on the West Coast. Racial unity was crucial in winning the strike, and has been an ILWU guiding principle ever since.
The Communist Party’s role emerges in headlines and graphics from the Western Worker as well as photos of the destruction vigilantes wreaked on the paper’s San Francisco offices.
“We are all the legacy of 1934,” the display concludes, showing achievements and ongoing struggles of today’s longshore workers.
The accompanying catalogue fleshes out the historical narrative and provides sources for further study.
Many accounts have centered on the dramatic developments in San Francisco, including Bloody Thursday ― July 5, 1934 ―when police attacked the union hall, killing union members Howard Sperry and Nick Bordoise and wounding hundreds. “One thing I wanted to emphasize, that hadn’t quite been told, is that this was a coast-wide strike, affecting the entire West Coast from San Diego to the Canadian border,” Bermack said. “So I went to San Pedro, Portland, Tacoma and Seattle to get material and talk with the different locals there about their history.”
Though in San Francisco the action happened in the middle of downtown, he said, “in the other ports, it happened in the middle of the night, or way out in the countryside, trying to stop a train.” That made it much more challenging to tell those stories, “even though they were in many ways just as dramatic and important ―people died or were badly wounded in those ports, too.”
Many photos and graphics come from the ILWU’s own archives; others are from newspapers up and down the coast as well as historical and labor history societies in the Northwest, labor archives at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University, and the San Francisco Public Library. “The institutions were very cooperative,” Bermack said, “because of the amazing respect people have for the ILWU, because of their history and what they’ve accomplished. They understand how important their history is, and a sense of class consciousness and workers’ solidarity has really built that union. The ILWU wants to give that sense to their members.”
The idea for the exhibit originated with the ILWU’s Longshore Caucus, said Robin Walker, ILWU Library staff member and curatorial consultant for the display. “The idea was to highlight some of the treasures in the ILWU Library and also to bring together materials from all over the coast, to educate union members and the general public.”
Walker said copies of the exhibit are also based in Los Angeles and in the Pacific Northwest. Besides ILWU locals and labor history events, it was shown at the Organization of American Historians meeting in Seattle earlier this year, and this month will be at the American Sociological Association meeting in San Francisco.
City Archivist Susan Goldstein said San Francisco Public Library patrons have responded with enthusiasm. “Sometimes we think everybody knows about the strike, because we’re so involved in this work, but I’ve heard from a lot of younger people in their 20s, ‘I had no idea this happened here!’”
To accompany the display, the library prepared a special case of its own materials on the strike, and presented related lectures and film showings.