Labor strike paralyzed the state in 1934
April 14, 2013
The Portland municipal dock as it appeared around the time of the longshoremen’s strike.
When the gunfire broke out and he heard the bullets sizzling overhead, visiting New York senator Robert Wagner was dumbfounded.
“This can’t be true,” he said.
It was. The bullets had come from four “special police” guards — part of a group of 200 guards hired by the city of Portland to keep the peace on the waterfront during the big longshoremen’s strike. They were not professional cops.
Senator Wagner had been sent to Oregon by President Roosevelt himself to see if he could help the two sides settle their differences. Reaching out to both sides, he’d accepted an offer to tour the picket lines.
Quite why these guards decided it would be a good idea to open fire on the two cars isn’t clear, but it’s a safe bet they had no idea there was a U.S. senator in one of them.
The Portland waterfront strike of 1934 was by far the biggest labor dispute in state history. It was part of a West Coast-wide strike by the International Longshoremen’s Association union — the same one that resulted in two deaths in San Francisco on “Bloody Thursday” — and although there were no deaths in Portland, plenty of people got black eyes and fat lips, and a few got considerably worse than that.
Roots of the strike
The strike got its start with some new federal legislation — the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933. Among other things, this law, for the first time ever, gave unions governmental recognition and a right to strike.
This news stirred up some trouble on the Portland waterfront, which had been quiet for some time. The local International Longshoremen’s Association union chapter had been crushed in the strike of 1922, and for most of the intervening years it was a union in name only. Freed from labor pressure, the employers had drifted into some bad habits. Chief among these was allowing the staff in their hiring hall to abuse their positions — taking bribes and kickbacks and blacklisting workers they didn’t like.
So throughout the early 1930s, resentment had been building among the longshoremen. But without a union to work through, they’d essentially bottled it up — until now. Suddenly the union was growing again.
The employers’ organization — the Waterfront Employers Association — responded to the new legislation by doing two things that almost certainly would have taken care of the problem, had it not been for their history of corrupt hiring. They gave all the longshoremen a raise (they’d cut their pay from 90 to 75 cents an hour over the previous two years, and they now boosted it to 85 cents); and they started a brand-new company-controlled labor union for them to join.
When representatives of the ILA asked to meet with the employers, the employers refused to talk to them, claiming the sole legitimate voice for waterfront workers was the company union they’d just chartered.
For several months, the union pressed its case, while rapidly growing in strength. It wanted the employers completely out of the business of hiring dock workers — that was the core demand. The only way to accomplish that was a “closed shop” — where you have to be a union member to work there, and the union makes all the hiring decisions.
For reasons that will be obvious to any business owner reading this, that was not something the employers were going to be OK with. The ironic part is that by failing to maintain a professional hiring system, they’d set the situation up. It was a bit like economic karma.
Finally, after a failed intervention by President Roosevelt himself, the workers voted to go out on strike on May 9.
Ready for battle
When the decision to strike came, many employers actually welcomed it. They remembered the strike in 1922, which had been an overwhelming victory for them, and expected to have an even easier time crushing this one. The major difference they saw between 1922 and 1934 was that now there was a depression on and Portland was knee-deep in unemployed men who could be hired as strikebreakers (what the union guys called “scabs”) to keep the port open.
This turned out to be a major miscalculation. As it turned out, 1922 had taught the union people a few lessons, and most of these were in the area of public relations. Well before the strike began, union people started going out into the community to make their case with small farmers, line cops, members of other unions and even the unemployed. After the strike started, they welcomed unemployed families to union food kitchens — so nobody would have to become a strikebreaker to feed the family. They also added a demand to their list — six-hour workdays, which would mean that although the union members would get smaller paychecks, employers would have to hire more workers to get the job done.
The union’s overtures to the police made a huge difference, as one of the first things the employers wanted to do was get the police and, if possible, the National Guard to protect strikebreakers with armed force so they could reopen the port. They had good cooperation from the police chief, but from the line cops, not so much. That would change later, but mostly because the city hired 200 “special policemen” who were far less sympathetic to strikers than the regular patrol cops were.
The first thing the employers did was to advertise for strikebreakers and assemble a large group of them into the company hiring hall, with buses ready to take them to the docks. Union members surrounded the hiring hall and disabled the buses in various ways — they nearly tipped one of them over. The strikebreakers never even got near the docks.
A few days later, they tried another approach: They brought the worn-out passenger liner Admiral Evans upriver from Astoria and moored it at the dock, intending to make of it a floating hotel for strikebreakers so they wouldn’t have to cross picket lines. A group of strikers managed to reach the ship, clamber aboard and start a big free-for-all fistfight with the “bulls” guarding it, one of whom was tossed into the river.
After several strikebreakers and truck drivers were beaten after crossing picket lines, Mayor Joseph Carson pleaded with Governor Julius Meier to call out the National Guard. In response, the other local labor unions announced that if the National Guard were called out to help open the port, or if the employers resorted to armed violence in trying to get that done, they’d call a general strike.
Meier, worried the presence of the Guard could spark further violence, decided he’d only send the Guard if order broke down and they were needed to stop riots. After Wagner’s car was fired on, though, the governor did order the National Guard to stand by at Camp Withycombe — presumably to be ready in case the bumbling “special police” did something stupid again and started a riot.
By early July both sides were worn down and eager for the strike to be over, so they agreed to let the federal government’s National Longshoremen’s Board arbitrate. The longshoremen went back to work, and eventually the deal that came through gave them most of what they’d wanted.
And by the time President Roosevelt came to Oregon later that summer to dedicate the new Bonneville Dam, everything was back to normal on the waterfront.
(Sources: MacColl, E. Kimbark. The Growth of a City. Portland: Georgian, 1979; Bigelow, William & al. “Agitate, Educate, Organize: Portland, 1934,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, spring 1988; Buchanan, Roger B. Dock Strike. Eugene: Univ. of Oregon (master’s thesis), 1964)
Finn J.D. John is an instructor at Oregon State University and the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast, reading archives from this column, at offbeatoregon.com/itunes. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected], @OffbeatOregon (on Twitter), or 541-357-2222.
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