Eighty Years Ago Today San Francisco Workers Fought Police and Began a Successful General Strike: What it Might Mean for Us Today

While enjoying my coffee this morning I caught up on the latest Academe blog posts by Aaron and Marty on the important and continuing theme of the exploitation of adjunct faculty.  I then turned to this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle, where I found an absorbing article reporting that today, July 5, marks the 80th anniversary of “Bloody Thursday,” when striking San Francisco longshoreman were attacked by police and company thugs, leaving two men dead and over 100 injured.  The 1934 strike is “a basic part of the history of San Francisco and a seminal event in labor history in general,” Catherine Powell, director of the Labor Archives Project at San Francisco State University, told the Chronicle.

As a labor historian, albeit of European workers, and a Bay Area resident for decades, I was, of course, familiar with the 1934 events, but I thought I’d refresh my memory a bit with a little exploration of the Internet, where I found this excellent story of the strike by Jeremy Brecher, excerpted from his 1972 book Strike!, a book that is now also available as a .pdf file online.  The same site also includes a contemporary account of the strike by radical journalist Mike Quin.  Both accounts are well worth reading.

They are worth reading for one thing because while professors, whether tenured and full-time or adjunct and part-time, don’t seem much like 1930’s dock workers, our situation, especially that of our adjunct colleagues, is not without its analogies to theirs.  Indeed, if the hiring procedures for adjuncts followed by many if not most universities today do not recall the 1930’s “shape-up,” a system of hiring which the longshoremen referred to as “the slave market,” I don’t know what other comparison could be made to describe them.  The 1934 strike came before the passage of the National Labor Relations Act.  Yet the strikers managed to overcome great odds to win recognition of their militant union, the ILWU.  The strike, I believe, demonstrates that although legal support is desirable and helpful for organizing activity, workers, including academic workers, cannot rely on courts or politicians if we really want to improve the conditions of our lives and turn the country around.  We need to rely on ourselves.  To be sure, I’m not advocating that we all go out and battle the police in the streets.  But we can push past the right-to-work laws, past the anti-labor court decisions like Yeshiva, Harris and Vergarapast Bill Gates, Pearson, Arne Duncan and their ilk to organize, fight and, yes, WIN!  That’s the lesson I draw from looking back on San Francisco’s “Bloody Thursday” 80 years later.

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