How a 1934 waterfront strike was a major turning point for West Coast workers

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83 Days in the Summer of 1934 is forever honored by men and women of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union – the ILWU. It was a time when dockers fought against all odds, fell and finally triumphed together.

It was called “The Great Blow”.

At 8 a.m. on May 9, 1934, more than 12,000 union members of the International Longshoremen’s Association left their jobs from Bellingham to San Diego, disrupting shipping on the west coast.

Striking longshoremen picketing along the Portland waterfront. Oregon Historical Society.

Courtesy Oregon Historical Society, bb01347

I call it the closeness that Portland had to the class struggle.

— Michael Munk, historian

Longshoring – loading and unloading ships in port – was dirty and dangerous work back then. Move heavy loads by hand, hook and brute force. Discriminatory attitudes were widespread. The work shifts lasted up to 36 hours.

It was in the middle of the Great Depression. Competition was fierce, not only for jobs but also among shipping companies vying for profits. Workers competed with each other to keep their jobs and were forced to accept cut wages and working conditions, or be blacklisted.

Fed up with the miserable conditions, the humble dockworkers began organizing covertly along the west coast. Led by radical union activists, new ILA branches sprang up and old ones were regrouped under the unified banner of the Pacific Coast District.

By early 1934, San Francisco union leader Harry Bridges had called for a coast-wide convention to articulate pre-strike demands that included a coast-wide contract, union-controlled hiring halls, and higher wages.

A bludgeoning weapon should never be used except as a last, desperate resort. There is no way out.

— Harry Bridges, Union leader

Negotiations broke down and dockers across the coast voted for a solidarity strike.

The strike, which would last nearly three months, hit Oregon hard. The work stoppage paralyzed trade. Timber and grain exports were halted, and nearly 50,000 workers lost their jobs — including up to 15,000 people who worked in the Portland area.

Shipowners and waterfront employers faced mounting financial losses as ships sat idle in ports and cargo remained stationary from northern Washington to southern California.

Even though it was the Great Depression, shopkeepers, farmers and the unemployed gave vital support to the strikers by joining pickets and donating food and relief supplies.

The biggest morale boost came from the community support shown daily.

— Norm Diamond, historian

Other members of the shipping union joined the strike in a strong show of solidarity. Leading waterfront businessmen and employers were determined to open up the ports – by force if necessary. Violent clashes erupted between pickets and police along the coast.

In San Francisco, two strikers were shot dead and hundreds injured in a July 5 battle that became known as “Bloody Thursday.”

Portland experienced its own “Bloody Wednesday” when Mayor Joseph Carson and Police Commissioner Burton Lawson attempted to open a strategic shipping terminal on the north end of the city. Four dockers were seriously injured during the skirmish in an adjacent park.

The audacity and carelessness with which police had to open fire in a public park is in part what caused so many Portlanders to condemn the police action.

— Ryan Wisnor, local historian

A curious young woman named Julia Ruuttila lived near the terminal in the lumber town of Linnton, about 8 miles northwest of downtown Portland. She visited the scene of the battle and saw the bullet-scarred trees and blood-stained ground. When she returned home, she typed a petition — ultimately unsuccessful — to oust the police chief.

Ruuttila later explained that what she witnessed that day would help advance her lifelong career as a prominent labor and peace activist in the North West.

Another woman from Portland, 62 years old dr Marie Equi, a longtime radical human rights activist, made headlines when she left her sickbed to show solidarity with the dockers. She presented them with a check for $250 — worth about $5,000 today — to help with medical expenses.

The 1934 Waterfront Strike: Solidarity on the Docks, from OPB’s Oregon Experience.

On July 31, 1934, dockers returned to work on an experimental basis after both sides of the strike agreed to arbitration by a national panel appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt. Two months later, the board would hand the strikers a victory — a coast-wide contract, union-controlled hiring halls and higher wages.

The 1934 waterfront strike was considered a major turning point for West Coast labor. The dockworkers’ success would serve as an example for further unionization by other workers in many different industries.

In 1937, the ILA’s Pacific Coast District formed the independent International Longshoremen & Warehousemen’s Union. Today, the ILWU remains one of the strongest unions on the West Coast.


Additional Resources

Bigelow, William and Norman Diamond. “Agitate, Educate, Organize: Portland, 1934,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 89, No. 1, pp. 4-29.

Buchanan, Roger. dock strikeThe Working Press, 1975.

Hellquist, Michael. Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions, Oregon State University Press, 2015.

MacColl Kimbark E. The Growth of a City: Power and Politics in Portland, Oregon 1915-1950The Georgian Press, 1979.

Markholt, Ottilie. Maritime Solidarity: Pacific Coast Unionism 1929-1938, Pacific Coast Marine History Committee, 1998.

Munk, Michael. “Portland’s ‘Silk Stocking Mob:’ The Citizens Emergency League in the 1934 Maritime Strike”, Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 91, No. 3 (2000), pp. 150-160.

Nelson, Bruce. Workers on the Water: Sailors, Longshoremen and Unionism in the 1930sUniversity of Illinois Press, 1988.

Polishuk, Sandy. Clinging to the Union: An Oral History of the Life and Times of Julia RuuttilaPalgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Quin, Mike. The Great StrikeOlema Publishing Co., 1949. Reprint: International Publishers, New York, 1979.

Schwartz, Harvey. Stories of Solidarity: An Oral History of the ILWUSeattle: University of Washington Press, 2009.

Schwartz, Harvey. The March Inland: Origins of the ILWU Camp Division 1934-1938, Inkworks Press, 1978; reprint, 2000.

Waterfront Workers History Project, dockers and their unions.

The ILWU Archive.

Pacific Northwest Labor History Association.

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