Labor’s Great War on the Seattle Waterfront:
A History of the 1934 Longshore Strike

Activists waiting strike deadline, 1934

This essay is presented in three parts. Click to move to any section:

Part 1: Longshoremen and the Waterfront Before 1934
Part 2: The Start of the Great 1934 Longshore Strike
Part 3: War on the Docks

 

 

by Rod Palmquist

In the spring and summer of 1934, over 12,000 longshoremen on the West Coast of the United States went out on strike from their waterfront jobs for 83 days. The ranks of longshoremen were soon strengthened by the other craft workers in the marine industries, including sailors, engineers, firemen, oilers, watertenders, wipers, cooks, stewards, masters, mates, and pilots. At its height, almost 35,000 West Coast maritime workers participated in the strike, and other unions, such as the Teamsters, refused to handle unfair waterfront cargo.[1] By the end of July 1934, the labor unrest in Western U.S. ports claimed eight lives and hundreds of injuries, engulfed the city of San Francisco in an “insurrection” and “revolt against government” with 130,000 workers out on strike, and almost set off subsequent general sympathy strikes in Portland and Seattle.[2] In the Port of Seattle specifically, only one ship managed to leave the harbor during the whole 83 days that maritime workers were on strike.

The maritime strike of 1934 has been credited as the event that caused a resurgence of unionism on the West Coast;[3] and the participation of seamen and other maritime trades distinguished it as the first truly industrial strike in American shipping history.[4] The strike certainly had an enormous impact on the union that started the struggle, the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) of the Pacific District, which went from representing 1,300 West Coast waterfront workers in 1926 to approximately 12,000 by 1935.[5] A few facts or numbers don’t even begin to reveal the full significance of the ’34 Strike, as they leave out all the stories of longshoremen’s tremendous shows of solidarity, or for example, how there was open warfare between workers and the state on the streets of Seattle and other cities. A true account of the strike must therefore convey how the workers struggled against employers, scabs, police, troops, and the government to build one of the strongest unions in the United States. In the process, West Coast longshoremen were transformed from being considered lowly “wharf rats” to America’s new “Aristocrats of Labor.”[6]


Police dispersing longshore pickets at Smith Cove (Magden Collection)

This study sets out to retell part of the Pacific District ILA’s story from the perspective of organized labor during the 1934 longshoremen’s strike in Seattle. Attempts will be made to highlight unique events experienced by the Seattle ILA Local 38-12 within the wider strike, shed light on the longshoremen’s major demands by looking at the union’s earlier history, and provide readers with important background on some of the labor dynamics that existed on the waterfront. Before beginning this narrative, it is important to note the enormous debt that this author owes to the work of Professor Ronald Magden of Tacoma, Washington. Ronald Magden has spent decades of his life studying longshore unionism in the Pacific Northwest, and his meticulously researched book on the history of longshoremen in Seattle, as well as all the primary materials he collected, are the foundation on which this work is based.

In order to fully understand the Great 1934 Longshore Strike, it is necessary to begin our study with an investigation of the general position of labor in waterfront industries, as well as offer some background history on the International Longshoremen’s Association from the first longshore strike in 1916, to the establishment of the so-called “fink hall” in the 1920s.

This essay is presented in three parts and a conclusion. Click to move to any section:

Part 1: Longshoremen and the Waterfront Before 1934
Part 2: The Start of the Great 1934 Longshore Strike
Part 3: War on the Docks