July 5 commemorated as Bloody Thursday

July 5 is the 77th anniversary of Bloody Thursday. Back then, the maritime companies controlled the waterfront on the West Coast. They enjoyed what today would be called a flexible workforce. For those working on the docks, there was no job security, steady work was scarce unless you knew the right people or paid kickbacks to straw bosses, there were no health care or pension benefits, and worker safety wasn’t even an afterthought.

In May 1934, longshoremen and seafarers up and down the  West Coast went on strike. The maritime companies hired replacement workers and used the police and private security guards to break the strike, but the workers maintained their picket lines. The strike didn’t shut down the ports completely, but it did impede the movement of goods. The maritime companies decided that they needed to break the strike, and on July 3, they made their move in San Francisco.

Police opened the gates at Pier 38 in San Francisco and declared the port open. A pitch battle ensued. Shots were fired, tear gas filled the streets, but the workers fought back. After four hours of fighting, the workers retreated.

July 4 was a holiday, but on July 5 pickets showed up early at the port gates. About 8:00 am, a locomotive pushed two refrigerated cars toward the Matson Line Pier 30, where pickets had assembled. When the pickets refused to move another battle broke out. Police were reinforced by private security guards hired by the company. The fighting lasted throughout the morning, but broke off around noon as both sides retreated.

Workers gathered for lunch. After they finished and were preparing to return to docks, a police car pulled up, a police officer jumped out taunted the strikers, and began firing shots. Three workers were hit. Howard Sperry, a longshoreman, died immediately; Nicholas Counderakis, a merchant seaman also known as Nick Bordoise, was mortally wounded; and Charles Olsen, a longshoreman, was seriously wounded.

A few days later, tens of thousands of dock workers and their supporters marched through San Francisco to commemorate the deaths of those killed on July 5, or Bloody Thursday. Disgusted with the owner initiated violence, dozens of Bay Area unions voted for a general strike. On July 14, the San Francisco Labor Council voted for the general strike to begin on July 16.

For four days, San Francisco was shut down. By October, the maritime companies and the longshoremen’s union that would come to be known as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union reached a deal that would eventually lead to the establishment of a union hiring hall that would ensure fair treatment of all workers regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion and secure and safe work with decent pay and benefits for everyone working on the docks.

Today ILWU is commemorating Bloody Thursday from Los Angeles to Seattle. You can learn more about Bloody Thursday from a PBS documentary produced in 2009, appropriately entitled “Bloody Thursday.”

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