EQUALITY AND A DECENT LIFE
By David Bacon
In the hundred and fifty year history of workers in the Bay Area, the watershed event was one that happened 70 years ago – the San Francisco general strike. That year sailors, longshoremen and other maritime workers shut down all the ports on the west coast, trying to form a union and fight favoritism, low wages, and grueling 10- and 12-hour days. Shipowners deployed tanks and guns on the waterfront, and tried to break the strike.
At the peak of this bitter labor war, police fired into crowds of strikers, killing two union activists. Then workers shut down the entire city in a general strike, and for four days nothing moved in San Francisco. The strike gave workers a sense of power described in a verse in the union song Solidarity Forever: “Without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel can turn.”
The strike marked the end of a period in which, for seventy years, the efforts of workers to form unions were met with violence and firings. By the end of the 1930s, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union was one of the strongest in the nation, workers had a hiring hall instead of a humiliating shapeup in which they had to beg for jobs, and workers on both sides of the bay were busy building other unions, as well as political organizations that eventually elected mayors and sent pro-worker candidates to Congress. The strike marked the beginning of our modern labor movement.
The 1930s and 40s was a high point as well in the power of industrial and manual laborers. By that time, trucks had replaced the horse-drawn wagons that employed the area’s first Teamsters. Assembly workers labored in huge factories churning out automobiles and electrical equipment, construction workers built the bridges that span the bay, and thousands of sailors and other marine workers sailed out on ships that packed the bay.
The unions of the 30s ended the worst conditions that prevailed in the previous 70 years – 10 hour days and six day weeks, job conditions that could sicken and kill, wages that could barely feed a family, and constant fear of getting unfairly fired. The changes won by the unions of the 30s and 40s created an economic base for many working families to buy homes and send their children to college. The state responded by creating a system of universities and community colleges and, by the end of World War 2 promised that any working-class kid who graduated high school would find a place in one of them. The nation’s first employer-paid medical plan began in the Richmond shipyards.
Belonging to a union gave workers from diverse backgrounds a common shared culture, with its own labor songs and activities built around the hall, from sports and fishing, to dancing, eating and other social activities.
Still, in the 30s and 40s, the Bay Area’s workforce was rigidly divided by race and sex. A color line prevented African Americans from getting skilled jobs in construction, industry and public services like fire and police. Women could work in some jobs, but were kept out of the best-paying ones. The general strike made one of the first cracks in that wall, when striking longshoremen promised that if African Americans supported the effort, they’d force shipping companies to abandon the color line on the docks.
The promise was kept, and today people of color are a majority of the bay’s dockworkers. Meanwhile, wartime work in the shipyards drew many African Americans from homes in the south to new communities in California. Black families living in West Oakland and San Francisco’s Fillmore and Western Addition neighborhoods shared a vibrant cultural life, while the promise of employment gave a new generation a sense of security.
But it wasn’t until the civil rights movement of the 1960s that the color line came down in most areas, as a result of affirmative action decrees affecting jobs from building sites to fire houses. Demonstrations and active protest won women many gains as well. The reality today, however, is still that most women and minorities earn less, and are unemployed more, than the workforce in general. Equality remains very much a work in progress.
Immigration too transformed jobs and industries. European immigrants and their descendents made up the workforce in the best jobs in the Bay Area’s budding economy of the late 1800s, in construction, transport, and industry. Meanwhile immigrants from China, Japan, Mexico, and the Philippines drained the San Joaquin delta, developed the agriculture that became the base of the state’s economy, laid the railroad tracks, served the meals and washed the clothes.
Immigration status caused few problems for those from Europe, but workers from Asia and Latin America faced continuing raids and deportations, especially when unemployment rose. While today these immigrants make up a growing section of the workforce in many areas, that problem remains as well.
With the cold war of the 1950s and 60s, however, many things changed for Bay Area workers. The radical political culture that built the unions of the previous decade came under attack. Suddenly workers needed to prove their loyalty to sail on a ship or teach in a school, and those who failed the tests, or refused to buckle under to them, found themselves out of a job and blacklisted.
Many unions became more conservative in response, and lost much of the vibrant culture that made them a part of workers’ lives. Others fought hard, kept their leaders from being deported, as was tried with ILWU President Harry Bridges, won court cases protecting political rights, and kept pushing for better conditions for workers.
But changes in technology changed the workplace greatly in the following decades, and affected the power of unions as well. On the docks, the union was as strong as ever, but the number of longshore workers fell to less than a 10th of what it was during the general strike, as huge container cranes replaced the old hook and cargo net. Similar technological changes affected factory workers. Beginning in the 1970s, large employers moved production overseas, and most of the big factories of the Bay Area began to close. Wrenching dislocation and unemployment devastated working families, as the old industrial base shrank to a small fraction of what it had been.
In its place, new industries arose, especially in the South Bay. Burgeoning semiconductor and computer plants created job opportunities for a whole new wave of immigrants, mostly from the Asian Pacific rim. San Francisco and the East Bay experienced an explosion of service industry jobs – clerical workers in the new glass and steel office towers, hospital workers in the healthcare industry, and retail workers in the malls that took the place of the old downtown shopping districts.
But these new jobs were not the same as the ones they replaced. The wages were generally lower, benefits fewer, employment much more temporary, and overwhelmingly, the employers were very hostile to unions. For the last three decades, therefore, the labor movement had to almost begin again from scratch, helping a new generation of workers to understand the advantages of being organized, which the general strike had made so clear to a generation before.
The laws passed under worker pressure, designed to encourage union organizing and protect public benefits like unemployment insurance and Social Security, came under attack from a wave of conservative administrations in Sacramento and Washington. Overtime pay, won through generations of strikes and protest, will be stripped this year from six million workers nationally. As a result, while Bay Area unions included over a third of all workers in the 1950s, today they represent less than half that.
As unions struggled with this new environment, however, many workers did win new rights. The farmworkers movement, beginning in the 1960s, established the right of the state’s poorest workers to unions and a decent standard of living, ending abuses like the infamous short-handled hoe, exposure to dangerous pesticides, and the lack of bathrooms and drinking water in the fields.
The movement was strongly supported by urban workers through the boycotts of fruits and vegetables during farmworkers’ strikes. In the rural areas of California, Chicanos, Mexicans and Filipinos were able to end discrimination in schools and public services. The United Farm Workers, in turn, helped revitalize the fighting spirit of other unions, and help them relearn the organizing tactics of a social movement.
Public workers, denied the right to organize and strike through the 30s and 40s, became some of the most active and numerous members of the labor movement by the 1980s. When teacher and nurses began forming unions in the 50s, they had to quit their jobs in protest in order to force public agencies to bargain. Today, legislation sets salary minimums in the classroom and protects the right to organize, while in hospitals workers have won new laws establishing minimum staffing levels, protecting both jobs and patients.
Workers of a century ago would find the Bay Area a very different place. New industries have replace old ones. Unions are more legally accepted, but have to fight just as hard. Worker protections and benefits have been legally recognized, but are being attacked. Race and sex discrimination is still a fact of life, but the fight to end it has scored important victories.
And that’s what the veterans of the general strike would recognize most clearly. The world needs the labor of today's workers as much as it needed that of an earlier era. And the effort by the Bay Area’s working people to win power, equality and better lives for their families is still going on, as hot and hard as ever. Their answer to those problems – to get organized in strong and democratic unions - is the same one working families seek today.