San Francisco has a preeminent place in the history of the labor movement. Men and women who fought – literally – for the right to form unions and bargain with management collectively overcame the combined forces of capital and the state in this city. Their story is long and rich and powerful. And after posting my thoughts yesterday, I found my mind dwelling on them throughout my shift, through the afternoon and evening and on into the night.
I knew that I wanted to spend the few minutes I have her today to tell you about one moment in that history. I knew that I wanted to tell you about Howard Sperry and Nick Bordoise. When I took my dinner break, I looked up the events I am about to relate in order to get the details right. I saw that what happened took place on the fifth day of July, which was also yesterday’s date. Those men were on my mind constantly throughout what was the eightieth anniversary of their deaths.
Up until the development of containerized shipping, the cargo on board every ship that docked in every port had to be off-loaded by individual men picking up and carrying each item (crates, barrels, furniture, etc.) off the ship and onto the dock. The sailors operated the ship itself, but all cargo was handled by men who worked along the shore. These men came to be called ’long shore men.
I know that you have not had time to read the novels I mentioned in my last post, but I hope that by the time you read my next post you will have purchased at least one of them – or checked it out of the library. You cannot understand life in the industrialized world without understanding the position of working people vis a vis their employers. Steinbeck’s novels will teach you that truth – and they will enrich your heart and advance your understanding of the nobility of the human spirit.
In the early 1930s, unemployment in the United States reached 25%. One out of every four people you passed on the street had no income, no way to pay rent, to buy food, or to pay for any of the other necessities of life. As a result, employers could and did cut wages lower and lower and lower. Many did not pay their workers enough to live on, and in addition drove them relentlessly to work harder.
You and I cannot imagine what it was to live through those times. We find the tensions between the haves and the have-nots today bad enough, but they pale in comparison to the hostility that grew steadily on both sides during the Great Depression. By 1933 the coal miners, then the sailors, then the longshore men began spontaneously to organize themselves into unions to demand better wages and better working conditions from their employers. As for the employers, they had the police and military force of the government, their own private armies of “security” companies such as Pinkertons, and squads of vigilantes on their side. Tense stand-offs boiled over into violence on many occasions, one of which was “Bloody Thursday” on San Francisco’s Embarcadero.
Since early May, every port on the west coast of the United States had been shut down by strikers. Not a single piece of fruit, not a vegetable, and no manufactured products of any kind was shipped out of Seattle, Portland, Everett, Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Pedro, Oakland, San Francisco or any other port. The police attacked strikers with tear gas, special vomiting gas, and finally with guns. On July 5, 1934, Howard Sperry was shot by a policeman at Steuart and Mission Streets. He later died of his wounds. About the same time and only a short distance away, in front of a kitchen the strikers had set up to feed their men, Nick Bordoise, an out of work cook who was helping out as a volunteer, was also shot and killed.
Two days later, on Saturday the 7th, two plain wooden coffins containing the bodies of Howard and Nick were loaded on wagons and drawn by horses at a solemn pace from the Ferry Building up Market Street to Valencia. Forty Thousand people – union men, the families of the dead, and many who joined spontaneously as the procession made its way up the great thoroughfare – marched in uniform rows, eight abreast, in silence. The street was lined by as many as a hundred thousand more who took off their hats, bowed their heads, and mourned the fallen workers.
Not a single word was spoken. Not one of those thousands and thousands of people broke the silence. All one heard was the slow, steady clopping of the horses hooves and the sound of the wagon wheels on the pavement for the entire length of the procession, over two and a half miles.
Within a few more days, the entire city of San Francisco was closed down by a general strike. Not only the workers trying to win recognition of their unions but even small business owners, Mom and Pop stores, put signs of support in their windows and remained closed. Shortly thereafter, having closed the west coast for 83 days, the longshoremen won the right to manage the operations of the ports themselves.
Such is the power for people who are together.