In spring and summer 1934 San Francisco experienced one of the most dramatic labor confrontations in 20th century American history.
Longshoremen who handled cargo on the busy San Francisco waterfront shut down the port there in early 1934, protesting poor working conditions, low pay, and unfair hiring practices. Negotiations with shipping interests failed and the strike exploded into violent confrontations around the July 4th holiday. Two men were shot and killed by police.
Republican Gov. Frank Merriam ordered the National Guard to occupy and reopen the waterfront. The longshoremen turned to their allies in labor and a regional general strike was called in response. Thousands of workers in many services and industries walked off the job, idling everything from manufacturing plants to grocery stores, theaters, and streetcar lines throughout the Bay Area, including much of Berkeley.
Although Berkeley was on the sidelines, many locals played a role, and the community also directly experienced a disturbing spasm of vigilante violence as the strike came to a close.
There was at least some sympathetic Berkeley picketing during the waterfront strike and a few confrontations with “scab” workers, but many in the community seemed to side with management. Berkeley remained a Republican town in summer 1934, with more than 32,000 registered Republican voters, just under 17,000 Democrats, and only 456 Socialist and 51 Communist voters, according to figures in the Aug. 2, 1934 Berkeley Daily Gazette.
Merriam’s mobilization of the National Guard brought troops to Berkeley’s streets. “Not since the memorable World War days of 1917 has Berkeley taken on the military aspect of yesterday afternoon and today as National Guard troops assembled here,” the Berkeley Daily Gazette reported July 6, 1934, following Merriam’s mobilization order.
“The…headquarters of the Fortieth Division, National Guard, bristled with military precision. Young soldiers, some of them in their teens, stern of face and disciplined, were to be seen in and out of the Armory on Addison Street….behind the Armory a field kitchen was set up.”
Across the bay, “there are troops from Berkeley, Oakland, Gilroy, San Francisco, and San Jose quartered in the Ferry Building and the pier sheds stretching for miles on both sides,” the Gazette reported a few days later, on July 9. Berkeley also supplied the prominent Guard commander, David Prescott Barrows, professor of political science, former president of the University of California, and later namesake of Barrows Hall on the UC campus.
Major General Barrows had served in the American Expeditionary Force that landed in Siberia after the Russian Revolution. There “he foresaw earlier than most the danger of the spread of conspiratorial communism, and was to fight it from this time forward,” his official UC obituary would later read.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s his address was on posh Parkside in Berkeley’s Claremont district. One may imagine him crossing the bay by ferry, flanked by admiring newspapermen and efficient staff officers, ready to rout Bolsheviks at their beachhead and perhaps get home in time for dinner.
Though the primary action was across the water, National Guard trucks fitted with machine guns and police escorts also rolled out from Berkeley’s Armory at noon on July 17, 1934 in what the newspaper called a “military parade” to “tour through all East Bay Cities as assurance to citizens that the military is ‘on the job’.”
After the strike, General Barrows wrote, in the July 23 Gazette, that the California National Guard had “been engaged not in warfare but in military action to protect our own people. ... Radicalism, Communism, or Fascist expectation, organized or disorganized, cannot prevail.”
To the waterfront strikers and their allies, the Guard was taking sides on behalf of management, and suppressing legitimate labor protests in the depths of the Depression. In contrast, much of the press and many public officials chose, like Barrows, to portray the waterfront leaders as dangerous subversives, and the subsequent General Strike as a direct threat to public order.
Several East Bay mayors, including Berkeley’s Edward Ament officially proclaimed themselves opposed to the evil of denying innocent children fresh milk, and busied themselves organizing local committees to make sure food and fuel would be available if transportation and businesses shut down, although the strikers had pledged that necessities would be delivered.
The Reverend Earl N. Griggs of the University Lutheran Church appeared to reply to the mayors in a sermon where he said strike conditions might have been averted with earlier attention to Depression problems of labor and the poor. “Why are the little children that are going to be hungry tomorrow any more sacred in the sight of God than those that have been hungry for four years?”
Some Berkeley businesses closed, others stayed open. The strike lasted only a few days, and the longshoremen accepted federal labor arbitration, ending the waterfront struggle. But that was not the end of confrontations.
Some strike opponents turned to retaliation, apparently motivated both by exaggerated fears of communist subversives, and dismay at the way labor unrest had rapidly spread, threatening established power structures.
In several cities, including Berkeley, vigilantes struck back against real and imagined Communists who, they alleged, had ignited and perpetrated the labor unrest as a means to revolution. “Aliens”—epitomized by longshoreman activist and Australian immigrant Harry Bridges—were also demonized as shadowy instigators and potential insurrectionists.
In some respects it was both a replay of the 1919-20 anti-Communist hysteria that had resulted in the infamous Palmer Raids across the country, and a prelude to the post-World War II McCarthy era. In one series of San Francisco raids “more than 300 suspected communists, aliens and agitators” were arrested and charged with “vagrancy,” the Gazette reported in July 1934.
Cal alumnus and Roosevelt administration official General Hugh Johnson, head of the National Recovery Administration, dropped into Berkeley July 17 and delivered a polemical address at the Greek Theatre in which he said that, when confronted with Communist agitators, people “would act to wipe out this subversive element as you clean off a chalk mark on a blackboard with a wet sponge.”
The means to deliver that accounting was already at hand. The Gazette had editorialized on July 15 that during the strike “the police force of Berkeley has been materially augmented by tried, experienced and capable men…and virile, red-blooded Americanism is being displayed on all sides.”
“Businessmen with World War experience and reserve officers of the Regular Army were asked to organize a force sufficient to meet the emergency and await orders,” the paper retrospectively noted Aug. 3.
“Using army organization methods, a group of citizens was enlisted in almost every block, each with a leader…the entire personnel was sworn in as emergency police…streets were patrolled by Berkeley Nationals (the name chosen by the organization), who were armed with clubs.”
As the strike ended, “the Berkeley Nationals, already more than 2,500 strong, will be definitely continued, it was announced, to combat all un-American and subversive influences,” the paper reported July 19.
“Individual members are deputized by the city council and are pledged to maintain law and order and combat any and all efforts at violence of any kind.” Mayor Ament, offered a “cordial invitation to others to join in this work.”
The evening of July 19, a peaceful meeting of locals sympathetic to the strike was held at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church. There were some mysterious men in the audience who threatened one radical attendee, but when the police were called, Berkeley Nationals showed up instead to escort the men away.
Later that night, widespread property violence was unleashed on Berkeley’s streets when “almost simultaneous with similar raids in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose, civilian groups here swooped down and wrecked two headquarters of Communists and left warnings at the homes of alleged radicals,” the Gazette reported Friday July 20, 1934.
The euphemistic “warnings” were actually bricks with anonymous threats attached thrown through windows.
“Badly damaged were Comrades Hall, also known as the Finnish Workers Hall, 1819 Tenth Street, and the Communist headquarters and reading room at 2600 San Pablo Avenue” (apparently on the southwest corner of San Pablo and Parker, where the Missouri Lounge now stands). The interiors of both buildings were vandalized and furnishings wrecked. Some of the ax handle-wielding attackers reportedly wore “B.N.” armbands.
The Berkeley police claimed “the police system of radio patrol cars was ‘paralyzed’ by the scores of calls which literally flooded the police switchboard. Scores of reports were received almost simultaneously because of the rapidity and apparent systematic manner in which the raids were staged.”
“It is deplorable this taking of the law into their own hands by citizens, however well meaning they might be,” said Berkeley Police Chief J. A. Greening. “Law and order must prevail and it is too bad that, just as all matters brought about by the strike apparently had been peacefully settled, that Berkeley should be the scene of such disorder.” There were persistent charges, though, that the police either knew of the attacks in advance or avoided responding quickly when they were taking place.
On July 25, a “mass meeting” was held on the steps of Berkeley High School to protest the vigilante attacks. About 250 attended, “including large numbers of the merely curious and law enforcement agencies,” the paper said. A small advertisement placed in the Gazette that day announced the meeting and asked, “Will you tolerate mob rule?”
Speakers included a student from the Pacific Unitarian School of the Ministry, an attorney for the ACLU, a representative of the Finnish Workers’ Association, and a number of Socialist Party representatives. They criticized “the police, city officials, vigilantes, capitalists and others…” One called those who participated in the July 19 Berkeley raids “skunks, skulking scoundrels, rats, and cowards…”
Some Berkeley residents whose houses had been targeted also came forward to protest to the City Council on July 24. Mrs. J. Autio, 1473 Ordway St., said her home was attacked, although her husband was a worker at the Mare Island naval shipyard. Velijo Perala, 1016 Cedar St., “stated that he was not affiliated with any Communistic organization, although he had received a warning to leave the City.”
Mayor Ament, “after listening to the denials of the attack victims stated that the council regretted the action of the group which sponsored the active campaign against alleged Communists.” But he also praised those who had volunteered in the Berkeley Nationals, and announced, “All of our special activities are now demobilized.”
Councilmember and businessman Walter Mork, a leading member of the local Finnish community, “demanded that a thorough investigation of all phases of the attack be made.” An investigation was promised. But the next day, the city manager left town for a previously planned three-week fishing trip “somewhere in California.”
Local anti-Communist activity continued. On July 23, business, civic, and veterans groups in Alameda County organized under the leadership of District Attorney Earl Warren, who called for “a movement against trouble making aliens and any others who by acts of violence or seditious language seek to break down the ideals of our governments.” The Board of Supervisors ordered the county librarian to purge “any and all literature pertaining to Communism.”
On Aug. 7, Finnish Hall representatives protested the July 19 attacks in writing to the City Council, saying “irreparable damage has been done to the cause of liberty and justice unless swift action is taken to find and punish those responsible for the outrage…You as members of the council, we hold responsible for immediate action against all vandals involved in this crime.”
“The efforts of the chamber of commerce and the police to whip up a frenzy against our organizations is a part of the common drive of the bosses to destroy all labor organizations, to keep down wages, to build up their monopoly profits,” wrote Karl Paganen, the organization’s secretary. He added a call to arrest “the guilty ones who are well known to the police.”
As summer drew on, the ACLU aided Finnish Hall in a claim for damages due to police inaction during the vigilante attack. In fall, 1934, the City of Berkeley paid a settlement to help repair the building.
Although the waterfront strike itself failed to win its immediate aims, labor organizing took off on the West Coast, and by mid-century San Francisco was a stalwart union town. A local branch of the ACLU solidified, in part as a result of the Finnish Hall case.
Saturday, July 18, 2009, the eve of the 75th anniversary of Berkeley’s vigilante convulsion, I happened to be in San Francisco at the Ferry Building, epicenter of the 1934 waterfront confrontations. No working cargo ships, authentic longshoremen, or National Guardsmen were in evidence along the utterly transformed Embarcadero, no longer a working waterfront but a busy playground for tourists and locals.
There’s some good historic signage, but I could find nothing about the events of 75 years before, except one photo, dated 1934, in an inside display. Grinning workers stack boxes of lard in what appears to be a staged scene. It’s blandly captioned, “Two longshoremen return to work following a strike.”
Outside, a Berkeley Farms dairy truck pulled up to make a delivery to the upscale eateries in the Ferry Building. Mayor Ament might have been proud; the fresh milk for the children finally got through and it had Berkeley’s name on it.