Nobody's talking at longshoremen's halls or shipping company offices this week, as dock workers and shippers sweat out the possibility of a crippling West Coast strike that would hammer Seattle's economy.
As long as negotiations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and shipping companies continue, the West Coast's ports keep operating. Both sides, however, took an oath of silence when they started negotiating May 17 and it's been next to impossible to find out anything, even a general statement of the issues.
The contract, covering ports from Seattle to the Mexican border that move cargo worth $300 billion a year, expired June 30—65 years to the day since the killing began in the greatest waterfront strike in US history, one in which Seattle figured very prominently.
A Standard Oil Company guard shot Shelvy Daffron in the back at a tank farm at Point Wells, just north of the King-Snohomish county line. Daffron was the first to die in the waterfront strike of 1934, which paralyzed Pacific ports from Bellingham to San Diego.
Six other strikers would die before it ended. At least two law enforcement officers and a railroad brakeman were killed. Thousands of strikers, police, and deputies were sent to the hospital.
The 1934 strike gave life to the ILWU, a new creature among American labor organizations, formed out of the more conservative International Longshoremen's Association. The ILWU set new economic, political, and social standards. The docks became racially integrated for the first time. Dock workers took turns at the highest-paying waterfront jobs; elected union positions rotated among members through strict term limits. It was history's most democratic and idealistic labor union.
Today, longshore workers can earn wages approaching those of airline pilots. Their demands in the current contract struggle have less to do with wages than with job preservation in competition with non-human, high-tech systems that can move cargo directly from ship to train without being stored in a warehouse or carried in a truck.
Although everyone involved has agreed not to talk, it's known that the toughest disagreements center on productivity—how much cargo is moved per hour by how many workers. Joseph Miniace, who represents the ship and terminal owners, complained before the talks began of "stagnating and declining productivity" at West Coast ports.
That was the essential argument in 1934 which produced such violent turmoil in Seattle. Shippers and terminal owners wanted cargo moved faster at less cost. Longshoremen, doing some of the world's most dangerous and back-breaking work, wanted 95 cents an hour, a six-hour day, and a 30-hour week.
Most of all, they wanted to end a corrupt system of favoritism that had prevailed for centuries on the waterfront—the "shape-up." Before 1934, if you wanted to work at the docks you kissed up to a company supervisor who'd come to the pier head every day to decide who would be hired. "He'd pick out those who'd curried favor, or were known to be company men, or had maybe even paid bribes," says Gene Vrana, secretary and historian of the ILWU in San Francisco.
The strikers demanded a union-controlled hiring hall, where the work would be shared democratically, and an unprecedented coast-wide contract from the Canadian border to the south end of California.
In the depths of the Great Depression, when hungry men would have fistfights for a day's miserable work, the dock workers and their sea-going allies on board the freighters had the brashness to strike and keep striking, and bleeding, until they got what they were after. It took 85 days of nearly constant violence.
The national press reported the showdown as a San Francisco event. That was the largest port on the coast and the one where Harry Bridges, the organizing genius who scared the pants off industrial and political leaders throughout the country, came to public attention.
But Seattle's role in the outcome has been underreported, according to UW political scientist David Olson.
"Puget Sound was absolutely critical," Olson says. "It was essential that they have a coast-wide action, so for the first time the employers had no port of refuge, no off-loading port that was non-union, where they could move their cargo during the strike." Led by Seattle, the unions shut down every Northwest port: Bellingham, Everett, Tacoma, Aberdeen, Grays Harbor, Olympia, and Portland.
Bridges—denounced by much of the nation's press as pro-Communist and a threat to national security—had waterfront support in Seattle every bit as solid as in San Francisco and a great deal more than he had among the more conservative workers of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
And the workers found another source of support here, which most of them probably would not have expected. The University of Washington's acting president, whose name does not conjure up heroism, Hugo Winkenwerder, played a courageous role in the waterfront strike.
California ports had found a ready source of scab labor among University of California football players. They were happy to be ferried around picket lines and be paid well to scab. Employers expected to find a corresponding source of muscle power at the UW. They brought a passenger vessel through the ship canal and tied up at what is now the Husky Waterfront Activity Center to recruit strikebreakers. But Winkenwerder personally ordered UW athletes not to sign on, and he urged all students to refuse to become strikebreakers. They complied.
Hundreds of Seattle-area men were ready to scab, however. Periodically the strikers, reinforced by "flying squads" from other ports, would force the strikebreakers from the docks. Seattle police, under orders from Mayor Charles Smith, would forcibly clear out the strikers and a new wave of strikebreakers would arrive by boat.
The most dramatically violent incident came on July 19. Mayor Smith (some accounts say he was directed by Seattle Times publisher C.B. Blethen) ordered Police Chief George Howard to charge the pickets with horse-mounted police, tear gas bombs, and clubs. Chief Howard refused and resigned. Mayor Smith took personal command, cleared the strikers from Smith Cove, and earned enduring opprobrium, being dubbed "Tear Gas Charlie." In the fiercest fighting of the summer-long strike, an unexploded gas grenade struck Sailors' Union member Olaf Helland in the head, killing him instantly.
The attack was needless as it turned out. On the very day when all hell was breaking loose at Smith Cove, owners and shippers were agreeing to federal arbitration—a solution which President Franklin D. Roosevelt had urged for months, and which the employers had repeatedly rejected.
Federal arbitrators handed the longshore workers a sweet victory—jointly operated hiring halls, with the dispatcher elected by union members. They also awarded wage raises and shorter work periods. Most importantly, the strikers had forced a coast-wide contract. Never again could employers shift cargo to a nonstriking terminal during labor disputes.
Labor historian Ron Magden of Tacoma calls the 1934 outcome the "greatest victory ever achieved by a group of West Coast unions." But as with many victories, this one carried in it the seeds of defeat. The same federal panel that gave the dock workers what they wanted also gave the employers the right to mechanize and automate the waterfront, and that process continues in ways that Bridges, for all his prescient genius, could hardly have imagined.
About 32,000 workers struck the West Coast ports 65 years ago. Today's membership totals about 8,000. There are now about 500 ILWU members in Seattle, down from the 1,182 who struck in 1934. But the legacy of the strike prevails, Magden insists. The rank and file continue to elect the dispatcher. The principle of rotating assignments—passing the work around—is still in effect, although it's more difficult because of the high-tech training now required to operate the equipment.
And the coast-wide contract prevails. There'll be no playing the Northwest against California in the event that negotiators can't agree on a contract to replace the one that expired the last day of June—65 years from the day Shelvy Daffron died.