What Is It Really All About?
Something special happened in the spring and summer of 1934. Maritime workers who had been considered little more than ignorant roustabouts took history into their own hands. They built a powerful new movement from the ground up, waged a complex and bitter strike along the length of the Pacific seaboard, and conducted the only successful General Strike in the country’s history. They proved that they could win, and win big.
Their success stimulated hundreds of thousands of other workers to organize. In the long run they raised the standard of living of nearly every man, woman and child on the coast, and created working conditions which became the envy of millions of workers in the rest of the nation.
Today, we are inclined to take these victories more or less for granted. It’s hard for us to keep in mind just how hard they came. It’s hard to imagine a time when unions had no legal standing, when it was practically illegal to picket, when workers were absolutely at the mercy of their employers.
As bad as things have gotten for unions these days, we’re still not back to where we were before 1934. It’s also interesting to recall how hard it was for people, who should have known better, to understand what was going on.
Imagine trying to explain containers and computers. The problems of the modern worker are so much more complex, so much more puzzling. And so they ask, 50 years later, what was it really all about?
• First of all, it was about power. We showed the world that when working people get together and stick together there’s little they can’t do.
• Second, it was about democracy. We said that the rank and file had the right to decide, and that if you gave them the facts, they’d make the right decision.
• Finally, it was about how people treat one another, it was about human dignity. We forced the employers to treat us as equals, to sit down and talk to us about the work we do, how we do it, and what we get paid for it. Pretty basic stuff. But all those gains are today under the most sustained and vicious attack we’ve seen in more than a generation.
The employers, with the connivance of the Reagan administration, have made mincemeat out of the rights guaranteed to us by the legislation passed under the New Deal. It looks as though they’ve decided that the sky’s the limit, and that now is the time to take full advantage of the newly favorable climate. But I believe that the principles for which we fought in 1934 are still true and still useful. Whether your job is pushing a four-wheeler or programming a computer, I don’t know of any way for working people to win basic economic justice and dignity except by being organized into a solid, democratic union. Sure, we may be taking a beating now, as we were in the years before 1934, but that’s nothing new. What saved us then was our faith in each other, standing together despite what the employer did to intimidate and divide us, and to discredit our leadership. We showed the world that united working people could stand up against guns and tear gas, against the press and the courts, against whatever they threw at us. We can do it again.
~Harry Bridges, former ILWU President, 1984, on the 50th anniversary of the 1934 strike.
President Bridges’s remarks, 33 years ago, still ring true today. Many of the rights we take for granted today are the result of the struggles, sacrifice, and bloodshed of ordinary working Americans whose names are largely lost to history. The history of labor and workers struggle for basic economic and civil rights is rarely taught, but without the American labor movement and the heroic struggle of the working folks that brought you the weekend, the eight-hour day, collective bargaining rights, workplace health and safety regulations, laws against child labor, and fundamental parts of our social safety net like pensions, Social Security and much more would’ve never been possible. We forget this history at our peril.
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