Blood ran red in the streets yesterday.
San Francisco's broad Embarcadero ran red
with blood yesterday.
The color stained clothing, sheets, flesh.
Dripping. Human blood, bright as red
begonias in the sun.
A run of crimson crawled toward the curb.
Most of us came to hate the sight of red.
There was so much of it.
-Anonymous witness to "Bloody Thursday," July 5, 1934.
In the U.S. of the 1930s, the color "red" was most commonly identified with the foreign threat of the Communist Party, which presumably wished to destroy all governments and democracy. In reality, U.S. Communist Party members were often concerned with creating better conditions for workers within the capitalist system. After the huge surge of growth in the 1920s and the following crash into the worldwide Great Depression at the beginning of the 1930s, U.S. workers were either losing jobs or being forced to work in appalling conditions for low wages.
Millions of unemployed workers were ready to work at any wage in any conditions, and large corporations used this desperation as a threat to their existing workers to accept horrendous job conditions. U.S. labor organizations strove to protect workers' rights, yet any organizing of workers to effect change was labeled by corporations and their allies as "Red," or foreign Communist attempts to destroy U.S. industries.
The San Francisco and Oakland General Strike of 1934 was portrayed in just such terms, with all major Bay Area newspapers entering a formal agreement to support corporate interests. A strike of Bay Area longshoremen, in conjunction with others all along the West Coast and Hawaii began on May 9, and tensions rose as the shipping companies refused to negotiate. On July 5, 1934, later known as "Bloody Thursday," San Francisco police attacked striking longshore workers and killed two men. A "general strike" of all unions in San Francisco and the greater Bay Area was called shortly after the funerals of the two men.
It was an unprecedented occurrence in U.S. history for a city the size and importance of San Francisco to be completely shut down for four days. Almost all unionized workers of all races had to support the strike for it to last that long; however, the newspapers, city government, and corporations claimed that foreign Communist agitators had seized control of the city.
The striking longshoremen in San Francisco prevailed against a concerted mobilization of powerful forces in large part due to their unusual racial politics. Most established labor unions in the United States struggled to keep their membership "white only," and fought against nonwhite labor in general, viewing it as detrimental to white American working men.Whereas Black workers were barred at that time from certain areas, including most docks on the waterfront, the longshoremen labor leader promised that if Black workers supported the longshoremen's strike and didn't work as scabs, Blacks would be allowed to join the union and work at any dock on the West Coast. This stymied the usual practice of strikebreaking using non whites as scabs who were fired as soon as white workers gave in. After the San Francisco longshoremen's strike ended on July 31, 1934, Black workers were admitted into the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union, which also admitted Asian workers.
In 1938, the same longshoremen's union honored Chinese American picketers who refused to load scrap iron on ships destined for Japan's war against China. This type of organizing across racial lines was a hallmark of California's labor movement, and it laid the groundwork for the multi-racial United Farm Workers movement that gained national and international recognition in the 1960s.
11.6 Students analyze the different explanations for the Great Depression and how the New Deal fundamentally changed the role of the federal government. (11.6.4, 11.6.5)