1934 strike showed our vulnerability

July 21, 2011 

Mayor Dan Sullivan has recently filed suit to force the relocation of the east approach to the proposed Knik Arm bridge, a necessity, he says, to protect the expansion of the Port of Anchorage. The claims and challenges regarding the conditions and expansion of the Anchorage port underscore the vulnerability of Alaska shipping, and the colonial character of Alaskan life. The weekly TOTE and Horizon shipments into Anchorage represent a tenuous tether, tying Alaska life to the ports of Seattle and Tacoma. Most everything sold at Wal-Mart, Costco, Sears, Nordstrom, Spenard Builders Supply and just about everywhere else in Alaska is shipped from Tacoma, through the Anchorage port. One study found that 40 percent of the tonnage shipped from Tacoma is Alaska-bound.

The vulnerability of this Alaska livelihood line was brought home most forcefully in 1934, when longshoremen all along the West Coast from San Diego to Seattle went on strike, protesting increased work loads, favoritism in hiring, and low pay. The leader of the strike was Harry Bridges, a brilliant negotiating tactician who headed the International Longshoremen's Association. Bridges had worked on the docks as a common workman for 10 years and knew the laborers' circumstances. He also knew which employers were fair and which were not.

The walkout began in May and by the beginning of July showed no signs of abating. Fearing a loss of profit, and the radicalization of the workplace, the shipping and warehousing companies decided to break the strike. In San Francisco they hired trucks, and 700 temporary policemen with tear gas and riot gear and began hauling goods from dockside to warehouses in defiance of the union. The strikers attacked with rocks and spikes, and local police responded with bullets and tear gas. Two strikers died and 67 were wounded.

Company owners thought they had won, but a wave of sympathy for the workers swept the city and Bridges and other union leaders capitalized on the friendly feelings by organizing a citywide general strike. For four days virtually all commercial activity ceased as workers of every description walked off their jobs. Seattle and Portland seemed threatened, as well.

For Alaskans, the dock strike meant potential disaster. With no cargo moving, there was no alternative way to bring goods into the territory, and towns began to calculate what supplies they had on hand and when they would run out of necessities. The national press focused on the "starving Alaskans," which Gov. John Troy made the centerpiece of his pleas for the federal government to step in and commandeer a vessel for Alaska relief. That might have happened under previous administrations, but Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal Congress were more favorable to unions.

In 1935 that Congress passed the Wagner Act, creating the National Labor Relations Board, and effectively providing the first federal guarantee of laborers' right to organize unions, and to bargain for wages and working conditions. During the San Francisco general strike, FDR's Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, the first woman to hold a Cabinet position in American government, worked hard to bring employers and unions together in arbitration, opposing the vice president and the attorney general who pushed Roosevelt to use troops.

Union men were not unsympathetic to the "Alaska problem," and public opinion clearly supported the Alaskans. As a goodwill gesture, Bridges offered to load one ship with "cargo of a needy nature" if the employers would pay the wage the unions were bargaining for. Under pressure from Perkins and others, the employers agreed, and soon goods were headed for Alaska.

University of Washington researchers who have pieced together the story of the strike conclude that the "Alaska agreement" broke the intransigence of owners and employers up and down the coast, for those in Seattle who agreed to pay the union wage sacrificed industry solidarity. Soon arbitration settled the San Francisco strike, the threat of federal intervention ended, and one by one member unions in the ILA came to terms with the employers.

Unions are not as strong today, partly because federal law protects workers against many of the abuses they were subjected to before creation of the NLRB. But Alaska's fragile vulnerability continues, a mark of its dependent, colonial nature.


Steve Haycox is a professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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