Let me say this about that

By Gene Klare

June 5, 1998

THE 1934 WEST COAST waterfront strike was examined in two reports presented to the Pacific Northwest Labor History Association's 30th annual conference at Portland State University.

Over 150 people attended the May 15-17 event, a record turnout.

OTTILIE MARKHOLT, a member of Tacoma Local 23 of the Office and Professional Employees International Union, reported on the militant role of the Portland Central Labor Council in the strike that began May 9, 1934 at Pacific Coast ports.

Her presentation was taken from her book, "Maritime Solidarity, Pacific Coast Unionism, 1929-1938."

Historian Markholt recalled that delegates to the Portland Labor Council went on record in support of a general strike "if and when the (National) Guard is called out to police the waterfront."

SHE CONTINUED: "Thus the Portland Central Labor Council...replied to the request of Mayor Joseph Carson and Sheriff Martin Pratt to Governor Julius C. Meier to send the Oregon National Guard to the waterfront to break the maritime strike. The threat of the general strike, labor's ultimate weapon in the class war, would hang over Portland while maritime workers battled the shipping industry for the rights to organize and bargain collectively."

Markholt sketched the history leading up to the strike:

"Stable longshore unions appeared on the Portland waterfront at the turn of the century. Grain handlers, longshoremen, and dock workers organized locals of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) in 1901. Their delegates became active in the Portland Central Labor Council. During the open-shop decade of the 1920s, maritime workers fought losing battles to preserve their unions and collective bargaining agreements. Shipowners and stevedoring companies defeated Portland longshoremen in 1922 in a bitter strike. Employer hiring halls (fink halls), bossed by gun-toting union renegades, replaced the union hiring hall; by 1929 the union had disappeared.

"MINGLED DESPERATION and hope brought together 13 veteran longshoremen at Conrad Negstad's house on Feb. 4, 1931 to organize Portland ILA Local 38-78. By late May the union had grown to 600 members and opened a hall, then shrank to 100 by 1932 as employers discriminated against and blacklisted men who joined the union. When the waterfront employers used the Municipal Free Employment Bureau 'to break down the working conditions of the Longshoremen's Union,' the Central Labor Council resolved Ôthat the organized labor movement of Portland... give all the assistance possible, through the Labor Press and otherwise to the longshoremen in their fight for justice.' The union prevailed, completing organization of the waterfront in the summer of 1933."

A year later, workers had to strike for their rights.

"Unable to break the strike," Markholt said, "the Portland employers tried to turn public opinion against the strikers" by accusing them of being Communists. That evoked a blast from Ben Osborne, a member of Iron Workers Local 29 who was the executive secretary-treasurer of the Oregon State Federation of Labor, which was affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. Osborne declared:

"Waterfront employers are endeavoring to draw across the trail the red herring of communism in order to divert public attention away from their own sins."

THE BOSSES' SINS, in addition to not wanting to pay a fair wage and provide decent working conditions, included the grievous wrongdoing of organizing a strikebreaking vigilante committee, which the Chamber of Commerce callously acknowledged "would doubtless lead to bloodshed and perhaps the loss of life."

That last quotation came from a treatise given at the labor history conference by Michael Munk, a retired political science professor from Rutgers University in New Jersey. Since his return to his hometown of Portland, Munk devotes much of his time to labor research. His report, entitled "Portland's 'Silk Stocking Mob': The Citizens Emergency League in the 1934 Maritime Strike," said:

"THE CITY'S MOST POWERFUL business leaders took the responsibility for 'bloodshed and perhaps loss of life,' because, when the strike appeared effective, they became convinced the Portland Police and the Oregon National Guard could not be depended upon to break it. So they decided first, to hire 'special police' to put the regular officers 'on their feet' and when that was not sufficient, to form a private militia to combat the strikers. The behavior of Portland business in the summer of 1934 represents another historic example of how 'respectable leading citizens' while calling for law and order,' have organized and supported anti-labor violence..."

The term "silk stocking mob" was coined by the Oregon State Federation of Labor. Labor also used the word "fascist" to characterize the businessmen and their militia.

The bloodshed predicted by the Chamber of Commerce came to pass. In San Francisco, police shot and killed two strikers on July 5, precipitating a general strike there. Pacific Coast longshoremen still commemorate the "Bloody Fifth." In Portland, "Bloody Wednesday" occurred July 11 when four strikers were wounded by gunfire from management's hired gunsels and Portland Police in a confrontation at Terminal 4.

"THE NEXT MAJOR VIOLENCE also came from the 'specials' at Terminal 4, but was a major embarrassment to the 'law and order' forces because guns were fired on President Franklin D. Roosevelt's personal observer, Sen. Robert F. Wagner (D-NY)," Munk reported.

President Roosevelt had turned down Gov. Meier's request for federal troops but sent Senator Wagner as his personal emissary. FDR himself was due in Portland on Aug. 4 to dedicate the site of Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. Senator Wagner was riding in labor attorney B.A. Green's auto near Terminal 4 when the management gunsels fired10 rifle shots at Green's car and at another accompanying it, in which union officials were riding. No one was wounded.

"The strikers' victory came when arbitrators awarded them virtually all of their demands in October," Munk said. "It was a famous victory, one which sparked a revival of working class militancy." In 1935, the Senator Wagner who came under fire in Portland sponsored the landmark Wagner Act, also known as the National Labor Relations Act. In 1937, West Coast longshoremen broke away from the East Coast-run ILA and formed the San Francisco-headquartered International Longshoremen's and Warehousmen's Union.

ROBERT J. LEWIS, a longtime member of Painters Local 10 and a former business representative for Painters District Council 55, died in Portland on April 29 at age 69.

He was a patient at a nursing home where he died after suffering a stroke. Earlier, he'd undergone heart bypass surgery.

He was born in Portland on Oct, 7, 1928, and graduated from Sabin High School. For many years he was in the Mt. Hood Ski Patrol.

Lewis served as a business agent for the Painters from 1966 to 1976. Later he worked at the Swan Island ship repair yard.

In becoming a painter, he had followed in the footsteps of his father, Robert E. Lewis, for many years Local 10's financial secretary.

Survivors include his wife of 48 years, Shirley; three daughters, Terri Rossiter, Sharon Ackerman and Karen Groat, all of Portland; his mother, Audrey, of Portland; two brothers, Michael of West Linn and Ron Brown of Sebastopol, Calif.; and three grandchildren.

A memorial service drew a large crowd to Covenant Presbyterian Church in Gresham on May 4.


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