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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

"The Battle of Rincon Hill”, San Francisco July 5, 1934

The working class battle that led to a General Strike

On May 9, 1934 longshore workers started a massive strike along the American west coast that hit cities like Seattle, San Diego and San Francisco. They were demanding better working conditions, pay of $1 an hour, a shorter work week and unionization.

The strikers held out against police and government intimidation as well as a hostile corporate media for many weeks. With monetary losses mounting and the solidarity of the workers holding strong the employers, with police support, decided in early July to open the port of San Francisco by force.

This led to the "Battle of Rincon Hill", also known as "Bloody Thursday", July 5, 1934, a pitched fight between workers and police. Cal Winslow wrote an account of the battles in 2014:

Thursday was fog-laden; that morning heavily armed police, 1000 strong, lined up to escort a column of red trucks moving toward the Embarcadero. These were filled with strikebreakers, hired to re-open the port. In front of them were thousands of pickets, led by longshoremen, then in the fifty-seventh day of their strike.
They were joined by thousands more, sympathizers, hundreds of them Teamsters, still honoring the longshoremen’s picket lines. Huge crowds filled the side streets, others hung from widows and rooftops in anxious anticipation of the certain battle to come.
“The Battle of Rincon Hill” began at 8 am. Rincon Hill, then still a working class neighborhood, was a slum. It was home to more than a few longshoremen and their families, workers who still lived where they worked. Some of its shacks were remnants of the 1906 earthquake. It stood just near the western anchorage of the Bay Bridge, then being framed with great towers of orange steel. And to the south, miles of industrial waterfront.
The strikers charged the police lines, only to be driven back by tear-gas and then live ammunition. They built make-shift barricades; they threw rocks, bottles, bricks. They returned the tear gas canisters. Charging mounted police overran them.
The fighting went on all morning. In the afternoon it spread to Market Street, where crowds of spectators assembled to watch the action, hundreds of them pressing on to a footbridge at the foot of Market. Then at three o’clock, the strikers surged down Mission Street, attempting to seize the waterfront just to the south.
“The strikers,” in an eye-witness account, were described as “coming from everywhere with fresh loads of iron and stone. They swarmed the Embarcadero, outnumbering the police…
“The police answer was gas and still more gas. Volley after volley crashed into the closely packed mob, searing flesh, blinding, choking…
“When the ranks broke, mounted police drove in with clubs, trampling those who could not get out of the way. The sirens screamed, and carload after carload of police and plainclothes-men armed with more tear gas and shot guns swung into action…
“The superior technical equipment of the uniformed forces was too much for any human flesh, regardless of numerical superiority. The Embarcadero was cleared of strikers. There remained the broken windows, scattered glass rocks, spikes empty shot gun shells, and drying blood…”
The newspapers reported two dead, sixty-seven injured, some critically, just that one afternoon. The dead were Howard Sperry, a longshoreman and war veteran, and Nick Bordouise, a culinary worker, a member of the Cooks Union and the Communist Party. The police had won the day. That same afternoon Governor Frank Merriam declared a State of Emergency and ordered the National Guard to the waterfront. The newspapers, again, declared the strike finished.

Despite the brutality the strike was not finished. In fact the working class of San Francisco rallied to the cause of the longshoremen and on July 16, 1934 a General Strike was called with 65,000 workers walking off the job.

While the strike lasted only 4 days it ended with the bosses being forced into arbitration "in which most of the striking longshoremen’s demands were met."


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