Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Fifth of July

No, this is not a retrospective post about Lanford Wilson. Rather, it is a response to a reminder from Anastasia Ustinova in the San Francisco Chronicle that July 5 is an important date in the history of labor organizing:

On July 5, 1934, long known as Bloody Thursday, more than 2,000 strikers gathered on the streets of San Francisco, demanding fair working conditions for longshoremen, who worked long hours with little compensation and spotty health care. According to the union, in any given year there were as many recorded accidents as there were longshoremen employed.

That day, San Francisco police backed by the National Guard attacked the union hall with tear gas and shot into a crowd, killing political activist Nick Bordoise and dockworker Howard Sperry. The following week, more than 40,000 people filled the streets of San Francisco mourning their deaths. Before Bloody Thursday, several workers were killed in San Pedro (Los Angeles County) and Portland, Ore.

That year, longshore workers won their demand for union recognition, wage increases and a union-controlled hiring hall.

"An injury to one is an injury to all," Corine Thornton, 85, said on Saturday, citing the union's motto. "The strike made it possible to negotiate wages and work conditions. The bosses had all the power, and that's why we had to be together."

Since then, members of the union on the Pacific Coast have been getting together for the annual event to remember those who lost their lives in what turned to be one of the defining moments in American trade unionism.

About 400 of them gathered Saturday at the ILWU Local 10 in San Francisco to reflect on what has changed over the years. On the sidewalk outside the union hall were the chalk outlines of two bodies, representing the two victims of the 1934 strike.

"It is very important for the younger members to listen to the old-timers; as I am bringing new members to take my place, some of the youngsters have to learn how to carry themselves," said Josh Williams, 75, a retired longshoreman who hosted Martin Luther King Jr. at a Local 10 membership meeting in 1967, a year before King was assassinated. "If you break away from the history, you have nothing."

As Frank Cresi, president of the ILWU's memorial association put it, "Since then, San Francisco has been a union town." The quote from Josh Williams is the real kicker for me, though. Particularly troubling is that the extent to which we have broken from history is basically a product of our ignorance of it, rather than any sort of willful defiance. At the risk of sounding too much like an old fart, this is most disturbing in the prevailing youth element in the blogosphere, which seems more occupied with that cliché about inventing the future than with learning from the past. As that youth element continues to inflate its importance in the coming election, I suspect that Williams could teach them all a thing or two!

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