The first couple decades of the 20th century were rocky ones for everyone involved with the shipping industry in Portland.
The law had just changed — in 1915 — prohibiting shipboard officers from physically beating sailors. The waterfront was still peppered with watering holes in which strangers were being shanghaied. And the longshoremen — the burly men who did the hard, dangerous physical labor of loading cargo on ships — were starting to get serious about joining a union.
Unions weren’t a new thing on the waterfront. Down in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, the longshoremen struck for — and got — a $6-a-day wage deal, which was a phenomenal amount of money in the 1840s. And on the docks in Portland, the first union formed in the late 1860s.
What was new in the 1900s, though, was the growing antagonism between the longshoremen and the hard, autocratic men they worked for — men who, in most cases, had grown up in the maritime environment of the 1880s and 1890s, when sailors were routinely disciplined with lash and fist and the captain’s word had the force of iron law. Their transition to a more democratic social philosophy would not be a smooth one.
“(My) experience has shown that quietness (has) been secured in a few days when union men went to the hospital in ambulances,” remarked one such autocrat, Captain Robert Dollar of the Dollar Steamship Line, when a San Francisco newspaper reporter asked about labor unrest.
Captain Dollar and his fellow maritime entrepreneurs had banded together late in the 1800s to form a sort of anti-union, the Shipowners’ Protective Union, which worked hard to keep “open shops” (basically employment-at-will, with no requirement of union membership for workers) and to keep labor costs as low as possible. In this, they were successful — predictably, given that they were well-financed and well-organized and their opponents were not.
But, as so often happens in long conflicts like this, once they started winning these fights they didn’t know when to stop. In the 1890s the SPU felt powerful enough to impose actual wage cuts on dock workers, which saved a little money for the employers — but set the stage for some very expensive activity down the road. The employers were in the process of learning, the hard way, that when people who work for you don’t feel fairly treated, you lose money. It would take decades for this lesson to sink in.
The cut-’em-off contract
The employers weathered a big strike in 1901 down in California that left all West Coast longshoremen’s unions considerably weakened, whether they’d participated or not. For a time, the employers felt pretty confident.
By 1914, though, union activity on the waterfront was back up to levels that the employers thought were threatening. So they tried a new tactic.
They formed a new employers’ union, and negotiated a deal with the longshoremen’s union. Basically, they bamboozled the naïve labor negotiators into signing a contract that explicitly cut them off from the support of other unions representing teamsters and seamen and such.
Two years later the union unilaterally abrogated this deal, violating the termination clause by giving two weeks’ notice instead of two months’, and went out on another strike. This time they were demanding a closed shop — in which employers agree to only hire union workers.
The strike was a repeat of 1901, except that 1,000 workers in Portland participated in this one. In response, the Portland Chamber of Commerce started a petition drive to put a referendum on the ballot that would outlaw closed shops. (This went nowhere.)
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It was also different in that the employers were able to prevent other unions from helping the Longshoremen out. Most likely the Teamsters and Seamen were miffed at the Longshoremen’s willingness to sign that 1914 contract.
In any case, on their own, the Longshoremen were only able to last a few months before they were forced to make the best deal they could — basically, pre-strike conditions — and sheepishly slink back to work.
1919 and 1922: The union-killing strikes
Resentment continued to simmer on the waterfronts of the West Coast until 1919, just after World War I, when San Francisco went on another strike — this time giving proper notice under its contract.
Captain Dollar, never one to sit on his hands at such a moment, organized a “vigilance committee” for purposes of co-opting the legal system as a strikebreaking tool. Dollar and his associates would file charges against union people, and then burst into the courtroom in force during the trial to “encourage” a guilty verdict. In one case, Dollar later boasted, the capitalist vigilantes actually threatened to lynch a judge whom they saw as insufficiently sympathetic to their side.
Once again, the other unions stayed out of the fight. Once again, the strikers were simply worn down — they didn’t have enough cash to continue. This time, the employers turned the strike into a lockout, and entered negotiations with a strong hand.
The Portland strike
Portland followed suit in 1922, when its union’s contract ran out and the employers announced they were going to handle hiring from now on. That, of course, meant union membership would now make it harder to get a job rather than easier. So Portland longshoremen walked out.
The employers were ready for them. In a crucial innovation, they brought an old steamship, the F.J. Potter, and moored it at the dock so that strikebreakers could live on board; this would stop them from having to cross picket lines to work.
As a result of this, the strike barely slowed the port down. A week later, the employers announced they’d reopened the port. Frustration mounted among union guys, and found its way out in fistfights and other outbreaks of violence, which the employers used as a pretext to seek and get a court injunction preventing union members from congregating in places where there “might be outbreaks of violence.” Union members and pickets started getting arrested.
Now, at last, the other unions started getting involved. Cargo loaded by the strikebreakers was labeled “hot,” meaning that other union members wouldn’t handle it. And U.S. government officials made several attempts to mediate the strike.
But the employers, clearly sensing that they had the upper hand, would have none of it. They were going for the win this time.
Finally, on June 22, they clinched it. The employers essentially dictated the terms of the agreement that ended the strike, and they arranged it smoothly so that the union would be essentially destroyed without the appearance of them having done it. A joint hiring hall was established, with both union and employer representatives, which sounded fair. But the hall would be used to hire both union and non-union dockworkers — a guaranteed source of future friction and conflict. That conflict would serve, within a month or two, as a pretext for the employers to lock the union out.
And that was the end of the Longshoremen’s Union in Portland — until 12 years later, in 1934, when it would rise again in the West Coast-wide labor eruption that became known as “Bloody Thursday.”
(Sources: Buchanan, Roger. Dock Strike: History of the 1934 Waterfront Strike in Portland. Eugene: Univ. of Oregon, 1964 (master’s thesis); Cody, Robin. “Division on the Docks,” Oregon Magazine, May 1984)