April 21, 2011- In the 150-year history of workers in the San Francisco Bay Area, the watershed event was one that happened 70 years ago – the San Francisco general strike. That year, sailors, longshoremen, and other maritime workers shut down all the ports on the West Coast, trying to form a union and end favoritism, low wages and grueling 10- and 12-hour days. Ship owners deployed tanks and guns on the waterfront andtried to break the strike.
At the peak of this bitter labor war, police fired into crowds of strikers, killing two union activists. Then workers shut down the entire city in a general strike, and for four days, nothing moved inSan Francisco. The strike gave workers a sense of power described in a verse in the union song "Solidarity Forever": "Without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel can turn."
The strike marked the end of a period in which, for 70 years, the efforts of workers to form unions were met with violence and firings. By the end of the 1930s, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) was one of the strongest in the nation; workers had a hiring hall instead of a humiliating shapeup in which they had to beg for jobs, and workers on both sides of the bay were busy building other unions, as well as political organizations that eventually elected mayors and sent pro-worker candidates to Congress. The strike marked the beginning of our modern labor movement.
One product of the rising power of unions was the development of the workers' compensation system to ensure that injured and sick workers would receive enough compensation from employers to survive.
While California had passed its first workers' compensation law, the Compensation Act, in 1911, participation by employers was at first voluntary and only became compulsorytwo years later. Establishment of the system was both a reaction to the high level of workplace injuries at the turn of the century and a product of the progressive movement that sought to limit the power of large corporations. The state established its own compensation fund in 1914 to offer a system with costs lowered by removing insurance corporations and their profits. At the height of the Depression, 18 private insurance corporations went bankrupt, while the state fund continued to pay injured workers.
The 1930s and '40s were high points in the power of industrial and manual laborers. By that time, trucks had replaced the horse-drawn wagons that employed the area's first Teamsters. Assembly workers labored in huge factories, churning out automobiles and electrical equipment; construction workers built the bridges that span the bay and thousands of sailors and other marine workers sailed out on ships that packed the wharves.
The unions of the '30s ended the worst conditions that prevailed in the previous 70 years – ten-hour days and six-day weeks, job conditions that could sicken and kill, wages that could barely feed a family and constant fear of getting unfairly fired. The changes won by the unions of the '30s and '40s created an economic base for many working families to buy homes and send their children to college. The state responded by creating a system of universities and community colleges and, by the end of World War II, promised that any working-class kid who graduated high school would find a place inone of them. The nation's first employer-paid medical plan began in theRichmond shipyards.