Streetcar standoff - Page 3

Muni sickout echoes earlier labor clashes and economic inequities

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Harry Bridges, president of the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union (ILWU), addresses a mass meeting in San Francisco, 1965. Will San Francisco see a resurgence in the labor movement?
AP file photo

The 1907 strike was one in a series of labor battles around the country as wealth became consolidated in fewer and fewer hands, peaking with the stock market crash of 1929, after which the continuing hard times led to one of the most famous union actions in San Francisco history: The Longshoreman's Strike of 1934.

Led by Australian-born Harry Bridges, the Longshoreman's Strike seized San Francisco even more boldly than on Bloody Tuesday, with other unions participating in a General Strike that paralyzed the city. That and other labor battles compelled Congress to adopt the National Labor Relations Act, cementing union power that strengthened the middle class, which is today disappearing.

Harry Bridges' brought the city of San Francisco to a standstill.

"It's poor or rich in this city," TWU's Willliams told us. "There's no in between, that's no secret."

But worse than just a hollowing out of San Francisco's middle class, modern workers teeter on the edge. Creatives, designers, tech employees, and other professionals are increasingly independent contractors, "freelancers" with little wage or job security protections. Many tech workers, notably younger and libertarian-leaning, also may have little experience with unions, Glass said.

The difference in sentiment between the 1900s and now may be that of will. Glass tells a story from one of his History of California Labor classes. The year was 1991, and as is usual with most community colleges, Glass' class drew people of a wide range of ages.

"One of my students was a woman in her late 70s," he recalled, "and she listened as I talked about the situation before the Longshoreman's Strike. I mentioned some people were disappearing, people lost their jobs, there was a dark mood, even suicides. She stopped me right there."

"She said 'I was there, and what you're saying is completely wrong. Sure, some people despaired, but when we organized, we had hope.You want to know about despair? Now is the real despair, because people don't think they can change anything.'"

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