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Longshore Legacy : Dockworkers to Remember 'Bloody Thursday' and Those Who Struggled to Establish Union

July 03, 1986|TIM WATERS | Times Staff Writer

More than 50 years have passed, but the grim events of that May evening in 1934 are as vivid as yesterday in John Mathlin's mind.

As the 74-year-old retired longshoreman recalled recently, he and his best friend, Dick Parker, were shooting pool at a place near the waterfront when word came that strikebreakers were working the docks in Wilmington.

Parker and Mathlin took off for Dock 145 where temporary housing had been built for the "scabs." The two were just two punk kids, Mathlin said, barely out of high school and hardly expecting what followed.

"There were so many people there you couldn't count them," Mathlin said. "And everyone was yelling 'Let's go get them, let's go get them!' That's when the shooting started."

Giant spotlights and tracer bullets fired from guns of police and private guards lit up the night sky, Mathlin said. Clubs, rocks--anything that happened to be available--became weapons in the clash between the strikebreakers and members of the fledgling International Longshoremen's Assn.

Hit by Gunfire

Minutes after it all started, one of the bullets, apparently not meant for anyone in particular, hit Parker.

"Dick got one right in his abdomen, and I caught him just as he fell," Mathlin said. "A few of us grabbed hold of him and got him out over to a boulevard, and we took him to the hospital. He was pronounced dead in the emergency room."

The day was May 14, and when it was over, six others had been wounded by gunfire and scores had been hurt, according to newspaper accounts of the clash. On July 5 of the same year, a day that came to be known as Bloody Thursday, two other union members were shot and killed and hundreds were injured when police charged a picket line in San Francisco. The melee led to a general strike of 150,000 workers and brought the city to a near standstill.

This Saturday, July 5, longshore workers in San Pedro and up and down the West Coast will gather as they do every year to honor those who struggled to establish the union founded by Harry Bridges. It was Bridges and colleagues who ousted a company union in 1933 and formed the International Longshoremen's Assn., which is now known as the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union. The following year, when employers refused to recognize the union, the workers struck.

In San Francisco, where the union is headquartered, Bloody Thursday activities will be preceded by the unveiling today of a large mural that chronicles the 1934 strike. Union spokesman Danny Beagle said Bridges is expected to be on hand when the six-ton mural is dedicated on a traffic island at the intersection of Mission and Stuart streets, where the two strikers were killed 52 years ago.

Conditions on Waterfront

Beagle said the $80,000 mural was designed by 10 Bay Area artists, several of whom approached union officials in 1984 with the idea. Its six steel panels depict conditions along the waterfront before and during the strike, he said.

For a number of years, Beagle said, about 100 longshoremen have gathered every July 5 at a small park at the foot of Market Street in San Francisco to honor those who died during the strike. In Portland, Ore., longshoremen typically put a wreath in the harbor to commemorate the strike. Other union locals along the coast hold similar memorials.

In San Pedro, union officials expect hundreds of longshoremen to turn out Saturday for a parade and, later, a picnic at Peck Park, where a memorial plaque in memory of Bloody Thursday was erected three years ago. Another plaque commemorating the day was dedicated last year in Wilmington on port-owned property.

Lou Leveridge, president of Local 13 of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union said that anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 dockworkers and their families will probably turn out for the picnic. Seven union locals--not all of them longshoremen--are expected to participate.

The idea to hold the picnic every year came in 1976 from Art Almeida, a former president of Local 13 and a harbor area historian. Before 1976, Almeida said, the only large Bloody Thursday celebration held locally was in 1959, the 25th anniversary of the day. Union members were told they would be fined $10 if they did not attend, he said.

"When I became president of the local, I felt this was an important date for the ILWU and we should resume the celebration," Almeida said. "San Francisco invariably gets all the glory, but you cannot deny that things really got started here. A lot of people don't like to recognize that, but we like to keep trumpeting the horn."

Local longshoremen have something else to trumpet. Although membership in the ILWU has dwindled to about 50,000 from a peak of 62,100 in 1949, the number of local longshoremen has grown recently as business at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach has boomed. Local 13, with more than 2,700 members, is now the largest local on the West Coast.

"It is now the . . . most dynamic of all the locals," Almeida said.

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