James P. Cannon

Labor Action

San Francisco – January 2, 1937

Four Days that Shook the Waterfront

[Below is an article written by SWP leader James P. Cannon for the West Coast socialist newspaper Labor Action. – Editor]

THE four days beginning on the afternoon of Thursday, the day before Christmas, and ending abruptly on the afternoon of Monday, December 28, deserve to go down in the history of San Francisco alongside the famous earthquake. And as the earthquake is never mentioned by native sons without a certain embarrassment, so it is very likely that the sailors who sail the ships will not want to talk about what happened on December 24.

For on that date the sailors who sail the sailors – in other words the water-front “fraction” of the Communist Party – “captured” the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific. And that was a boat ride the offshore sailors will not soon forget and will never want to talk about. To be sure it only lasted for four days. But many a rugged seaman, who has sailed windjammers and kept his spirits up and sung a merry song through perilous seas and hurricanes galore, grew sick and faint on the voyage. They quaked with fear and never smiled until the lookout sighted land, two points off the starboard bow.

The famous imaginative picture of Christopher Columbus and his hardy crew, kneeling in thanksgiving for a safe arrival after storms at sea, would not do justice to the jubilant feelings of the West Coast sailors Monday afternoon when they walked down the gangplank, off the C.P. ship and safe at last. The ship is moored fast to the dock, hatches battened and gear squared up, and all hands accounted for. So now the story can be told.

It happened this way. All athletes must keep in training, and the Communist Party, which holds the all-time record for capturing and wrecking unions, is, in a way, an athlete. A prize fighter, as they say, has to get a fight under his belt every now and then or he goes stale; and the Stalinist party has to “take over” a union every so often in order to keen in shape to fulfill its historic mission. They marked “next” after the name of the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific sometime ago, and have been reconnoitering, or “casing,” the job ever since.

Three things stood in their way:

  1. The conservative class-collaborationist policies of the so-called Communists do not square with the militant traditions and sentiments of the sailors.
  2. The rank and file don’t want to be “captured.”
  3. The leaders of the union know what the score is and do not want any part of C.P. policy or C.P. “control”.

Last week the athletic commissars decided to hurdle all these obstacles in one leap. A special combination of circumstances arose which seemed to present the opportunity. Some of the special circumstances were accidental. The others were created, or, to speak plainer English, framed. Things happened rapidly and rather hectically, and some of the sailors, like rescued victims of a shipwreck, are still a little dizzy and hazy in their recollections. But here is about the way the story they tell pieces together:

Harry Lundeberg, secretary of the Sailors’ Union, negotiated an agreement with the shipowners for submission to the membership. There was nothing wrong about that; it has been the practice of all the unions in the Maritime Federation to negotiate separately; three other unions were actually negotiating at the same time. The solidarity obligation of the Federation is for no union to sign an agreement until a settlement is made with all.

There was nothing wrong about the agreement, either. It secured concessions which the people who wanted to stall off, postpone and finally prevent the strike – and they were not Lundeberg and his friends – never dreamed of getting when they were denouncing the sailors as “strike crazy” and “the obstacle to settlement”. As a matter of fact the agreement negotiated by Lundeberg contains the best and clearest provisions for union recognition and control of hiring ever put on paper, and every informed unionist knows it.

But the Communist Party, which opposed and tried to prevent the strike and fought the militant class-struggle line of Lundeberg, couldn’t get any credit from a good agreement secured by strike action and negotiated by Lundeberg. Consequently they launched a hue and cry against it.

That is the real reason behind all their ballyhoo of the past week. They put insinuations into circulation about “one-man negotiations” and broadcast the infamous lie that the sailors were planning to make a separate settlement, although the union had made a public statement that it would not sign any agreement until all the unions had negotiated satisfactory settlements.

The sailors, who are too well-known for their patience and good-natured tolerance, finally got mad and put out a bulletin in reply to the slanders. This famous Bulletin No. 32 stated the facts in forthright language and expressed the true sentiments of the sea-going sailors. That put the fat in the fire. What’s this? These damn sailors are beginning to talk back! Don’t they know the “party” has a monopoly of the publicity business? Hell began to pop in earnest. The frame-up machine went into action and the stage was set for the “raid” on the Sailors’ Union.

What was the game? The game was to represent the sailors as strikebreakers in a deal with the bosses and to frame Lundeberg as a betrayer of the workers’ trust. That was the dirty game, no less. And for this nefarious business the trustworthy San Francisco Chronicle, which has dealt the sailors many a blow below the belt in the past, was pressed into service again.

The Chronicle was “accidentally” supplied a copy of the sailors’ bulletin. Then it came out in its first edition early in the evening of December 23 with the screaming headline: “LUNDEBERG FOLLOWERS JOIN SHIP-OWNERS IN ATTACK ON BRIDGES.”

That Chronicle headline was not an honest headline written by a disinterested editor honestly reporting the news. The Chronicle headline was framed! It was framed to put Lundeberg and the sailors in a false light before the workers, create demoralization in their ranks and prepare the way for the “raid” on the Sailors’ Union. Lundeberg was out of town – on a train to the northern ports to report to the membership. The “party fraction” was mobilized. A special meeting of the Sailors’ Union was hastily engineered in an atmosphere of panic. An attorney, who is as handy in a union as a sailor in a law office, misrepresented the position of the absent Lundeberg. The militants were caught off guard, disorganized and thrown into confusion.

By four o’clock of the afternoon of December 24 the following results emerged to confront the groggy sailors: Bulletin No. 32 had been repudiated; a resolution had been adopted in which the proud Sailors’ Union of the Pacific humbly apologized for answering the slanders against it; and a new publicity committee had been elected to convey to the world at large the excuses of the sailors for living. It was a field day for the dry-land sailors, the meddling lawyers and the framers of crooked headlines. The Sailors’ Union of the Pacific had been “captured”.

And it remained captured for four days – four days that shook the waterfront and brought the noses of the humiliated militants down to their knees in a sort of circle. The new “publicity committee” began issuing press releases and bulletins, apologizing on behalf of the Sailors’ Union to all and sundry and rubbing it in on the chagrined and embarrassed militants who built the union in bitter struggle and love it as their life. The fog hung heavy over the Embarcadero. As one old-timer expressed it: “The Sailors’ Union was lower than a whale’s belly.”

But the sun is persistent, and along about Sunday afternoon the fog began to clear. One militant after another began to come to, and to ask: “What happened? Where am I?” That was a bad sign for the people who had slipped them the Mickey Finns. Lundeberg came back to town roaring like a bull about the dirty tricks played in his absence and the misrepresentation of his position. The framed Chronicle headline began to appear in its true light and purpose. The hour for the regular Monday afternoon meeting drew near – and with it the reckoning.

When the minutes of the special meeting with their shameful record were read at the regular meeting, Lundeberg took the floor to present a resolution. It carried the signatures of about 30 union members whose names are the militant banner of the union. Lundeberg spoke. Others followed him. The organized “booing squad” of the Communist Party was silent – the sailors, sobered up and on their guard, were in no mood for monkey business.

Then the vote. Lundeberg’s resolution was carried with a mighty roar. The opposition – who had been in “control” of the union for four days – mustered only 66 votes out of more than 1,000 present. The proceedings of the special meeting were declared null and void. The new four-day “publicity committee” was fired. Bulletin No. 32 reaffirmed. The union was “uncaptured”, the real militants were back at the helm and the surroundings began once more to appear the same to the sailors who had just returned from wild and unfamiliar seas which they had never wanted to sail in the first place.

It was a wild ride while it lasted. And it is a warning to the sailors that it is still possible in these days to get shanghaied, and that it is better to be on guard in the future.

As for the four-day “publicity committee” of the raiding party, they deserve a break-at least a quotation in recognition of their literary endeavors. In the West Coast Sailor, Bulletin No. 36, issued under date of December 28 – the day they ceased to be – they published an overture that turned out to be a swan song. They said: “We know that our efforts in the issuance of future strike bulletins shall be successful only to the extent which the rank and file cooperate with us.”

That’s a fine sentiment, pals. But, as the saying goes:

“Why worry about the future?
The first will soon be last;
The future will soon be present
And the present will soon be past.”

In the meantime, I notice that the latest number of the Maritime Worker is changed from arsenical green paper to white. They haven’t got the right color yet.

Last updated on 31 July 2015