Investigating US History

The Big Strike:
Labor Unrest in the Great Depression

Document Analysis A. The Written Record

“Notice what you notice.”

-- Allen Ginsberg

“Who we are, to some variable extent, determines what we notice and, at another level of intellectual activity, what we regard as worthy of notice, what we find significant.”

-- Robert Coles

Select a document from The Written Record that you find particularly interesting and that adds to your understanding of the strike.   Post on the discussion board five paragraphs analyzing the information in the document.  

Questions you may wish to consider:  

  • What kind of document is it?   Who wrote it, when, where, and for what purpose?  
  • Who was the intended audience for this document?  
  • What is the document's point of view (or is it neutral)?   Are there hidden biases or distortions in the document that need to be taken into consideration?  
  • What is the source of the document's information?   Can one learn anything from what is not said in the document?  
  • What does its existence say about who saved it?  
  • What would you like to ask the author of this document?  

Come up with your own questions, and be sure to give reasons for any inferences you make. Respond to the analyses of at least two of your classmates, focusing on those statements with which you particularly agree or disagree.


Government Poster

A1. Read the National Industrial Recovery Act (1933)

“SEC. 7. (a) …That employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and shall be free from the interference restraint, or coercion of employers of labor, or their agents…”


A2. Read local newspaper accounts of the strike.

“Police used their clubs freely and mounted officers rode into milling crowds. The strikers fought back, using fists, boards and bricks as weapons. Rioting was widespread…”


Tillie Lerner

A3. Read Tillie Lerner Olsen's field report, “The Strike” Partisan Review (Sept.-Oct. 1934).

“Do not ask me to write of the strike and the terror. I am on a battlefield, and the increasing stench and smoke sting the eyes so it is impossible to turn them back into the past…”




A4. Read “Tillie Olsen: Online Interviews.”



Bits Hayden, “Closed till the Boys Win,” ca.1949

A5. Read an excerpt from journalist Mike Quinn's book, The Big Strike.







A6. Read Telegram from MacCormack to District Director, INS, Angel Island, California , 05/22/1934. Search Archival Research Catalog for "MacCormack to District Director." Click on Digital Copiest




A7. Read Paul Taylor and Norman Leon Gold's article, “San Francisco and the General Strike,” Survey Graphic (Sept. 1934) Vol. 23, No. 9, p. 405.

“What really happened in San Francisco's general strike? What were the issues? What do they mean to labor, employers, the community? What of the vigilantes and their violent anti-Red campaign? Two Californians here give the story down to date …”


Bits Hayden, “Waterfront
Worker, 1¢,” ca.1949

A8. Read articles and cartoons from the longshoremen’s mimeographed newspaper, Waterfront Worker, 1934 , 1934.






A9. Read Report on "Political Forces: Communist Activities, Seattle, Washington., 10/02/1934. Search Archival Research Catalog for “Communist Activities, Seattle, Washington.” Click on Digital Copies.

“Quoted below are the final decisions of the Communist leaders of the Pacific Coast relative to the maritime strike situation.   The decision was arrived at after two days secret meetings between the following men…”



Sen. Robert Wagner and Sec. of Labor Frances Perkins watch President Roosevelt sign the
National Labor Relations Act.

A10. Read Franklin Roosevelt's Statement on the National Labor Relations Act (The Wagner Act) July 5, 1935









A11. Read Oliver Carlson's “The San Francisco Waterfront” The Nation (Jan. 22, 1936).



Harry Bridges

A12. Read Louis Adamic's “Harry Bridges: Rank and File Leader,” The Nation (May 6, 1936),

“He is a slight, lanky fellow in his early forties, with a narrow, longish head, receding dark hair, a good straight brow, an aggressive hook nose, and a tense-lipped mouth. He wears cheap clothes and is indifferent about his appearance. His salary as head of the union is less than the average wage of the union members…”



John L. Lewis

A13. Read John L. Lewis's speech "Labor and the Nation," delivered before the U.S. House of Representatives, Sept. 3, 1937.

“No tin-hat brigade of goose-stepping vigilantes or bibble-babbling mob of blackguarding and corporation paid scoundrels will prevent the onward march of labor, or divert its purpose to play its natural and rational part in the development of the economic, political and social life of our nation...”





Audrey Wilcke Evans interviewing Eleanor Roosevelt for WHIO Radio in Dayton, Ohio, ca. 1941.

A14. Read Eleanor Roosevelt's 1941 address, “Workers Should Join Trade Unions.”

“I have always been interested in organizations for labor. I have always felt that it was important that everyone who was a worker join a labor organization, because the ideals of the organized labor movement are high ideals…”





A15. Read “Violations of Free Speech and Rights of Labor,” a Congressional subcommittee's 1942 report on the strike.

“The employers painted the strikers in the garb of radicalism. They publicized their own position throughout the negotiations as one of fairness, reasonableness, and conciliation, while the longshoremen were asserted to be arbitrary, unreasonable, and irresponsible…”