Investigating US History

The Big Strike:
Labor Unrest in the Great Depression

Document Analysis B. The Oral Record

“I think we're suffering from what I call ‘National Alzheimer's Disease.'   That means there's no memory of yesterday.”

  -- Studs Terkel

“In this matter I am an almost total sceptic... Old men drooling about their youth - No.”  

-- A.J.P. Taylor on oral history interviews

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

Questions you may wish to consider:  

  • Who conducted the interview? When? Why? Whose interests did it serve?  
  • What questions or issues does it raise?   What kind of information does the interview provide that might otherwise be lost to the historical record?  
  • How reliable do you think the information is?   Does it ring true?   Is it confirmed or contradicted by other kinds of evidence?
  • What kinds of things is the person more likely to remember? What kinds of things is he or she likely to forget?  
  • Does the person seem to be telling polished stories or summoning new data based on the interview questions?
  • How typical or exceptional do you think the person's experience is?   Does there appear to be any significant omissions or suppression of information?  
  • How do you think the passage of time – subsequent events or contemporary values – has affected the person's memories?
  • Come up with your own questions and be sure to give reasons for any of your inferences.   Respond to the analyses of at least two of your classmates, focusing on those statements with which you particularly agree or disagree.

B1. Read oral history interviews with strike participants from the ILWU Oral History Project

“In 1928 we came out to Los Angeles. Times were already bad in rural New York, although this was still before the big crash. In '29, of course, the stock market crash hit and the Great Depression started. That killed whatever personal dreams I had. I'd planned to go to college, but my father was out of work. That's when I got active in the Communist movement…”     

-- Jack Olsen, longshoreman

Soup for the Soup Kitchen.

B2. Listen to Studs Terkel interview future film critic Pauline Kael.

“My neighbors were angry with my mother, because she fed hungry men at the back door.   They said it would bring others, and then what would she do? She said, ‘I'll feed them till the food runs out...'”









Labor Arbitrator Sam Kagel

B3. Read the recollections of Sam Kagel, a member of the 1934 Joint Marine Strike Committee and a future labor arbitrator.

“Well, first, let me tell you what happened on the first day of the [general or sympathy] strike, which was July 16.   If you know Market Street in San Francisco, imagine looking up at and seeing nothing.   There were no autos – nothing…. I liked the 1930s. The 1930s were a great period. I was full of piss and vinegar and doing what I wanted to do””


B4. Read Sam Kagel's interview in Carl Nolte's “Voices: Ah, the ‘30s, Full of Struggle And the Joy of Life,” San Francisco Chronicle , May 2, 1999.

“Unions obviously had demonstrated convincingly that by unified concerted action even with limited organization, they could paralyze an entire community.”


B5. Read chapter 2 of Jennifer Marie Winter's 1991 Masters thesis, “Thirty Years of Collective Bargaining Joseph Paul St. Sure: Management Labor Negotiator 1902 – 1966.”

St. Sure was the shipowners' chief negotiator.   Winter's thesis in the History Department at California State University, Sacramento makes extensive use of St. Sure's 1957 oral history.