July 18, 1934: The Battle of Smith Cove

Seattle police with submachine guns guarding Pier 41, Seattle, July 20, 1934
Museum of History & Industry

Seattle police with submachine guns guarding Pier 41, Seattle, July 20, 1934
Museum of History & Industry

The conflict between organized labor and its antagonists was rarely as blatant in Seattle as it was during the West Coast Waterfront Strike of 1934. This episode of Cascadian history deserves revived scrutiny as much as any such noteworthy point of local activist lore.

The strike, in which nearly 35,000 West Coast maritime workers participated for up to 83 days, began on May 9, with more than 12,000 longshoremen initially participating, including up to 2,000 in Seattle. Called by the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) of the Pacific District, the strike was a collective response to the failure of many West Coast port bosses to comply with the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), a crucial legislative element of the New Deal of 1933. The NIRA required “that every National Recovery Administration code, guarantee to employees the right to organize and bargain collectively without interference from their employers.”

In Seattle, ILA Local 38-12 waged a particularly frustrating struggle against our city’s bosses and cops, which had already seen a few riots downtown and at least one fatality, namely Shelvy Daffron, a rank-and-file Local 12 member who was shot in the back on June 30 by a port guard during an attempt to disrupt police-protected scab work at Smith Cove, near Piers 40 and 41 (near the Magnolia Bridge, known today as Piers 90 and 91). On the date in focus here, some 1,500 ILA members from Seattle, Tacoma, Everett, and Bellingham made another organized effort to break into the piers at Smith Cove to disrupt the unloading of cargo by scab workers. They were initially repelled by tear gas, but succeeded in a second charge, then stayed at Smith Cove, camping out overnight. The next day, joined by a second ILA contingent, they soon found themselves faced with cops armed with tear gas, billy clubs, and machine guns — the latter a drastic measure personally ordered by Charles Smith, Seattle’s newly-elected and notoriously labor-hostile mayor (no relation to Dr. Henry A. Smith, the early white settler for whom Smith Cove was named).

From the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 19, 1934

From the Seattle Post-Intelligencer,
July 19, 1934

Similar strike-related melees occurred that week in Portland and San Francisco. This all transpired in a context of national anti-Communist hysteria, which Seattle’s daily newspapers amply demonstrated in their coverage of both the strike and the violence that surrounded it. On the first day of the clash at Smith Cove, while six unionists were arrested at the cove, five Communists were rounded up and arrested during a raid on Seattle’s Communist Party headquarters in Pioneer Square; the following day, twenty-eight more Communists were arrested in a second raid. There was also a coast-wide internecine rift between radical Communist Party members involved in the strike and the more moderate unionists who dominated the ILA leadership. The radicals were pressing for another Seattle General Strike, while the moderates shunned such talk, blaming the radicals in the local press for instigating the violence at Smith Cove.

While there were many injuries, there were no fatalities in the Battle of Smith Cove, which lasted through late July. The 1934 West Coast Waterfront Strike ended officially on July 31, when, after a coast-wide vote in favor of government arbitration, West Coast longshoremen went back to work. On October 12, President Roosevelt, acting on a decision by a labor arbitration board, granted the ILA control over hiring hall dispatching, a crucial element of the ILA’s demands. The strike is believed by many to have been the catalyst of a resurgence of unionism on the West Coast, and the ILA benefited greatly with a membership surge that reached 12,000 in number the following year.

Sources: “Tear Gas Routs Mob in Smith Cove Riot,” The Seattle Times, July 18, 1934, p. 1; “Raiders Arrest 11 at Office of Sailors’ Union,” The Seattle Times, July 18, 1934, p. 10; “Mayor Smith Moves to Drive Out Reds,” The Seattle Times, July 18, 1934, p. 11; “U.S. Mediator Fired On; Big Seattle Red Roundup,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 19, 1934, p. 1; Marion Badcon, “1,500 Strikers in Pitched Battle With Police at Smith Cove Dock,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 19, 1934, p. C; “Smith Cove Riots Fomented by Communist Hand Bills,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 19, 1934, p. C; “Eleven Jailed After Rioting at Smith Cove,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 19, 1934, p. C; “Casualty List in Waterfront Strike Clashes,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 19, 1934, p. C; “Police Rushed to Scene of Rioting,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 19, 1934, p. C; “Beaten Policeman Tells Own Story of Dock Clash,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 19, 1934, p. C; “28 Reds Arrested; Pickets Hampering Work at Smith Cove,” The Seattle Times, July 19, 1934, p. 1; “33 Are Taken By Police Here in Red Raids,” The Seattle Times, July 19, 1934, p. 10; “Lull in Battle: Smith Cove Tense From Riot; Threat of Violence Still Lingers,” The Seattle Times, July 19, 1934, p. 11; “Chief Howard Resigns,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 20, 1934, p. 1; “Strikers Here Seen in Favor of Arbitration,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 20, 1934, p. 1; “Seattle Police Jail 35, Seize Literature, in Drive on Reds,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 20, 1934, p. 2; “Mayor Leads Police in Routing Strikers,” The Seattle Times, July 20, 1934, p. 1; “Comstock or Olmsted To Be New Chief,” The Seattle Times, July 20, 1934, p. 9; “Bay City Dray Union Acts; Port Blockade Here Broken; Police Gas Attack Routs Mob,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 21, 1934, p. 1; “Injured Policeman Describes Smith Cove Dock Battle,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 21, 1934, p. 2; R. B. Bermann, “Mayor Leads Vigorous Drive Against Smith Cove Strike Pickets,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 21, 1934, p. 3; “Police Arrest Street Orator,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 22, 1934, p. 3; Ronald Magden, “A History of Seattle Waterfront Workers” (ILWU 19, 1991); Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project (www.civilrights.washington.edu).