“Thumb Tacks” and “Hot Cargo” Revisited

Posted March 7, 2009

Since I wrote the first essay for this webzine (see “Spatiality and Working Class Solidarity”), I have been preoccupied with how workers can create their own spatiality to hit back against capitalism.

While reading about strikes and picketing in Los Angeles during the 1930s, I found a couple of interesting “spatial” tactics workers used during their picketing. I decided to introduce these tactics to webzine readers who, in turn, might give me insights into better understanding the incidents. Before getting to the stories of the strikes, I will discuss the background of the time period – a situation that is similar to the present.

The Great Depression began in 1929 and workers and the poorest sections of society bore most of the burdens of the economic downturn. Between 1930 and 1932 average weekly wages declined from $25.03 to $ 16.73. By 1933 a third of the nation’s wage earners became unemployed. Many workers and farmers could not pay their rent or meet their mortgage payments and were evicted from their homes and thrown out into the street.

Many workers bore the economic hardships as personal matters and did their best to manage their lives by themselves, but some responded with militant collective actions to the job losses and wage cuts. During the first several years of the depression rank-and-file workers in mass production, mining, and agriculture, took job security problems into their own hands by organizing wild-cat strikes.

Reacting to the workers’ militant rebellions, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration enacted several laws on work relief and labor disputes and tried to channel workers militancy into an institutionalized arrangement. Section 7(a) of NLRA provided workers with the right to “organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.” However, the Roosevelt administration did not enforce the law.

Many employers ignored Section 7(a) or pre-empted it by organizing company unions and used legal and extra-legal violence to crush unions. Facing their employers’ strong resistance to union recognition, workers launched strikes and were determined to enforce the Section 7(a) by themselves. During 1933 and 1934 about 2.5 million workers organized over 3,500 strikes and in 1937 the nation witnessed almost 5,000 strikes in which over 1,860,000 workers were involved.

In October 1933 when the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union called for a nationwide general strike for the purpose of a close shop contract, Los Angeles garment workers, especially Mexican women workers, participated. In the city over 200 small clothing shops scattered in downtown employed about 10,000 workers. Picketing was conducted in front of many dress shops, the owner of which had refused to recognize the union. Pickets thus “moved around” the district when non-strikers came to and from the dress shops.

The city was notorious for police brutality and the battle between the police and pickets began. the police “picked up” many female strikers every day.

A week after the strike began the Los Angeles Times reported that there were several “riots” by garment workers. According to the police, the strikers adopted a new tactic that day: they threw hundreds of “tacks” for two blocks on the city streets.

One historian mentions that the strikers threw tacks to prevent police from easily chasing them. Although I have not delved into what the strikers and the union’s motivations were, this tactic definitely grabbed my attention. Even though the strikers might not have verbally expressed it, the workers might have tried to put “space” or a certain territory under their control.

Next story involves untouchable so-called “Hot Cargo,” which was widely practiced by teamsters and longshoremen during the 1930s. For example, in February 1937, Los Angeles teamsters patrolled all sections of the port of San Pedro and escorted every truck coming into the harbor to a station and inspected whether the driver was a member of the union. When the driver refused to join the union, teamsters immediately declared, “This truck is hot!” Then, longshoremen at the harbor refused to “touch” the hot cargo, meaning that they would not load or unload the truck.

Nowadays most garment working jobs have moved to Asia. Containerization and the laws prohibiting hot cargo practices or sympathy strikes have changed the cooperative relationship between teamsters and longshoremen. However, I wonder if we still have in our hands some tools, such as the tacks used by the garment workers, to block the capitalist order, and have the capacities, as shown in the hot cargo practices, to build solidarity between unions?