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  • Opening the Closed Shop:The Galveston Longshoremen's Strike of 1920–1921
  • Joseph Abel (bio)

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Figure 1.

The Mallory steamship line's coastwise docks in Galveston as they appeared during the 1920s. Courtesy of the Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas.

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On June 25, 1920, an anonymous writer submitted a poem to the Union Review in Galveston. It read

Forth went the Hobby mandate / Throughout this Texas land To mobilize the National Guard / That was his stern command. Ho! Martial law and war declared / "By my halidom," said he, "I'll humble that Galveston / Galveston by-the-Sea."

In olden days in Ancient Rome / When Carthage did annoy The Romans sent their Scipio/ That Carthage to destroy. A modern pigmy Scipio / This Hobby, he would be, And make a modern Carthage of / Galveston by-the-Sea.

Several pompous Generals / And Colonels too galore, And Majors bold and Captains / And Lieutenants by the score, All riding fast and furious / With eagerness and glee To capture poor old Galveston / Galveston by-the-Sea.

But what of those, the rank and file / Those Texas' mothers' sons Who must obey this mandate / And handle murderous guns? Have they forsworn their manhood? / Must they automatons be? And murder men and mothers / In Galveston by-the-Sea.

"Oh, Liberty! Oh, Liberty!" / Once cried a famous dame; "Alas! Alas! The awful crimes / Committed in thy name!" 'Tis thus may cry Galveston / As to tyranny she bends her knee For outraged homes and human rights / Galveston by-the-Sea.1 [End Page 317]

These stanzas illustrate the frustration of the island's coastwise longshoremen in late June 1920 —on strike for a 25 percent wage increase since March 19. Day after day, hundreds of strikebreakers worked an increasing number of ships tied up along the docks of the Morgan Line and Mallory shipping companies. No strangers to conflict, the longshoremen were used to such tactics, but the event that inspired these verses caught them completely off guard.

On June 7, the "modern pigmy Scipio" Gov. William P. Hobby declared martial law and took control of the strike situation in Galveston. Within days, more than one thousand soldiers occupied the island and for the next four months, the striking dockworkers indeed bent their knees to what they believed was tyranny, watching as "pompous Generals" and "Majors bold" trampled upon their rights. By the time the troops left in October, the union stronghold of Galveston bore at least a metaphorical similarity to ancient Carthage—although the city remained physically intact, its entire organized labor movement lay in ruins, especially the longshore unions. Much like their Roman predecessors, business leaders and their allies in Austin hoped to prevent future annoyances from this modern Carthage; rather than salt the earth, however, these men planted and nurtured the antiunion doctrines of the open shop. Ultimately, the Galveston longshoremen's strike was a major turning point in the history of the Texas labor movement. Supported by bayonets and rifles, Texas's business interests joined the nationwide assault on the American working class and launched the capital-state alliance that would prove so disastrous for organized labor through the 1920s.2

When the 1,600 members of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) Locals 385 and 807 walked off their jobs on March 19, 1920, they had no idea that their actions would have such dramatic repercussions. The weeks and months leading up to the strike had demonstrated the longshoremen's continued faith in the wartime bargaining power granted them by the federal government through the National Adjustment Commission (NAC). The origins of the strike lay in two hearings held between ILA representatives, the shipping companies, and the NAC in October and December 1919. Presented with a demand for higher wages, the shipping representatives stubbornly refused, arguing instead that Congress must first [End Page 318] allow an increase in freight rates. The newly reorganized peacetime NAC, meanwhile, backed off, stating that the privately owned shipping companies bore full responsibility for resolving the wage dispute, thus effectively eschewing its functions as arbitrator. By March 1920, the longshoremen had had enough of this back-and-forth. Following the lead...


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