Marvin Ricks was a 22-year-old Portland dock worker when local longshoremen joined the West Coast Waterfront Strike of 1934.
For three months starting that May, thousands of workers shut down every U.S. port on the Pacific Coast, demanding an independent union. They won, but only after battling police and hired goons in every major West Coast city, including Portland, where one strike-breaking worker is the only known casualty.
(By comparison, the Pacific Northwest Region of Carpenters, representing 1,300 drywallers in Oregon and Southwest Washington, went on strike starting June 1, with peaceful pickets going up in the Pearl District and South Waterfront.)
Ricks was muscle for the union, fighting scabs and defending picket lines. Charged along with 31 others with murdering a scab, he spent 42 days in jail before the charge was dismissed. He retired from the docks in 1976, still a proud member of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union, AFL-CIO.
At 95, Ricks is the last remaining survivor of the strike that the union can find. He sat down with WW at his room in the Beaverton Hills Assisted Living Center on the strike's 73rd anniversary to recall a defining moment in the labor movement.
WW: What was your role in the strike?
Marvin Ricks: I was on what we called "the riot squad." Each gate at every terminal in Portland had 10 [union] men guarding it. Any time there was trouble, 40 men, called riot squads, could get down there in five minutes. Maybe just appearing would cancel the problem. Or sometimes we talked to a few men "by hand." You know, threw a couple of punches.
You were a tough guy?
I weighed 150 pounds. I was pretty darn tough, though. I had one friend that was a college wrestling champ and another friend that had boxed for a living, so I got pretty fair at both.
I heard you used slingshots, too.
We shot ball bearings—they traveled true, much better than rocks. And they were throwing shackles and anything they could find back at us.
And the people you fought?
They were all scabs.
But these were just people looking for work. Ever feel bad about it?
No. Because we had local men. Most of the ones who came as scabs were from out of town, especially the Middle West. And they were the scum of where they came from. You had a job where you lived if you were a decent worker.
You're proud of the strike?
This was just one of many strikes, but this was the one that got unions started in the United States. We had a company union, and we got that shut down. I was proud of the fact that I helped, because this affected actually the whole world. Before that, no one had won a strike.
I hear prostitutes made sandwiches for the strikers.
Only one day a week, and the taxi cabs would deliver them for free. Within three blocks of the hiring hall [at Northwest 9th Avenue and Everett Street], there were nothing but bootleggers and whorehouses. There were 1,500 men who got a payday on Saturday. Half got drunk and went to a whorehouse.
Did you know any?
I became very well acquainted with a black whore, and we'd stop and talk. She'd say, "Well, we don't like to do this, but we have to eat." Which is true. Negroes could only get a job at the railroad depot.
You were charged with murder?
Yeah, and that was a relief. I thought it might have been sabotage, or assault and battery, or something that I had [actually] done.
Was the jail as crowded as Wapato is now?
Jail was fun. For a single kid, that is. The food was good, the place was clean, and we had a continuous poker game going.
Today's unions seem like wimps.
They should be. The world should progress a little bit, without doing things with your fists. It's much better to try to win it through arbitration or legal methods.
Did you also go after scabs in the bars?
We got a call one night and the bar owner says, "Hey, I've got a couple of men in here talking, and they sound like scabs." This was up on [Northwest] 23rd and Lovejoy, I believe. So four of us went in there, and these two scabs kind of paled when we walked in. We says, "Hi, fellas, it's good to see you again," and put a wrist lock on each one when we were shaking hands. With a wrist lock, you can break an arm if you want to, or dislocate a shoulder. We said, "Fellas, we know you're too drunk to get home, so we'll carry you home." So we arm-marched them out and then talked to them by hand, a few judicious punches here and there.
What about the cops?
The police were nearly all for us. And then Mayor [Joseph] Carson began pulling all the good police uptown to direct traffic, and sent the bad ones down. But then we had one detective that was a friend of ours. And every week he would mail us a letter containing the names and addresses of all the new special policemen the department had hired, so that we knew where to lay in wait to catch them when they went home. That discouraged people from joining [the police], because you couldn't get home. You couldn't have quite so much fun doing this.
Ricks and 31 others were charged in the murder of James Connor during a riot. Ricks had an alibi but stayed in jail until charges were dropped for the others. Evidence suggests Connor died from a stray shot fired by another scab.
Ricks, a widower, has three children, "about" 13 grandchildren and 14 great-grandkids.