1920, Harry Bridges walked down the gangplank of an Australian
sailing ship and set foot on the San Francisco Waterfront
for the first time. Only 19 years old, he was a seasoned
3-year veteran of the high seas. His eyes had already
seen so much. Images of worldwide poverty and disease haunted
him. And. As a sailor he knew first hand about isolation,
miserable and humiliating living conditions, and the ever-present
struggle autocratic power. Although he grew up comfortably
in conservative middle-class surroundings - his father was
a prosperous real
estate agent- Bridges developed a “feel” for the
working class and poor early on. His uncle was the catalyst.
Christened Alfred Renton Bridges, Harry assumed his beloved uncle’s first name as a child. Uncle Harry told his admiring nephew exciting tales of his experience’s in the Boer War and was a staunch supporter of trade unionism and the socialist policies of the Australian Labor Party. Uncle Harry didn’t know it at the time, of course, but he was seeding the fertile imagination of a boy who would grow into a man who would change the entire face of the American labor movement.
As a youth, Bridges learned from his family, never bow to authority. He refused to lick postage stamps bearing the likeness of the British queen. He said, because “my parents told me never to lick the ass of royalty.” At 14 Harry was put to work by his father as a rent collector. But squeezing the poor in Melbourne’s slums proved to be a painful experience. He got work, as a clerk at a stationary store, but became bored restless.
At 16, he joined the Merchant Marine. Within weeks, he was on strike in support of a railway union; within a year, the dispute mushroomed into a major general strike. By the time he came to the United States, the young man from Melbourne was a committed unionist and survivor of two shipwrecks. In San Francisco, home of home of his favorite author, Jack London, Bridges paid a “head tax” to secure alien status, exchanged his Australian seaman’s union book for membership in the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific, and made the City by the Bay his home port.
A crewman aboard an American ship, Bridges landed in Boston in 1921 during the dead of winter. Climatized to the warmer temperatures of Melbourne, he found the harsh northeast weather unpleasant and bought a ticket New Orleans. There, he encountered the radical Industrial Workers of the World, who were organizing seaman left jobless by a slack in shipping following World War I. The “Wobblies” espoused militant job actions, encouraged rank and file decisions, and opposed racial discrimination and segregation. Bridges found many of their ideas compatible with his socialist views and joined them. Later in ’21 he became deeply entrenched in a nation-wide strike by seaman and marine engineers. He reported for and was shortly arrested and jailed.
The Strike failed under threats of retaliation, the union supporters either returned to work or got out of town. Bridges, ever the pragmatist , took a hike south of the border to look for work. “Mexico thrilled me”, he said of the Obregon government’s reforms. “For instance in the case of a strike the government barricaded the plant …. Then the workers, the employers, and the representatives of the government sat down together and arbitrated until the dispute was settled. The employers were not allowed to use strike breakers either”.
“ Nowhere else in the world had I’d seen that before. And It struck me as a forceful social mechanism that might be employed anywhere by governments, as between the strong and weak anywhere”. By 1922, Bridges was back in San Francisco, this time on the docks. Now with a family to raise he found it tough to make ends meet. Hours were long, the pay low, the work, back breaking. Employers made constant demands for “speed up”, endangering the health and safety of workers. Worst of all was the “Shape Up,” boss-controlled job assignment corrupted by favoritism and kickbacks. “ We were hired of the streets like a bunch of sheep,” he said once “standing there from six o’clock in the morning in all kinds of weather.”
In later years, Bridges recalled that conditions at the San Francisco and Pacific coast waterfronts held the dubious distinction of being the worst in the entire world. Bridges saw what needed to be done, and became vocal supporter of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) in 1924 as a replacement for an ineffective company union called “Blue Book”. He was promptly blacklisted from Blue Book jobs and found it hard to get work on the waterfront until 1927. Then, just as things were getting better, the Depression hit.
The Bridges family lost everything. Harry couldn’t even afford the $10.00 filing fee to complete his naturalization application. For awhile the family was on relief: in exchange for groceries and rent, Harry was required to work jobs assigned by the city, including demolishing abandoned horse stables and paving streets. But he never gave up his fight to establish a member controlled union on the waterfront, and soon he became the unofficial leader of the movement.
By 1932, Bridges was the spokesman for a group of Dockers who organized themselves into a group of 500, and were eventually called the Albion Hall Group after the site of their frequent meetings. They advocated militant action and were given control of “The Waterfront Worker”, a newspaper established by the Communist Party (without success) to promote unionism in the maritime industry. The paper became a powerful organizing tool, the voice of longshore militancy and unity.
By the spring of 1934, Bridges and the men he agitated for a waterfront shutdown with the help of other maritime unions. Their militancy was contagious and quickly spread to other West Coast ports. At 8:00 P.M. May 9, 1934 longshoremen from Bellingham to San Diego walked off the job and sealed off almost 2000 miles of coastline. Warehouse workers joined the effort and refused to handle scab cargoes. Employers were determined to keep the docks open using strikebreakers and bringing political pressure to bear. The “Industrial Association of San Francisco”, a group of wealthy and vehemently anti-union from almost every bank and major corporation, fanned the flames by convincing city fathers to use police to intervene in the dispute.
Mayor Joseph Rossi pledged to rid the city of “every Communist agitator” on the docks. Other cities along the coast followed suit. The tragic consequence was the Thursday July 5 shooting of striking longshoremen in San Francisco, Seattle and San Pedro, and hundreds of injuries up and down the coast. The violence of “Bloody Thursday” spurred even more conflict. Governor Frank Merriam ordered the National Guard to San Francisco, ostensibly to keep the peace, but in reality to ensure the scab workers access to the docks. Employers offered Bridges a $50,000 bribe to back off the Dockers demand for a hiring hall. ILA official negotiated a deal with the bosses behind closed doors, which the strikers overwhelmingly rejected.
Bridges had his own idea ideas about how to settle the dispute. He and other ILA members went other local unions throughout the city, seeking their support. Union after union voted to strike in sympathy with the maritime workers; the Labor Council culminated the solidarity efforts by declaring a general strike for July 16. Although the general strike lasted only four days, it changed everything; the balance of power shifted dramatically. Employers agreed to submit bargaining issues to arbitration; Dockers went back to work July 31, 1934.
By October the new contract was ratified. Longshoremen won a coast-wide agreement, a union hiring hall, shorter hours, safer conditions, and increased pay. Union organizing in all sectors blossomed throughout the country. Despite the success of the ’34 strike, employers -flush with cash and bolstered by the US Government took on Harry Bridges time and time again. Major dock strikes 1936,1937 and in the 40’s. It wasn’t until after the strike of 1948 that relative labor peace was realized.
Bridges 1934 triumph catapulted him to the forefront of the labor movement. But he often found himself at odds with his more conservative contemporaries. The ILA splintered, with the ILWU taking form under Bridges’ direction as a rift between the AFL and CIO stirred up controversy in the highly charged atmosphere of the 30’s . The newly formed ILWU, with Bridges as President affiliated with the more progressive CIO. Of that move he said: “A labor movement is of value to it’s component organizations only as long as it advances, only as long as it is ruled by the membership and not the top leadership. Labor cannot stand still. It must not retreat. It must go on, or go under.”
CIO President John L. Lewis appointed Bridges CIO regional director of the nine western states and the territories of Alaska and Hawaii. During the ILWU’s 12 year affiliation the union spread it’s wings, organized warehouse, cannery and produce workers, and embarked on it’s “March Inland” to cities as far east as Chicago and Cleveland, and as far south as New Orleans. In Hawaii, Dockers were first to organize under the ILWU after a bitter and bloody battle for union recognition in 1938. Sugar, Pineapple and other workers later came into the fold. By the late 40’s Bridges fulfilled the vow he made during the 1936 west coast dock strike: “The longshoremen’s union is not going to stay on the waterfront.
Called a “RED” by employers since 1934 the label stuck to Bridges throughout his entire life. Although he was never a member of the Communist Party, he made no bone about his adherence to Marxism. “My thinking is Marxist,” he said “And the basic thinking about this lousy capitalist system is that the workers create the wealth, but those who own it -the rich- Keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer”. In 1936 the US government launched it’s first effort to deport Harry Bridges. He was classified as an “undesirable alien” and alleged to a member of the Communist Party. A hearing by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) determined the charge had no merit as did another hearing in 1939 by the Labor Department. But clamor for Harry’s head continued.
The House of Representatives passed legislation in 1940 specifically targeting him for deportation. The bill failed in the Senate, but for lack of desire to rid the nation of Harry Bridges. The Attorney General convinced to let him act against Bridges after the INS was moved from the jurisdiction of the Labor Department to the Justice Department. When that deed was done, the nations chief prosecutor ordered an FBI investigation and issued the second warrant for Bridges arrest. In 1945, a series of convictions, reversals brought the case to the Supreme Court. By a 5-3 decision the Court reversed the deportation order noting that Bridges had been a victim of “a concentrated and relentless crusade to deport an individual because he dared to exercise the freedom that belongs to him as a human being and that is guaranteed to him by the Constitution.” With that behind him, Harry became a citizen of the United States.
During World War II, when the US and the Soviet Union aligned against Nazi Germany, the ILWU set productivity records, and Bridges promoted a no-strike for all unions: few questions were raised about his loyalty then. But, in the late 40’s the two super powers were hotly engaged in a Cold War, and Bridges along with the ILWU became targets of the Red-baiting hysteria infecting the entire nation. Those who resisted the nations sharp turn to the right were automatically suspect; Bridges was no exception. The government resuscitated it’s worn-out campaign to deport him. And the CIO which found his politics distasteful, expelled the ILWU after he called for union autonomy.
During the 1948 deportation trial , federal prosecutors - armed with an FBI file containing 38,000 sheets of paper-alleged that Bridges had lied at the time of his naturalization when he swore that he had never been a member of the Communist Party. His witnesses, ILWU Vice President J. R. Robertson and Coast Committeeman Henry Schmidt were included in the charges of criminal conspiracy to defraud the government. Once again the case went to the Supreme Court, with the same results. But government attorneys initiated yet another trial alleging civil, instead of criminal conspiracy. Although the charges were dismissed once and for all in 1955, the Internal Revenue Service required Bridges, Robertson and Schmidt to pay income taxes on funds raised for their defense.
Reflecting on his trials with the US government, Bridges later said, “Ninety-five percent of the evidence against me was absolutely true. But one thing I didn’t do. I didn’t happen to be affiliated with the Communist Party. His marriage in 1958 to Noriko “Nikki” Sawada - an American of Japanese ancestry stirred up even more controversy. Their nuptials were blocked by a archaic law forbidding marriage between members of different races. Nikki came into the marriage the a history and a mind of her own. As a child she suffered the indignities of California’s infamous concentration camps where Japanese Americans were imprisoned during World War II. The experience served as the foundation for her activism in later years. Nikki was more than “Mrs. Harry Bridges.” She was she was his partner in the truest sense, a partner that talked back. She played an integral role in the ILWU and the myriad causes and programs it supported. A writer, a poet she was- and is a public figure in her own right.
By the time the late ‘50s rolled around, technology loomed on the horizon. Harry Bridges, the pragmatic visionary, paid attention. Mechanization of the longshore industry, he was certain was inevitable. A series of discussions with the maritime employers gave birth to the landmark Mechanization and Modernization Agreement in 1960.
Although some members feared loss of jobs, the agreement was ratified, setting the standard in the industry. It allowed the employers to use machinery to reduce the number of longshore jobs through attrition. The trade-off innovative protections for the longshoremen, including a multi-million dollar fund to supplement pensions and guarantee pay (PGP)for those who opted not to retire. The “M&M”, as it was called, cost the shippers some $29 million but saved them $200 million in reduced costs, and boosted productivity to record levels. Bridges was hailed as a “labor statesman” (a label he flatly rejected because it implied he had sold out) and “a man of his word” by the very employers who had previously sought to do him in. The irony never escaped him. In 1970, Mayor Joseph Alioto appointed Bridges to the San Francisco Port Commission. For the next decade, Bridges was a active promoter of the Port , yet never yielded to pressures that would put his members in jeopardy.
Bridges was a staunch advocate of civil rights ever since his brief association with the wobblies in 1921. These views were fostered and established as policy during union organizing on the San Francisco waterfront in the early ‘30s. In 1942, his “On the Beam” column in “The Dispatcher” called for an end to discrimination against Blacks and women. He was among the first in the labor movement to condemn the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. And in the early ‘60s he was strongly critical of the governments lackluster investigation into the bombings of black churches and the deaths of civil rights activists in the south.
Politically, Bridges was often at polar extremes with the US government. In 1937,, he advocated a one-day shutdown of the San Francisco port to protest the US policy of non-support for the Republican government of Spain. Similar actions were taken the year previous, when the ILWU refused to handle cargoes bound for Fascist controlled Italy, and in 1938, when scrap iron headed for Japan was left on the docks in wake of that country’s invasion of China.
In 1947, Bridges tangled with President Harry Truman over Truman’s threat to use the Army to break railroad and maritime strikes. He called Truman “a political accident, a back room politician, a man without vision or courage …. A strikebreaker”. Bridges openly opposed the Korean War and the cold war policies of Truman and Eisenhower, and cautioned against expansion of the military industrial complex. Finding no safe harbor for labor with either Democrats nor Republicans, he called for the formation of an independent labor party.
The vision of Harry Bridges was never more evident than in his 1954 column condemning US policy in Indo China; he predicted with startling accuracy the perils of US involvement , which ultimately led to American troops in Viet Nam. And when the war became a tragic reality, Bridges was a unceasing critic , urging the ILWU membership into formal protest. Bridges kept the rank and file of the ILWU as his touchstone and guide, constantly pushing to preserve union democracy. Caucus and convention delegates set policies; negotiating committees spearheaded contract talks; locals operated autonomously. And the membership had the final word on everything through secret ballot elections, referendums, initiatives, recalls and contract votes.
Meanwhile Harry lived modestly and took pride in being one of the lowest paid in the nation. “It is good union policy that officers should not earn so much that they drift away from the members”, he said. Bridges was a firm believer in labor solidarity and frequently argued that “the union could not go it alone” and remain effective. In 1935, he supported the Maritime Federation of the Pacific as a unifying force for workers in the industry. I the ‘50s and ‘60s he reached out to the Teamsters and the ILA which-like the ILWU were considered renegades in the labor movement. And when the ILWU considered affiliation with the AFL-CIO in the late ‘80s, Bridges supported the move.
Retiring from the ILWU in 1977 on a longshore pension, Bridges new paths as the vice president of the California Congress of Seniors and became a formidable lobbyist for senior citizens. “I’m not looking for a job.” He said then. And I don’t plan to make any money out of it. It’s time they were organized into one organization so they can hammer on the door of the White House – or kick the door in.”
A living legend in his retirement years, Bridges was courted by politicos of every persuasion and defied by the press and hundreds of groups- labor seniors, and otherwise. True to his nature, he chafed under the burden of accolades and never failed to remind those who praised him that it was the MEMBERSHIP – not Harry Bridges who should be honored for the ILWU’s success.
“I JUST GOT THE CREDIT FOR A LOT OF IT … I WAS A WORKING STIFF WHO HAPPENED TO BE AROUND AT THE RIGHT TIME”
Date: Third Thursday Every Month
Time: 7 p.m.
Place: Union Hall