Harry Bridges

Harry Bridges

Harry Bridges on the cover of Time Magazine, July 19, 1937
Born July 28, 1901(1901-07-28)
Melbourne, Australia
Died March 30, 1990 (aged 88)
San Francisco, California
Occupation Labor leader

Harry Bridges (July 28, 1901–March 30, 1990) was an influential Australian-American union leader, in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), a longshore (dock) and warehouse workers' union on the West Coast, Hawaii and Alaska which he helped form and led for over 40 years. As controversial as he was charismatic, he was prosecuted by the US government during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, and was convicted by a federal jury of having lied about his Communist Party membership, a conviction which was set aside. On the West Coast, Bridges still excites passions both for and against the labor movement.


[edit] Early life on the docks

Bridges was born Alfred Renton Bridges in Melbourne. He went to sea at age 16 as a merchant seaman, and joined the Australian sailors' union. He took the name Harry from a beloved uncle, who was a socialist and an adventurer, much in the cut of Jack London, the writer who also inspired young Harry to go to sea.

He entered the United States in 1920, where his American colleagues nicknamed him "The Beak" for his prominent nose, "The Limey," as they couldn't tell the difference between an Australian and an Englishman, and finally "Australian Harry" or "Racehorse Harry" to differentiate him from all other Harrys by his nationality and love of the racetrack. He became a naturalized US citizen in 1945.

In 1921, Bridges joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), participating in an unsuccessful nationwide seamen's strike. While Bridges left the IWW shortly thereafter with doubts about the organization, his early experiences in the IWW and in Australian unions would influence his beliefs on militant unionism, based on rank and file power and involvement.

Bridges left the sea for longshore work in San Francisco in 1922. The shipowners had created a company union, generally known as the "blue book union" because of the color of the membership books that members carried, after the International Longshoremen's Association local in San Francisco was destroyed by a lost strike in 1919. Bridges resisted joining the blue book union, finding casual work on the docks as a "pirate". When he joined the San Francisco local of the ILA and participated in a Labor Day parade in 1924, he found himself blacklisted for several years. Bridges eventually joined the blue book union in 1927, finding work as a winch operator and rigger on a steel-handling gang.

[edit] The Albion Hall group

The ILA renewed its efforts to reestablish itself on the West Coast, chartering a new local in San Francisco in 1933. With the passage that year of the National Industrial Recovery Act, which contained some encouraging but unenforceable provisions declaring that workers had the right to organize unions of their own choice, thousands of longshoremen joined the new ILA local.

At the time Bridges was a member of a circle of longshoremen that came to be known as the "Albion Hall Group", after their meeting place. The group attracted members from a variety of backgrounds: members of the Communist Party, which was then trying to organize all longshoremen, sailors and other maritime workers into the Maritime Workers Industrial Union (MWIU), as a revolutionary, industry-wide alternative to the ILA and other American Federation of Labor (AFL) unions; former IWW members, and others with no clearly defined politics. The federal government later spent an unsuccessful effort for nearly two decades to deport or convict Bridges on the ground that he was a secret member of the Communist Party. He was convicted of perjury for lying about his Communist Party membership when making his application for naturalization, but the Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 1953 on the ground that the prosecution was untimely. (In 1994, Harvey Klehr published evidence from Soviet archives, suggesting Bridges was a member at one point of the Communist Party USA and served on the party's Central Committee for a time in the 1930s; there is no evidence he was a Soviet agent, though Klehr's The Soviet World of American Communism indicates that any member of the CPUSA's Central Committee was operating at the direction of Moscow. Cf. Klehr, p. 20.)

This group had acquired some influence on the docks through its publication The Waterfront Worker, a mimeographed sheet sold for a penny that published articles written by longshoremen and seamen, almost always under pseudonyms, that focused on workers' day-to-day concerns: the pace of work, the weight of loads, abusive bosses, and unsafe working conditions. While the first editions were published in the apartment of an MWIU member on a second-hand mimeograph machine, the paper remained independent of both the party and the MWIU.

Although Bridges was sympathetic to much of the MWIU's program in 1933, he chose to join the new ILA local. When the local held elections, Bridges and fellow members of the Albion Hall group made up a majority of the executive board and held two of the three business agents positions.

The Albion Hall Group stressed the self-help tactics of syndicalism, urging workers to organize by taking part in strikes and slowdowns, rather than depending on governmental assistance under the NIRA. It also campaigned for membership participation in the new ILA local, which had not bothered to hold any membership meetings. Finally, the group started laying the groundwork for organizing on a coastwide basis, meeting with activists from Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington and organizing a federation of all of the different unions that represented maritime workers.

Under Bridges' leadership, the group organized a successful 5-day strike in October, 1933 to force Matson Navigation Company to reinstate four longshoremen it had fired for wearing ILA buttons on the job. Threats also issued from Longshoremen at other ports to refuse to handle Matson cargo unless the company rehired the four men.

[edit] The Big Strike

As 1934 began, Bridges and the Albion Hall group and militants in other ports began planning a coastwide strike. The Roosevelt administration tried to head off the strike by appointing a mediation board to oversee negotiations, but neither side accepted its proposed compromise. Bridges was elected chairman of the strike committee.

The 1934 West Coast Longshore Strike began on May 9. While the elected local officers were the nominal leaders of the strike at its outset, Bridges led the planning of the strike along with his friend Sam Kagel, the rank-and-file opposition to the two proposed contracts that the leadership negotiated and the membership rejected during the strike, and the dealings with other unions during and after the four-day San Francisco General strike after "Bloody Thursday" on July 5, when police aided the Waterfront Employers Association in trucking cargo from the pierheads to the warehouses through the union's picket line. Scores of strikers were beaten or wounded by gunfire during the battle. During a coordinated raid on the union mess hall at the corner of Steuart and Mission San Francisco Police shot and killed Howard Sperry, a striking sailor, and Nick Counderakis (AKA Nick Bordoise), member of the cook's union and a strike sympathizer helping out at the mess hall. Scores of others were wounded by police gunfire as well, including a number of bystanders as the ensuing battle quickly spilled into the nearby downtown area.

Bridges became the chief spokesperson for the union in negotiations after workers rejected the second agreement negotiated by the old leadership in June. Bridges did not, on the other hand, control the strike: the ILA membership voted to accept arbitration to end the strike over his strong objections. Similarly, Bridges' opposition did not stop the ILA leadership from extending the union's contract with the employers, rather than striking in solidarity with the seamen, in 1935.

[edit] Growth and independence

Bridges was elected president of the San Francisco local in 1935 and then president of the Pacific Coast District of the ILA in 1936. During this period the ILA commenced "the March Inland", in which it organized the many warehouses, both in the ports themselves and further removed from them, that received the goods that longshoremen handled. Bridges led efforts to form Maritime Federation of the Pacific, which brought all of the maritime unions together for common action. That federation helped the sailors union win the same sort of contract after a long strike in 1936 that the ILA had achieved in 1934.

In 1937, the Pacific Coast district, with the exception of three locals in the Northwest, formally seceded from the ILA, renaming itself the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, after the International attempted to reorganize the existing locals, abandon representation of warehousemen and reverse the unions' policies on issues such as unemployment insurance. Bridges was elected president of the new union, which quickly affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Bridges became the West Coast Director for the CIO shortly thereafter.

The ILWU also established strong unions on the docks in Hawai'i during this time and later–despite the concerted opposition of the employers, the military and most of the political establishment–among sugar and pineapple workers there. The ILWU's work changed the political climate in Hawai'i, breaking the hold on power that the white landed elite had exercised for half a century.

[edit] Legal battles

In the fall of 1934, two immigration officials from Seattle and Portland wrote Frances Perkins, the Secretary of Labor, asking for a warrant for Bridge's arrest and deportation and backed their request with affidavits by four men who said they'd seen Bridges participating in Communist Party activity. Also included was a photostatic copy of a CP membership card issued to one "Harry Dorgan." The claim being that as Harry's mother's maiden name was Dorgan, that this was his name in the Party and this was a copy of his membership card. Under intense pressure from Congressional conservatives, Perkins reluctantly agreed to allow the charges to proceed. But when the case finally came to hearing in 1939 the government's case fell apart: its witnesses included an admitted perjurer, a lawyer who had been disbarred by New York and Illinois for jury tampering and racketeering, a former party employee facing prosecution for fraudulent receipt of relief checks, the manager of a restaurant who thought that Bridges was a party member because one of the people who frequently had lunch with Bridges and his wife may have been a communist, and a former official with another union who testified that Bridges was a communist because he introduced a resolution at a meeting of the Maritime Federation that urged all the member unions to join the CIO. The administrative judge ruled that the government had failed to prove its case.

The government made a second effort to deport Bridges in 1941. In this case the administrative judge found that the evidence supported the charges against Bridges, but the Board of Immigration Appeals reversed him. The US Attorney General, Francis Biddle, overruled the Board, only to be reversed in turn in 1945 by the Supreme Court, which found the evidence to be insufficient as a matter of law.

That was not, as it turns out, the end of the battle. In 1948, the federal government tried Bridges for perjuring himself when he stated in his application for naturalization that he was not a member of the Communist Party. The jury convicted Bridges and his two co-defendants; the Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 1953 on the ground that the prosecution was untimely.

While the Supreme Court's decision ended the criminal prosecution against Bridges and his co-defendants, the government's civil case to revoke his naturalization proceeded in federal court. The trial judge ruled in Bridges' favor in 1954; the government did not appeal.

[edit] Political battles

Bridges hewed to the Communist Party line throughout the late 1930s and 1940s. After the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was signed in 1939, the party attacked Roosevelt and Churchill as warmongers and adopted the slogan "The Yanks Ain't Coming", Bridges denounced Roosevelt for betraying labor and preparing for war. John L. Lewis, the head of the CIO, responded by abolishing the position of West Coast director of the CIO, limiting Bridges' authority to California, in October 1939.

Bridges continued opposing the Roosevelt Administration, belittling the value of the New Deal, and urging union voters to withhold their support from Roosevelt and to wait to see what Lewis, who had now also split with the Roosevelt administration, recommended. That position proved highly unpopular with the membership; many locals had already endorsed FDR for a third term and several locals passed motions calling for Bridges to resign. He declined to do so, noting that the union's constitution allowed for a recall election if fifteen percent of the membership petitioned for one. The ILWU executive board gave him a vote of confidence and the storm passed.

Bridges soon took the union in a wholly different direction after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. Having opposed the United States' entry into the war, Bridges now urged employers to increase productivity in order to prepare for war. When the CIO later adopted a wartime no-strike pledge, Bridges not only supported the pledge, but even proposed at the highpoint of the Communist Party's enthusiasm for unity–immediately after the Teheran Conference in 1943–that the pledge continue after the end of the war. The ILWU not only condemned the Retail, Wholesale Department Store Employees union for striking Montgomery Ward in 1943–after management refused to sign a new contract, cut wages and fired union activists)–but also assisted it in breaking the strike, by ordering members in St. Paul, Minnesota to work overtime, to handle overflow from the struck Chicago plant.

Bridges also called for a speedup of the pace of work–which may not have been inconsistent with the ILWU's goal of controlling the way that work was done on the docks, but which sounded particularly strange coming from the leader of a union that had relentlessly fought employers on this issue and which was rejected by many ILWU members. Bridges later joined with Joseph Curran of the National Maritime Union, which represented sailors on the East Coast, and Julius Emspak of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America to support a proposal by Roosevelt in 1944, to militarize some civilian workplaces.

Bridges' attitude changed sharply after the end of World War II. While Bridges still advocated the post-war plan for industrial peace that the Communist Party, along with the leaders of the CIO, the AFL and the Chamber of Commerce, were advocating, he differed sharply with CIO leadership on Cold War politics, from the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine's application in Greece and Turkey to participation in the World Federation of Trade Unions.

Those foreign policy issues became labor issues for the ILWU in 1948, when the employers claimed that the union was preparing to strike in order to cripple the Marshall Plan. Emboldened by the new provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act, which required union officers to sign an oath that they were not members of the Communist Party, outlawed the closed shop and gave the President authority to seek an 80-day "cooling off" period before a strike that would imperil the national health or safety, the employers pushed for a strike, hoping to rid themselves of Bridges and reclaim control over the hiring hall. As it turned out, their strategy was a failure and the employer group reached a new agreement with the union after replacing their bargaining representatives and enduring a ninety-five day strike.

At the same time, Philip Murray, Lewis' successor as head of the CIO, had started reducing Bridges' power within the CIO, removing him from his position as the CIO's California Regional Director in 1948. In 1950, after an internal trial, the CIO expelled the ILWU due to its communist leadership.[citation needed]

[edit] Coping with change

Expulsion had no real effect, however, on either the ILWU or Bridges' power within it. The organization continued to negotiate agreements, with less strife than in the 1930s and 1940s, and Bridges continued to be reelected without serious opposition. The union negotiated a groundbreaking agreement in 1960, that permitted the extensive mechanization of the docks, significantly reducing the number of longshore workers in return for generous job guarantees and benefits for those displaced by the changes.

The agreement, however, highlighted the lesser status that less senior members, known as "B-men," enjoyed. Bridges reacted uncharacteristically defensively to these workers' complaints, which were given additional sting by the fact that many of the "B-men" were black. The additional longshore work produced by the Vietnam War allowed Bridges to meet the challenge by opening up more jobs and making determined efforts to recruit black applicants. The ILWU later faced similar challenges from women, who found it even harder to enter the industry and the union.

Bridges had difficulty giving up his position in the ILWU, even though he explored the possibility of merging it with the ILA or the Teamsters in the early 1970s. He finally retired in 1977, but only after ensuring that Louis Goldblatt, the long-time Secretary-Treasurer of the union and his logical successor, was denied the opportunity to replace him.

On July 28, 2001, on what would have been Bridges' 100th birthday, the ILWU organized a week-long event celebrating the life of Harry Bridges. This culminated in a march of over 8000 unionists and supporters across the Vincent Thomas Bridge from Terminal Island to San Pedro, California. The longshoremen shut down the port for eight hours in honor of Bridges.

[edit] Marriage

Bridges met Noriko Sawada during a fund-raiser for mine, mill, and smelter workers,[when?] and the two became a couple. In 1958, the couple decided to marry. Although they could have married in California, they decided to travel to Reno, Nevada for their marriage license. Nevada had a statute banning marriage between any white person and "any person of the Ethiopian or black race, Malay or brown race, Mongolian or yellow race, or American Indian, or red race."[1] At the county courthouse, the clerk refused to give the couple a marriage license on account of Ms. Sawada's race being "yellow".[2]

Bridges and Sawada then sought a court order from District Judge Taylor Wines for issuance of the marriage license. Judge Wines granted the order, in direct contradiction to the statute, and the couple married December 10, 1958. This order prompted the Nevada legislature to repeal the state's anti-miscegenation laws on March 17, 1959.

In 1967, the Supreme Court of the United States declared all anti-miscegenation laws to be unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia.[3]

[edit] Legacy

California Governor Gray Davis declared July 28, 2001, Bridges' 100th birthday, as "Harry Bridges Day".[citation needed] On the same day, the City of San Francisco dedicated a plaza in Bridges' honor.[citation needed]

Several labor institutions have been dedicated to Harry Bridges' legacy. The Harry Bridges Institute in San Pedro, California, is a research institute that focuses on topics of international economics and how changes in political geography affect unions.[4]

The Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington, was established in Bridges' honor in 1992 by many ILWU past and current members. The center supports research, teaching, and community outreach among the UW faculty and students and labor organizations.[5]

The nonprofit Harry Bridges Project produced From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks: The Life and Times of Harry Bridges, a one-man play that was directed and by filmed Haskell Wexler, to promote Bridges' legacy and the impact of his work.[6] The film was broadcast on some PBS stations on Labor Day Weekend in 2009. Additional broadcasts are planned in 2010.[7] The organization is also working on other educational projects.

[edit] References

  1. ^ Earl, Phillip I. (Spring 1994). "Nevada's Miscegenation Laws and the Marriage of Mr. & Mrs. Harry Bridges". Nevada Historical Society Quarterly 37: 7. 
  2. ^ Earl, p. 9.
  3. ^ 388 U.S. 1 (1967).
  4. ^ Harry Bridges Institute. "Welcome to the Harry Bridges Institute". http://harrybridges.com/index.html. Retrieved April 9, 2010. 
  5. ^ Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies. "About the Bridges Center". http://depts.washington.edu/pcls/about.html. Retrieved April 9, 2010. 
  6. ^ The Harry Bridges Project. "From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks: The Life and Times of Harry Bridges". http://www.theharrybridgesproject.org/film.html. Retrieved April 9, 2010. 
  7. ^ The Harry Bridges Project. "The Harry Bridges Project". http://www.theharrybridgesproject.org. Retrieved April 9, 2010. 

[edit] Additional reading

  • Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes: "Communists and the CIO: From the Soviet Archives," in Labor History, vol 35, no. 3 (Summer 1994).
  • Reds or Rackets, The Making of Radical and Conservative Unions on the Waterfront, by Howard Kimeldorf ISBN 0-520-07886-1
  • Harry Bridges, The Rise and Fall of Radical Labor in the U.S., by Charles Larrowe ISBN 0-88208-001-6
  • Workers on the Waterfront, Seamen, Longshoremen and Unionism in the 1930s, by Bruce Nelson ISBN 0-252-06144-6

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