The Remarkable Harry Bridges
by Dick Meister
ZNet, July 23, 2005
July 28 marks the lO4th anniversary of
the birth of labor leader Harry Bridges, one of the past century's
greatest leaders of any kind, an incorruptible fighter for the
human rights of us all, a man of remarkable vision, courage, dedication
and organizational skill.
Bridges was the co-founder and for 40
years president of one of the most progressive and influential
organizations in the world, the San Francisco-based International
Longshore and Warehouse Union.
He's been dead 15 years now. But I can
still see him, a wiry, gray-haired, hawk-nosed man with piercing
blue eyes pacing restlessly back and forth behind the podium at
ILWU meetings, nervously twirling a gavel, puffing incessantly
on a cigarette. I can hear him calling on union members, white,
black, Asian, Latino, in the broad accent of his native Australia,
actually encouraging debate and dissent.
Bridges often was irritating to the ILWU's
friends and foes alike. He was irascible and obstinate. But he
was unquestionably one of the most important allies ordinary people
have ever had.
Bridges was not in it for money. He retired
in 1977 with an annual pension of merely $15,000, never having
made more than $27,000 a year, far less than he would have made
had he remained a working longshoreman. Bridges was in it because
of his unswerving belief in "the rank-and-file," as
he once told me, a naive and inquisitive young reporter -- "the
goddamn working stiff, that's who! Can you understand that?"
I understood, eventually. And though I
and others sometimes questioned Bridges' specific notions of what
was needed by working people, none could legitimately question
his incredible commitment, skill and integrity.
"The basic thing about this lousy
capitalist system," Bridges declared, "is that the workers
create the wealth, but those who own it, the rich, keep getting
richer and the poor get poorer."
His lifelong task, then, was to shift
the wealth from those who owned it to those who created it.
Bridges began the task in earnest in 1934,
leading his fellow longshoremen in a strike aimed at winning true
collective bargaining rights from West Coast shipowners.
"The shipowners said no," Bridges'
biographer Charles Larrowe recalled, "said it with tear gas,
vigilantes and billy clubs wielded by cops who thought they were
in the front line against a communist takeover. Up and down the
coast, the waterfront was turned into a battlefield."
Ten men were killed by police bullets
during the three-month-long strike.
It was a high price, but in the end the longshoremen got what
they had demanded -- effective union representation and an end
to the notorious system of job allocation known as the "shape-up."
Previously, jobs were parceled out by hiring bosses, frequently
in exchange for bribes from the men who lined up on the docks
every morning clamoring for work.
Their victory gave longshoremen the crucial
right to have job assignments made by an elected union dispatcher
at a union-controlled hiring hall, using a rotation system that
spread the work evenly among them.
Within two years of the strike victory,
Lou Goldblatt, the brilliant young leader of the warehousemen
who worked closely with the longshoremen on the docks, had joined
Bridges. They brought the two groups into a single powerful union
under the banner of the newly established Congress of Industrial
Organizations, ultimately extending the ILWU's jurisdiction to
virtually all waterfront workers on the Pacific coasts of the
United States and Canada.
Bridges and Goldblatt used their potent
base to help lead drives by other CIO unions that spread unionization
from the waterfront to a wide variety of other industries throughout
the West at a time when employers treated workers as chattel,
giving them little choice but to accept near-starvation wages
and whatever else the employers demanded.
Included was the extraordinary campaign
that brought ILWU representation to workers throughout multi-racial
Hawaii -- not just to those on the waterfront, but also to those
in agriculture and just about every other industry on the islands.
That drive transformed Hawaii from a feudal
territory controlled by a handful of giant financial interests
into today's modern pluralistic state, in which working people
and their unions play a principal economic and political role.
For the ILWU, Bridges and Goldblatt drafted
a union constitution that's exceptional in the control it grants
members. Many union constitutions give members very little beyond
the right of paying dues in exchange for the services provided
them by the union's securely entrenched bureaucrats. But the ILWU
constitution guarantees that nothing of importance can be done
without direct vote of the rank-and-file.
No one can take ILWU office except through
a vote of the entire membership; no agreement with employers can
be approved except by a vote of all members; the union cannot
take a position on anything without membership approval.
Thanks in large part to Bridges, the ILWU
also was one of the first unions to be thoroughly integrated racially.
The union has always been probably the country's most socially
conscious union. As the ILWU's official history records accurately,
it is "the most outspoken among trade unions on civil rights,
civil liberties, general welfare, and international amity, disarmament
The union strongly opposed the actions
of government officials and others who tried to deny constitutional
rights to many -- Bridges included
-- by labeling them as communists, establishing important precedents
that enhanced the civil liberties of everyone.
Bridges and his supporters spent eight
years fighting off attempts to deport him to Australia, finally
winning a Supreme Court ruling that enabled him to become a U.S.
citizen in 1945.
The ILWU was an outspoken foe of U.S.
involvement in Vietnam, even at a time when most other unions
enthusiastically supported involvement. The union has been equally
outspoken against the invasion and occupation of Iraq and against
the government attacks on civil liberties in the name of anti-terrorism.
And members have opposed oppressive regimes abroad by refusing
to handle cargo bound for or coming from their countries.
Closer to home, the ILWU used its pension
funds to finance construction of low-rent apartments in San Francisco's
St. Francis Square, an extremely rare example of what the union
calls "cooperative, affordable, integrated working-class
Harry Bridges led the way to that and
much more which benefited many, insisting always that the credit
should go not to him, but to the union's rank-and-file, they who
"did the fighting, the organizing, the striking."
As a newspaper that once reviled Bridges
as a dangerous radical said on his death, "He sought the
best of all possible worlds. This one is much better due to his
Copyright © 2005 Dick Meister, a
freelance columnist in San Francisco who has covered labor issues
for four decades as a newspaper and broadcast reporter, editor
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