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 and peace."

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 housing."

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 efforts."

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 and commentator.



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