Harry Bridges labor champion

Andrew Hedden - Program Coordinator
Andrew Hedden - Program Coordinator

Building bridges
by Chris M. Stevens

SEATTLE, WA-The lessons of life emerge from looking back and learning. The gains in life come from fighting forward. The particles from the past push people to weave the tapestry of history, herstory and more importantly their story. "Put your faith in the rank and file," declared Alfred Renton Bridges, better known as "Harry" to the generations of organized dock workers who still enjoy the rewards of his efforts.

Setting out in search of life and liberty the Australian-born boy had sailed the waters of the world as a teenager. After witnessing first hand the dreary and deplorable living conditions of the workers of the world he journeyed back to his boyhood home. Upon his return he walked the line during the general job action of 1917 in his hometown of Melbourne. Harry then realized the horizon to the east offered ample opportunity. Shortly after setting sail he arrived in San Francisco, and again Harry stood on his sea legs upon the decks of the majestic cargo ships leaving the city by the bay. Soon he felt the hole of hunger in his stomach as Harry, like many men, found himself more often then not, out of a job.

Bridges then suffered the indignity of working on the docks. Despite membership in the International Longshoreman's Association (ILA), he had to join the hopeful crowd of hungry men every day at the gate waiting and hoping to hear his name called for work that day. The hiring foreman would select those men who would "shape up." Or as the employers demanded, men whose membership in the company union and their "blue book" work history verified they would never cause trouble and certainly didn't agitate for better pay or safe working conditions.

Bridges didn't like the system of involuntary servitude, which he later likened to "more or less a slave market in the Old World countries of Europe." In March 1934, as President of the local ILA, Harry played a part in the effort which led the men to demand treatment as human beings who deserved dignity. When the workers walked off the job on May 9, strife soon filled the streets as police killed three longshoremen in San Francisco and two in Seattle. These lessons would not be lost on Harry.

As History Professor James Gregory, the Harry Bridges Endowed Chair of Labor Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle says, "He believed strongly that ordinary people have rights and power and he knew how to make that real," adding, "Harry was a liberal, but very cautious of strikes."

The deaths of the longshoremen pushed 117 unions in San Francisco to vote for a general work stoppage in support of the workers. The summer sizzled with suffering as the members of the ILA endured 83 days off work before the shipping companies finally agreed to a fair and equitable collective bargaining agreement. The successful action and solidarity had produced increased wages, improved working conditions, an entire west cost bargaining unit, and Harry's dream, a joint employer and union hiring hall.

As the split between the AFL and CIO widened Bridges advocated the ILA change to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) as a CIO-affiliated union. Members agreed and overwhelmingly elected Harry president and John L. Lewis installed him as West Coast Director of the CIO. "Harry was a radical labor leader who helped establish the CIO on the west coast," Professor Gregory says, adding, "the federal government even tried to deport him four times." (1939, 1941, 1948 and 1953)

The government later tried to brand Bridges as a communist as the ILWU had refused to sign the non-communist pledge of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. "He beat back all challenges and emerged stronger than ever," Professor Gregory says. "Up and down the west coast Harry was the spark plug that inspired unionization of all the docks and many other workers."

Bridges' efforts had led to a dominance by the CIO in the western United State as the Timber Workers and others soon affiliated.

Upon Bridges' death in 1990 the ILWU sought a permanent memorial and chose to honor his legacy with a commitment to an institute at a University. This led to more than a thousand donors ponying up in excess of a million dollars which endowed the Harry Bridges Chair at the University of Washington. The effort then expanded into the current Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies with 60 plus faculty members from several academic disciplines beyond History offering related courses. The class offerings range from political science, to the law school to public health. "It's a very broad spectrum," says Professor Gregory. "I come from an American democratic perspective when I teach the younger generation what labor is all about. Organized labor is essential to cultural history and to any society as a number of studies have shown no functioning democracy exists without a strong labor movement, which provides the balance wheel," adding, "that's the button I like to push."

Andrew Hedden, program coordinator for the "Center" adds, "Hundreds of students take the courses each year."

The "Center" also provides a bridge to the future as Hedden says, "The ILWU has not forgotten its past and places a value on its history. They don't forget the struggles that gave birth to their union."

Director of the Washington State Labor Education Research Center Sarah Laslett adds, "One thing we hear all the time is no one knows labor history. We've taken on that challenge." Laslett offers presentations complete with a Power Point presentation, photos and more. "And I play music as that's a good way to get people engaged."

The emergence of the Bridges "Center" brought Conor M. Casey, a professional labor archivist, to the University of Washington to assist in collecting and chronicling the material. "It's a great collaboration between the University and the Bridges Center," he says. " It gives students and researchers a place to hear labor's voice, review company records and even labor critics all in one place," adding, "part of my job is to help labor organizations archive their records, or they can send them here to the University."

Professor Gregory adds a final comment when he says, "I think of Harry Bridges as an inspirational model of labor leader and an activist for social justice."

As the world of the 21st Century unfolds, workers would be wise to heed Harry's call. "We were organized to do a job for working people. We were organized to fight for unity and understanding. We were organized to try to bring people together so that they can struggle together, without any distinctions of race, creed, color or religious or political faith."

Laslett has also assembled a labor history library of print materials and videos available to the general public. For anyone interested in a Labor History presentation, contact her at (206) 934.5382, or sarah@seattlecollege.edu. Casey can be reached at Allen LIbrary South, Basement, University of Washington, Seattle.