Lifetime seaman and union activist Harry Bridges--the legendary and controversial voice of the longshoremen's rank and file--chalked up his life's work to "being around at the right time."
Asked what led him into union work, Bridges replied: "Simple. I wanted to be a worker with a good job, decent wages, a house, medical care. I figured it would be best if everybody had this."
At 85 years, he still lives close to the docks of San Francisco's Embarcadero where he fought more than 50 years to build the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union.
The Australian-born union organizer will be honored Sunday by the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, a nonprofit organization that houses the bulk of pamphlets chronicling the birth of Bridges' waterfront union. The testimonial dinner, a benefit for the library, begins at 6 p.m. at the Los Angeles Hilton.
The South-Central Los Angeles library's unique collection spans Bridges' early days in San Francisco, where he worked alongside the stevedore gangs of the Embarcadero, stirring the angry waters of maritime labor until the flag of union solidarity was raised.
By 1934, Alfred Renton Bryant Bridges had achieved international acclaim as a labor activist for staging a longshoremen's strike that escalated into a full-blown city demonstration. The historic general strike of that year led all of San Francisco's unions to rally for the dockworkers, bringing commerce in the city to a halt.
Specter of Communism
In the aftermath, Bridges was a union leader to be reckoned with in San Francisco. But his troubles with government officials over his alleged communist ties were beginning to loom.
Bridges' struggle to fend off deportation in the late '30s and early '40s is chronicled in the library's collection of legal documents from his defense counsel, San Francisco labor lawyer Richard Gladstein.
Today, while continuing to serve as a repository for literature, films and photos of movements that helped shape 20th-Century America, such as unionism and progressive political parties, Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research is also a major source of information about contemporary issues and organizations based primarily in Southern California, said Sarah Cooper, library director.
In all, the library has 16,000 U.S. and foreign books, 21,000 pamphlets and 2,800 periodicals covering minority labor history.
Rare holdings such as the Harry Bridges collection fill historical gaps and provide researchers with data that may otherwise have been obscured, Cooper said.
The acquisition of Bridges' papers is one highlight in the story of another man, the late Emil Freed, an activist who established the library in 1963 after many years of collecting political literature.
Without Freed's passion for collecting, the historic accomplishments of other activists, such as civil liberties lawyer Robert W. Kenny and black newspaper editor Charlotta Bass, may have become a blur.
A communist and a peer of Bridges, Freed came to Los Angeles in 1910, at age 9. Although he earned a degree in electrical engineering from USC, he became a machinist and worked in factories as an organizer .
During the McCarthy era of the early 1950s, Freed witnessed individuals discarding or burning political pamphlets. He persuaded many left-wing activists frightened by the House Committee on Un-American Activities to hand over their literature to him.
By the end of that era, Freed had stockpiled the documents of such groups as the Unemployed Councils of the 1930s and the Congress of Industrial Workers. Jailed in 1949 for participating in the 1946 Hollywood studio strike, Freed stored the literature in borrowed garages.
In his possession were the pamphlets and periodicals of labor unions including the Industrial Workers of the World, the International Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers Union and the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union.
Other materials chronicled the concerns and demands of such groups as the Independent Progressive Party of California, Upton Sinclair's End Poverty in California, the Communist Party, the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee and the Tom Mooney Committee.
Literature from the Civil Rights Congress, with which Freed became closely associated after World War II, focused on the rights of labor, the foreign-born, racial and political minorities. Today, the library is a well of information on those issues.
Beginning of a Dream
Freed's sister, 82-year-old Dorothy Eletz, who now volunteers her time to the library, said the end of the McCarthy era marked the beginning of her brother's dream to build a library to preserve these documents.
A "quietly outspoken" man, she said, Freed wanted the library to reflect a broad range of movements, from the rise of American trade unions, working-class history, Marxism and civil rights to socialism and the history of minorities.
"The materials Freed gathered were circulated by political organizations, defense committees and trade unions primarily in the years between 1920 and 1960," Cooper said. "They are the heart of the library's resources for in-depth research."
Freed formally established the library in 1963 in a downtown Los Angeles storefront. In 1973 the library moved to 6120 S. Vermont Ave. in South-Central Los Angeles where it sits inconspicuously in the middle of a business district, surrounded by gas stations, used-car lots and drab, single-level storefronts. It is, Eletz said, a neighborhood in which Freed felt comfortable.
A Legacy in 1982
The activist died in December, 1982, leaving the legacy of his library to an expanded board of directors, chaired by engineering consultant J. Marx Ayres. In 1983, Cooper was named director.
Cooper, 38 and a former archivist at the state Historical Society of Wisconsin, has been working not only to catalogue Freed's collection but to expand educational and cultural programs sponsored by the library.
For instance, in 1985, the library hosted a weekend conference on immigrants and minorities in Los Angeles. Other programs and workshops have ranged from a conference on the "Hollywood Blacklist" to one featuring the art and politics of Central America.
The library relies primarily on donations from friends and users of the library. Proceeds from fund-raisers, sales of surplus library materials and occasional grants for special projects are its other main sources of income.
A full-time archivist, Mary Tyler, was hired in 1985 to organize scattered or new materials from Freed's collection, Cooper said.
About 2,000 prints and slides of 1930s labor union meetings, scenes of the Los Angeles black community of the 1940s and '50s and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations of the '60s and '70s are among SCL's holdings.
Rare documentary film footage brings to life the strikes, demonstrations and meetings of the California farm workers, the Tom Mooney Defense, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and the Progressive Party.
To accompany these visual aids, the library also houses about 3,500 tape recordings of speeches, conferences and rallies. Spanning the 1950s to present, they include the words of Martin Luther King Jr., Angela Davis and Cesar Chavez.