Harry Bridges; Marxist and Founder of West’s Longshoremen Union
Harry Bridges, an ardent Marxist and staunch supporter of the Soviet Union who worked within the capitalist system for 60 years as the leader of West Coast waterfront workers, died early Friday at his home in San Francisco. He was 88.
Danny Beagle, spokesman for Bridges’ International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, said the former union leader, a chain smoker for several decades, died of emphysema.
In his honor, Beagle said, ILWU members ceased work at 1 p.m. Friday, shutting down all ports along the West Coast and in Hawaii. Operations were scheduled to resume at 8 a.m. today.
Bridges, once one of the most feared and hated men in America, was jailed for his radical views and denounced from pulpits and in editorial pages across the country.
The late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover helped lead an unsuccessful 20-year campaign by the government to deport Bridges to his native Australia as a perjurer and communist.
“Our investigation shows beyond doubt that Bridges is a Red,” Hoover once declared. But despite Hoover’s efforts, Bridges went on to win acclaim as a respected leader of the ILWU.
After numerous court hearings, the U.S. Supreme Court vindicated Bridges, and in one decision, said:
“The record in this case will stand forever as a monument to man’s intolerance of man. Seldom if ever in the history of this nation has there been such a concentrated and relentless crusade to deport an individual because he dared to exercise the freedom that belongs to him as a human being and that is guaranteed by the Constitution.”
Even John MacAvoy, a top officer of the Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents the waterfront bosses Bridges once denounced so bitterly, ended up praising the union leader during the later years of his life, saying:
“He was the single most powerful and most stabilizing influence on the West Coast maritime industry and you cannot say enough to honor this man who has never, never broken his word.”
MacAvoy told of an East Coast maritime company executive who was in Los Angeles to work out details of a West Coast operation and “asked me who he was supposed to see in the union to pay for some smooth labor relations.”
“I just laughed and told him, ‘My friend, that sort of thing might happen on the East Coast, but you just can’t buy Bridges or his people in the ILWU.”’
On the Los Angeles Harbor docks on Friday, Bridges was remembered as a father figure and a man with a reputation for honesty and fairness.
“That’s what his legacy was,” said longshoreman David Arian, who serves on the ILWU executive board. “We’re probably the most fair and democratic union in the country, and that’s the way Harry made it.”
Indeed, the International Longshoremen’s Assn., East Coast counterpart to the ILWU, has been charged repeatedly with corruption and employer payoffs to gain labor peace. But under Bridges, and his successor, Jimmy Herman, no similar accusations have been raised against the ILWU.
Herman called Bridges “a towering figure in our time, one of those rare people whose life gives meaning and shape to an era. When racial prejudice was the unspoken assumption of most Americans, Harry fought for equality and civil rights in a very personal way.”
Bridges liked to recall one of those personal battles against racism that began one day in 1958, after his second divorce. He was in Reno to marry a Japanese-American, Norikko (Nikki) Sawada.
Bridges strode into the county courthouse with his bride-to-be, jaunty and self-assured as always. The county clerk, Viola Given, noticed that the bride-to-be was Asian and told them she could not issue a marriage license because of a century-old Nevada law.
Bridges protested angrily that Sawada was born in the United States and was a full-fledged citizen. But Given replied, “It isn’t where you were born, but your bloodstream that counts.”
Off Bridges went to court again, challenging the Nevada anti-miscegenation law. He won that battle, as he had won most of his legal battles, by using the judicial procedures of his adopted country.
Nikki was at his bedside Friday when he died.
Throughout his life, Bridges seemed to most enjoy addressing groups of businessmen, shocking them with his praise of the Soviet Union as a “workers’ state,” where workers don’t have to strike because “in a workers’ state, the managers must listen to the workers and so there is no need for workers to go on strike.”
Such observations often drew gasps of horror from his audiences, even from workers who understood that a strikeless society might indicate a totalitarian government rather than a workers’ heaven.
Although Bridges never persuaded his members about the freedom he felt existed in the Soviet Union, he never came close to losing a union election--from the time he helped form it in 1932 until his retirement in 1976.
Longshoremen knew that in no small part because of Bridges they were among America’s best-paid labor forces. His ideology was one thing, but his ability to win the major economic gains they call “pork chops” was another.
Regular longshoremen and clerks earn well over $30,000 a year plus fringe benefits. Instead of the exhausting physical work of handling cargo piece-by-piece as they once did, they now mostly use computers and machines for loading and unloading .
And the bosses did well, too. As a result of the bargains Bridges and his colleagues made with management during the years, union contracts meant increases in workers’ productivity. Management was free to use new technology, with no union restrictions. In return, workers were guaranteed a large share of the increased benefits coming from such modernized equipment as containerized ships.
Although longshoremen are doing better than most American workers, far fewer longshoremen are needed now.
For instance, in 1960, it took about 16,000 longshoremen, clerks, watchmen and foremen to move 74 million tons of cargo. By 1982, just 11,000 were able to handle 109 million tons, creating a bonanza for the capitalist owners Bridges professed to dislike so much.
His parents were middle-class Australians, and Bridges, born July 28, 1901, lived comfortably in that setting until he went to sea, sailing throughout the world until he jumped ship in San Francisco at age 19.
He had already formed his radical views by then, primarily because of the novelist Jack London, whose “Sea Wolf” and other adventure stories first set Bridges dreaming, as he once said, “of being an ironfisted sea captain with a love romance lurking in the background.”
But London wrote also of the poverty of millions of workers, and it was his Socialist ideology that most deeply embedded itself in the mind of the restless young Australian. Bridges took to heart London’s call on workers everywhere to “overthrow capitalism.”
His travels as a sailor and his radical orientation made him aware of the poverty in the world, including in the United States.
Bridges began making speeches to waterfront workers urging them to “end this lousy capitalistic system.”
After landing in San Francisco, he formed the Marine Workers Industrial Union with the help of ordinary longshoremen and Communist Party leaders.
He insisted throughout his life that he never joined the Communist Party because “they have a lot of theory but a lack of understanding. Their revolutionary line was so intricate and so revolutionary that it went right over the workers’ heads.”
But he never denied working with communists, beginning in 1934 with the first West Coast longshoremen’s strike that lasted 85 bloody days.
The maritime industry executives made no secret of their determination to break the fledgling union. But Bridges and his allies won the support of all the unions in San Francisco and when the battle was over, the left-leaning ILWU was a reality.
In 1937, Bridges led his union into the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which was then a separate labor federation that merged in 1955 with the American Federation of Labor. For a time, Bridges was the CIO’s West Coast leader and, therefore, a major national labor leader.
But in 1950, Bridges’ radical sympathies led to charges by other CIO officers that he and other ILWU leaders were “dominated” by communists--if they weren’t communists themselves--and the ILWU was ousted from the CIO on the “communist domination” charge. The labor federation kicked the ILWU out on the basis of the same charges the federal government had tried and failed to prove.
But that action caused a major split within organized labor as union leaders fought one another over the wisdom of the anti-communist crusade within labor. CIO leaders found that several other affiliated unions were also communist-dominated, and they were told to leave the federation.
Bridges was before the courts repeatedly, but he served only 17 days in jail, a sentence imposed because--while out on bail appealing a conviction for perjury on the Communist Party membership charge--he publicly urged his union to adopt a resolution denouncing the United States for its entry into the Korean War. A judge ruled that he was not supposed to be making “political statements.”
Bridges also helped spur a waterfront revolution that changed the system of shipping.
He persuaded his members to accept what was called an “automation and mechanization” agreement, giving management almost unlimited rights to modernize the waterfront without restrictive union rules, to fix the size of the work crews, and to make use of the then-new vans, or containers, which allowed the maritime companies to increase productivity faster than any other industry.
In return, Bridges won management’s promise that no worker would be laid off. They were all guaranteed wages, whether or not jobs were available, and wages for those still at work went up faster than the wages of most other union workers. But even as he helped both workers and their bosses, Bridges railed against the capitalist system.
Some former radical allies called him a hypocrite for verbally denouncing capitalism and yet helping it survive and even thrive.
Bridges never gave up fighting battles of one sort or another. After his retirement, he remained close to the union, taking regular potshots at Herman, his successor, arguing about policies that he no longer helped set, angering many, and pleasing, or at least amusing, many others.
Barry Silverman, who came to know Bridges as the union’s research director, said Bridges’ views of life were formed in the 1920s and 1930s, when he came to understand and experience exploitation, deprivation and the need for social justice.
“As he came into maturity, the lines were clearly drawn for him, because good and evil were more clearly defined then than in more recent years, for him and many others.
“His was a complex personality, filled with contradictions. He was overwhelmed by the revolution in Russia, and maintained a lifelong loyalty to all things Soviet.
“But he understood and articulated the needs and aspirations of workers born to capitalism, and workers recognized him as one of their own.”