Harry Bridges: Working class hero

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He died 20 years ago this month, but I can still see him, a tall, wiry, gray-haired, hawk-nosed man. I can hear him.

I see him pacing restlessly back and forth behind the podium at union meetings, nervously twirling a gavel, puffing incessantly on a cigarette. I hear him calling on members, white, black, Asian, Latino, in the broad accent of his native Australia, actually encouraging debate and dissent.

He died in San Francisco at the age of 88 -- Harry Bridges, co-founder and for 40 years president of one of the most influential organizations in this or any other country, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

Bridges often was irritating to the ILWU's friends and foes alike. He was irascible and obstinate. But he was unquestionably one of the past century's greatest leaders.

Bridges was not in it for money. His salary as union president was 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 Chronicle reporter -- "the working stiff, that's who! Can you understand that?"

I understood, eventually. And though I and others sometimes harshly 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."

Harry Bridges' lifelong task, then, was to shift wealth from those who owned it to those who created it – a task he began in 1934, when he led his fellow longshoremen in a strike aimed at winning true collective bargaining rights from West Coast shipowners.

As Bridges’ biographer Charles Larrowe recalled, “The shipowners said ‘no,’ said it with tear gas vigilantes and billy clubs wielded by cops who thought they were in the front lines against a communist takeover. Up and down the coast, the waterfront was turned into a battlefield.”

Police bullets killed 10 men during the three-month-long strike that also prompted a four-day general strike in San Francisco. But the longshoremen ultimately got what they had demanded, most importantly, an end to the notorious system of job allocation known as the “shape-up. “

Previously, jobs were parceled out by hiring bosses in exchange for kickbacks from the longshoremen who lined up on the docks every morning clamoring for work. But after the strike, job assignments were made by an elected union dispatcher at a union-controlled hiring hall, using a rotation system that spread the work evenly among longshoremen. The victory was downright revolutionary, and had a profound impact on workers and employers nationwide.

Within two years, Bridges joined with Lou Goldblatt, the brilliant young leader of the warehousemen who worked closely with longshoremen on the docks. They brought the two groups together into a single powerful union. the ILWU, under the banner of the newly established Congress of Industrial Organizations -- the CIO.

The union ultimately extended its jurisdiction to virtually all waterfront workers on the Pacific coasts of the United States and Canada and to workers in a wide variety of occupations in Hawaii.

Bridges and Goldblatt used their potent base to help lead drives by other CIO unions that spread unionization from the waterfront to many 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.

For the ILWU, Bridges and Goldblatt drafted a union constitution that still is unique 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.

The ILWU helped set important precedents that enhanced the civil liberties of everyone through its strong opposition to those who tried to deny constitutional rights to Bridges and others by labeling them Communists. The union’s efforts included an eight-year-battle against attempts to deport Bridges to Australia that ended with a Supreme Court ruling that enabled him to become a U.S. citizen in 1945.

The ILWU under Bridges was an outspoken foe of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, even at a time when most other unions enthusiastically supported involvement. And members backed their opposition to oppressive regimes abroad by refusing to handle cargo bound for or coming from their countries.

Thanks in large part to Bridges, the ILWU also was one of the first unions to be thoroughly integrated racially, and otherwise has always been probably the country's most socially conscious union. And its members, now including women, have long been among the most highly compensated workers in any field, while at the same time benefitting from labor-saving equipment that makes their work easier. The new equipment and methods on the docks have brought employers higher profits, which union negotiators have made certain they share with dock workers.
The ILWU used its employer-provided 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 the working stiffs to whom he devoted his life -- and many, many others. As a newspaper that once reviled him 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.” Boy, is it.

Dick Meister, formerly labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 250 of his recent columns.