Harry Bridges’ birthday was last July 29th — a time once again for ceremonies celebrating the labor leader’s extraordinary life that have been held in West Coast port cities every year since his death in 1990.
The ceremonies were but one of the many activities of the Harry Bridges Institute that was formed to help further the causes which Bridges championed.
You work for a living? Oppose war? Racism? Generally consider yourself progressive, socially, economically, politically?
You never had, and maybe never will have, a greater ally than Harry Bridges.
Bridges often was irritating to friends and foes alike during his 40 years as president of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union. He was irascible and obstinate. But he was unquestionably one of the century’s greatest leaders.
I can still see him, a wiry, gray-haired, hawk-nosed man pacing restlessly behind the podium at union meetings, nervously twirling a gavel, puffing incessantly on a cigarette. I hear him calling on members in the unmistakable accent of his native Australia, actually encouraging debate and dissent.
Bridges was not in it for money; he never made more than he would have made had he remained a workin 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 workin 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 the wealth from those who owned it to those who created it.
To help carry out that task, Bridges and Louis Goldblatt, the warehousemen’s leader, put together the ILWU in the mid-1930s. The union, one o the most powerful and democratic in the country, 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 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.
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 United State’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. It was an outspoken foe of US involvement in Vietnam, even at a time when most other unions enthusiastically supported involvement. And members have backed their opposition to oppressive regimes in South Africa, Central America and elsewhere by refusing to handle cargo bound for or coming from those regions.
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.”
None of that, nothing that has been done by the ILWU, has been done without the agreement and deep involvement of the union’s rank-and-file. That’s how Harry Bridges wanted it, and how very fortunate we are that he did. Few organizations anywhere have done more for the “working stiffs” to whom he devoted his life.