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Harry Bridges: Organizer, Leader, and Champion of Labor

Editor’s Note: To celebrate the launch of the Harry Bridges School of Labor, the National Executive of Labor United Educational League brings you this brief biography of the great labor leader, Harry Bridges.

Alfred Renton Bryant Bridges (Harry Bridges) was born in Australia, in the Melbourne suburb of Kensington, on July 28, 1901. The son of a realtor, the young Bridges decided at age 15 that landlordery was no career for him. Instead, he pursued honest work and went to sea as a sailor for the merchant marine and adopted the name Harry, after his favorite uncle.

By 1920, Harry Bridges relocated to his permanent port of San Francisco, California. He joined the Industrial Workers of the World in 1921 and participated in a seaman’s strike but left the organization shortly after, with doubts as to the IWW’s efficacy. He stopped going to sea and instead worked as a longshoreman, working as a rigger. The owners of the San Francisco shipyards set up a captured “company union” to which all workers were expected to belong, but Harry managed to dodge membership in it and work in an independent capacity until he could join the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA). He participated in a May Day Parade in 1924, and in retaliation was blacklisted by the shipyard companies for several years. In order to earn a living, Harry was forced to join the company union in 1927.

Bridges’ organizing efforts did not end with that, however. He and several other like-minded longshoremen gathered into a formation calling themselves the Albion Hall Group. The group wrote and printed on mimeograph a leaflet called The Waterfront Worker, wherein Bridges and the others wrote about the daily struggles of their fellow workers. In 1933, the ILW opened a new local and Harry promptly joined. He and several other Albion Hall alumni were elected to executive positions. They campaigned for greater ILA rank-and-file participation, attempted to unite other longshoreman’s unions up and down the west coast, and in 1933 staged a successful strike.

In 1934 came the infamous and legendary West Coast Longshoreman’s strike. The demands, published in The Waterfront Worker, were: 1. More men for each work gang; 2. Lighter weight loads; and 3. An independent (not company) union. The Albion Hall Group tore up their company union cards and refused to pay dues, and encouraged others to do the same. They systematically began a work slowdown and began a campaign to demand union recognition, a closed shop, and nothing less than a single large west coast wide union.

On May 9, 1934, every longshoreman and every sailor in all the ports on the west coast walked off the job and began the strike in earnest. Shipping companies promptly hired scabs to replace them, and had the police escort them to and from the docks. In one incident, the strikers attacked a stockade in San Pedro that housed scabs with the intent of driving them off. The police intervened and killed two and injured scores others with gunfire. During this time, Harry Bridges, along with Sam Kagel, served as chairmen of the strike committee. They oversaw the conduct of the strike, as well as took the lead in reviewing any proposed contracts. Ports in San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle, among others, lay crippled due to the strike.

Things came to a head on July 5, in an event later known as “Bloody Thursday”. The bosses of the shipyards in San Francisco attempted to force open the port. Police fired tear gas at the picket lines and charged at them with mounted police. The strikers retaliated by throwing rocks and the police’s own tear gas canisters back at them. The onslaught pushed the strikers back to a defensive position, where both police and strikers held position. Then, maybe provoked or maybe not (eyewitness accounts differ) the police began firing handguns and shotguns at the strikers. Two men were killed and several were injured. That evening, the Governor of California called in the National Guard to patrol the waterfront. The strikers, outgunned, retreated from the area. Harry Bridges met with the San Francisco Labor Council to authorize a general strike.

The following Friday was the funeral for the murdered workers. So moving was the procession through the streets of San Francisco that public sympathy for the longshoreman grew exponentially. On the 14th a general strike was declared and on the 16th it began. 150,000 workers refused to report to work. Movie theaters closed, and many shops closed in solidarity. The police arrested 300 people and ran amok, smashing striker’s equipment. The general strike lasted four days.

It finally came to an end when the general strike committee, which had taken control over the strike, voted to end it. Bridges stridently argued against the end of the strike, but ultimately had no power to continue it. The general strike committee also voted to accept arbitration. Some small concessions to the longshoremen were made and the city of San Francisco returned to work.

By 1936, Harry Bridges was elected to be the president of the ILA Pacific coast district. Under his leadership, the ILA expanded eastward with the aim of unionizing inland warehouse workers as well. The next year, the ILA national leadership tried to reorganize the west coast district and cut the newly unionized warehouse workers loose. In response, Bridges formally had the west coast district formally secede from the ILA. His new union would be called the International Longshoreman’s and Warehouseman’s Union (ILWU). The new union quickly affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and Bridges became the CIO’s west coast director. He would only serve a short time. Bridges adopted the Communist Party USA line at the time, opposing American intervention in World War 2. He specifically denounced President Roosevelt as a “warmonger”. In retaliation, the CIO leadership abolished his district position and therefore limited Bridges’ influence to California only.

Throughout his life, Harry Bridges would face numerous legal challenges and attempts to expel him from the United States. Due to his outspoken communist sympathies, he was taken to court and charged with lying about being a member of a communist party on his immigration papers. This case was thrown out, as he was not currently a member of any organization when he immigrated. A new law was written, the Smith act, in order to address this. Bridges was brought to trial again in 1945 for being “affiliated” with the communist party, though the prosecution was ultimately unable to prove said affiliation, and were unable to deport him.

At the end of the 40’s, the CIO had grown wary of Bridges’ power and influence. He was removed from his post as California director, and later the ILWU was expelled from the CIO for supposed “communist leadership”. The union continued on though, negotiating contracts and advocating on the worker’s behalf. Bridges himself carried on as the union’s president for many years until his retirement in 1977.

Harry Bridges died in 1990, aged 88. His legacy lives on in the ILWU, who’s headquarters is named for him. He lives on in numerous monuments in San Francisco and elsewhere, and in the Harry Bridges Institute in San Pedro, California. He lives on in the hearts of trade unionists everywhere, as a tireless defender of workers’ rights and an example for workers everywhere.

”The most important word in the language of the working class is solidarity.”


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