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Labor Day Special – Harry Bridges: Founder of the ILWU

May 9th, 2019 will mark the 85th anniversary of the start of the “Bloody Thursday” Strikes of 1934 in San Francisco which resulted in two strikers being killed and scores more shot and injured by police. The strike peaked with the death of two workers on “Bloody Thursday” and the San Francisco General Strike which stopped all work in the major port city for four days and led ultimately to the settlement of the West Coast Longshoremen’s Strike.

A key figure behind the strikes and the driving force behind the labor movement that would ultimately become the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) was Harry Bridges. Harry Bridges died on March 30 1990, after leading the ILWU for 40 years.

The following is Harry Bridges’ obituary that appeared in the New York Times on March 31, 1990. All photos that accompany the text have been chosen by PortandTerminal.com.

Harry Bridges, a leading figure in America’s 20th-century labor movement who organized the West Coast longshoremen in the 1930s, died of emphysema yesterday at his home in San Francisco, the longshoremen’s union reported. He was 88 years old.

The Australian-born Mr. Bridges, who entered this country by jumping ship in 1920, was an unyielding unionist at a time when dock strikes could still cripple segments of the economy. He was labeled a Communist by Congress, which sought to deport him as an ”undesirable alien.”

He was a dapper, hawk-faced man with a disarming smile who mellowed with age. The International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, which he headed until 1977, has lost much of its membership and influence to technology.

A Salute From San Francisco

Mayor Art Agnos of San Francisco ordered city flags to be flown at half-staff in his honor. ”Harry Bridges’ death leaves a void that can never be filled,” the Mayor said. ”He was a legendary figure in the labor movement whose courage and devotion to principle will never be forgotten. All of San Francisco mourns this loss.”

Alfred Renton Bryant Bridges was born July 28, 1901, in Kensington, a suburb of Melbourne. He began his working life as a store clerk, but the novels of Jack London lured him to sea when he was 16. He was shipwrecked twice, once staying afloat on his mandolin.

Bridges went to sea at age 16 as a merchant seaman and joined the Australian sailors’ union

In 1920, he entered the United States aboard the barkentine Ysabel, but left the crew after arguing with the skipper about the treatment of seamen. He drifted from San Francisco to Mexico, working in the oil fields and as a rigger, and later returned to sea on American merchantmen.

He was in the crew of a ship that arrived in New Orleans in 1921 during a strike. He reported for picket duty and was in charge of a picket squad when the walkout ended. But first he was arrested and jailed overnight, an experience that prompted him to join the Industrial Workers of the World, who were called ”Wobblies.” He thought the moderate American Federation of Labor had betrayed the strikers.

Toll of the Hard, Hard Work

Longshoremen at the San Francisco Docks in the 1920s (Photo: Sonoma County Photograph Collection)

Years later, he recalled that he left the Wobblies after three years because he lost faith in them – ”I forget why.”

Mr. Bridges, who never lost his Australian accent, came to the San Francisco docks in 1922, when stevedores reported for the ”shape-up” before sunrise to be picked for work or sent away. Continuous hefting of cases and the steady pull of the longshoreman’s hook left one hand like a claw for the rest of his life.

His passion for union organization and growing militancy came to the fore in 1933 when he led a group of organizers to establish a longshoremen’s local on the San Francisco docks. In six weeks, most dock workers had signed up for the new International Longshoremen’s Association local, which demanded wages higher than the prevailing $10.45 a week, coast-wide recognition and a 30-hour week.

Nick Bordoise and an unidentified striker in San Francisco. Bordoise was one two men killed during the 1934 strike

Mediation failed and the I.L.A. struck in May 1934. On July 5, the police charged a picket line in which two people were killed and a hundred injured. Martial law was declared. A general strike followed, stopping most industries for three days. The Pullout From the Old A.F.L. Mr. Bridges pulled his I.L.A. local out of the American Federation of Labor in 1937 and took it into what was to become John L. Lewis’s militant Congress of Industrial Organizations, He also reorganized his own union, renamed the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, independent of I.L.A.

Antagonism between the rival organizations persisted for years, with Mr. Bridges denouncing the I.L.A. for ”corrupt” dock-work practices and the I.L.A. shunning him as a ”Communist,” though he denied ever having joined the Communist Party.

As president of the I.L.W.U., Mr Bridges enjoyed strong support from his men when Congress tried to deport him in the 1940s. The House of Representatives voted 330 to 42 to deport him, to be overturned later by the United States Supreme Court. In fact, the Court twice ruled in his favor against charges that he was a Communist and had lied about never having been a party member.

The Support From the Reds

Mr. Bridges insisted that it was the rank and file that built his union. ”I just got the credit for a lot of it,” he told an interviewer in 1985. ”I happened to be around at the right time.”

About his acceptance of Communist support, he was not apologetic. Without a treasury to speak of, he explained, the union needed all the help it could get. ”Some of my ideas I had before I knew anything about Communists,” he said.

Despite his radical reputation, Mr. Bridges also was proud of the ”mechanization and modernization” agreement he worked out with management in the 1960’s to reduce labor costs through improved productivity. In return for higher wages and pension guarantees, the agreement allowed cargo to be handled with mechanical loaders and shipped in prepacked containers.

At the time, the agreement prompted a rising by militants who charged that the former labor revolutionary had become ”a partner of the bosses.”

Harry and his daughter Katherine

Mr. Bridges is survived by his wife, Noriko; four children, Julie Fales, Robert Bridges, Jackie Jourdan and Katherine Bridges, all residents of the Bay area; five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

The union said his ashes would be scattered in San Francisco Bay. A memorial will be held by the LOcal 10 of the I.L.W.U. at Longshoremen’s Hall in San Francisco Saturday, April 14.


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