Harry Bridges and the ILWU From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks

The life and times of Harry Bridges are so closely linked with the history of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) that it is impossible to write about one without writing about both – and this writer is not going to try.

Bridges, whose vision of what could be, sparked the imagination of millions of ordinary workers – he called them “working stiffs” – and gave them confidence that they could rise to the challenge of bettering their lives through common struggle.

The proof of Bridges’ leadership – and his confidence in the courage and savvy of these working stiffs – lives on today in the form of the ILWU, established in 1937, thus bringing to an end one of the most dramatic chapters in the history of the U.S. working class.

But first, back to the beginning, back to a small Australian town where Harry Bridges was born July 28, 1901. By age 15 he had gone to sea, finally arriving in San Francisco in 1920 where, two years later, he went to work on the docks. That decision changed the life of Bridges and West Coast longshore workers forever. By October 1934, men who had once been called “wharf rats” had become “lords of the docks.”

Working on the docks was a tough way to make a living: Long hours at dangerous work, the “shape-up” where it took a bottle of whiskey or a dollar bill to secure a job. And most galling of all, mandatory membership in the hated “Blue Book Union,” established after the shipowners had busted the San Francisco local of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) in 1916.

By 1924 the anger and frustration of the dockworkers had generated the first breezes of the gales that were to come when a contingent of 400 longshoremen marched in the San Francisco Labor Day parade demanding reinstatement of the ILA.

The Depression brought even harsher conditions – speedup, pay cuts, more injuries. But it brought something more: The Marine Worker’s Industrial Union and its Waterfront Worker. By 1931 the demand for change reached ILA headquarters in New York, prompting ILA President Joe Ryan to issue a charter to Local 38-79, with Lee Holman as president.

Holman was the conservative leader of one of the caucuses that led the campaign to bring the ILA back to the Bay Area. William Lewis and Fred West, both described as “economic militants,” headed a second, while Bridges was a prominent member of the third, known as Albion Hall. While the others depended on the Roosevelt administration for help, the Albion Hall group believed that direct action by rank-and-file longshore workers was the surest way of winning new gains and protecting those already won.

Both theories were tested in February 1934 when a panel established under the National Recovery Act ruled against Local 38-79, saying the Blue Book Union was “legal.” Two weeks later, thousands of workers burned their membership books on a San Francisco dock. A few days after that, four workers were fired for wearing ILA buttons.

Although the local rejected Bridge’s call for a strike, the Waterfront Worker, now the voice of Albion Hall, called for support of the four, and hundreds of workers walked off the job. The strike ended with complete victory five days later when the four were called back, as were all strikers.

The strike, coming only days before the opening of the convention of the ILA’s Pacific Branch on February 26, 1934, brought a sense of optimism to delegates who flocked to San Francisco from locals up and down the coast hoping that a strong San Francisco local was a guarantee that the shipowners would have to deal with their grievances. And when they refused, ILA members voted almost 10 to 1 to walk off the job.

The rest is history: Despite the shipowners’ refusal to acknowledge union demands; despite President Roosevelt’s appeal that the strike be postponed; despite past employer success in preventing joint union action; despite Holman’s opposition – despite all this, the strike began on May 8, with other unions following suit the next day.

For the first time in American labor history, craft jealousies were broken down as skilled and unskilled personnel cooperated on an equal basis. And for one of the first times in history, the rank-and-file was in full control of a major strike.

Faced with this unity and militancy, all hope of bartering a settlement with corrupt union officials vanished. When strikers twice rejected secret deals between Ryan and the employers, the shipowners had but two weapons left – a campaign to isolate the strike by branding its leaders “Communists,” and, should that fail, the use of force to open the ports.

Bridges, as did John L. Lewis and many other CIO leaders, recognized that the Communist Party could – and did – give invaluable advice on the campaigns that brought unions to mass production workers, while rank-and-file waterfront workers found that Party members were the most consistent elements in their ranks. Thus they rejected claims that Communists “dominated” the strike, although the Party did influence its tactics and helped raise the understanding of the strike’s significance.

By the end of June the steamship companies were left with but one option if they were to preserve their unchallenged sway over West Coast docks. The port had to be opened.

Public officials up and down the coast went about the task with a single-minded purpose. Police departments stocked tear gas, ammunition, grenades, special-issue police batons and machine guns in preparation for a police assault on July 5 that would leave two workers dead in San Francisco, two more in San Pedro and one each in Seattle and Everett, Wash. (See “Bloody Thursday” above.)

On July 9 more than 40,000 strikers and their supporters marched down San Francisco’s Market Street behind a flat-bed truck carrying the coffins of Nick Sperry and Howard Bordoise.

One newspaper described the scene as a “river of men flowing up Market Street like cooling lava ... with thousands of spectators lining the streets with uncovered heads.” Another wrote: “In life they wouldn’t have commanded a second glance ... but in death they were borne the length of Market Street in a stupendous and reverent procession that astounded the city.”

The Industrial Association, the employer group that had demanded the ports be opened, recognized the power and the dignity of the demonstration, calling it “one of the strangest and most dramatic spectacles that has ever moved along Market Street.”

But more to the point was its assessment that the employers had overplayed their hand: “As the last marcher broke ranks, the certainty of a general strike, which up to this time had appeared ... as a visionary dream of a small group of radical workers, became, for the first time, a practical and realizable objective.”

And they were right. The wheels of commerce and industry came to a stop at 8:00 a.m., Monday, July 16, and stayed stopped until July 19.

The strike ended on July 31 when the unions agreed to binding arbitration. When the arbitration board handed down its award on October 12, longshore workers had their hiring hall, a closed shop, the 30-hour week, higher wages, union recognition and a coast-wide contract – substantially every demand they had made in February.

The 1934 strike laid the basis for a different kind of a union on the Pacific Coast waterfront. Two years later, the West Coast ILA locals established the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (now the International Longshore and Warehouse Union) with Harry Bridges as president. The ILWU affiliated with the CIO, thus serving as a beacon in the mass campaigns that built powerful industrial unions across the country.

Bridges’ fighting spirit – “I don’t ask for a fair fight, all I want is a chance to fight,” he often said – still lives among ILWU members now engaged in crucial negotiations with the Pacific Maritime Association.

Just as the battles of 1934 changed the balance of forces between labor and management across the country, this year’s ILWU negotiations will go far in determining the ability of the labor movement to defend the interests of its members in the face of a gang-up that includes the most anti-union president in the history of the republic.

A verse from Bridges’ favorite poem may be worth remembering: “You have machines, master,/Bright and burnished/Bigger than my father’s ken./All we have is men, master./All we have are men.”

The author can be reached at Fgab708@aol.com



Bridges’ contributions


Harry Bridges’ role in leading the maritime workers to victory in the historic 1934 strike was only the beginning of the impact he had on American unions and the fight for democracy.

Early in the strike, Bridges insisted and convinced the strikers that full equality for Black longshoremen was a necessary part of a victory strategy. He went to Black churches in the Bay Area and urged congregations to join strikers on the picket line, saying that when the strike was won, Blacks would work on every dock on the West Coast. He kept his promise. This opened the door for the ILWU to become one of the most integrated, multiracial and multinational unions in the country.

Not long after the ’34 strike, in 1937, the ILWU began its first direct action in the fight for peace and international solidarity, when it began a policy of refusing to load scrap iron on ships bound for Japan. Bridges said that that scrap iron would come back to us as bombs. Bridges continued to work and speak out for peace in the Korean War, and the ILWU was one of the first unions to oppose the U.S. war against Vietnam.

The union went on to lead other international solidarity actions against Pinochet’s Chile and refusing to unload ships from South Africa, giving the anti-apartheid movement a big boost.

In the 1950s, the ILWU was one of the maritime unions targeted by the federal government, which imposed an illegal screening program to remove all militant, radical-minded workers from the waterfront. The union worked hard to protect its members who were victims of the screening program, finding work for them wherever possible on the waterfront.

The union’s fight for peace and international solidarity was also carried out through an extensive program of exchanging delegations with dockers’ unions around the world, during which aid was given.

As recently as last year, the union sent a delegation to Cuba, and earlier had sent one to attend the Congress of Vietnamese Unions. The ILWU was in the forefront of the struggle to defend the Liverpool dockers and the Australian Wharfies when those workers came under attacks from corporate and government union-busters.

The consistent progressive, anti-fascist policies of the ILWU, and its example of militant, democratic unionism under the leadership of Harry Bridges, aroused the fierce enmity and hatred of the ruling circles in the U.S. Beginning in 1940 there were four separate deportation trials of Bridges, all of which failed in their mission to remove Bridges as head of the ILWU and send him back to Australia.

After one of the unsuccessful trials, which had gone to the U.S. Supreme Court, the opinion of Justice Frank Murphy, speaking for the majority, said, “Seldom, if ever, in the history of this nation, has there been such a concentrated, relentless crusade to deport an individual simply because he dared to exercise the freedoms guaranteed to him by the Constitution.”

Despite the massive pressure to accommodate and make his peace with the system, Bridges never compromised his basic beliefs. “My thinking” said Bridges, “is Marxist. And the basic thing about this lousy capitalist system is that the workers create the wealth, but those who own it – the rich – keep getting richer and the poor get poorer.”

– Herb Kaye