Biography: Harry Bridges


Note: In order to raise awareness and properly pay tribute to our union's history,
we present the following article taken from the book The Men Who Labor published
in 1937. It describes the events surrounding the infamous BLOODY THURSDAY and the
life of Harry Bridges, the founder of the International Longshoremen's and
Warehousemen's Union (ILWU). The boyhood life of Bridges is briefly examined to
demonstrate what influences exerted themselves upon this incredible man as well
as his work as a sailor and longshoreman, his arrival in the United States, and
concluding with his rise to power as a maritime union officer.
Learn from history....

Until the shipowners encountered Harry Bridges, they thought they knew what to expect from a labor leader. As much masters of the Samuel Gompers tradition (a labor leader who believed in compromise), the shipowners felt safe in assuming that Bridges would quickly be transformed into an acceptable labor officer whose sole concern would be to hold on to his job. They could understand, though they did not approve, his rise to leadership in the 1934 maritime strike. They could also understand, while approving still less, his ability to survive the slanderous attacks on his character and principles, and the willingness of other workers after the strike to elect him president of the San Francisco local of the International Longshoremen's Association. What exasperated the bankers and industrials was that once Bridges gained authority in the union, success did not temper him as they had predicted. Instead, the defiance of this slender, resolute longshoreman persisted and began to affect unions other than those on the waterfront. The owners grew panicky. Particularly as Bridges insisted, smiling quizzically in a way that infuriated them, "What a union representative should never forget is the power of the men behind him." Some accounted for Harry Bridges' purposefulness by pointing to his six years' service at sea. Certainly Bridges knew conditions in the merchant marine and on the waterfront where he had spent twelve years as a longshoreman. Sailors, who in turn influenced the longshoremen, had a tradition of militancy. The isolated life at sea, the miserable and humiliating living conditions, the ever-present struggle against the captain's autocratic power, the discussions held with sailors in foreign ports or the talk that went on in the foc'sle, the international character of the crews - all seemingly tended to illuminate class relationships. Accordingly, most seamen took for granted that, in the last analysis, the interests of the workers were - had to be - fundamentally opposed to those of the employers. "Everything is produced by the workers..." Harry Bridges expressed it, "and the minute they try to get something by their unions they meet all the opposition that can be mustered by those who now get what they produce." Harry Bridges was born in Melbourne, Australia on July 28, 1901 as Alfred Renton Bridges (later renamed "Harry" by American sailors). Bridges began school before he was five and graduated at twelve, at which time he entered Brennan's parochial school where he remained until he was sixteen. At thirteen or fourteen, his father started to teach him the real estate business, sending the boy out to collect rents from occupants who had taken houses and flats through his fathers' business. Many of the families were poor; many were unable to pay. The boy disliked the job; years later he remarked that no person with any sensitivity to suffering could have collected rents in Melbourne and not have had his opinions colored by the task. At home, the boy heard politics argued continually. His father was conservative, but two uncles took an active interest in the Australian Labor Party. On visits with the uncles, the young Bridges would listen intently to the older men's discussions of the labor's needs, impressed by the repeated refrain stressing the value of a powerful Labor Party. On leaving school, young Bridges clerked for a time in a retail stationery store. He had no real interest in the work, no ambition to enter his father's business. Whenever he had a chance, he rushed to the docks where he could talk to foreign sailors, and watch the boats slip in and out of the harbor. He craved adventure, the chance to know other lands. Finally, he appealed to Captain Suffern, President of the Mercantile Marine Board, to persuade his father to let him go to sea. Captain Suffern spoke to the elder Bridges, told him that if he encouraged his son, the boy would certainly prove a success. Bridges' father would have preferred the boy to remain in Melbourne and enter the real estate business. But, as he related many years later: "To test the boy's love of the sea I hatched a plot with an old Norwegian skipper who ran a ketch between Tasmania and Melbourne. The boat was very small, although seaworthy and making a stormy crossing in it was guaranteed to test the stoutest heart. During the passage with the young Bridges aboard a storm arouse. That was on the homeward trip, and the boat was blown more than 100 miles out of its course. Harry was delighted and refused to leave the deck. The skipper expected him to be washed overboard with every wave. After that there was no stopping the boy from going to sea. He was in two shipwrecks, including the wreck of the 'Val Marie' off the Ninety-Mile Beach. Harry went overboard with my mandolin and kept afloat on it until he was picked up." In 1920, Bridges shipped on the South Sea Island barkentine, "Ysabel." The ship headed out across the Pacific for San Francisco. On the way, Harry and several other men objected to the captain's order that they work on Easter Monday, a regularly recognized holiday for Australian workers. Still angry when the "Ysabel" docked in San Francisco, Harry Bridges left the ship and, after paying the required head tax of eight dollars, entered the United States. Immediately he looked for a job on an American vessel. For two years he sailed up and down the West Coast, and to the Gulf. In 1921, his ship steamed into New Orleans, where a maritime strike was in progress. The next day Harry Bridges reported for picket duty: by the end of the strike he was in charge of a picket squad. "I was arrested once during that time," he said, describing his introduction to police intimidation, "and held over night but released without a court hearing; no charge was placed against me, my offense being that of a striker on picket duty." Following the strike, he was employed as quartermaster on a government ship chasing rum runners. When he received an honorable discharge, he decided that he had spent enough time knocking around from port to port. In October 1922, he started to work on the San Francisco waterfront as a longshoreman. The workers along the Embarcadero, the wide half-moon of boulevard that bounds the expanse of concrete docks, found the young Australian engaging and witty. They joked about his cockney twang and nicknamed him "Limo." Harry Bridges, rangy and thin, with a long, narrow head and black hair brushed in a pompadour, with a thin smile and sharp eyes under heavy lids, settled down to a dock-workers life. At first, he attempted single-handed to defy the company union that dominated the waterfront. But he found that unless he paid dues to the clique that ran the docks, he would soon be blacklisted and unable to get work on the waterfront. Back in 1919, when longshoremen struck for better conditions and higher wages, the owners had smashed the local of the International Longshoremen's Association in San Francisco. At that time, the union could not secure the cooperation of seamen and teamsters. The ILA had disintegrated as scabs unloaded the ships and teamsters delivered goods to the pier heads. With the ILA destroyed, the shipowners had decided that perhaps a union had its use - if the employers controlled it. Accordingly, they set up the Longshoremen's Association of San Francisco and the Bay Region (known as the Blue Book Union) and instituted a closed shop - for the company union. The Blue Book ushered in all the abuses of company unionism. Speedup flourished, while breakneck competition between gangs forced longshoremen to load more and more cargo each hour. The strained slings, the absence of safety devices brought an appalling increase in the number of accidents. To meet the growing rebellion among the longshoremen against the terrific pace, the corporations placed spies on the docks to ferret out the more militant workers for dismissal and blacklisting. Disputes were settled perfunctorily, in a manner designed to place the companies at no disadvantage. Favoritism grew, workers were played one against the other to obstruct unity of action, men were required to pay tribute to the foremen and the Blue Book officials in order to obtain work. Harry Bridges, too, found himself compelled to knuckle under in order to keep his job. "I continued to pay my dues to the Blue Book Union," he testified at the National Labor Board hearings during the 1934 strike. "However, after I was on this job for a while (on the Luckenbach dock), I entered a complaint with reference to not obtaining full pay for actual time I worked. The company refused to pay me and I complained to the Blue Book delegate, with the final result that I never received my money for the time I worked and I lost my job in the bargain...." Despairingly, the longshoremen turned to the American Federation of Labor for help. In the succeeding years they witnessed a grim farce, played at their expense, unfold between the local AFL potentates and the company union officers. The officials of the International Longshoremen's Association tried to persuade the Blue Book to affiliate with the international union. The owners naturally refused. Nevertheless, the company union saw the value of membership in the San Francisco Labor Council and the State Federation of Labor. For if the employers were able to place representative in those high councils, they would have a voice in determining labor policies. The president and secretary of the Blue Book were close friends of Paul Scharrenberg, secretary of the State Federation, and of John O'Connell, secretary of the San Francisco Labor Council. The deal was made with the approval of Joseph P. Ryan, international president of the ILA. The state and city councils welcomed the Blue Book delegates despite the express provision in the AFL constitution forbidding membership in labor councils to groups not affiliated with the Federation. But illegality did not deter Scharrenberg and O'Connell, any more than such considerations deterred the AFL executive council ten years later when it decided to suspend unions affiliated with the Committee for Industrial Organization. On the Pacific coast, the Blue Book company union was blessed by the AFL high priests - and only the longshoremen suffered. Still, President Ryan felt he should not be completely excluded from participation in the benefits resulting from the West Cast bargain. He wanted his share of the dues collected from the workers by the Blue Book. Once again he demanded that the company union likewise affiliate with the ILA. The owners conducted a farcical vote among the Blue Book "membership," and announced that the results opposed affiliation with the international. Infuriated by what he considered traitorous ingratitude, Ryan suddenly remembered the AFL constitution, resolving that if he could not share the benefits sweated from longshoremen by the Blue Book, neither should Scharrenberg nor the rest of the California officials. Ryan insisted, on pain of creating a scandal, that the Blue Book be unseated from the Council and the State Federation. There was no alternative. The company union was forced to drop out of the labor councils. Bickering over the spoils in no way lessened the Blue Book's ability to maintain its throttling grip on the rank and file longshoremen. Ryan lost interest once the company union was thrown out of the two labor bodies, and made no attempt to organize the docks. Bridges and the rest of the workers remained helpless while the company union stifled real organization, prevented any attempt to improve wages or working conditions, allowed the companies to hire and fire, demote and transfer workers whom they deemed undesirable. All the official fulminations of the AFL did not break the Blue Book's hold, any more than the Federation's pious words blocked the growth of company union elsewhere in America. So Harry Bridges, like the other longshoremen, suffered and waited. In the shape-up (the line of men waiting each day in front of the docks for a job in a longshore gang) the workers guardedly discussed conditions among themselves. Sometimes they stood for hours, only to be turned away in the end; sometimes they wasted half a day to obtain an hour's work; sometimes they saw men at the end of the line given preference over those at the head - because previous payments of high tribute to the foremen bought jobs. As the longshoremen hung about in the early morning fog, as they shivered in the rain and wind, or loitered in the fresh sunshine, they talked and Harry Bridges listened to their complaints. He would nod his narrow head, a smile curving his thin lips, "Of course," he would snort. Workers on the waterfront learned to expect those two impatient words from Bridges, the cocksure "of course" that invariably greeted their grumbling and preceded the angry explanation of how they would combat the employers. "Organization..." went the refrain, "rank and file control... unity of action... union democracy... solidarity among all Coast ports... among all unions...." Like most longshoremen, Bridges enjoyed a drink and liked to hang around talking in the saloons along the waterfront. He preached the same sermon endlessly, often arrogant in his certainty and impatient of those who had other ideas. But Bridges also had a sly humor that amused other workers, and an integrity that impressed them. He read little, but his ideas were rooted in what he heard and saw about him, and he learned by listening to others, observing them through half closed, heavy lidded eyes. One thing Bridges grasped - and repeated endlessly - that class was aligned against class, that workers and employers were ever opposed, and that their struggle could not be solved by compromise. Bitterly, Bridges attacked the AFL officials who practiced cooperation with the owners and thereby misled the workers and sacrificed their interests. Twice Harry Bridges attempted to revive the ILA on the waterfront. In 1924, he and a few other militants organized a local, but it lasted only a few months and collapsed ignominiously when an organizer embezzled the union funds and disappeared. Again in 1926, Bridges and the small group around him tried to interest other workers in the ILA, but they turned away, fearful of the blacklist, recalling too vividly the unsuccessful strike of 1919 that had killed the union and subjected them to bitter reprisals from vindictive owners. But Harry Bridges persisted. Eventually, he believed, desperation would overcome fear, intolerable working conditions would replace apathy with revolt. He continued on the docks: on two occasions he was injured in accidents caused by the terrific speedup. Improper gear failed to secure a load and he was badly bruised when three tons of steel crashed to the dock beside him. In 1929, another load fell and broke his foot. But such mishaps were daily occurrences: speed cut down costs and boomed profits - and there was no difficulty replacing men incapacitated or, as often happened, killed. The Blue Book union prevented repercussions that would have dislocated production on the docks; the employers rode high, secure from bothersome labor trouble, enjoying "industrial peace." Though some of the foremen and Blue Book delegated objected to Harry Bridges, to his complaints and to the opinions which he so freely expressed, he was more fortunate in securing jobs than the average longshoreman. He had married in 1925 and now had a family to support. An expert workman, an able winch driver, he became a member of a "star gang," which included the most efficient longshoremen on the 'front. The star gangs worked the longest stretches, often twenty-four to thirty-six hours without sleep, but they got the best jobs, and though they were severely abused, the members were willing to put up with danger and pressure in exchanged for steady employment. By 1932, conditions on the docks had become so bad that the small group of militants decided to launch a third attempt to build the ILA. But this time they panned first to give the longshoremen a more thorough understanding of just what unionism could do for them. The handful of progressives published a mimeographed, clumsily constructed little bulletin which they called The Waterfront Worker. Often the Worker was hard to read because the ink blurred on the cheap paper; usually the drawings were crude. But the bulletin circulated rapidly up and down the Embarcadero and longshoremen were impressed by the sound sense that filled the four pages. Some of them recalled that the slogans stressed by the editors echoed the words that Bridges had so often repeated in the saloons across from the docks, or while standing in the shape-up line: "rank and file control," "unity of action," "union democracy." Longshoremen picked up these phrases, mulled over them until they took on a sharp meaning. The waterfront hummed with union talk. The Marine Workers Industrial Union, affiliated with the Trade Union Unity League, lent powerful aid to the agitation for organization. Then in July 1933, the campaign to form a San Francisco local of the International Longshoremen's Association commenced. Within six weeks, the overwhelming majority of longshoremen had deserted the Blue Book and signed with the union. President Joseph P. Ryan from him New York office saw no reason to refuse the dues of several thousand recruits: he issued a charter and forgot the incident. Delegates from every West Coast local arrived in San Francisco for the 1934 district convention of the ILA. During the fourteen years that the Blue Book had dominated the Embarcadero, the ILA maintained locals in most of the other Pacific ports, but lacking a strong union in the main shipping center of San Francisco, the ILA in Portland, Tacoma, Seattle, and elsewhere had remained, almost of necessity, inactive. With San Francisco returned to the union domain, maritime workers looked hopefully to the convention to challenge the shipowners. True, they knew that the ILA officialdom was steeped in the Gompers tradition of compromise, and that the president, William J. Lewis (no relation to John L. Lewis), was both suspicious of the progressives and fearful that they would sweep him from office. True, they knew that Joseph P. Ryan, international president, supported Lewis and his clique. But the rank and file trusted the young militants, headed by Harry Bridges, who had successfully revived the union in San Francisco. And though at the convention the old guard urged a "reasonable" attitude, the majority of delegates followed the militants in voting for immediate negotiations with the owners to achieve recognition of the union, higher wages than the prevailing weekly wage of $10,45, a thirty hour week, and most important of all, a coastwide agreement. The employers jeered at the demands, no steamship company, they argued, would sign. Behind their obstinate refusal to consider a coastwide contract was the determination to prevent unity among longshoremen in different ports. Besides, the shipowners did not take the strike threats seriously. Even if the longshoremen walked off the docks, the shipowners expected to demolish the young San Francisco local as they had in 1919. Once San Francisco was out of the way, the ILA would again be helpless. Nor were the shipowners without allies; they counted on the federal government and the international president of the ILA for help against the longshoremen. Joseph P. Ryan had studied William Hutcheson's methods and had proved an apt pupil. Like Hutcheson, Ryan had his fingers in more than one pie: as president of the Joseph P. Ryan Association, he had influence wherever the power of Tammany Hall extended. "I'm a machine man," he boasted, "and I head a machine." For twenty years he had dominated the East Cast, and his business agents - "gorillas," the longshoremen called them - "dominated" the docks and succeeded, for the most part, in keeping them free from progressives. Ryan did not differ from most of the top officials of the AFL in his hate and fear of militants. When, therefore, the western shipowners informed Ryan that the rank and file along the Pacific was controlled by "Reds," and when William J. Lewis confirmed this report, Ryan did not hesitate to cooperate with the employers. His collaboration wasn't enough. The rank and file countered the owners' refusal to discuss the union's demands by voting to strike on March 23, 1934. The workers pointed to the National Recovery Act (NRA) which promised them the right to organize into unions of their own choosing for purposes of collective bargaining. In desperation, the employers turned from Ryan to the federal government. The Regional Labor Board, in the person of George Creel, offered to mediate: the employers agreed, except that they refused to deal with the union or discuss the ILA demands. As March 23 drew too close for comfort, Creel appealed to President Roosevelt, who requested the longshoremen to wait and in turn appointed his own mediation board. The owners smiled to themselves, knowing that nothing demoralized workers so successfully as postponement and indecision. Negotiations dragged on. The shipowners flatly declared that they would never recognize the union or consider a coastwide contract. But they did persuade William J. Lewis, eager to prevent the strike, to endorse a meaningless agreement which despite its verbiage did not change conditions on the docks. The longshoremen balked, and on May 9, 1934, walked off the docks. The strike was on. Immediately, the strikers expanded their demands to include union control of hiring halls in place of the shape-up system, and institution of the closed shop on the waterfront. Calling on all other marine unions for support, and on the teamsters not to haul to and from the docks, the longshoremen stretched picket lines along every waterfront from Vancouver to San Diego. Immediately, the Marine Workers Industrial Union struck in full support of the longshoremen and helped to swell the picket lines. The pressing problem was to spread the strike. Harry Bridges and other rank and file leaders were determined not to repeat the mistakes of 1919. Though strongly opposed by Michael Casey, for forty years president of the teamsters, the longshoremen induced the teamsters to stay away from the docks for the duration of the strike. Engineers, cooks and stewards, mates, pilots, seamen filtered off the ships. Their officials harangued, threatened, promised them anything if they would only return to work. But in a week, Paul Scharrenberg, head of the Sailors' Union of the Pacific, wired William Green, lamenting that he could no longer restrain the membership, and was forced in self-preservation to declare a sympathy strike. A week later the sailors presented their own demands to the employers. The experience of the Sailors' Union was repeated in the other marine unions whose membership joined the picket lines and presented demands to the shipowners. Shipping stopped. But the shipowners were still not overly disquieted. They could starve the men out and in the meantime they had their government subsidies. These amounted in many cases to more than the companies expended in annual wages, subsistence, maintenance and repair charges combined. In a report to President Roosevelt, Postmaster General Farley estimated that the subsidy cost the government altogether $70,618,096.06.
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