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labor Trade Unionist Harry Bridges Remade the Labor Movement

Radical labor leader Harry Bridges helped create one of the US's most powerful unions, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Its founding principles were anti-racism and worker autonomy, which he learned from rank-and-file dockworkers and

Harry Bridges at the fourth National Convention of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in Detroit, Michigan, November 17, 1941. ,Bettmann / Getty Images

Review of Harry Bridges: Labor Radical, Labor Legend by Robert W. Cherny (University of Illinois Press, 2023)

In the Summer of 1934, the Partisan Review, then the premier journal of American communism and letters, asked Tillie Lerner Olsen to write a dispatch from the San Francisco waterfront, where longshoremen had ground the docks to a standstill. Lerner was twenty-one when she appeared in the pages of the second issue of the Review, which introduced her as a “Nebraska girl at present living in Stockton, Calif [who] last year she took a leave of absence from the Young Communist League to produce a future citizen of Soviet America.” Four months later, Lerner reappeared in the journal. San Francisco had rid her of her status as an ingenue and the contributor’s section of the Review now began, “Tillie Lerner, arrested during the raids in San Francisco, has been recently released on bail.”

“Do not ask me to write of the strike and the terror,” began her classic account of the strike.

I am on a battlefield, and the increasing stench and smoke sting the eyes so it is impossible to turn them back into the past. . . . The kids coming in from the waterfront. The flame in their eyes, the feeling of invincibility in their blood. The stories they had to tell of scabs educated, of bloody skirmishes. My heart was ballooning with happiness anyhow, to be back, working in the movement again, but the things happening down at the waterfront, the heroic everydays, stored such richness in me I can never lose it.

The strike spoke to a question that had haunted the American labor movement for decades: Could the “unskilled” masses of replaceable labor actually be organized? By the end of the confrontation — which saw six workers killed and eventually widened to become both a citywide general strike in San Francisco and a coastwide shutdown of all Pacific ports — the longshoremen won resoundingly. After over eighty days of strike action, the dockers answered this question decisively in the affirmative, putting industrial unionism back on labor’s agenda, and pushing the New Deal itself from its first, explicitly class-collaborationist phase into its second, more social democratic phase.

This victory had a singular figure at its heart: Harry Bridges, a leader who rose from the rank and file, an unabashed Marxist and, at the very least, a fellow traveler of the Communist Party (CPUSA). “We take the stand that we as workers have nothing in common with the employers,” Bridges said. “We are in a class struggle, and we subscribe to the belief that if the employer is not in business his products will still be necessary and we still will be providing them when there is no employing class. We frankly believe that day is coming.”

The significance of Bridges and the iconic union he founded, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), have long been an object of fascination for the Left. The cultural historian Michael Denning assigns the union responsibility for the impressive unity of the 1930s left in California, in contrast to the fractious New York scene. Yet Bridges the man has remained somewhat of a cipher, less a person than a legend, a living symbol of the working-class unity he helped to foster.

For this reason, historian Robert W. Cherny’s long-awaited authorized biography, Harry Bridges: Labor Radical, Labor Legend, is a welcome arrival. About Bridges, there are two things questions that any study worth its weight should attempt to answer: What qualities made him able to found and lead such a distinctive and radical union? And what, as his persecutors in government were constantly trying to uncover, was his relationship to Communism? These are not separate issues. Bridges’s complex loyalty to the international workers’ movement, whose vanguard almost everywhere in the 1930s were members of the CPUSA, undeniably shaped his outlook.

Waterfront Cosmopolitans

Born to petit-bourgeois English and Irish parents in Melbourne in 1901, Bridges, whose given name was Alfred, imbibed the radicalism of his country’s early twentieth-century labor movement. Several of his relatives were active in the Australian Labor Party, at the time the political expression of that country’s powerful workers’ movement. “By 1914,” observes Cherny, “Australia was the most unionized nation in the world, with 106 union members per 1,000 inhabitants. By comparison, the United Kingdom counted 86 union members per 1,000 and the United States 27.”

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Formed first through transportation of convicts and later free migration, Australia’s working class was permeated by shipborne global socialist currents. But the country’s labor movement embodied the classic paradoxes of working-class militancy in a settler colony.

With the total dispossession of aboriginal Australians accomplished, a racist class politics took hold in the country’s labor movement, to preserve Australia as a “workingman’s paradise” for British proletarians, particularly by excluding immigrants from the surrounding Indo-Pacific region, especially China. The country’s unions often campaigned in support of this vision of “White Australia,” championing a racist chauvinism that Bridges must have absorbed as a young man and shed as he moved into the cosmopolitan circuits of the maritime proletariat.

As elsewhere, World War I escalated class struggles in Australia, and conscription inspired a wave of walkouts culminating in the Great Strike of 1917.  No labor movement “since 1917 has ever organized the power to shut down industry as Australian unions shut down this country in 1917, no nation before 1917 did it, no nation since has managed it,” reflected Bridges many years later. He credited this wave of militancy with beginning his “real working-class education.”

Two years later, Bridges became a seaman, looking for adventure and to escape an oppressive family environment. In 1920, he worked a ship that took him to San Francisco, where he would soon settle for the rest of his life. That same year he joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), his years amongst the cosmopolitan community seamen an apprenticeship for the internationalist union.

Seaborne radicalism helped to make the Left throughout the twentieth century, and Bridges was in this sense part of a much broader phenomenon. It included amidst its ranks the young Ho Chi Minh, the novelist Claude McKay, the poet Langston Hughes, the Philadelphia longshoreman and Wobbly Ben Fletcher, and the itinerant black Communist Lovett Fort-Whiteman. These radical maritime workers, proletarian cosmopolitans of the waterfronts and port cities, were part of a community of footloose rogues — multiethnic and multiracial, sexually liberated, and aesthetically committed to the avant-garde.

San Francisco became a haven for these internationalist vagabonds. Inspired by the IWW, they would eventually make the ILWU into something completely different from its East Coast counterpart, the corrupt and collaborationist International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA). Bridges “had heard talk about the IWW throughout his seafaring years, especially on the Pacific Coast,” Cherny writes. But he actually joined the IWW during a sojourn in New Orleans, where he’d been hanging around listening to jazz, a lifelong passion of his, and looking for a ship back to Australia.

The union advanced his political development significantly. There he attended meetings to discuss racial segregation and commit to struggling against it. In solidarity, he sat in the back of streetcars and movie theaters and, if challenged, replied that he was black. The IWW’s expectation that all of its members were also organizers and the itinerant lifestyle that gave rise to this politics radicalized Bridges. He jumped from gig to gig, taking with him contempt for his bosses and their collaborators.

Cherny recounts such an episode at a levee on the southernmost tip of the Mississippi delta where Bridges took a job. The company deducted half the workers’ pay for miserable food and housing. “Harry and the three [other] Wobblies organized their fellow workers and took them out on strike against the miserable accommodations and high prices.

The sheriff of Plaquemines Parish quickly arrived and identified the four Wobblies as the strike leaders. Years later, Bridges mimicked the sheriff: “Well, well, well. If Ah were you boys, Ah wouldn’t let the sun set on me around’ heah.” The four walked back to New Orleans. After a disastrous seamen’s strike in 1921 and a little more time spent working and bumming around the Gulf, Mexico, and Central America, Bridges washed up back in San Francisco. Still planning to go back to Australia, he picked up some short-term, casual work as a longshoreman so as to stay close to the harbor.

Communist Adjacent

Bridges’s personal history up till here contains all the critical elements that would make the ILWU so strong: internationalism, anti-racism, and a syndicalist orientation consisting of both rank-and-file democracy and a commitment to winning gains through the self-activity of the working class. He might have spent the rest of his life bouncing around the port cities of the world, an unknown agitator like so many others, but marriage and unexpected and unwanted parenthood would tie Bridges to the San Francisco waterfront and mark the beginning of a more sedentary chapter in his life.

He paid dues to the company union known as the “Blue Book” and learned the hard way that his input was not welcome: “If any ordinary working longshoreman raised a protest at the union meeting — we tried it once — why, we got thrown down the stairs.” He went to some meetings and kept his politics intact, but until the 1930s, he mainly kept his head down trying to support his family and enjoy himself.

Bridges, an autodidact who read widely in shipping industry publications, the bourgeois financial press, and Marxist and socialist journals, believed that capitalism would not find its way out of the Depression. When organizers from both the ILA and the Communist-led Maritime Workers Industrial Union (MWIU) began creeping around the docks in the 1930s, Bridges eventually fell in with both camps — particularly after the party called for MWIU militants to enter the ILA and organize “fighting groups” within it in 1933. Bridges rose to prominence in the union as a member of such a group, which took its name from its hangout spot, Albion Hall in the then working-class Mission District.

Members of the Albion Hall group laid out their views of proper union leadership in an anonymous article in the Western Worker, a party journal. Leaders, the article insisted, should devote themselves to fighting the Blue Book and for higher wages, shorter hours, and improved conditions; they should not encourage splits among the workers; no official should hold office for more than a year or be paid more than the workers themselves; the executive committee should be “representative of all nationalities and militant opinions . . . [and] fight to improve conditions, not sit around looking important in some office”; workers should have rights of referendum and recall; and forbid discrimination on any racial, religious, political, or national basis. It is easy here to see the legacy of the IWW and its generative fusion with Communist politics in the early 1930s.

Cherny recounts the pivotal year between the start of 1933 to late 1934 and the “Big Strike” in great detail. At its center is Bridges’s unshakeable commitment to principle. Here the question of his relationship to the party is central, and Cherny approaches it with new research from archives in Moscow.

He concludes that if Bridges was ever a formal member of the CPUSA, it was only for a brief time. He was, nevertheless, more than a casual “fellow traveler.” He took part in meetings, discussions, and decisions that appear substantively like participation in the organization, regardless of his membership status. Crucially, though, Cherny finds no evidence whatsoever that Bridges was ever meaningfully under the discipline of the party. The bureaucracy did not control him and could not get him to follow its directives. Indeed, the relationship of influence went the other way: the party very often had to tail Bridges and his leadership, trying to take credit for what he and the union he led had accomplished.

Through direct militant confrontations on the docks in 1933, Bridges and his organization effectively killed the Blue Book, the company union — culminating in a famous action at the Matson Dock, in which the workers “refused [to present their dues books] and walked off the dock 100 percent, and after a little discussion outside proceeded to tear up their B.B.’s, and dump them in a pile on the sidewalk.”

Bridges then became chairman of the strike committee of San Francisco’s ILA Local 38-79. It was from this position that he built what would become the ILWU. Repeatedly over the course of the 1933–1934 recognition drive, Bridges outmaneuvered conservative labor movement officials and saw off efforts by more moderate forces in both labor and government to settle the escalating dispute on the West Coast docks on less favorable terms than the rank and file demanded in the summer 1934 strike.

Democratizing the Union

In June 1934, faced with intensifying violence, the mayor of San Francisco brokered an agreement between the employers and the ILA, backed by the Teamsters, establishing joint union and management control of hiring halls. All the newspapers declared the strike over. When ILA president Joseph Ryan returned from this negotiation to his hotel room, he found Bridges, who informed Ryan that it was the members that were in control of the union. Remembering the scene, Ryan said that “he had never been talked to in his life as Bridges talked to him at that time.”

Bridges’s Strike Committee unanimously rejected the agreement the next morning; by the afternoon, the full membership of the local refused even to consider ratifying the agreement. The Teamsters, who had promised to begin shipping at the docks again under the deal, found that they could not do so. By June 19, three days after the deal was signed by Ryan, “for the first time in forty-five years, no ship entered the Golden Gate.”

Within a few weeks, and after more employer and state violence, Bridges forced the citywide labor movement to join the longshoremen in a general strike. By the next year, Pacific longshoremen were out of the ILA (and with it the American Federation of Labor), joining the new Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) as the ILWU and representing its West Coast spearhead.

Throughout the strike and in the years after, Bridges found that his strength as a leader lay in an unswerving relationship of loyalty between himself and the rank and file. Seeing that Bridges embodied the principle of rank-and-file voice and militancy before anything else, the membership gave him near-absolute trust. With that trust, he built the union and the labor movement.

Labor leaders almost always aver belief in such a relationship: Bridges not only practiced it, but showed its power. The great strength of Cherny’s biography is to demonstrate in intricate detail how rank-and-file democracy becomes a source of power not just in epic confrontations like the Big Strike of 1934, but in the intricate maneuvering that went into building a militant union.

One of the Good Ones

As expected, Cherny devotes significant attention to the repeated efforts of state officials and capital from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s to destroy Bridges by exposing his connection to the party. In this effort, his enemies used every tool in the book, from forged documents to false testimony.

First, beginning during the strike itself, the Immigration and Naturalization Service investigated his alien status, which led to demands for his deportation from his many enemies, including the governor of California. In the late 1930s, the House Un-American Activities Committee (the Dies Committee) investigated Bridges, and the House of Representatives voted 330-42 to direct the attorney general to arrest and deport him, “notwithstanding any other provision of law.” (The bill was killed in the Senate due to its unconstitutional targeting of an individual.)

Virtually nonstop investigations, charges, and hearings proceeded, however, across the next fifteen years: Bridges had some reluctant allies in the New Deal state, but he had many more enemies with their own pockets of power who were eager to bring him down. Bridges was one of J. Edgar Hoover’s favorite targets across these years, and the FBI chief saw it as one of his great failures that he had never succeeded in jailing or deporting the longshoremen’s leader. “Just the mention of the name Harry Bridges was sufficient to turn the director’s face livid,” recalled an FBI agent.

Bridges’s leadership in the ILWU, however, was never affected by the campaign of relentless attacks that most exercised fanatics on the Right. An FBI informant reported that during a union banquet in 1952, Bridges recounted an anecdote about a not-unpleasant encounter between himself and a future president: on a plane back from Hawaii to the mainland.

Bridges had found himself sitting next to Richard Nixon, then vice president–elect. Nixon told the union leader that “he had met some important people in Hawaii who had a high regard for him because he was always a man of his word. Nixon, said Bridges, then made the following remark: ‘Bridges, I think you’re a Communist, but I don’t think you’re the dangerous kind. The dangerous kind we are trying to get are the ones like Hiss, Acheson and Truman.’ . . . The audience ‘howled’ and applauded wildly.”

For Bridges and the membership, in other words, his relationship to the Communist Party — and his persecution for it — were serious in a legal sense, but substantively no more than a laughing matter. Bridges’s good humor and charisma, his reciprocal trust with the membership, made him politically immune to red-baiting.

Bridges’s immunity is striking in how it separates him and the ILWU from so much of the experience of the Popular Front. That movement, in which the Communist Party directed its members to work flexibly with a wide range of allies including liberals and mainstream trade unionists, brought about an efflorescence of activity by “fellow travelers” who were in the party’s orbit but not under its discipline.

This moment, from 1935 to 1939, both saw Communism at its height of influence and also blurred much of what made it distinctive, reducing it to a kind of populist sensibility and bringing it ultimately into a political dependence on reform-minded liberals — a dependence that became lethal when liberals, motivated by Cold War anti-communism, turned against their former allies in the late 1940s. The Popular Front strategy, in other words, brought about both American Communism’s greatest strength and its destruction.

Bridges, however, walked this same path more adroitly. Far more than other Popular Front formations, the ILWU remained close to an organic basis in working-class syndicalism and internationalism, which in turn had its origin in proletarian cosmopolitanism of the IWW. Although Bridges participated in Democratic Party politics — and the ILWU threw its weight around politically, especially in Hawaii where it was critical in the ouster of the sugar oligarchy — fostering corporatist relationships never became the basis of the union’s power. Ultimately it was not Bridges’s own personality that maintained this power, but the enduring influence of the syndicalist tradition out of which he emerged.

Like any labor leader must, Bridges committed errors and revealed shortcomings. He remained in charge far too long, leading the union into the mid-1970s, by which time he had lost much of the flexibility that was his signature. He acquiesced to containerization, which would radically diminish the future longshore workforce in return for favorable economic terms for the union’s aging membership.

While Bridges’s most immediate legacy lies with the union he built, which remains formidable despite decades of neoliberalism, what Cherny’s biography reveals beautifully is something larger than that and harder to pin down. The union’s victories had their origin in a sensibility born on cosmopolitan coasts — New Orleans jazz as the sound track to the organization of the multiracial industrial working class.

In 1943–1944, while embroiled in his legal battles and leading his union through the rigorous demands of the war economy and its prohibition on strike action, Bridges, Cherny notes, did not abandon his love of jazz. When racial discrimination prevented the legendary New Orleans trumpet player Willie “Bunk” Johnson from playing, Bridges did not hesitate to give the basement meeting hall of the CIO building over to the musician. A reputation for raucous nights quickly led to the basement being renamed the “HJS Chamber” for “Hot Jazz Society.”

The band played every Sunday afternoon from July 1943 to July 1944. “Alfred Frankstein, arts critic of the [San Francisco] Chronicle, described the ‘exhilarating show’: the audience ‘stood and sat, drank and smoked, danced and clapped and stomped.’ The concerts attracted stellar guests, including Jimmy Dorsey, Harry James, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie, either as performers or audience members.”

This music was the perfect expression of the Bridges who rode in the back of New Orleans streetcars and integrated longshore work. But there is more behind his decision to support America’s working-class musical tradition than a principled moral commitment to racial justice. The interwar cosmopolitan milieu of the maritime proletariat, the syndicalist sensibility that it bred, always harbored an element of insouciant defiance — the economic experience of casual labor had, as its aesthetic counterpart, the free-floating radicalism of the musical avant-garde.

Even the most radical branches of the American labor movement often lacked this quality, understandably, fighting for survival against a repressive state and a bitterly hostile capitalist class. But in building the ILWU, Bridges and the longshoremen figured out how to house this kind of defiant spirit in an institutional body, stabilizing what is for individuals normally an ephemeral attitude into a resource of enduring power. There is certainly a relationship between this accomplishment and the role of the West Coast in general, and the Bay Area in particular, as a site of further social rebellion and cultural dissent across the twentieth century.

For Bridges, the struggles of labor were brutal and difficult but also fueled by a commitment to pleasure and joy. Workers got to know each other, learned each other’s cultures and traditions, stood up for each other when no one else would, drank and smoked and danced and had sex with one another. Of course, longshoremen had structural power, operating the veins of commerce, but they could only use that power because they had each other. And that, Bridges knew, no one could take away — not if you really believed in it.

Gabriel Winant is an assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and the Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America.

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