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
Until the ship owners 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 ship owners 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 dockworkers 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 ship owners 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 fulmination's 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 shapeup (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 shapeup 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 ship owners. 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 ship owners did not take the strike threats seriously. Even if the longshoremen walked off the docks, the ship owners 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 ship owners 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 ship owners 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 ship owners 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 shapeup 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 ship owners. Shipping stopped. But the ship owners 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.
The salaries of corporation officials, largely paid out of subsidies, reached staggering figures: four stockholders of the Dollar Line received from 1923 to 1932 a total in salaries, profits, and bonuses of $14,690,528.00. So when the strike stopped shipping, the corporations anticipated no great loss - the government paid the deficit. The corporations sat back and waited. To put the strike on a firm footing, the militants proposed that no union settle or arbitrate its demands until all other unions had received agreements satisfactory tot heir memberships. The unions agreed, and further pledged themselves to hold out for a coastwide agreement. To coordinate their activities, they set up a Joint Marine Strike Committee, composed of five delegates from each union elected by and responsible to the rank and file, with Harry Bridges as chairman.
For the first time in American labor history, both licensed and unlicensed personnel cooperated on an equal basis, breaking down craft jealousies which had riddled the marine industry. And for the first time in may years, the rank and file fully controlled the conduct of a major strike. It was not all smooth sailing. The unions cooperated willingly enough, but the employers too were mobilizing. Edward McGrady, a government "trouble shooter," arrived in the West, and set to work to break the strike. He got nowhere. "I've been able to crack other strikes," he complained, "but I can't crack this strike." At McGrady's suggestion, Angelo Rossi, mayor of San Francisco, summoned Joseph P. Ryan. But Ryan lacked authority: in 1911, when the Pacific Coast district had rejoined the ILA from which it had previously seceded, the international granted the district complete autonomy, and agreed that international officers should have no jurisdiction in Coast affairs unless their assistance was specially requested. When he arrived in San Francisco in May 1934, Ryan strutted and wheedled, bullied and argued, and finally signed a secret pact with the employers ending the walkout. Hutcheson had used the same trick many times.
The newspapers rejoiced at the strike's termination. But when the longshoremen read the terms which failed to provide any improvement in working conditions, and in addition violated the pledge entered into by all striking union that any settlement must include every union involved, they repudiated Ryan and the agreement. The international president hurriedly left for the East - miserable over the miscarriage of his most zealous strikebreaking. All hope of ending the walkout by bartering with corrupt union officials melted away. Nor had attempts to "buy" Bridges helped the employers' cause. They turned to force and calumny. With Hearst leading, the press attacked Bridges as a Communist and alien, and demanded his arrest and deportation. The Police harassed the picket lines, jailed militants, slugged, beat, terrorized. The workers only drew their lines tighter about the docks. More than ever they looked to Bridges for leadership. The Red scare fell on deaf ears. "I neither affirm nor deny that I am a Communist," Bridges replied to newspaper charges, and pointed out that political beliefs had nothing to do with the issues of the strike. Yet Bridges did not hesitate to accept aid from the Communist Party. Two years later, John L. Lewis also learned to welcome all support from workers regardless of their political affiliations.
To Harry Bridges, it was obvious that the Communist Party would not only cooperate wholeheartedly and effectively with the maritime workers, but could also give invaluable advice on the conduct and development of the strike. In addition, the rank and file of the waterfront unions found that the Communist workers were the most militant, the most self-sacrificing, and the most consistent elements in their ranks. The membership of the various unions adopted the Western Worker, official Communist Party USA organ, as the official newspaper of the strikers. Such direct acceptance of Communist assistance and advice naturally gave rise to the owners' cry that the strike was "Moscow-made," that it was supported by "Red gold," that it was dominated by the Communist Party and aimed at revolution. The answer, in the strikers' minds, was simple. The gold was not forthcoming, and no one from Moscow told them what to do.
More important, while the Communist Party gave guidance, every policy had to be voted upon by the membership of the unions, who selected the most logical and most efficient methods of all those proposed and discussed. If the Communists gave the best advice, then, the men asked, why not benefit by it? It was ridiculous to claim that the Communists "dominated" the strike, since the rank and file had the final say in every policy. But the Communist Party did influence their tactics and their understanding of the strike, and the men were frank in admitting the influence. That the aim of the strike was revolutionary seemed to them ludicrous: the aim was to establish the rights of thousands of men to strike, to picket, to control their own organization, to protect their unions, to raise wages and improve working conditions. The Communist "plot" was revolutionary only in the eyes of the owners whose stranglehold was menaced.
The docks lay idle. Frantically, the employers called on the San Francisco Industrial Association for assistance. Composed of the largest, most ruthless, and most reactionary interests in the West, the Industrial Association counseled violence, and demanded that the police "open the port" forcibly. On July 5, "Bloody Thursday," the police charged the workers' lines, gassed pickets, shot into the ranks of unarmed men. Over one hundred fell wounded, two men lay dead. That same evening, the national guard marched into San Francisco and Governor Merriam - whose campaign chest was immediately enriched by a $30,000 "voluntary" contribution from the ship owners - declared martial law along the Embarcadero. The two murdered strikers, one of them a Communist, lay in state in the ILA hall one black from the waterfront. For seventy-two hours, a double line of workers shuffled past the biers (a stand on which a coffin sits before burial).
On the fourth day following the killings, with troops patrolling the docks, the workers of San Francisco and their sympathizer gathered to bury the dead. Bareheaded, jamming the street for five blocks, they listened to the funeral oration thunder from the amplifiers above the doorway on the union hall. "You have been killed because of your activity in the labor movement. Your death will guide us to our final victory. Your killing has been inspired by the Industrial Association and the Chamber of Commerce. But organized labor will answer that deed many-fold throughout the land." The two coffins were carried to the street, placed reverently on the waiting trucks. As they moved slowly into Market Street, the procession of workers formed - forty thousand tense, silent, bitter men, women, and children. Chief of Police Quinn had "forbidden" the funeral. But when the ominously quiet tide of marchers flowed into the streets behind the trucks and muffled drums, the police disappeared. All that long July afternoon the cortege tramped through the city, through walls of hushed spectators massed on the sidewalks."
Almost every Bay Region local demanded a general strike in protest against the Industrial Association's killings and against the militia on the waterfront. Labor Council officials, when they could no longer resist the demand for a general strike, decided to head the movement. They organized a Strike Strategy Committee. On July 16, all industry (except for gas and electricity, telephone, water and the press) ceased. San Francisco was gripped by the first general strike in America in fifteen years, the second in the history of American unionism. To meet it, reaction mobilized its entire strength. In California, 7,000 national guardsmen, equipped with tanks and field pieces, reinforced by police, special deputies, "citizens' committees," were arrayed against unarmed strikers. Mayor Rossi of San Francisco declared: "Those who seek the dissolution of the Government shall find no comfort in this community."
Over the radio, Governor Merriam fumed, "It is the plotting of such alien and vicious schemers - not the legitimate and recognized object of bona fide American workers - that has intensified, magnified and aggravated our labor problems." William Green pronounced the strike illegal, unauthorized, harmful, "purely local." Matthew Woll and Joseph P. Ryan screamed that West Coast workers were being manipulated from Moscow. General Hugh Johnson of the NRA denounced the workers as "rats." Local AFL officials at the San Francisco Labor Temple joined the chorus against Harry Bridges and the other militants. The press foresaw starvation, revolution, anarchy, assassination. But the Industrial Association, though it continued to censor all strike news published in the press, and, in conjunction with Hearst, dictated editorial policy to every Bay Region newspaper, did not depend on words alone.
On the second day of the general strike, armed vigilantes swept through the city, beating, looting, destroying workers' meeting places. To mop up after them, came the police, who arrested over 300 militants. "We want it clearly understood," Police Chief Quinn announced, "none of these hangouts can be reopened." San Francisco experienced, as The Nation magazine commented, "one of the most harrowing records of brutality to be found outside of Hitler's Third Reich." Not surprisingly, the general strike collapsed. The vigilantes, none of whom was arrested, continued to terrorize the city, and employer-inspired violence broke out in San Pedro, Portland, Seattle, and elsewhere.
In San Jose, fifty miles south of San Francisco, a score of workers were kidnapped by vigilantes and driven three hundred miles down the Coast. Yet, despite unprecedented savagery, the marine unions maintained their picket lines even after the general strike had ended. Nevertheless, it was obvious that the three months' battle had reached its climax. The federal government had set up a National Longshoremen's Board; the state sanctioned terror, the use of troops, the railroading of workers to jail. In the face of these conditions, the Joint Strike Committee, with the approval of the rank and file, accepted arbitration. The strength of the waterfront unions, the support they had gained from all labor in the general strike, the public sentiment in their favor - all seemed to assure an award which would recognize the principal demands of the maritime unions. In San Francisco and other ports, strikers from every marine union lined up on the waterfront.
Together they marched across the street to the docks. All unions resumed work simultaneously, their solidarity intact even after the terror. The West Coast maritime strike had ended. When the arbitration board handed down its award, the longshoremen were granted hiring halls jointly controlled by the ship owners and the union, but with a union dispatcher that in practice assured the closed shop. They gained a thirty hour week, higher wages, union recognition, coastwide contracts - substantially every demand they had made in February.
The Board had heeded the warning of the general strike and Bridges' solemn words: "The main issue is the right of labor to organize. This is the significance of the issue in the fight for control of our own hiring halls by the ILA men. It is the only guarantee against discrimination and blacklist, and therefore against the destruction of unionism by the ship owners. The working class will judge the decision rendered by the Board from this point of view." Though the other marine unions made advances less decisive than those of the longshoremen, the strike had been a triumph for rank and file leadership. The Marine Workers Industrial Union dissolved and its members for the sake of greater unity, entered the AFL marine unions. Workers in every Coast port demonstrated their ability to resist violence and provocation, and had forced basic concessions from the employers. They had cemented unity among the maritime unions.
They had exposed the cowardice of the AFL old guard and had greatly weakened its control of the unions. They had, moreover, raised Harry Bridges and other militants to positions of leadership in the West. The dismayed ship owners immediately set about recouping their losses. The greatest threat to them, they realized, as the unity of the maritime unions. This unity had been largely the work of Harry Bridges. If they were able to break Bridges, they could more easily demoralize the workers and promote dissension. With that accomplished, it would be only a matter of time before they could again enjoy the good old days of employer dictatorship on the docks. Attempts to bribe Bridges were futile. Moreover, the longshoremen's young leader failed to crumple before intimidation, even before threats of death, and he proved impossible to railroad to jail.
There remained the Red scare, already badly overworked during the strike and among the maritime workers dishearteningly ineffectual. But the ship owners still believed that constant repetition of slanders and innuendoes could wear down the workers' resistance. Consequently, they bombarded the Coast and particularly the waterfront with Red-baiting, hysterical warnings, with "exposes" of Communist "plots", with stories of Red "atrocities," with predictions that shipping in the West would cease. They threatened that the large companies would shift the bulk of their operations to San Pedro, the least organized port on the Coast, which would permanently reduce employment in San Francisco. The longshoremen and maritime workers remained unimpressed by the propaganda, and continued to build their unity.
But the Red scare did have effect - in financial and industrial circles. For to the employers, every militant was a "Communist," and only William Green, Matthew Woll, and William Hutcheson were exempt from this general condemnation - though even the triumvirate was considered "sanely radical." Hugh Gallagher of the Matson Navigation Co., half-seriously, half-jokingly, referred to Bridges as the "Commissar." Not to be outdone, when he arrived for a conference at the head of a delegation of militants, Bridges sent word to Gallagher that "Bridges and the Reds" were ready to negotiate.
And the Red scare, from which the employers hoped so much, became a joke on the waterfront and in the Bay Region, and only the Industrial Association and the Chamber of Commerce found it useful as material for circulars to be sent to their memberships and to keep fellow industrialists in a dither of excitement over some unseen force that was always on the point of perpetrating some vague, unnamed horror. "Red Harry," as the employers shatteringly referred to Bridges, was elected to the presidency of the San Francisco ILA local, despite the owners' campaign of vilification. "Alien!" shrieked the press, "whose record of violence, destruction, and class hatred is all too fresh in the memories of our people." The American Legion demanded his deportation.
The Department of Labor investigated: Bridges had twice taken out first citizenship papers, had twice allowed them to lapse. But at the time of the investigation, he had again obtained his first papers. Moreover, he had entered the United States legally. The Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization could uncover no lawful ground for deportation. In addition, fear of the repercussions on the waterfront that deporting Bridges would arouse caused many industrialists to counsel caution. Furthermore, fabulous stories of the private fortune amassed by Bridges, of the $100,000 banked in some secret place, missed fire. The rumors of his huge salary struck the rank and file as amusing, particularly since it was Bridges who insisted, when be became president of the San Francisco local, that all local officials, himself included, should receive the same salary - forty dollars a week, which was what a longshoreman could earn on the docks.
Later, in 1936, when Bridges was elected president of the West Coast district of the ILA, his salary rose to seventy-five dollars a weeks, and was paid by the international office. Joseph P. Ryan was a chance to get even with the West Coast: he cut off the salary as a "disciplinary measure." The Pacific Coast district thereupon paid Bridges from its treasury. While the employers terrified one another with Red bugaboos, the waterfront unions were not idle. Workers had won substantial gains in the strike; but without rigid enforcement, the concessions would prove meaningless. From the moment work commenced on the docks following the strike, the ship owners had tried every ruse to circumvent the arbitration award: provocation, increasing the weight of the sling loads, blacklists, dismissals of militants on faked charges.
The union met these violations with job-action strikes, or as they were nicknamed, "quickies." When the straw boss fired without cause, the gang affected quit work until the union had investigated and made a settlement. When scabs appeared on boats, "quickies" forced them off. When slings were consistently overloaded, the longshoremen laid down their hooks. The "quickies" provided an immediate, powerful means of enforcing conditions without calling a strike of all longshoremen and all other members of the marine unions. And job action impressed upon the ship owners that they could not chisel on the award. The employers raged and the "quickies" continued as union workers retaliated against employer cheating.
The ship owners protested that "quickies" violated agreements. The unions replied that if the ship owners did not abide by the contract, then workers were likewise not committed to it. Gradually, the owners realized that they were dealing with a resolute group of rank and file leaders far different from the usual AFL officials who tolerated any employer abuse and talked "sanctity of contract" which bound only the workers. The industrialists learned that while they could trust Harry Bridges' word implicitly, they could not violate an agreement without facing countermoves by the unions. At all times Bridges promoted consolidation. Unity, he contended, which had won the 1934 strike, could be preserved only by assuring future cooperation among maritime workers. In 1935, he urged the formation of the Maritime Federation of the Pacific, with which all marine and waterfront unions would affiliate and which would coordinate the activities of all members.
Accordingly, seven marine unions voted to set up the Maritime Federation, pledged to carry forward the campaign to organize the unorganized which John L. Lewis had advocated at the 1934 AFL convention. The formation of the semi-industrial Maritime Federation impressed non-waterfront workers with the success of union democracy. Harry Bridges explained what this democracy meant to him as a union officer: "I speak for the men," he made clear," I act and talk as they want me to." His task as he saw it was "to keep as close contact as possible with the rank and file membership, not to let my new position isolate me from the men." The need to reflect the thoughts and desires of the ILA membership was the core of Bridges' trade union philosophy. No phrase maker, never a spellbinder, he approached the workers with a cold logic, both simple and straightforward. He paced the platform at union mass meetings, punctuating patient explanations with an odd little hop at the end of his sentences. He had no desire to stampede his listeners with dramatics. A quick negotiator, sure of mass support since final authority rested with the membership, Bridges maintained a detached calm even under attack, and a self-assurance that maddened the employers.
If Harry Bridges had been satisfied only to talk democracy and had done no more about it, the AFL officials would not have been disturbed. But like John L. Lewis, who insisted on more than lip service to his demand for industrial unionism, Bridges carried out the methods he advised. "A lot of fellows," he commented, "want to get up and express themselves. It has been a terrific job to get the floor for them. Our rule is that they shall have their say..." talk, however, was not sufficient... I believe in free expression and explaining every policy." The rank and file of other unions, influenced by the example of the longshoremen, began to agitate for similar benefits in their own organizations. Their attitude threatened the domination of the old line officials. Paul Scharrenberg (whom seamen dubbed "pie-card conscious" because of his concern for job and salary) had for thirty years been secretary of the California Federation of Labor and head of the Sailors' Union of the Pacific. His resentment against Bridges during the 1934 strike turned to loathing as he realized that West Coast workers were no longer docile, or content to let him arbitrarily run their affairs. Scharrenberg therefore planned to trap and destroy Bridges while there still remained a chance of undermining the rank and file's confidence in the young longshoreman.
Backed by the ship owners with whom he had long been on over-friendly terms, Scharrenberg suddenly called an unauthorized strike of coastwise tanker workers without submitting the call to a referendum vote. His strategy was designed to cause dissension among the waterfront unions and through the demoralization that Scharrenberg hoped would accompany an unsuccessful strike, to create antagonism against the militants who had been elected to union office. Bridges exposed Scharrenberg's intrigue. Forced to retreat, Scharrenberg abandoned all caution. Before an arbitration board, he asserted: "I hope we have a war with Japan because we will be sitting on top of the world then," and "We don't care how much the ship owner is able to make out of the government as long as we get our share."
The sailors promptly expelled Scharrenberg from the union. War mongering touched no responsive cord among the seamen. Instead they agreed with Bridges: "One of the main reasons for war against us is that there is a war in the making. And when there is a war in the making, such things as strong unions which don't believe in war are not wanted by those who make war." The discredited Paul Scharrenberg trailed his fellow reactionary, Joseph P. Ryan, to the East Coast, where he demanded the "revocation of West Coast charters and the reorganization by the convention" of the sailors by the International Seaman's Union followed. But unity among the maritime unions remained unimpaired, and if anything, more complete. The AFL officials on the Coast took Scharrenberg's fate to heart - his repudiation became the dreadful example, the nightmare that haunted them. Henceforward, the reactionaries were wary how they opposed the militants. Many union heads tagged cautiously after their membership, posing as progressives, which only made their subsequent retreats more glaring.
Other union officers, formerly conservative but who at the same time were genuinely eager to forward the labor movement, began to acknowledge the fruitfulness of Bridges' tactics. In additions, the composition of the San Francisco Labor Council was altered as rank and file delegates replaced tories. From a backward, static gathering lacking both direction and hope, the Council changed into one of the most progressive and dynamic assemblies on the Coast or in the nation. And similar shifts in the composition of central labor bodies occurred in Seattle and elsewhere on the Coast. With the docks solidly organized, with not a single member of the San Francisco ILA local on relief in the fall of 1935, with unemployment practically abolished on the Pacific waterfronts, the rank and file demanded the spread of unionization to all categories of workers. Early in 1936, the maritime unions' "march inland" commenced in earnest.
The slogan of the Maritime Federation, "An Injury to One Is an Injury to All!" was not merely an insistence on solidarity among affiliated unions; it was likewise an acknowledgment that an advance achieved by one sector of the working class could be preserved only if all other sectors were organized. The longshoremen lead the way. Warehouse workers had been placed under the ILA jurisdiction 1917, yet at the conclusion of the 1934 strike, the Warehousemen's Union had recruited at most 300 members. The ILA set out to bring the warehousemen into the union. By the end of 1936, 4,500 workers had been enrolled, and had obtained a closed-shop agreement, substantial wage increases, a forty hour week, and other major concessions.
With the encouragement of the ILA, the union organized in San Francisco all wholesale coffee houses, wholesale grocery, hardware, drug, hay fuel and feed firms, as well as cold storage plants and the general warehouses. Bargemen and workers in sugar refineries received aid from the longshoremen in unionizing their industries. Inspired by the solidarity on the waterfront, bakery wagon drivers in various parts of California unified their locals. The retail clerks, affected by the upsurge of militancy in other unions, invaded department and chain stores. Striking lettuce pickers in Salinas, one hundred miles south of San Francisco, turned to the ILA for financial aid when vigilantes attempted forcibly to break their union. Unemployed organization received longshoremen's backing in their opposition to curtailment of relief and the lowering of relief standards and wages. In the Northwest, lumber workers set up an alliance similar to the Maritime Federation and pledged to cooperate with the waterfront unions.
Industrial workers rallied to the support of the Newspaper Guild in Seattle, with the result that the success of the Post-Intelligencer strike caused every major newspaper in the Bay Region to enter into agreements with the newswriters. Even Los Angeles, stronghold of the open shop on the Pacific Coast, was invaded by the unions with increasing success. Harry Bridges, elected president of the West Coast district of the ILA in the summer of 1936, was also anxious to enlist agricultural workers into powerful unions. "The sources of scabs," he stated, "are the universities and the itinerant agricultural workers. It is difficult to recruit scabs among workers who are unionized. The ILA, if only from a selfish standpoint, is concerned with the drive to bring organization to those who work in the fields." The Industrial Association watched the spread of organization with helpless fury.
"The 'march inland,' they wailed, "as it is termed by the maritime unions, is part of a well laid plan of Harry Bridges and his fellow radicals to extend control over the movement of all merchandise in San Francisco, as well as on the waterfront." What they really dreaded was that Bridges' course would coordinate all unions as they had been coordinated on the waterfront. For did not Bridges admit in 1936: "Of course, we favor industrial unionism... we are strongly opposed to splitting the labor movement. But as yet possibilities of industrial unionism on the West Coast are hard to predict. The first job here is to organize the unorganized on an industrial basis... the real drive, of course, must start in the mass industries - in steel, auto, rubber. One the waterfront here our organization is not dissimilar to the industrial setup." In addition, Bridges pointed out that refusal to tolerate the split promoted by the AFL mikados would mobilize the rank and file of the craft organizations in support of the Committee for Industrial Organization.
When it became obvious that the executive council had no interest in unity, Harry Bridges took the leadership of the progressives who advocated that the maritime unions join the CIO. At the convention of the Maritime Federation of the Pacific in June,1937, the delegates overwhelmingly supported Bridges' position and instructed all member unions to hold immediate referendums on the question. Neither the progress of the inland march nor the invasion of the central labor bodies by the progressives satisfied Bridges. He urged extension of the battle to still another front. The Gompers tradition, which taught avoidance of independent political action and denied the existence of class relationships, limited the labor movement to temporary advances, usually counteracted in short order.
Bridges contended that workers could preserve economic gains won in strikes or negotiations and compel favorable legislation only by exercising their political power. Long before John L. Lewis began to concede the importance of labor's independent action, Harry Bridges advocated labor's political as well as economic organization. Class antagonisms, he knew, could not be eliminated by denying their existence. When labor learned to acknowledge the fundamental opposition between workers and owners, it would then organize realistically to keep and extend democracy, civil rights, free speech. Logically, therefore, labor must enter politics with its own program, fostered by it won political party. To this end, Bridges endorsed the San Francisco Labor Party's mayoralty campaign in 1935. It was clear to Bridges that friction between black and white, foreign born and native workers wakened the cause of labor.
Discrimination, he told the rank and file, must go. Only by ever widening the base of the labor movement could solidarity, already partially achieved, be reinforced. After all, he pointed out, the slogan "An Injury to One Is an Injury to All," implied a unity attainable only after misconceptions and racism have been repudiated. Workers must learn that no matter where labor suffered a defeat, whether in Germany or Italy, whether in Alabama or Colorado, the reversal menaced the labor movement everywhere. Fascism meant the end of unions. Fascism meant war, and war bore most heavily on workers, farmers, and their allies.
Thus Harry Bridges, who had seen the employer resort to fascist methods in San Francisco, frankly admitted, "I have tried during the term of my office, to have the ILA adopt such policies as will defend the democracy of the world, and oppose the fascist nations." When a German ship sailed into San Francisco flying the swastika, the longshoremen refused to unload the cargo until the Nazi flag was hauled down. Again, during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, dock workers refused to load war materials on an Italian freighter. While, according to Bridges, "the union was finally forced by the ship owners, with whom the union had a contact, to load this ship... our organization intends, in the future, to prevent all was supplies from being shipped to fascist nations, for war on defenseless or democratic people.
" In the following year, 1937, Bridges broke with the ILA and established the ILWU which he envisioned as a militant, rank and file, progressive, incorruptible force for good. For the next 40 years he served as President of the ILWU, overseeing fantastic growth in his members' wages, benefits and security. Time and again throughout his service, Bridges would face intimidation, harassment, threats and even prison sentences... but Bridges was as resolute as he was courageous and never backed down no matter at what personal cost to himself or his reputation. Today the organization that he and his longshoremen built thrives as strong as it ever was... a luminous example of what workers, selfless and united in cause, can not only overcome, but achieved. Were it not for the sacrifices made by Bridges (and all union workers who came before us), our lives today would be poorer indeed.
This concludes the early history of the ILWU
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