A Genuine Working Class Hero

Photograph Source: CurtisNaito – CC BY-SA 3.0

I had barely finished reading Robert W. Cherny’s new biography of International Longshore Workers’ Union (ILWU) longtime leader titled Harry Bridges: Labor Radical, Labor Legend when an email popped in my box with a statement from a group of retired and current ILWU members calling for the union to “oppose the US/NATO-provoked war in Ukraine.” This call, signed by a couple of dozen folks, is a welcome reminder that organized labor can make a difference beyond the contracts it helps its members hammer out. It is also a confirmation of the radical nature of the ILWU. Unlike so many other unions, the ILWU has generally rejected identifying with the numerous imperial adventures the United States has engaged in since the early twentieth century. Instead, it has decried these actions in word and deed, often staging one-day strikes against certain military actions and even refusing to load munitions bound for another US-created war. Likewise, it was ILWU that joined together with Occupy Wall Street in Oakland, CA. to organize a one-day city-wide strike and shut down the Port of Oakland in 2011.

Cherny’s text is about as complete a biography of Bridges as one will find. Politically astute and with a deep understanding of the complexities of labor organizing and union work, the text presents a portrait of a man, his politics, and his steadfast belief in the necessity and potential power of an organized working class. Simultaneously, the reader is provided a detailed history of laborers on the docks of the United States’ west coast. There is little to nothing left out of this history; the conflicts with the magnates of the shipping industry and the conflicts with other unions over turf and politics. Also included are detailed explorations of the conflicts within the union Bridges presided over for decades–conflicts over politics, overt racism, and over worker solidarity. To his credit, the picture the reader ultimately sees by the time they have finished the book is one of the best pictures of labor unionism ever written down. In this reviewer’s opinion, it ranks with the various volumes of the classic The Industrial Workers of the World by Fred Thompson and Jon Bekken or Philip Foner’s multivolume classic History of the US Labor Movement.

Cherny begins his story in Australia, where Bridges grew up, wanting to be a sailor. After signing on to a trans-Pacific journey to the US west coast, Bridges ended up working the docks. The year was 1920. The docks were run by the capitalist class. In the shops that were unionized, different unions represented the workers. The longshoremen were subject to what was essentially a company union that left the workers powerless. Bridges joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Their militancy and rejection of any kind of collaboration with the bosses were instructive and crucial to Bridges’ political development. It wasn’t until the 1920s turned into the 1930s that the San Francisco longshoremen organized, ultimately forming the ILWU. Of course, this process was not simple or nonviolent. Indeed, it was only after a three-month-long strike in 1934 that culminated in a four-day general strike in San Francisco and the East Bay. It was only after this action that the shipping industry and its allies in business and government decided to sit down and hammer out a contract. Cherny’s descriptions of the struggle evoke the strike’s radical and militant nature and the discussions within the union deciding its course. The ILWU ultimately won recognition and most of its demands through arbitration in 1937.

One reason Bridges was so reviled by the capitalist class–from shipping magnates to bankers to politicians and the reactionary union leadership of the American Federation of Labor(AFL)–was because of his leftist politics. Although never an official member of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), Bridges kept counsel with its leadership and rejected any attempts to throw communists and other leftists out of the union. In a nation like the United States where being a communist is considered worse than worshiping Satan (or the same thing), it doesn’t need to be said that Bridges was an easy target for everybody to his right politically. This included Democrats, Republicans, John Birchers, and the American Legion, to name just a few. However, like any genuine Marxist, Bridges’ political understanding and view could not be exchanged for power or inclusion. After all, it was what gave him the ability to analyze and act in any given situation. One other foundation of his philosophy was his belief in union democracy. In practice, the latter meant that if the membership disagreed with a recommendation of the union executive board, it was the membership’s position that was adopted.

Bridges’ leftist political views were also used by his enemies to disparage his credentials as a naturalized US citizen. Consequently, deportation proceedings were brought against him three times. The charge was basically that he was a member of the CPUSA. Like most political trials, no matter what country they are held in, the prosecution was based on perjury by prosecution witnesses and other manipulations of the procedures. The third trial he was found guilty of being a member of the CPUSA. In what remains as one of the most shameful actions in the history of US labor unionism, the national leadership of the CIO tossed all unions with communist members from its federation. The US government did its part by passing the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act around the same time. Labor organizing in the United States has suffered ever since.

Obviously, the world has changed, even since Bridges’ death in 1990. The brutality and rapaciousness of capitalism has never been more apparent. New technologies which could be used to provide a decent life for all of earth’s inhabitants have instead been used to benefit the world’s richest families at the great expense of most of the world. Imperialism has continued to intensify Washington’s greed and desire for domination while prompting other powerful nations to grab some of the worlds for their own. The result, like always, is conflict, poverty, and environmental destruction. One thing that hasn’t changed too much, though, is the need for working people to be organized into a strong union run by its members. This is the truth that Harry Bridges represented. It is the truth he lived by.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com