By Robert W. Cherry

Illinois University Press.  478 pages. £49. ISBN 978-0-252-04474-8

Reviewed by Jim Burns

We know little about American unions and what perceptions we do have may have been influenced by films like On the Waterfront, with its scenes of gangster-controlled activities among dockworkers, or the films, television programmes, and books about the notorious Jimmy Hoffa and his role in the corruption-riddled International Brotherhood of Teamsters. But we hear little or nothing about the unions and their officials who work hard and honestly to improve the pay and conditions of their members. I doubt that the name of Harry Bridges is now known to many people on this side of the Atlantic, and yet, in his day, he attracted attention when employers and government in America came together in a campaign to vilify him with accusations of collusion with the Communist Party. This extended to several attempts to deport him because he hadn’t been born in the United States.

Bridges was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1901. He left school in 1915, was employed as a clerk for a couple of years, and in 1917 went to sea, mostly working on small ships around the coasts of Australia and Tasmania. He moved on to larger vessels and in 1920 arrived in San Francisco, where he tried to find work as a longshoreman (a docker in British terminology). The waterfront wasn’t then union-organised and working conditions were hard and often dangerous. Particularly disliked was the daily “shape-up”, the process where men would assemble each morning to be chosen for work by the gang-masters. It was a system open to abuse. Similar arrangements applied in Britain, and I can recall my father telling me how, after leaving the Royal Navy in 1925 following twelve years service, he sometimes looked for work in the local docks and experienced what the “shape-up” was like. Jobs went to those who were friends of the gang-boss or would buy him drinks in the dockside pubs.

Bridges at some point had joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the radical labour union with a policy of syndicalism at its centre. It’s interesting to note that the one country outside the USA which had a sizeable and active IWW membership was Australia. Robert W. Cherry thinks that, despite changing circumstances, Bridges always retained a deep-seated belief in basic IWW principles in terms of believing that the rank-and-file membership of a union had the last word in any agreement that was arrived at: “What really angered employers about Bridges (was) his refusal to cut a closed door deal with them and his insistence that the rank and file ratify everything   The union members’ loyalty to Bridges came out of that, too”.

There may also have been an IWW influence at work when he was asked to comment on a book about him written by an academic. He was of the opinion that college professors were not qualified to write about labour history. You needed to be a “working stiff” to do that. And he added that they were unable to understand that “there’s no two sides. There’s only one side, our side. The boss is always wrong. You can’t sell a college professor on that”. I’m put in mind of the opening lines of the Preamble of the Industrial Workers of the World : “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace as long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life”. In Howard Kimeldorf’s Reds or Rackets? : The Making of Radical and Conservative Unions on the Waterfront (University of California Press, 1988), there’s a reference to Bridges being asked to summarise his views, and replying: “We take the view that we as workers have nothing in common with the employers”. Which is, as we can see, pure IWW thinking.

Bridges worked on the San Francisco waterfront for several years, experiencing the long working hours, the frequent lay-offs, the injustices of the “shape-up” system, and the injuries which were often not reported because to do so could lead to not being employed again. He joined the Riggers & Stevedores Union which struggled to establish a footing against the employer-dominated “Blue Book” union, and was blacklisted after taking part in a Labour Day parade in 1924. He seems to have left the IWW by then, though the reason isn’t known. It could have been because the IWW had lost much of its impact after the mass trial of its main organisers in 1919 when many of them were sent to prison. The organisation split in the 1920s over the question of whether or not to accept amnesty or hold out for full pardons. Some IWW members had been deported, others joined the American Communist Party which was starting to grow in size and influence. Was Bridges one of them? The question of his relationship to the Communist Part was to become a key factor later when he became prominent as a militant trade unionist. He always denied ever being a member, but there’s no doubt that he was often close to the Party in his economic and political attitudes and ideas.

The Thirties were tough times as the Depression created mass unemployment. Bridges was married and his wife had a son from previous relationships and would soon give birth to a daughter. She was also an alcoholic. There were tensions in his family life resulting from her drinking and the problems arising from a lack of money, Bridges was also becoming more involved with union activities. He had joined the International Longshoremen’s Association-Pacific Coast District (ILA-PCD) which allegedly had some communist links, though not to the point where the Party dominated it. A mimeographed  publication, the Waterfront Worker, had its origins within the Marine Workers Industrial Union (MWIU), a communist-controlled organisation, and was then handed over to the ILA, but it had a broad policy when it came to what it published. Bridges did some of the writing for it, as did other union activists. With that in mind I was reminded of an interview with the poet Kenneth Rexroth, a particular favourite of mine but someone, I suspect, who could tell a good story. Reminiscing about the 1930s and his involvement with the labour movement in San Francisco, he remarked, “But hell, I mean, I wrote the Waterfront Worker……all of the goddamn thing week after week after week”. (The San Francisco Poets, edited by David Meltzer, Ballantine Books, 1971).I wonder if Bridges ever read what Rexroth said?

The ILA formulated a series of demands to be presented to the employers. They included recognition of the union as bargaining agent for the union with all ports between the Canadian and Mexican borders covered by the same contractual arrangements relating to pay and conditions. There was also the key question of establishing a union-administered hiring hall in order to eliminate the hated “shape-up” and its problems. Because of the detailed and complex nature of union activity in San Francisco around this time I’m having to summarise very quickly. Not just longshoremen were involved, and seamen also stopped work. The situation soon developed into what became known as the 1934 General Strike in the city, with events taking a tragic turn on the Fifth of July. Two strikers were killed by the police and hundreds injured. There seems little doubt that the police were acting in collusion with the employers in an attempt to intimidate strikers and break the unions.

Bridges had risen to prominence as a leading light in the ILA and, not long after, he and others¸ disillusioned by the lukewarm support from the East Coast-based headquarters of the ILA, decided to form a new union. It was established as the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Association (ILWA) (now the International Longshore and Warehouse Union) with Bridges at its head. Again, I’m out of necessity summarising events. The ILWA became part of the Congress of Industrial Organisations, the committee covering the new industrial unionism in coal, steel, rubber, and other labour-intensive industries.    

With all the attention focused on Bridges both at home and abroad it was, perhaps, inevitable that the government and the employers would try to find ways to curtail, or even completely put a halt to his influence and activities. He had managed to obtain American citizenship in 1945, but if it could be proved that he had made a false declaration about never being a member of the Communist Party when applying, he could be deported. The FBI had an extensive file on him, but could never actually come up with hard evidence of Party membership despite bugging and burgling his office. They produced witnesses, including one-time communists such as Benjamin Gitlow and Jay Lovestone, who claimed to have seen him at Party meetings and others who referred to his friendships with Party officials. They even got his ex-wife to testify that he had been a Party member, but no-one could provide anything other than hearsay and gossip to back up their claims. Bridges never denied that he had mixed with communists and listened to their suggestions about union matters. Nor did he attempt to disguise his views about certain political matters where he might have travelled along the same road as the communists.  He additionally referred to himself as a Marxist, though that in itself didn’t make him a communist.  There were three deportation hearings, all of which failed, before the authorities called it a day.

It’s interesting to look at the kind of support Bridges got, especially around the time of his second deportation hearing in 1940. Luminaries of the cultural Left like Lillian Hellmann, Clifford Odets, Stella Adler, and novelist and later blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo signed petitions, wrote pamphlets, and made speeches protesting against the attempts to find him guilty. The Almanac Singers, a group firmly in the communist camp and including Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, wrote “A Song for Bridges” with lines describing him as “An honest union leader who the bosses tried to frame”. Some years ago it was one of the songs on a CD, Talking Union (Naxos 8.120567), which provided a handy guide to the changes in the Party line with regard to American involvement in the Second World War and support or otherwise for President Roosevelt. Bridges had aligned himself with the Party in being against Roosevelt and his non-isolationist policies, something which differentiated him from the mass of union members who favoured the President.

With regard to Bridges and the Communist Party, there is an interesting passage in Joseph Starobin’s American Communism in Crisis, 1943-1957 (University of California Press, 1975) where he says that Bridges was “close to anarcho-syndicalism but never a Communist”. He also comments that “he had been moulded in the IWW long before his contact with the Communists”. Starobin was foreign editor of the Daily Worker from 1945 to 1954 and as such would almost certainly have known about Bridges’ links to the Party and what they amounted to from the point of view of commitment. From comments by other communists who knew him I would guess that Bridges’ first loyalty was to his union and its members. He was too idiosyncratic in his views to follow a close party line. It might also be worth noting that Dorothy Healey, in her memoir, Dorothy Healey Remembers: A life in the American Communist Party (Oxford University Press, 1990) mentions Bridges but only says that he “was very close to the Communist Party”. As a leading light of the Party in California she would surely have known had Bridges been a member.

The Post-War period and indeed up to his retirement in 1977 found Bridges firmly in control of the ILWU, Despite his comments about the essential differences between employers and workers he often proved to be ready to negotiate and he supported arbitration as a means of arriving at a satisfactory settlement. He quickly recognised that containerisation would bring major changes to the way in which longshoremen would work, and that their numbers would be reduced. He co-operated with management to ensure that jobs would be protected and work shared out, also that workers made redundant or pushed into retirement would be entitled to decent settlements and pensions. He saw the union as being there to look after the interests of its members and did his best to fulfil his role as their spokesman.

I’m conscious of the fact that I’ve only skimmed the surface of this book. It’s massively detailed about wage negotiations, factional fights within the union, personalities on both sides of the table when Bridges and his team met employers, and much more. It also throws light on Bridges the man. He was married three times. He divorced his first wife and his second wife left him because he spent so much time with union matters that she rarely saw him. His third marriage lasted until his death in 1990. In his younger days he had been an enthusiastic jazz fan. San Francisco in the 1940s was a noted centre for what was known as traditional jazz, and I would guess it was what he liked as opposed to the modern sounds coming out of Los Angeles. Bridges enjoyed visiting the races and betting on the horses. I did wonder what he read other than material relating to union matters, though he does seem to have taken a wide interest in current affairs generally.  There were some problems with alcohol as he got older.  As Robert Cherry points out, hard drinking was often an inevitable condition of life as a union man. Anyone who has taken part in union affairs, even at their most basic level, will know that they’re often centred on pubs.  

At the start of this review I referred to Jimmy Hoffa and the question of corruption affecting unions. Cherney quotes A.H. Raskin, “longtime and highly respected labour reporter”, as saying of Bridges: “Union leaders who abhorred his political philosophy” nonetheless acknowledged “the unrelenting vigil he maintained to bar any spillover in the West Coast piers of the gangsterism that is still rife in Atlantic and Gulf ports”. I can’t help wondering if the employers who were so determined to see Bridges deported might not have been happier dealing with gangster-controlled unions? They would have been able to cut deals with them and expect to have the workers kept under control. There is the interesting fact that, despite not approving of “some of the things that Jimmy does”, Bridges through his union supported Hoffa when he was imprisoned for alleged jury tampering. I think he saw Hoffa as a union man, like himself, who was being pursued by the authorities, for one reason or another, in a bid to limit the power of the union. And he hated the chief prosecutor, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who Bridges said was a “danger to labour, to civil rights and civil liberties, and maybe even to a peaceful world”.

Harry Bridges wasn’t a saint and it could be said that his political views were sometimes naïve.  A trip to the Soviet Union produced the comment, “The USSR is not a utopia. Far from it”, but “The Soviet people have it made and they know it”. As a union man, however, he was highly effective, which is what annoyed employers and many politicians. He had opponents within the ILWU. Some of them thought he’d been head of the union for too long, others claimed he should be fighting harder for increased benefits for union members. No-one suggested that he personally benefited a great deal from his position. He lived quite modestly and his salary was never more than that of the earnings of the highest paid longshoreman.

Harry Bridges : Labor Radical, Labor Legend is a book dense  with detail, so much so that it might deter some readers from following it through the twists and turns of negotiations, strikes, inter-union disputes, and similar matters. On the other hand, it’s a mine of information about how unions, and in particular the ILWU, developed in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. There are almost one hundred pages of notes and a good bibliography.