The American labor leader Harry A.R. Bridges (1901-1990) became one of the best known radical trade unionists during the 1930s and was thereafter a subject of political controversy. He devoted most of his life and career to the cause of maritime industry workers on the Pacific Coast.
For more than 40 years (1934 to 1979) Harry Bridges earned a reputation as one of the most radical, astute, and successful leaders in the American labor movement. He first came to national attention during the combined waterfront and general strikes which paralyzed San Francisco in 1934. Bridges emerged from this labor conflict as the dominant leader and spokesperson for Pacific Coast waterfront workers. Then, and for many years afterward, his enemies accused him of serving Communist purposes and the federal government several times tried unsuccessfully to deport Bridges. Bridges built his union, the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU), into one of the most militant and successful in the nation. Before he retired from active union service in 1979, Bridges also won plaudits from employers for his role as a labor statesman, which meant accepting technological innovations and less total employment on the waterfront in return for union and job security.
Harry Bridges was born in Melbourne, Australia, on July 28, 1901, the oldest of six children in a solidly middle-class family. His father, Alfred Earnest, was a successful suburban realtor, and his mother, Julia Dorgan, was a devout Catholic. Harry received a firm Catholic upbringing, serving four years as an altar boy and attending parochial schools from one of which he earned a secondary diploma in 1917. After leaving school he tried his hand at clerking but was bored by white-collar work.
The sea, however, enthralled Bridges. In late 1917, he found employment as a merchant seaman and remained at sea for the next five years. As a sailor Bridges saw the world, experienced exploitation, became friendly with his more radical workmates, and, for a time, even joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a left-wing, syndicalist American labor organization. When one of his ships made port in the United States in 1920, Bridges decided to become an immigrant. He even took out his first papers as part of the process of establishing U.S. citizenship. But Bridges' carelessness in meeting the statutory timetable for filing final citizenship papers (as well as his alleged links to communism) became the basis for the government's later attempts to deport him.
Having settled in the United States, Bridges left the sea in 1922 and took up work as a longshoreman in San Francisco. He labored for more than ten years in one of the nation's most exploitative job markets and in a city whose waterfront employers had established a closed-shop company union. During that decade (1922 to 1933) Bridges lived in relative obscurity as an ordinary longshoreman, marrying for the first time in 1923 (he was to be divorced twice and married a third time) and leading a conventional working-class life.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal changed all that. The labor upheaval of the 1930s lifted Bridges from obscurity to prominence. When discontent erupted among West Coast waterfront workers in 1933 and 1934, Bridges seized the moment and became a militant union agitator. In 1934 when labor conflict spread up and down the Pacific Coast and culminated in the San Francisco general strike, Bridges acted as the waterfront strikers' most effective leader. He led his followers to a great victory in 1934. The longshoremen in San Francisco won not only union recognition but also a union hiring hall to replace the traditional shape-up in which workers obtained jobs in a demeaning and discriminatory manner.
Building on this success, Bridges next tried to unite all the maritime workers of the Pacific Coast in the Maritime Federation of the Pacific (1935). His plans for waterfront labor solidarity were disrupted by the outbreak of a union civil war between the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Bridges chose the CIO side, took his union members out of the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA)-AFL, and reorganized them as the ILWU. John L. Lewis, president of the CIO, appointed Bridges to the new union federation's executive board and also as regional director for the entire Pacific Coast. By 1939 Bridges had won a deserved reputation as one of the CIO's new labor men of power.
He had also won many more enemies. Employers found the ILWU to be an especially militant and demanding negotiating partner. Foes in the AFL, among public officials, and even within the CIO used Bridges' links to communism to undercut his influence as a labor leader. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins tried to deport him in 1939. Through votes and investigations, Congress sought to accomplish the same goal. Not until 1953 when the Supreme Court ruled in Bridges' favor did the government cease its deportation efforts. The charges against Bridges were dropped, and the Supreme Court said, "Seldom, if ever, in the history of this nation has there been such a concentrated and relentless crusade to deport an individual because he dared to exercise the freedom that belongs to him as a human being, and is guaranteed to him under the Consistution." While different branches of the federal government hounded Bridges, Lewis, in 1939, limited Bridges' sphere as a CIO leader to the state of California.
Despite his enemies inside and outside the CIO, Bridges led his union from victory to victory. The labor shortages associated with World War II, the Korean War, and the war in Vietnam, combined with the strategic importance of Pacific Coast ports in the shipping of war-related goods, provided the ILWU with enormous bargaining power which Bridges used to the fullest. He used the power his union amassed on the West Coast as a base from which to organize waterfront and plantation workers in Hawaii. The ILWU brought stable mass unionism to the islands for the first time in their history and thus transformed Hawaii's economic and political balance of power.
Bridges meantime initiated a long strike among Pacific Coast waterfront workers in 1948 that would win them the best labor contract such workers had ever had. But that was to be the last strike Bridges led as a militant labor leader. Shortly after that success for the ILWU, the CIO in 1949-1950 expelled Bridges' union as one of eleven charged with being under communist control and serving the interests of the Soviet Union. By 1960, however, Bridges won a new reputation for himself as a labor statesman. In that year he negotiated a contract with the Pacific Maritime Association which eliminated many union work rules, accepted labor-saving machinery, and tolerated a reduced labor force in return for either guaranteed jobs or annual earnings for more senior union members. A decade later, in 1971-1972, Bridges led his last long strike of 135 days, but it aimed mostly to ratify and strengthen the agreement of 1960, rather than to dilute it. Bridges had made his peace with employers and relished his role as a labor statesman.
In 1968, Bridges was appointed to a city Charter Commission, and then in 1970 he was appointed to the San Francisco Port Commission. In 1977 he retired as ILWU president. During his last eight years as a union leader, Bridges had left far behind the radicalism and controversy that marked his earlier career. But both Bridges and his union remained distinctive. In an era of highly-paid union officials, many of whom lived ostentatious private lives, Bridges remained as abstemious as ever, living frugally on an atypically modest union salary; he had earned only 27,000 dollars a year. In an age of more conservative trade unionism, the ILWU still behaved as a union with a social conscience, promoting racial solidarity, opposing the war in Vietnam, and supporting disarmament and world peace. The ILWU built by Bridges was a legacy in which any trade unionist could take pride, but he always downplayed his role. In 1985 he said, "I just got the credit … I just happened to be around at the right time." Bridges died on March 30, 1990, in San Francisco.
Further Reading on Harry A.R. Bridges
The standard biography is Charles P. Larrowe, Harry Bridges, The Rise and Fall of Radical Labor in the United States (1972). The same author's Shape-Up and Hiring Hall (1955) is the best scholarly treatment of labor on the West Coast waterfront. Irving Bernstein, Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933-1941 (1969) includes a fine brief sketch of Bridges. Gary M. Fink, editor, Biographical Dictionary of American Labor Leaders (1984) provides essential facts.