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The Working Stiff

It’s been eight years since his death, but I can still see him and hear him, a wiry, gray-haired, hawk-nosed man.

I see him pacing restlessly back and forth behind the podium at union meetings, nervously twirling a gavel, puffing incessantly on a cigarette. I hear him calling on members in the broad accent of his native Australia, actually encouraging debate and dissent.

He died in San Francisco in March of 1990 at 88 — Harry Bridges, for 40 years president of one of the most influential organizations in this or any other country, the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union.

Bridges often was irritating to the ILWU’s friends and foes alike. He was irascible and obstinate. But he was unquestionably one of the century’s greatest leaders.

Bridges was not in it for money. He retired in 1977 with a pension of merely $15,000 a year, never having made more than $27,000 a year, far less than he would have made had he remained a working longshoreman. Bridges was in it because of his unswerving belief in “the rank-and-file,” as he once told me, a naive and inquisitive young reporter — “the goddamn working stiff, that’s who! Can you understand that?”

I understood, eventually. And though I and others sometimes harshly questioned Bridges’ specific notions of what was needed by working people, none could legitimately question his incredible commitment, skill and integrity.

“The basic thing about this lousy capitalist system,” Bridges declared, “is that the workers create the wealth, but those who own it, the rich, keep getting richer and the poor get poorer.”

Harry Bridges’ lifelong task, then, was to shift the wealth from those who owned it to those who created it.

He began the task in earnest in 1934, leading his fellow workers in forming a longshoremen's union that demanded collective bargaining rights from west coast shipowners.

“The shipowners said no,” Bridges’ biographer Charles Larrowe recalled, “said it with tear gas, vigilantes and billy clubs wielded by cops who thought they were in the front line against a communist takeover. Up and down the coast, the waterfront was turned into a battle field; when it was over, nine longshoremen and a strikebreaker were dead.”

It was a high price, but by the time the strike ended, the longshoremen had won the right to effective union representation and an end to the notorious system of job allocation known as the “shape-up.” Previously, jobs were parceled out by hiring bosses in exchange for kickbacks from the longshoremen who lined up on the docks every morning clamoring for work.

That system continued to be used in New York and other eastern and Gulf Coast ports for many years, but the West Coast longshoremen won the crucial right to have job assignments made by an elected union dispatcher at a union-controlled hiring hall, using a rotation system that spread the work evenly among longshoremen.

Within two years of the strike victory, Lou Goldblatt, the brilliant young leader of the warehousemen who worked closely with the longshoremen on the docks, had joined Bridges. They brought the two groups into a single powerful union under the banner of the newly established Congress of Industrial Organizations, ultimately extending the ILWU’s jurisdiction to virtually all waterfront workers on the Pacific Coasts of the United States and Canada.

Bridges and Goldblatt used their potent base to help lead drives by other CIO unions that spread unionization from the waterfront to a wide variety of other industries throughout the West at a time when employers treated workers as chattel, giving them little choice but to accept near-starvation wages and whatever else the employers demanded.

Included was the remarkable drive that brought ILWU representation to workers throughout multi-racial Hawaii — not just to those on the waterfront, but also to those in agriculture and just about every other industry on the islands.

That drive transformed Hawaii from a feudal territory controlled by a handful of a giant financial interests into today’s modern pluralistic state, in which working people and their unions play a principal economic and political role.

For the ILWU, Bridges and Goldblatt drafted a union constitution that still is unique in control it grants members. Many union constitutions give members very little beyond the right of paying dues in exchange for the services provided them by the union’s securely entrenched bureaucrats. But the ILWU constitution guarantees that nothing of importance can be done without direct vote of the rank-and-file.

No one can take ILWU office except through a vote of the entire membership; no agreement with employers can be approved except by a vote of all members; the union cannot take a position on anything without membership approval.

Thanks in large part to Bridges, the ILWU also was one of the first unions to be thoroughly integrated racially. The union has always been probably the country’s most socially conscious union. As the ILWU’s official history records accurately, it is “the most outspoken among trade unions on civil rights, civil liberties, general welfare, and international amity, disarmament and peace.”

The union strongly opposed the actions of government officials and others who tried to deny constitutional rights to many — Bridges included — by labeling them as communists, establishing important precedents that enhanced the civil liberties of everyone.

The ILWU was an outspoken foe of US involvement in Vietnam, even at a time when most other unions enthusiastically supported involvement. And members have backed their opposition to oppressive regimes abroad by refusing to handle cargo bound for or coming from their countries.

Closer to home, the ILWU used its pension funds to finance construction of low-rent apartments in San Francisco’s St. Francis Square, an extremely rare of example of what the union calls “cooperative, affordable, integrated working-class housing.”

The union also has been unusual in abandoning the worker’s traditional fight against job-stealing (but productivity- and profit-increasing) machinery — in exchange for unheard-of benefits.

The ILWU agreed way back in 1960 that employers could bring in as much labor-saving machinery as they wished — if they guaranteed full paychecks to all registered longshoremen, even if full-time work wasn’t available to them, and extra payments to those agreeing to retire.

This is not to say there haven’t been problems on the docks in recent years — primarily the shrinking of the workforce as more machinery has been introduced and more longshoremen have retired. But the agreement stands as one of the first and relatively few successfully attempts to settle the fundamental conflict of worker versus machine. It has been a model for other industries everywhere, just as the ILWU’s actions generally have been a model for unions and social reformers everywhere.

All that, all that has been done by the ILWU, has been done only with the agreement and deep involvement of the union’s rank-and-file. That’s how Harry Bridges wanted it, and how very fortunate we are that he did. Few organizations anywhere have done more for the “working stiffs” to whom he devoted his life.

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