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A Legend of the Sea : 1,000 Sing Praises of Pioneer Unionist Harry Bridges

February 11, 1986|HENRY WEINSTEIN | Times Labor Writer

It was like a revival meeting for a labor movement that admits it certainly could use one.

At the Los Angeles Hilton, nearly 1,000 people applauded working waiters, purchased 50-year-old photographs of militant picket lines, and sang in unison the words to a folk song about a union organizer--Joe Hill--who was killed before most of them were born.

But primarily, they came Sunday night to cheer a hunched-over, emphysema-racked, 84-year-old Australian-born seaman who became one of the United States' most powerful--and most controversial--labor leaders, Harry Bridges, the founder of the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU).

More than a dozen speakers sang the praises of Bridges, who was the leader of the 1934 general strike that shut down San Francisco, who changed the lives of waterfront workers from the Mexican border to Puget Sound, and who warded off attempts by the federal government from 1939 to 1955 to deport him because of his alleged membership in the Communist Party.

"Harry Bridges symbolizes and epitomizes what the labor movement is all about," said Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles). "You've got to be prepared to shut them down, to go to the streets and I mean everything. There is no room for wimps in this business."

Bridges has been accused of many things--but being a wimp was never one of them.

The hawk-nosed Bridges settled in San Francisco in 1922 after five years as a merchant seaman.

"I just came to go sightseeing in Jack London country, and I went to sea for a while . . . and went on to work on the waterfront and then from there on, well, we had a little history," Bridges, leaning on his cane, told the crowd.

Bridges and his colleagues made a lot of history. After expelling a company union in 1933, members of the new International Longshoremen's Assn. in February, 1934, demanded recognition on the entire Pacific Coast, a wage increase--$10.45 a week was the prevailing rate--and a 30-hour week. The shipping companies resisted and the workers struck in May.

The owners hired strikebreakers and hostilities increased daily. On July 5, San Francisco police charged a long picket line. Two union men were shot and killed and hundreds were injured. The day came to be known as "Bloody Thursday."

Gov. Frank Merriam declared martial law along the San Francisco Embarcadero and sent in the state militia, precipitating a general strike of 150,000 workers. Virtually all industry ceased, with the exception of public utilities and newspapers. After three days, the strike ended and the two sides agreed to an arbitration in which the longshoremen won virtually all their demands. They got recognition, a 5-cent-an hour raise and a union-run hiring hall.

After that, the union grew--eventually peaking at 62,100 members in 1949. By the time Bridges retired in 1977, longshoremen were among the highest paid hourly workers in the country.

Tables at the dinner were purchased by many unions, but some of Bridges' old adversaries--large shipping companies and the Los Angeles and Long Beach Harbor Departments--also were represented. There were also a variety of individuals who have shared Bridges' battles through the years.

"He really represents the fighting spirit working people always have to have to get a little more for themselves or to keep what they have," said Alice Dudish, 80, who said she has "been supporting workers' struggles since I was 10 years old."

Folk singer Ronnie Gilbert led the crowd in several songs extolling working people--including "Joe Hill," the ballad of the union organizer killed by a government firing squad in 1916.

Proceeds from Sunday's $50-a-seat dinner were donated to the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, where many of Bridges' papers will be housed.

Among the papers are voluminous records of Bridges' deportation struggle, which included investigations by local, state and federal agencies, and two U.S. Supreme Court cases in which he prevailed by a single vote. Bridges denied that he was a member of the Communist Party but acknowledged he was willing to accept the organization's help.

In 1945, Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy wrote, "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 . . . guaranteed to him by the Constitution."

Still, Bridges' alleged ties and his frequent praise of the Soviet Union also caused problems in the labor movement. The ILWU was one of nine unions expelled from the old Congress of Industrial Organizations on the grounds that it was "Communist dominated."

Bridges didn't talk about his case Sunday night. Mainly, he told his listeners to keep working for world peace and to keep struggling to hold on to the gains they have secured in the last 50 years.

Acknowledging the setbacks organized labor has suffered in recent years--ILWU membership is down to about 50,000--he predicted that "before this period is over, these attacks by the government, by employers, by the courts on labor unions, those interests will fail."

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