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Thousands of Dockworkers Cross Bridge for Labor Leader

Unions: Harry Bridges, who led the 1934 strike, would have been 100 Saturday. Ports shut down as workers honor him by marching over L.A. Harbor.

July 29, 2001|JOE MOZINGO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dockworkers marched by the thousands Saturday, crossing the Vincent Thomas Bridge like a train of linebackers, in posthumous honor of the man who fought some of the most brutal battles of West Coast labor history.

In a morning muck of fog and coal dust, an estimated 3,000 people crossed the high green span over Los Angeles Harbor in celebration of what would have been the 100th birthday of Harry Bridges, a labor organizer who led the 1934 dockworkers strike and went on to run the International Longshore and Warehouse Union for about 40 years.

For much of the day, operations at Pacific ports were shut down for the procession from Terminal Island to San Pedro, union officials said. And "longies" came from across the oceans to show support.

"You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us," said Trevor Munday, 36, who came from Brisbane, Australia.

As Teamster trucks blared their horns like ships lumbering into port, Munday recounted how San Pedro's Local 13 helped the Australian Maritime Union a couple of years ago, when a stevedore company kicked out all the workers.

"They locked us out of the warehouses and replenished us with nonunion labor," he said.

"Scabs!" chimed in his pal, with a venom that could wither a rugby player.

Munday said a ship loaded by the replacements in Australia arrived in Los Angeles, but could not dock and unload its cargo because members of the local union refused to do so. It headed back Down Under.

"These were Harry's struggles," he said. "For solidarity, civil rights and social justice, not just the labor movement."

Born in Australia himself, Bridges came into prominence in the walkout that plunged the West Coast ports into a bloody general strike. The federal government accused Bridges of being communist and tried to deport him. Regardless, under his leadership, the union grew. Its current 16,000-member work force includes some of the highest-paid hourly workers in the country.

Although many of the members didn't know much about Bridges, who died in 1990, they said Saturday it was important to remember labor history to keep the union strong.

"If we didn't do this enough, everyone would forget what we've been through, and things would fall apart," said Richard Hernandez.

But to veteran longshoremen like Ken Rohar, who knew Bridges, the march evoked tangible victories, large and small, over a more arduous and tumultuous past.

A small but very real triumph came about in the freezer hatch. Back when he started unloading ships a half-century ago, Rohar had to climb into the hatches to heave frozen meat and chicken onto pallets. It was penetrating cold, he said, and his employer wanted the workers to stay down there for an hour at a time. The union fought them and cut the freezer time by half an hour--no small gain when it sheds the chill.

But it was Bridges' broader vision around the late 1950s, when machines were making manual loading a thing of the past, that saved the work force from dying, Rohar said.

"Harry said, in so many words, 'Look, the machine is coming. Get a piece of it while you can, or you can lie down and let it run you over.' "

Bridges led the union through a period of mechanization, during which workers learned to operate cranes and winches and conduct the tasks they largely do today.

"We were down banging our heads against the side of a ship and we didn't see the big picture," Rohar said. "Harry saw the big picture."

The parade Saturday was part of a week of commemoration that included museum exhibits, theater events and harbor tours. The march began about 10:30, led by a phalanx of big rigs, Harleys and classic cars. As the walkers set off, a freight train rumbled by full of petroleum coke.

"See those silos? They used to be white," said Tony Hernandez, 53, pointing to blackened coke terminals at the southern end of the bridge. "But look at them now. You know what's in the air here, and we have to breathe it."

Some pushed strollers, some wore caps, some moved like beer kegs with legs. The men, women and children climbed the suspension bridge as just a few sailboats tacked through the algal water below. The giant container cranes of Evergreen stood still, heads reaching to the sky or dipped toward the water like steel dinosaurs at a trough.

Tony Moreno, 38, walked with his wife across the span and scanned the quiet industrial landscape, where his dad and mom both work for the union. He remembers the day he started as a casual--a part-time worker--lashing down containers with steel beams.

"I wondered how my mom could do this work when it was so hard for me," he said.

Coming from a family that carved its life out of the port, he said, it's hard to overstate Bridges' importance.

"If it weren't for Bridges, we wouldn't have anything right now."

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