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Harry Bridges: Rank-and-File Leader

Louis Adamic

Publishing Information

--San Francisco, April 23

  1. EARLY in April, en route to Southern California, - I stopped off in San Francisco and looked up Harry Bridges, the militant president of the International Longshoremen's Association Local 38-79. I had made an appointment with him three days earlier by long distance from Sacramento.

  2. In response to my knock Bridges opened the door in the thin partition that separates his dingy, windowless, four-by-six office from the rest of the vast and teeming I. L. A. headquarters on Clay Street, a stone's throw from the Embarcadero. "Sorry," he said quickly, "I've no time. I shouldn't be here now. I waited for you only because I- promised you I'd be here and didn't know where to call you to cancel the appointment." None the less, sliding into the rickety chair at his small roll-top desk, he invited me to sit down; then we talked rapidly for ten, fifteen minutes.

  3. He is a slight, lanky fellow in his early forties, with a narrow, longish head, receding dark hair, a good straight brow, an aggressive hook nose, and a tense-lipped mouth. He wears cheap clothes and is indifferent about his appearance. His salary as head of the union is less than the average wage of the union members.

  4. The San Francisco headlines that morning told of a "plot" on the part of a member of the conservative element in the marine unions to kill one of the left-wing leaders, and Bridges--probably the hardest-working man in San Francisco--evidently was under great mental and nervous strain. His 'phone rang every few minutes, and in the middle of our interview a man came in from the outer office to inform him that a worker had just been found slugged unconscious on a dock.

  5. Bridges's replies to my questions were swift, brief, evasive; later I learned that on first meeting he is that way with everybody. Talking, he makes quick, irrelevant gestures with his hands, like a soda-jerker away from his counter. He looks anything but a longshoreman or labor leader. At first he doesn't strike one as a leader of any kind. He doesn't look at one directly, but takes short, sudden squints from under his brows. These squints gradually lengthen into glances, which then spread into a shrewd, scrutinizing look. Talk spurts out of him in a low, tensely controlled voice, suggesting that he is not a good platform speaker.

  6. For a minute or two I wondered: Can this man possibly be a strong leader? Then I couldn't help feeling that behind that jittery exterior, in that seemingly frail person, was a lot of calm, deliberate power, which probably was less part of his essential make-up as a person than of the militant-labor-union idea he had embraced and decided to serve, and of the tense and dramatic situation on the West Coast of which he was the storm center. He excited all my interest and I did my best to persuade him to explain himself, either then or later, in terms of his background and the influences that have played on his life. I said I would be in San Francisco again in ten days: would he have more time then and be willing to talks about himself? "No, no--sorry--it isn't only that I'm busy. I prefer not to be publicized as an individual. My personal background and life are unimportant The movement is important, the situation; but just now I don't want to talk about anything. Whatever I'd say might be twisted by our enemies and used to the detriment of the union." I knew the situation was inchoate, full of cross-currents and fluctuating possibilities, on the verge of new developments.

  7. Having heard of efforts to get him deported as an "alien red plotting to sovietize industry and overthrow the government of the United States by force and violence," I asked him about his status as an immigrant. (He is an Australian, here twelve years.) He said he was not worried about that: he had taken out his first papers and expected to get the full citizenship in due course. I had a feeling he did not consider himself indispensable or think that his deportation would be fatal to maritime unions; later I met some of his associates who obviously are fit to fill his place. Also, should the authorities move to deport him or deny him his citizenship when his time comes, I believe the whole Coast would blaze up from San Petro to Seattle. He is a hero, perhaps to his annoyance, to hundreds of thousands of workers, most of them native Americans, both in the marine unions and outside them.

  8. We parted and Bridges hurried somewhere; and I, going on to Los Angeles, sent word to The Nation that Bridges did not want to be written up, and that the waterfront situation on the Coast momentarily was so unclear and so lacking in significant incidents that for the present we might better postpone writing and printing anything about it. But ten days later, when an engagement required me to return to San Francisco, the Santa Rosa affair flared up there, abruptly illumining several important phases of the situation. To understand that affair, however, one must glance back over the last two years of the Pacific Coast waterfront history and be aware also of what is now going on in the East.

  9. The 1934 strike began over wages and working conditions, but the paramount issue was the employers' "slave market" versus the union hiring hall. That conflict developed political implications in the general strike When the strike ended--seemingly in the workers' defeat--the marine unions, under Bridges's consistently shrewd leadership, staged the so-called "strategic retreat," agreeing to submit their demands to arbitration. Week after week, as the arbitration dragged on, the shipowners and other waterfront employers lost ground; the unions, organized along the old craft lines, remained solid; and the final National Longshore Award granted the men nearly all their demands.

  10. The whole spirit of the waterfront changed. Competition for jobs at pierheads gave way to cooperation and solidarity. The I. L. A. union membership increased from below two thousand to over four thousand, and the hiring halls distributed the work so evenly that all at once there were no unemployed longshoremen and the average wage became $37 a week, with opportunities to make, under greatly improved working conditions, as much as $200 a month. As one of the longshoremen put it to me the other day, "We experienced the unaccustomed luxury of being men."

  11. This stimulated labor in other crafts, and in many places it organized l00 per cent; after which these and some of the old unions up and down the Coast under the leadership of Bridges and his associates formed the Maritime Federation of the Pacific Coast, which swiftly became a great and growing power. The federation spread to Canada and Hawaii and its idea--that of industrial as opposed to craft organization for all sea and shoreside workers--commenced to excite the men in the Gulf ports. Committees called on federation officials for aid in setting up locals, and the organization spread to warehouse men, bargemen, and other workers on the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, while its prestige penetrated even to the agricultural areas. Rank-and-file leaders of rural migratory labor hit upon the notion that, since many agricultural products were shipped by sea and rivers, the agricultural workers' union should also be affiliated with the Maritime Federation. They looked forward to the time when organized maritime workers would refuse to handle or transport agricultural products not grown by organized field or orchard labor.

  12. Nervous before, employers now--about a year ago-- experienced panic, and their first thought naturally was: This man Bridges and his federation must be stopped! But how? Not a few people concerned with sea-shipping have interests also in river boats and ports and in vast ranch corporations; but while some of them unquestionably are nice enough fellows personally, few have overmuch intelligence or any long-range imagination. Functionally, in the business world, most of them are ignorant pushers, dog-eat-dog opportunists, and fear-torn stuffed shirts, distrusting one another; throughout 1935, secretly admitting that Bridges was one smart so-and-so, they had a hard time in agreeing on any sort of plan by which they could get at him

  13. Meanwhile, the I. L. A. had developed subtly aggressive dock tactics, designed partly to keep the employers groggy and confused, but mainly to continue improving g the men's job conditions. Bridges and other officials of the union believe in giving a fair day's work for a fair wage (they are satisfied that the wages now are good), and soldiering on the job is discouraged by them. On the other hand, they do not want men to overwork. So about a year ago the instituted a system whereby every dock gang elected from among themselves a so-called gang or dock steward to look after their interests and act as their spokesman on the job. These stewards, always wanting something or protesting against this or that, became a great annoyance to the bosses. Some of their demands and protests probably were "unreasonable" from the employers' point of view. There were endless disputes, some resulting in "job action" on the part of workers or quick strikes ("quickies") localized to one dock Suddenly, in the midst of unloading a ship, the longshore gang would walk off, causing the stubborn employer sailing delay, considerable additional expense, and general irritation

  14. The federal arbitrator ruled that while workers were obliged under the 1934 agreement to obey the employers, they could quit their jobs at any time, and that "quickies" were not breaches of the award. Required by the award to employ only I. L. A. men, the employer called the hiring hall for another gang, which came promptly enough but as likely as not pulled another "quicky" an hour later; and so on, till the employer yielded to, say, a demand that the slingload be made 2,500 instead of 4,000 pounds. There were also, in the last year, numerous outbursts of violence and frequent questions whether or not the ship to be unloaded was "hot," that is, had been loaded with cargo in another port by non-union men or was manned by scabs. These fights were bitterest on docks operated by companies with strong banking and agricultural ties--the Matson Company, the American-Hawaiian Lines, and the Dollar Steamship Company--which were particularly antagonistic to the "Bridges union." But the prestige of the Maritime Federation and Bridges only increased. The newspapers called Bridges a red, a Communist; a subversive alien, but the men only laughed at these appellations: "What the hell do we care what he is!"

  15. Last November the big companies, led by the Matson and Dollar officials, determined to have a "showdown" and managed to create a loose united front among the employers, who promptly disagreed as to procedure. One faction was for cracking down on the I. L. A. with vigilante terror and, if necessary, the National Guard. Another group felt such tactics would be unwise; there was too much sympathy with the men among the public Finally, getting nowhere locally, they decided that this should not be merely a Coast fight but a national one.

  16. On December 9 there met in the San Francisco office of the Waterfront Employers' Association representatives of all important shipping interests in the country, but no definite decision was made then. Their conferences were transferred to New York and Washington. The United States Department of Justice was requested to investigate the waterfront unions, and newspapers in all big port cities began to harp on the communistic and subversive character of some of the seamen's and longshoremen's leaders. In these efforts the employers had the eager cooperation of numerous conservative labor skates, including the biggest of the big shots in the I. L. A. and the International Seamen's Union, both affiliated with the A. F. of L.

  17. On December 31 Louis Stark, the best-informed and most careful labor journalist in the country, reported from Washington in the New York Times that "employers on the Pacific Coast virtually have completed a coastwise 'vigilante' organization to protect their interests in the event that they find themselves unable to obtain redress from the government should the international unions continue to be unable to discipline their Pacific Coast local unions. . .. The Pacific Coast owners are said to be in constant contact with the Atlantic operators . . . are ready well-informed sources indicate the employers are ready for a 'showdown.'"

  18. On January 7 the representatives of all the important shipping interests reconvened in San Francisco and decided, at a date to be set later, to (1) repudiate public: all agreements with the unions on the Coast on account of their "irresponsible leadership," (2) deal with workers only as individuals, and (3) give this action a peaceful appearance by laying up for a while some of the ship ostensibly because operation was financially impossible In fine, the plan was to make the action a kind of semi-lockout.

  19. Still they were not ready. Thomas Plant, spokesman for the Waterfront Employers, and numerous representatives of shipping companies spent most of January and part of February in New York and Washington, and they probably had a hand in engineering the attack on the Maritime Federation by the national convention of the International Seamen's Union, which directed the Sailors Union of the Pacific to withdraw from the federation and when the latter failed to obey, took away its charter. At the same time reports reached the rank-and-file unions on the Coast that in New York City President Ryan of the I. L. A. had entered the united front of the employers.

  20. On January 22 shippers, importers, and exporters were notified that the long-planned semi-lockout would begin on January 26. They were warned to clear up their business. But the Maritime Federation got wind of this and promptly exposed the plan. It called on the federal government to prevent "civil war" on the Pacific Coast waterfronts and charged that a nation-wide conspiracy existed among "waterfront employers, shippers, and allied financial interests to wipe out the Pacific Coast maritime unions," which, the statement continued,

    . . . are run by their members, not by "Communists." It is a peculiarity of Pacific Coast maritime unions that officials must submit every action of the slightest importance to a majority vote of the membership. And that is precisely what the owners object to. They do not like democracy. They profess to admire Atlantic Coast maritime unions, where the members have absolutely nothing to say as to the functions of their own organizations. Obviously, this is the core of the whole matter: it is democracy the shipowners dislike; it is autocracy they desire. Because they do not like democracy they call it communism in an effort to obscure the real issue. Owners do not run the ships at a loss if they pay decent wages. Under mail-contract subsidies alone, shipowners received approximately 628,850,000 in 1935. This is more than the combined annual wages, subsistence, maintenance, and repair costs of the operation of all American flag vessels on ocean mail routes, these costs amounting to $28,460,000 a year, according to the operators' own estimates.

  21. This clever exposé, executed in the best Bridges manner, received considerable publicity in the few liberal newspapers on the coast; and the public's, but especially organized labor's, reaction to the planned lockout was against the employers. The plan was thus frustrated; whereupon, save for the "mutiny" on the California at San Pedro in March, peace prevailed all along the Pacific front until April 3, when eighteen ship companies, led by Matson and Dollar, moved to break the sailors' hiring-hall system in San Francisco by a federal injunction. Bridges declared before the San Francisco Labor Council: "I don't want to appear an alarmist, but this looks like the start of another fight. We've tried to avoid it, but we're ready." The council strongly condemned the shipowners' action, public opinion preponderantly opposed a renewal of warfare, and the owners again pulled in their horns.

  22. Then the Santa Rosa.

  23. On the East Coast there have occurred in recent weeks numerous rank-and-file "quickies," or small outlaw strikes d which had the sympathy of the Maritime Federation of d the Pacific, for they were, in the main, efforts to discredit the A. F. of L. "fascists" running the I. L. A. and e the I. S. U. Early in April the Maritime Federation received word from New York that the Santa Rosa, a Grace Line freight-passenger ship, had left for Los Angeles and San Francisco in a "hot" condition. It seemed that the s ship had been picketed in New York as "unfair to organized labor" and that she had signed on some scabs, whom the I. S. U. officials supplied with union books just before sailing. This was all the information Bridges and his group had. Naturally, they suspected a plot, although heretofore the Grace Line had had a comparatively good record. They had heard rumors of "tricks" about to be played on the San Francisco I. L. A. The Santa Rosa was tensely awaited by the men. When she arrived, the federation had a picket line at the pier. Everybody believed she was "hot." Crowds of men who were not authorized pickets came to the pier. The company called the hiring hall for stevedores. The gangs came but refused to go through the crowd, which by then had begun to consider itself the picket line. Meanwhile the Maritime Federation officials were trying to find out the facts about the ship's temperature, but were not allowed aboard. A few of the crew came off, and one or two of them confirmed the report that there had been some irregularity in signing up the men in New York.

  24. The federation officials, including Bridges, held a conference and, deciding that their information was too slender to justify creating an issue in the already tense situation, called off the pickets and told the gangs to go and work the ship. But meanwhile--in fact, almost immediately after the gangs stopped at the federation's picket line--the Waterfront Employers, as though prepared beforehand, issued an announcement suspending all relations with the I. L. A. Local 38-79 and ordering employers all along the front to ( 1 ) call for no more gangs from the hiring hall, (2) summon back men then employed on uncompleted jobs, and ( 3 ) employ in the future only those registered longshoremen eligible to work under the award who reported directly to the job.

  25. A lockout, but badly messed up from the start. The union immediately denied that the men refused to work the ship. The hiring hall again sent the gangs and was willing to send more. In fact, more gangs were sent, but the Grace Line superintendent turned them away. In brief, the owners found themselves fighting mad in a ring empty of opponents-a ridiculous situation which "drew the berry" from 4,300 longshoremen and tens of thousands of their sympathizers in and outside the labor movement. In their excitement and embarrassment the pugnacious geniuses in charge of the lockout forgot they were fighting communism and said they were the sworn enemies of the hiring hall. Then they discovered that was a "bum issue." The public at large was not against the hiring hall. Longshoremen were fanatically in love with it. Expressions of solidarity on the issue came from up and down the Coast, even from conservative I. L. A. district officials who hate Bridges no less than the employers hate him. So, still more confused, the employers' leaders claimed they had been misunderstood: the hiring hall was not the issue. "We are opposed to its abolition," read one of their statements "We likewise are opposed to any change of the provisions of the arbitration award. We insist that every provision of the award be strictly observed."

  26. In short, there was no issue. Then they recalled that Bridges was a red and blamed the situation on him. H. had ordered out the Maritime Federation picket line Which wasn't true, for Bridges doesn't order anyone to do anything. All decisions in the Maritime Federation a well as in the I. L. A. local are made by the membership or by elected committees. So the men laughed still more.

  27. Meantime the lockout was an actuality. The Santa Rosa was not worked. The same was true of the majority of other ships in port when the lockout began. Scores of San Francisco-bound vessels were diverted to San Pedro and Portland, and, according to various estimates, the great port beyond the Golden Gate lost between a quarter of a million and a million dollars a day in wages and wharfage fees; for eight days, while Mayor Rossi issued frantic statements, the Embarcadero was quiet as a graveyard.

  28. As I write this, the lockout mess has been more or less cleared up. Today the great port is beginning to get slowly back to normal operations. The basic labor-employer situation, however, is where it was ten days ago--except that the prestige of Bridges's leadership, the essence of which is intelligently directed mass-democracy, has gone up many notches during the past week; while the employers feel groggy and foolish, and probably are wondering what they can do next.

  29. I don't know what they can or will do, but the probability is they will get more and more desperate. However, they may not make their next move, whatever it will be, for some time--unless they decide to attempt to frame Bridges, which also will not be easy. Bridges is the most careful of men.