The West Coast Was Once a Cradle of Class Struggle

Robert Cherny

In the depths of the Great Depression, maritime and waterfront workers on the Pacific Coast of the US — from Bellingham, Washington, to San Diego, California — erupted in militant strikes against their shipping magnate employers.

Mounted police charge striking workers on the waterfront, 1936. (Underwood Archives / Getty Images)

Interview by
Benjamin Y. Fong

Robert Cherny is professor emeritus of history at San Francisco State University and the author most recently of Harry Bridges: Labor Radical, Labor Legend. Our interview mainly focused on the story of the West Coast waterfront strike in 1934, and International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) leader Harry Bridges, one of the most remarkable labor leaders of the CIO moment.

Benjamin Y. Fong

Could you tell the story of the West Coast waterfront strike?

Robert Cherny

1934 saw a major strike all up and down the Pacific Coast, first by longshore unions and then by maritime unions. It began with an effort to revive the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), an American Federation of Labor [AFL] union along the Pacific Coast. There had once been ILA locals in most of the Pacific Coast ports, but in the 1920s, nearly all of them were destroyed through local anti-union organizations.

In San Francisco, labor relations in the 1920s were dominated by the Industrial Association of San Francisco, which was an organization that included nearly all the city’s banks, railroads, manufacturing companies, insurance companies, shipping companies, and so forth. It was an organization devoted to eliminating unions or eliminating the influence of those union organizations that managed to hold on. It was remarkably successful. Later, the La Follette Committee called it the example par excellence of being able to deny labor its right to organize.

What developed in 1934 from this coast-wide organizing of the ILA was an effort to engage in bargaining with the shipping and stevedoring companies on essentially an industrial model. They were looking at the loading and unloading of ships all up and down the Pacific Coast, regardless of the kind of cargo, regardless of the specific employers, and focused upon achieving a coast-wide contract for ILA locals from Bellingham in far northern Washington to San Diego in far southern California. The ILA either organized or revived its locals in each of those Pacific Coast ports, and the Pacific Coast ports formed a separate and autonomous district within the ILA, the Pacific Coast District.

So in San Francisco, a new local was chartered in 1933, Local 38-79. All of the Pacific Coast locals had the first two numbers “38” — that indicated they were a part of the Pacific Coast District — then they had a separate local number that followed the 38. The only ILA local that had survived in the 1920s was the one in Tacoma. And, by default, the early leadership of the Pacific Coast District mostly came from the Tacoma local. That local took the lead in bringing together representatives of all of the new locals in late 1933 to hash out a set of demands.

First of all, they wanted a coast-wide contract: the same contract for all longshore workers in all Pacific Coast ports — the same wages, the same hours, the same working conditions, and so forth — so that ports could not be played off against each other in order to get cheaper labor. A coast-wide contract was crucial.

They also wanted the six-hour day and the thirty-hour week, which may seem like pie in the sky when we think about it today. But in the context of the Great Depression, it made sense because there were a lot more men who wanted work on the waterfront than there was work to go around. By limiting the workday in that way, it made for more jobs, it allowed more men the opportunity to work. They had some wage demands, fairly logical wage demands for the time. And most importantly, they wanted priority in hiring for union members; that is, given all the jobs available on any given day, union members would get the first priority for those jobs. And if there were still slots available once the union members had been assigned, then others could be assigned as well.

Priority for union members and dispatching through a union hiring hall were absolutely crucial. In San Francisco and in some of the other ports on the coast, hiring until that time had been done through what was called the shape-up. In San Francisco, it meant that men who wanted to work on the waterfront would show up at 7 a.m. at the Ferry Building, which is the center of the waterfront and wait for gang bosses to come around and pick out a gang to work that day.

Here’s the way work was organized on the ships of that time: cargo ships had several holds in the deck of the ship and, through those holds, cargo could be either lowered to be packed away or removed from the hold and brought over to the pier to go to warehouses. Each hold had a gang. The gang might be anywhere from twelve to eighteen men, depending upon the cargo. Each gang had a gang boss for each hold. A gang worked in just one hold.

There were several holds on a ship. A walking boss supervised all of the gang bosses, and the gang bosses supervised the men working each hold. At the shape-up that took place at the Ferry Building at 7 a.m., gang bosses first shaped up and were told whether there was work for their gang or not. Once they got their assignment, they then came to the front of the Ferry Building to meet with the members of their regular gang. If there weren’t enough members of their regular gang who showed up, then they’d pick some others to fill it out.

This was a casual labor market, meaning you got work for a day at a time. You were hired to work that ship on that day, and you’d come back the next morning and see if there was work for that day. There might be some days when there was no work at all for you. On the other hand, in a casual labor market, if you didn’t want to work on some day, you didn’t have to go to work. You just didn’t show up. And then you’d show up the next day and see if you could still get your place in a gang. But there was no job security, no benefits, no paid vacations, no sick leave, no retirement, nothing like that. It was a completely casual market. You were paid by the day and by the job, and that was it. You got a little brass token that you’d turn in for your pay.

The shape-up was a way that companies could weed out union organizers. They’d pass the word, “Don’t hire this guy.” And if you couldn’t work, you couldn’t be a very effective organizer. There was a union of sorts in San Francisco. It had been formed in 1919 after a disastrous strike by the previous union. But the union organized in 1919 was formed by a group of gang bosses and walking bosses, and they signed a sweetheart contract with the waterfront employers. Most accounts indicate that they received reasonable wages given the time, but there was really no other kind of protection that this union offered. It was called the Blue Book because their dues book was blue, and most of what the union did was collect dues and pay the salaries of its officers. They didn’t really provide any kind of protection for men who might have a grievance.

The shape-up also provided the Blue Book a way to remain in power because the Blue Book business agents could check every man’s dues book and see if they had paid their dues. If they were known as a troublemaker, the gang boss could be told, “Don’t hire this guy.” The supposed union was very cozy with the employers, and it was a situation that made it very difficult to think about organizing. But it also makes very clear why the shape-up was so objectionable, and why it was that having a union hiring hall with priority for union members was such an important issue in the 1934 strike.

That strike was a long strike. It began in May. It ended at the end of July. It went on and on. In the middle of June, after the strike had been ongoing for more than a month, the president of the ILA came out from New York. His name was Joseph Ryan, sometimes called King Ryan because of his authoritarian control over the ILA. Ryan entered into negotiations led by the mayor of San Francisco, Angelo Rossi.

Rossi wanted to bring a peaceful end to the strike. He brought together Ryan, several members of the ILA Pacific Coast District leadership, the head of the Industrial Association, the head of the Chamber of Commerce, representatives from the Waterfront Employers, and several Teamster officials because the Teamsters had been respecting the strike. And they announced the deal on June 16, saying, “The strike is over.”

Three out of the four daily newspapers had big banner headlines: “Strike is Over. Men Returning to Work.” The fourth newspaper had the caveat that the agreement had to be approved by a vote of the members of the union. Now, Ryan had assured all of the other players that he had the authority to make this deal and that there didn’t have to be a vote of the union. But the members of the union, of course, had a different idea. Of the ILA Pacific Coast District officials who were a part of that negotiation, two of the three didn’t sign because they also knew that there had to be a vote of the members. The members rejected Ryan’s deal because it did not have priority for union members, it did not have a union hiring hall, and it said that wages and hours would be fixed port by port, which meant different wages, hours, and working conditions all up and down the coast.

So they rejected Ryan and his deal. Relations between Ryan and the Pacific Coast longshore unions went downhill from there. After this June 16 agreement, the Industrial Association took over the employer side of the strike. They began organizing to open up the waterfront using nonunion labor. They set up a nonunion trucking company. They hired drivers who were not members of the Teamsters Union. They found a warehouse that had nonunion workers. They got guarantees of police protection. Some five hundred policemen were assigned to the waterfront. They got a promise from the governor that, if necessary, the National Guard would come in, and they set out to open up the port.

San Francisco was, at that time, the largest port on the Pacific Coast. Most of the shipping companies had their headquarters there. It was the largest union local for the ILA. So opening the Port of San Francisco would effectively destroy the strike. On July 3, the Industrial Association started the process in the afternoon, moving goods from Pier 38 to a warehouse not far away, under heavy, heavy police protection, and in the face of thousands and thousands of strikers and strike supporters.

I should add that once the longshoremen went on strike, maritime unions joined the strike with their own issues. So within a couple of weeks of the beginning of the strike, there were also strikes by the Sailors’ Union of Pacific (the deckhands), the Marine Firemen’s Union, the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union, and also the licensed officers — the Masters, Mates, and Pilots, and the Marine Engineers’ [Beneficial Association].

All of those unions went on strike with their own issues, so that when the Industrial Association set out to open the port of San Francisco, it was not only the longshore strikers but also strikers from all those other unions who joined the effort to prevent the strikebreakers from being successful. There were limited efforts to open the port on July 3. Everybody took a little breather on July 4, and then on July 5, it all just exploded. Strikers and strike supporters threw bricks and rocks at the police who were guarding the strikebreakers. By noon, the police began to herd all of the strikers and demonstrators into a very small area around the intersection of Steuart and Mission Streets, which was just a short distance away from union headquarters. By early afternoon, there were hundreds and hundreds of strikers who had been herded into that very small area.

A police car drove into the center of that intersection, and a plainclothes policeman got out, guns in both hands, and said something like, “You sons of bitches want some of this? I’m ready for you.” There are accounts that some of the strikers called him names. We can well imagine that happening. Some witnesses said that there may have been rocks thrown at him, although other witnesses said there were no rocks thrown until after he started shooting.

But he did start shooting into the crowd, and two men were seriously injured. One died, one managed to survive. Later in the day, they found another man dead from buckshot from a police riot gun. On that day, more than a hundred people were injured by gunshot, tear gas, police clubs, rocks, and bricks. But the large majority were injured by police fire, including a number of people who just were in the wrong place at the wrong time — innocent bystanders who had no part in it at all.

All this suggested that the police had been told to use deadly force. In the middle of that afternoon, Harry Bridges, who was the head of the Longshore Strike Committee, led a group to the mayor’s office and just berated the mayor. The mayor said basically, “You had a chance to end this peacefully. You were told that if you didn’t take that June 16 agreement, the strike would be ended by force,” which suggests that the mayor was complicit, if not responsible, for directing the police to use deadly force.

The governor sent in the National Guard that afternoon. And the National Guard took up positions all up and down the waterfront, setting up machine gun nests, snipers on top of the piers, guards with bayonets marching in front of the piers, tanks moving up and down the waterfront — a total militarization of the waterfront in order to protect the strikebreakers.

A couple of days later, there was a very dramatic funeral for the two men who were killed. A funeral ceremony in union headquarters was broadcast outside to thousands and thousands of people, and then there was a funeral procession from union headquarters on Steuart Street, all the way down Market Street (the main thoroughfare of San Francisco), and out to a funeral parlor in the Mission District, the working-class part of the city. The funeral procession was several miles long, led by flatbed trucks carrying the caskets, a couple more flatbed trucks for all the flowers that had been sent, another truck with a union band playing a funeral dirge, followed by thousands and thousands of marching strikers from the striking unions and from the city’s other unions. It was a dramatic demonstration of union solidarity.

That demonstration has often been credited with guaranteeing that there would be a general strike in San Francisco. The San Francisco Labor Council met on Friday evenings, and that next Friday, they set up a general strike committee. A local labor council has no authority to call a strike. Only local unions have the authority to call a strike. But what the Labor Council did was to say that each local needs to take a strike vote, and that the general strike committee would coordinate activities. The real brains for this whole operation was George Kidwell, who was an officer of the Bakery Wagon Drivers (a Teamsters local). Kidwell had studied the Seattle general strike and the Winnipeg general strike. His argument was that the general strike is not a political act but instead an economic act in support of the striking unions and in support of arbitration to end the strike.

What Kidwell and the other Labor Council leaders wanted to do was move the strike out of the hands of the striking waterfront unions and into the Labor Council, where they could push the unions and the companies in the direction of arbitration. President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt had appointed an arbitration board, the National Longshore Board, to try to end the strike, and the Labor Council saw this as the way to end it without more violence and without having to deal with the militarization of the waterfront to protect the strikebreakers.

So the general strike was in protest against the police violence, in protest against the National Guard, in support of the striking unions, and in support of arbitration. Kidwell also believed that for a general strike to be effective, you had to end it quickly. They could present this dramatic demonstration of union solidarity, but if it lasted very long, they’d lose public support.

So it ended after four days. But during that time, the city was pretty much shut down. Restaurants, barbershops, the privately owned streetcar lines, taxis, bars — they were all closed because the unions involved in all of those areas had voted to be on strike until the general strike committee said that it was over. Oakland also had its own general strike across the Bay. Within those four days, the Waterfront Employers did agree to arbitration. The Longshore Union said that they’d vote on arbitration, and the members of Local 38-79 voted overwhelmingly to arbitrate.

John Francis Neylan, who was general counsel to William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper empire, brought the heads of the steamship companies and the heads of the city’s newspapers together at his estate down the peninsula. Neylan said he gave them “a cold water lunch” — no alcohol, just cold water. And he told the shipping companies, in essence, “You have done this by the way you’ve treated labor, and you have got to get us out of this situation by agreeing to arbitration.” And apparently, he also told them, “If you don’t agree to arbitrate, the newspapers are going to announce that you did and let you deny it.”

Well, within another day, the newspapers announced that the steamship owners had agreed to arbitration, and in fact, they did agree. So it all went to the arbitrators. At the end of July, the men went back to work, and the board of arbitration held hearings on the longshore dispute up and down the Pacific Coast. They went to each major port and took testimony there from both workers and employers.

And at the end of their hearings, they issued an agreement that provided for the six-hour day and the thirty-hour week and, a wage increase — not quite what the union had asked for, but close. They also got priority in hiring for union members, but not a union hiring hall. Instead, the hiring hall was to be paid for jointly by the union and the employers, but the union was to name the dispatcher.

In the end, having the union name the dispatcher made it essentially a union hiring hall because the union dispatcher would obviously choose men according to union membership. The union dispatchers were elected by the members of each local. That’s still true in Pacific Coast longshore locals today. Dispatchers are elected. They are a very important elected officer within each longshore local. Just to give you another indication of how important the dispatcher was, the ILWU’s newspaper, which was founded in 1940, is called the Dispatcher.

So the agreement didn’t give the longshore union members exactly what they wanted, but it came very close. And that really laid the basis for the longshore union that exists today.

After this strike, there was increasing friction between the Pacific Coast District and Ryan in New York. Bridges, who had been chairman of the strike committee in San Francisco, was elected president of his local soon after and then elected president of the Pacific Coast District. He and Ryan were constantly at loggerheads over a whole variety of issues.

And in 1937, the members of the Pacific Coast District voted overwhelmingly to leave the ILA and to affiliate with the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] as the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union. From that point on, there were two unions for longshoremen in the US: the ILWU on the Pacific Coast, and the ILA on the East Coast, the Gulf, and the Great Lakes.

Benjamin Y. Fong

Who was Harry Bridges?

Robert Cherny

Harry Bridges was born in 1901 in a working-class suburb of Melbourne, Australia. His father was a real estate developer and wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. Bridges was actually baptized as Alfred Renton Bridges, named for his father. But at an early age, he decided he didn’t want to be a real estate agent, and he would much rather be like his uncle, Uncle Henry, nicknamed Harry, who was a union organizer and an organizer for the Australian Labor Party. So young Bridges took the name Harry and kept it the rest of his life. He went to sea as a teenager, shipping out between Melbourne and Tasmania, and later between Melbourne and New Zealand. He had a chance to get a ship to San Francisco, which he had always read about in novels. He read voraciously.

And so he went to San Francisco and began shipping out up and down the Pacific Coast and further to the east. In 1921, he ended up in New Orleans. Without being able to get a ship, he met some IWW members and was recruited into the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World, and learned some important things. Bridges learned from the IWW that all workers belonged to a class regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, and other such potential discriminatory characteristics. He learned that you can’t discriminate if you want to have worker solidarity for the whole class of working people. And he also learned about organizing at the point of production as being fundamentally important to organizing.

Bridges was in New Orleans for a major strike by the International Seamen’s Union. He was once arrested while he was picketing during that strike. After that strike, he continued for a brief time working as a seaman. But he became disillusioned with the IWW and cut off his membership there, when he thought that the IWW was trying to destroy an AFL longshore union in Portland. But he kept those lessons, and he went to work on the San Francisco waterfront a year or so later. He worked on the San Francisco waterfront all through the 1920s, dealing with the problems of the Blue Book, the lack of any job security, and so forth.

By 1933, when Local 38-79 was chartered, Bridges was part of a group of militant longshore workers who met every week or two in a meeting hall on Albion Street, part of the Workmen’s Educational Association. They called themselves the Albion Hall Group, and they really formed a caucus within that local calling for militant action. There were a few Communist Party members in their group, although the majority were not. The Bridges FBI file provides a complete list of all the members of the Albion Hall Caucus, something that I’d never been able to find before I went through his FBI file. It’s clear that there were a few communists, but not a majority. The local Communist Party did give them an old mimeograph machine and gave them control of a newsletter called The Waterfront Worker, which the Albion Hall Group used as an organizing device by turning out this newsletter on a regular basis.

This led to Bridges and two other members of the Albion Hall Group being elected to the local executive board when Local 38-79 held its first election of officers in mid-1933. On the executive board, Bridges and others pushed to have no racial discrimination, and not only that but also to hire a black organizer. There were very few black workers on the waterfront, but in the 1919 strike, the employers had brought in black strikebreakers as a way of really antagonizing the white workers. Bridges and his group recognized that it’s absolutely crucial that there be no repetition of that if they were going to be on strike; that they had to have solid support both within the group of longshore workers and outside.

So during the 1934 strike, not only did the local have a black organizer, but Bridges himself went around to black churches and said, essentially, black people are welcome to work on the waterfront. They are welcome to be members of the union. Don’t let your people break the strike. Don’t be hired as strikebreakers. And they were pretty successful at that. When Bridges and several other members of that caucus did move into local leadership, Bridges as president and others as local officers, one of the first things they did was to prohibit any segregated work gangs. The black longshoremen had to be integrated into the regular work gangs with no segregated gangs; there had previously been a couple of segregated gangs made up of blacks, Latinos, American Indians — anyone who wasn’t white. And those segregated gangs were often given the dirtiest jobs, the worst jobs on the waterfront. So there was none of that after 1934.

Bridges became the president of the ILWU. He remained there until he finally retired in 1979. He was constantly under attack. He was painted as a communist beginning in May of 1934. As soon as his name first hit the newspapers, there were people in San Francisco who said, “He should be deported. He’s a communist.” And there were several efforts by the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service or by the federal Department of Justice to deport him — either to prohibit him from becoming a citizen or, once he did become a citizen, to strip his citizenship and send him back to Australia. The irony of it all is that the federal government knew all along that Australia would not accept him if he were to be deported.

Some of these were clearly show trials. HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee, was holding show trials and charging people with being communists. If Bridges had ever been convicted in his various trials, he would not have been deported because Australia wouldn’t take him. But he would’ve lost his union leadership. He would’ve been held in some kind of security arrangement, whether in jail or some kind of minimal confinement. It’s a little unclear. But by the mid-1940s, there were thousands of people in the US who had been ordered deported, but who would not be accepted by the country they were being deported to, and they were kept under some kind of confinement.

Bridges led some other important strikes, especially one in 1948. By 1948, there was a very different atmosphere for unions than there had been in 1934. In 1934, unions, for the first time, had some federal protection for their right to organize. By 1948, the Taft-Hartley Act had rolled back some of the federal protection for union organizing. By 1948 as well, the US was into a post–World War II Red Scare in which there were efforts to ferret out any communists and remove them from public life.

So the Waterfront Employers Association in 1948 thought, “We’re going to get rid of Bridges. We will simply refuse to negotiate until the union replaces Bridges. We will not negotiate with Bridges.” This went on for about three months. Bridges, at one point, said, “You don’t want to negotiate with me. Let’s elect a rank-and-file delegation to negotiate with you.” Bridges really was, from the beginning and throughout, a rank-and-file guy. He came from the rank and file. He was always in close contact with the rank and file. That was part of his appeal, that he knew the work as well as anybody else. He knew the work better than most of the employers did.

Anyway, in 1948, there was also a strain between Bridges and the CIO leadership because, earlier in 1948, Bridges and the ILWU had taken some political positions contrary to the CIO leadership. They had taken positions opposed to the Marshall Plan, which was an issue that the Communist Party was pushing. And the ILWU, under Bridge’s leadership, followed along. Equally importantly, they supported Henry Wallace for president in the 1948 presidential election — again, contrary to the position of the CIO leadership and in line with the position of the Communist Party. So in those two instances, on the Marshall Plan and the Wallace campaign, Bridges in the ILWU were essentially following the Communist Party line.

The employers thought, “Okay, Bridges has lost the support of the CIO. We’ve got the Taft-Hartley Act. This is a time to get rid of Bridges.” But the CIO was fully supportive. The CIO took the position that a union gets to pick its own officers. The employers have no business trying to determine who is in the leadership of the union. And the CIO sent some of its top officials to help with negotiations. What finally broke the employers’ intransigence was a stockholder revolt.

Some of the stockholders in the waterfront companies decided that the only way to deal with this was to bring in some new negotiators. So they took those negotiators who refused to negotiate with Bridges and sent them off on a long ocean cruise. Then they brought in some new negotiators from Hawaii who had been working with the ILWU there and knew that it was possible to have a reasonably sensible relationship with the ILWU. And with those new negotiators, the strike was resolved in a very short period of time.

What came out of that 1948 strike not only were some solid gains for the ILWU, but also a new employers’ organization. The old Waterfront Employers Association was scrapped, and the Pacific Maritime Association [PMA] was created. From 1948 up until about 1970, the ILWU and the PMA had a mutually respectful working relationship, which led in 1959–1960 to the first Modernization and Mechanization Agreement [M&M]. The M&M allowed containerization of ocean shipping. Containerization is perhaps the most important change in ocean shipping since the invention of the steam engine. It has absolutely revolutionized ocean shipping as well as revolutionized longshore labor. That M&M agreement was possible, in a sense, because of the long-term relationship that had developed between the ILWU and the PMA from 1948 up to the late 1950s.

Benjamin Y. Fong

What exactly was Harry Bridges’s relationship to the Community Party?

Robert Cherny

It’s unclear. Whatever the exact relationship was, it went to the grave with the people who knew what it was.

I devote two chapters in the book to what the evidence is and to attempt to draw some conclusions from that. What I conclude is that Bridges was an “influential” within the Communist Party. He always said he was never a member. This term influential comes from one former Communist Party functionary, who later got a PhD in political science and wrote about the party from that perspective after he’d left. He defined an influential as someone who was not necessarily a member of the party, but who was listened to, and who was consulted with on a whole range of issues.

That’s the way that Lou Goldblatt, who was the ILWU secretary treasurer, described his relationship with the Communist Party. Goldblatt was very forthcoming in saying that he had been a party member, but he had left the party because he thought they weren’t always realistic when it came to trade union matters. But even after he left, he still continued to meet with party leaders, to “chew the fat,” to talk to them about what they were doing, to listen to what they had to say. I think that kind of defines what Bridges’s relationship with the party was as well. My research on the Communist Party suggests that the focus of so many anti-communists on “a card-carrying member” isn’t all that helpful in thinking about what a person’s relationship with the party might be.

One thing that is clear to me from the research I did is that the party never gave directions to Bridges. The party may have talked to Bridges and said, “We think it’d be good idea to do this or that,” but they never gave directions. He was never under party discipline, and he never had to accept party directions.

Benjamin Y. Fong

Why and how was the ILWU expelled from the CIO?

Robert Cherny

Bridges and the ILWU had taken those positions on the Marshall Plan and the Wallace campaign. And in 1949, the CIO began the process of expelling unions that it considered to be following the Communist Party line: the UE (the United Electrical Workers) left the CIO at that point. They didn’t wait to be expelled. They just left.

And at some point, the party encouraged Bridges to walk out too. But Bridges said, “No. If they want us out, they’ll have to throw us out.” And they did. Again, there was a kind of show trial in which the CIO accused the ILWU, the Marine Cooks and Stewards, and a few others of being communist-dominated and expelled them from the CIO. From then on, throughout the rest of Bridges presidency, the ILWU was outside the CIO and outside the AFL-CIO. But by the late 1950s, all up and down the Pacific Coast, the ILWU was clearly accepted by AFL-CIO unions as being a part of the House of Labor and were treated accordingly.

After Bridges retired, and after George Meany retired as the president of the AFL-CIO, the ILWU did rejoin the AFL-CIO and remained for some time, until a dispute over jurisdiction and grain handling at a port on the Columbia River. Operating engineers essentially tried to take over the ILWU’s jurisdiction over grain handling. The ILWU said to the AFL-CIO, “This is our jurisdiction. It always has been. It’s been our jurisdiction since 1934 and even earlier. You have to tell them to get out.” And the AFL-CIO just said, “Nope, not going to be involved,” which led the ILWU to once again pull out. They could see no reason to remain a part of this organization if it wasn’t going to do the most fundamental thing of adjudicating these jurisdictional issues.

Benjamin Y. Fong

What lessons can we draw from the life of Harry Bridges for the present moment?

Robert Cherny

One of the things is the importance of viewing workers as a class and seeing workers’ need for solidarity as a class regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, any of those other characteristics that often set people apart. That’s one fundamental lesson from Bridges and the ILWU.

Another one is the importance of a democratic union. That June 16 agreement in 1934 was rejected by a vote, and that has remained a fundamental part of the ILWU throughout its history. Workers get to vote on contracts, contract negotiations have to be open and democratic. I’ll give you an example: in the ILWU, when the longshore contract is coming up for expiration, and it’s going to be renegotiated, there’s a Longshore Caucus that meets. The Longshore Caucus consists of elected representatives from every local, and they meet to discuss what they want in the new contract. These discussions sometimes go on for weeks, and even months, to try to hash out the union’s position in a way that every local feels okay with.

There’s a constant rank-and-file involvement in this whole process. Negotiating committees are often large. The 1959 and 1960 M&M negotiations brought the whole Longshore Caucus in to watch the negotiations, so that it would be possible for anyone from the Longshore Caucus to later raise questions with their negotiators over particular issues. It’s really important that a union have that level of democracy. Time and again in labor history, you see that when unions have an authoritarian leadership, that leadership loses contact with the rank and file and makes bad decisions. That happened to Joe Ryan. In the end, Ryan lost control of his union. That’s what happens when a leadership gets out of real contact with the rank and file. So that’s another very important lesson for the new unions.

Finally, I think the history of the ILWU is a history of a union that fused trade union principles with a sense of social justice. The ILWU remains a very left-wing union today, supporting social justice, and not just for its own members but for many other groups. And the ILWU has been involved with some of the recent wave of union organizing, interestingly enough. They organized craft beer workers in San Francisco. They’ve organized childcare and bookstore workers in Portland. Their belief in the solidarity of working people has led them to help out workers where other unions have said, “We’re not interested in organizing you.”