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Tough Guys: Part I

In the early morning of September 21, 1956, a beating took place at Sally Stanford’s Sausalito restaurant. Two men from Southern California pursued an Australian man, who was then in his mid-50’s, from the bar into the restroom. The beating was not particularly eventful, but it was brutal and fast, the work of thugs hired to send a message.

Stanford, decades away from her first term as Sausalito’s mayor, was incensed that her customer had been attacked in her restaurant and called the police. The victim was a friend of hers, a man who regularly made international headlines. The attack was not just an insult to the customer, but to her establishment.

The victim himself took it in stride, although for PR purposes he made a point of communicating to sympathetic newspapermen that it was an unfair fight, two against one. But it’s difficult to imagine that the bruises didn’t punish the midlife body.

Back in the 1930’s, when this man was in his prime, it would have been hard to imagine him succumbing to such a beating, regardless of the odds. Lean and muscular, with more of a beak than a nose, he was then part of one of the top longshoremen crews along the Embarcadero in San Francisco.

The men in the top crews, called "star gangs", were so nimble, strong, and fast they should rightly have been considered athletes. But their athleticism did not spare them the indignity and poverty of “the shape-up”, where they waited with less elite workers who hoped to be picked for a shift. But being in a top crew meant working 12 to 16-hour shifts unloading hundreds of tons of sugar, tar and other imports, and many were injured or killed on the job.

To the Greeks who ran the diner where the man occasionally stopped in, he was a palikari: a man who fights for the underdog, regardless of risk. But as much as this particular longshoreman was loved by the common people, he was loathed and feared by big business owners, politicians, and the police. The Federal Government would subsequently try to prove on multiple occasions that he was a communist, in hopes of deporting him. Despite all the grand prosecutorial immunity of the Federal Government, they failed every time.

The man’s name was Harry Bridges and in 1934, as the head of the strike committee of the Pacific Coast Branch of the International Longshoremen's Association, he pulled off the most successful labor strike in U.S. history, shutting down the entire West Coast waterfront for 83 days.

The strike culminated in a settlement after what came to be known as “Bloody Thursday,” July 5, 1934, a day of intense police violence against strikers that included the randomized fatal shooting of Howard Sperry and Nick Bordoise. The tightly choreographed funeral procession for the two men up drew, by some accounts, as many as 40,000 attendees, who stood in solemn and silent witness along Market Street. This was followed by the historic, four-day San Francisco General Strike in protest of the violence against the workers. The workers prevailed. When it was over, Bridges had delivered on every single item he had promised his fellow dockworkers: control of the hated hiring hall, a reliable six-hour workday; and most of all, a coast-wide contract. Bigger gains would follow in the years ahead.

How did an Irish-Australian sailor, with little formal education and no real labor organizing experience, pull off such a remarkable coup? Harry Bridges’ phenomenal success was the result of shrewd strategy, a storied contempt for authority, and a relentless faith in his fellow man. And that last part is important. Because the secret ingredient in Harry Bridges’ success, which helped build a multi-racial middle class from California to Hawaii, started with a radical interracial solidarity: a mutual cooperative agreement starting with white and black laborers in San Francisco that eventually grew to comprise one of the most racially diverse, most politically engaged, most independent unions in the world.

Still, Bridges and his men undertook the effort cautiously. “The strike weapon should never be used except as a last desperate resort, when there’s no way out.” Bridges said. “It simply means a form of revolution, because you take over an industry or a plant owned by the capitalists and temporarily, you seize it. Temporarily you take it away.”

And the owners didn’t like things being taken away, even temporarily.

The demand for a six-hour day was emblematic of the unity and boldness of the longshoremen as a whole. As labor historian Harvey Schwartz, author of Solidarity Stories: An Oral History of the ILWU, explained to me last year, the ratio of men to available shifts was punishingly high. So Bridges and the rest of the strike committee gambled that if they could both gain control of the hiring hall and establish a coast-wide contract, a six-hour day would give the greatest number of men the chance to work enough (albeit shorter) shifts to feed their families, and that success would in turn encourage more men to join and remain loyal to the union.

But Bridges and the strike committee weren’t just interested in the success of the ILA; they also wanted to prove to the rest of the country that workers, and the unions they organized, had real power. To do that, they needed to forge a radical interracial cooperation between workers.

The decision to integrate the International Longshoremen’s Association (which would later become the ILWU) was both pragmatic (if Black workers weren’t incorporated into the union they were more likely to be hired as scabs) and based on the ethics of racial justice (Harry was a committed and proactive integrationist). But it wasn’t easy to achieve.

As Bruce Nelson wrote in Workers On The Waterfront: Seamen, Longshoremen, and Unionism in the 1930s:

“…there was a vitally important breakthrough early in the strike that was to set the tone for the future of race relations on the San Francisco docks. Schmidt had gone down to the Luckenbach pier where most of the regular black longshoremen were employed; along with a black union member he had called on them to join the strike. ‘On the same afternoon or the next day,’ he remembered, ‘these Negro brothers came to the then union headquarters at 113 Steuart Street. I can still see them coming up the stairs and entering the premises…. Somebody raised the question, “Why didn’t you come earlier to join up?’ And they replied, ‘We didn’t know that you wanted us.’”

This early partnership wasn’t perfect. And in its nascence, it sometimes looked like the union wouldn’t survive Bridges’ insistence on racial integration. But Bridges’ use of media, his innovative defensive tactics against tear gas and mounted police, his welcoming of Blacks, Latinos and Asians into the ranks of the International Longshoreman’s Union, and later the ILWU, his championing of interracial marriage, and his unique ability to steer the union clear of the corruption that engulfed many East Coast unions, were visionary.

Above all, Bridges had confidence that the union workers themselves could be trusted to make the right decisions. In fact, the team that Bridges first built started their own, independent labor and political movement. Members of the ILA branched out during the Depression to help other groups organize, and in the early 1940's played the major role in unionizing sugar and pineapple production in Hawaii. Later, they boycotted ships from South Africa to protest Apartheid. One of Bridges’ closest confidantes, Sam Kagel, ended up negotiating the 1982 NFL player’s strike. And Ron Dellums, a Vietnam veteran (USMC), who during his congressional tenure opposed every major US military intervention, was raised to speak out early: his father had been a key member of the ILWU.

We still see Bridges’ imprint in the legacy of longtime Black home-owning families in the East Bay, a legacy which derives from Black members who helped Bridges build and sustain the ILWU.

In the first month of the COVID shut down, as I waited in line outside a grocery store in the East Bay, the elderly Black woman standing ahead of me related that she had recently lost her husband, who had been a longshoreman. He had been sick for a long time, but the ILWU, she reported, was taking very good care of her after her loss. When I mentioned Bridges, her eyes lit up momentarily, “Oh, he was a fighter!” And then she said ruefully, “I think Bridges would have lived longer, but the government treated him so bad.”

“But he won,” I suggested.

“Yes, he did,” she laughed. “We did,” and the edges of her eyes crinkled, indicating the smile underneath the mandatory mask.

Growing up, we didn’t learn about Harry Bridges in school. He’s not in the textbooks for the simple reason that talking about underdogs who fight for working-class interracial solidarity and actually win, was contrary to the image that big business liked to promote.

Maybe now is the time to start talking about Harry and those who helped bring his vision to fruition.