In 1920, a young Australian seaman arrived in San Francisco. Over the next sixty years, he would have a profound effect on the American labor movement and its relationship with the rest of the world. He would help to create a union with strong democratic principles, ground-breaking benefits for its members, and a belief in social and political action on behalf of workers throughout the world. Accused of being a communist, he would also endure twenty one years of trials and hearings aimed at removin him from union leadership and deporting him from the United States.
By 1933, west coast dock workers felt a growing desperation with the harshness of the Depression and a rising anger at the danger and indignity of working conditions. With the National Industrial Recovery Act, workers for the first time had the right to organize and bargain collectively. Union activism swept the country. On the West coast this union activity led to a bitter strike with pitched battles resulting in injuries and deaths up and down the coast. This battle culminated in the largest General Strike in American History and led to a victory for the strikers. Three years later, Harry Bridges became the president of the newly formed International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU), a post he would hold for the next forty years.
Under Bridges' leadership the the dock workers won control of their hiring halls in 1934. This victory was more than a victory for dock workers, it was a statement of dignity, the day when longshoremen went from being "wharf rats" to "lords of the docks."
Having won control of the hiring halls, Bridges and the ILWU campaigned for further concessions that would define the aims and goals of the union for the coming years. They fought to create a union open to all races, religions and political leanings, where the rank and file were empowered and politically active. They worked to ensure safe working conditions, secure healthcare benefits and establish pensions. They successfully negotiated paid holidays and vactions as well as taking public stands on a wide range of issues from nuclear disarmament and aparthied to workers rights around the world.
In 1961, faced with the inevitable loss of jobs that would result from greater mechanization of the the docks, the union fought for and won the "Mechanization and Modernization Agreement." The M and M agreement was controversial, upsetting many union members. Yet, the agreement proved that even in times of disagreement members voices would be heard. As Bridges himself liked to say "going to the mike" to speak your mind was an integral part of being in the ILWU.
Harry Bridges never backed away from controversy. In fact, those who knew him like to say he encouraged it. Whether in the union halls or facing government agents he debated with vigor and passion. Win or lose, his eloquence and passion led even his most ardent opponents to respect him.
Today, his legacy continues. Shortly after his death in 1990, ILWU pensioners and locals raised $1,000,000 to create the Harry Bridges Chair in Labor Studies at the University of Washington, the only endowed chair in the United States named for a Labor Leader. The ILWU continues to fight for their members' rights and the rights of workers world wide. In 1999, they played a central role in the Seattle, Washington World Trade Organization protests. In July, 2001, the public square in front of San Francisco's Ferry Building was officially named Harry Bridges Plaza to honor a man who had a far reaching impact on the lives of workers everywhere.