Essay: Harry Bridges and the Formation of the ILWU

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ILWU founder Harry Bridges Biography

“There will always be a place for us somewhere, somehow, as long as we see to it that working people fight for everything they have, everything they hope to get, for dignity, equality, democracy, to oppose war and to bring to the world a better life.” –Harry Bridges 1901 – 1990

Harry Bridges’ work is largely unknown outside specific labor union and academic circles. Yet, in today’s post 9/11 climate of fear and emphasis on security, Bridges’ legacy still has an enormous impact on our lives. It is his union, the members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), standing on the front lines at all of the major shipping ports on the West Coast of America. From San Diego, Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco to Portland and Seattle, these hard working patriotic people deserve our support and respect.

Harry Bridges based his life on the following principles:

– International Solidarity

– Social Justice and Equality

– Union Democracy

– The Right of Workers to Organize in Free Trade Unions


Born in 1901 in Melbourne, Australia, Harry Bridges left home at 15 to pursue a life at sea. He was in two shipwrecks, including the wreck of the ‘Val Marie’ off the Ninety-Mile Beach where he went overboard and floated on a mandolin until picked up. by 1920 he had settled in San Francisco– the rest, as they say, is history. 15 years later Bridges became the leader of San Francisco’s beleaguered dock workers and helped found the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). In the 1934 maritime strike, Bridges displayed his steadfastness by surviving relentless slanderous attacks on his character and principles, which in turn inspired broad numbers of port workers to follow his leadership after the strike.

Building Longshore Solidarity

By the early 1930s, the port of San Francisco was one of the busiest in the world and likely one of the most profitable. But the longshoremen, upon whose shoulders it was happening, were exposed to harsh rules and daunting conditions. In the “shape-up” (the line of men waiting each day in front of the docks for a job in a longshore gang) the workers guardedly discussed conditions among themselves. Sometimes they stood for hours, only to be turned away in the end; sometimes they wasted half a day to obtain an hour’s work; sometimes they saw men at the end of the line given preference over those at the head. When they did get picked the pay was barely enough for a family to survive on and the system obliged longshoremen to pay kickbacks to their employers.

Harry Bridges’ legacy as a pioneer in the 20th-century labor movement stems from two major reforms that did much to foster solidarity among West Coast longshoremen. First, he developed the concept of the worker-controlled hiring hall and negotiated its implementation with employers, thus correcting the injustices of the “shape-up” system. Bridges’ second landmark contribution was securing a coast-wide contract, whereby all dock workers from San Diego to Seattle worked under a single agreement that regularized both wages and working conditions. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…

The 1934 San Francisco Strike

At the 1934 International Longshore Association (ILA) convention the majority of delegates followed Bridges’ in voting for immediate negotiations with the owners to demand recognition of the union, higher wages, a thirty hour week, and a coastwide agreement. The employers balked at the demands. No steamship company, they argued, would sign. Behind their refusal to consider a coastwide contract was the determination to prevent unity among longshoremen in different ports. The ship owners did not take any strike threats seriously. Most remembered how they had crushed a similar movement on the docks in 1919 with the help of the police. At that time, the strikers could not secure the cooperation of seamen and teamsters.

The rank and file reacted to the owners refusal to negotiate by voting to strike on March 23, 1934. The workers pointed to the National Recovery Act (NRA) which promised them the right to organize into unions of their own choosing for purposes of collective bargaining. The employers called in the Feds to intervene in the negotiations, and Bridges’ faction postponed the walkout for about a month. Finally the longshoremen tired of the stalling tactics, walking off the docks on May 9, 1934. The strike was on.

Immediately, the strikers expanded their demands to include union control of hiring halls in place of the “shape-up” system, and institution of the closed shop on the waterfront. Bridges called on all other marine unions for support, and on the teamsters not to haul to and from the docks. The longshoremen stretched picket lines along every waterfront from Vancouver to San Diego. Then the Marine Workers Industrial Union struck in full support of the longshoremen and helped to swell the picket lines. Harry Bridges and other rank and file leaders were determined not to repeat the mistakes of 1919. Importantly, they did convince the teamsters to stay away from the docks for the duration of the strike. The Sailors’ Union of the Pacific finally declared a sympathy strike. A week later the sailors presented their own demands to the employers. Other marine unions followed suite and joined the picket lines. Shipping stopped.

It was not all smooth sailing though. The Police harassed the picket lines, jailed militants, slugged, beat, terrorized. With Hearst leading the way, the press attacked Bridges as a Communist and alien, and demanded his arrest and deportation. As preparation for the general strike the majority of newspapers of San Francisco began a series of inflammatory editorials and distorted news items warning readers of an impending revolution. The Red scare fell on deaf ears. “I neither affirm nor deny that I am a Communist,” Bridges replied to newspaper charges, and pointed out that political beliefs had nothing to do with the issues of the strike. Yet Bridges did not hesitate to accept advice from many sources, probably even the Communist Party.

A Hearst paper ran the headline:


On July 5, “Bloody Thursday,” the police charged the workers’ lines, gassed pickets, shot into the ranks of unarmed men. Nick Bordoise and Howard Sperry were killed and 109 fell wounded in what has come to known as the Battle of Rincon Hill. That same evening, the National Guard marched into San Francisco and the Governor declared martial law along the Embarcadero. The two murdered strikers lay in state in the ILA hall one block from the waterfront. For seventy-two hours, a double line of workers shuffled past the coffins.

On the fourth day following the killings, with troops patrolling the docks, the workers of San Francisco gathered to bury the dead. The two coffins were carried to the street. As they moved slowly up Market Street, the procession of workers formed. Some accounts estimated that forty thousand silent, men, women, and children participated. The procession silently moved through the city, through masses of on-lookers on sidewalks and in windows.

Almost every Bay Region local demanded a general strike in protest against the killings and against the militia on the waterfront. San Francisco was gripped by the first general strike in fifteen years, the second in the history of American unionism. To meet it 7,000 National Guardsmen, equipped with tanks and field pieces, reinforced by police, special deputies, “citizens’ committees,” were arrayed against unarmed strikers.

The Federal Government intervened after a few days and the rank and file agreed to arbitration. With public sentiment in their favor, in San Francisco and other ports, strikers lined up on the waterfront. Together they marched across the street to the docks. All unions resumed work simultaneously, their solidarity intact even after the terror. The strike was over. When the arbitration board handed down its award, the longshoremen were granted hiring halls with a union dispatcher that in practice assured the closed shop. They gained a thirty hour week, higher wages, union recognition, coastwide contracts – substantially every demand they had made in February.

1935-1937 The ILWU comes together

With the docks solidly organized, with not a single member of the San Francisco ILA local on relief in the fall of 1935 (during the depths of the depression), with unemployment practically abolished on the Pacific waterfronts, the rank and file demanded the spread of unionization to all categories of workers. Organizing efforts were successful in a wide array of businesses including wholesale coffee houses, many wholesale grocery stores, hardware and drug firms, the general warehouses, with Bargemen and many more.

In 1937 Bridges broke with the ILA and established the ILWU. For the next 40 years he served as President of the ILWU, overseeing steady growth in members’ wages, benefits and security. Time and again throughout his service, Bridges faced intimidation, harassment, threats and even prison sentences… but Bridges was as resolute as he was courageous and never backed down no matter at what personal cost to himself or his reputation.

Harry’s Democratic Vision:

In contrast with the traditional top-down hierarchy of leadership among most American trade unions, Bridges instead believed that it was the members who should be in control of their union. Everything the ILWU did had to be approved by the rank and file, so it was thoroughly democratic, which gained him the trust and respect of the membership. Likewise, Bridges’ sense of fairness made him a pioneer regarding racial integration. Calling discrimination “the weapon of the boss” — referring to the frequent practice of fomenting racial tension among workers in order to break strikes — Bridges demanded that the ILWU be a union completely free and open to membership by all, regardless of race, nationality, or belief. In 1936 when a German ship sailed into San Francisco flying the swastika, the longshoremen refused to unload the cargo. The shipping company insisted they unload the ship, citing their contract, but the longshoremen forced a compromise; they would only unload if the Nazi flag was hauled down (this was before the war). Again, during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, dock workers refused to load war materials on an Italian freighter.

Harry’s Internationalism:

It’s important to note that Bridges was an internationalist. He was one of the first union leaders to advocate for labor issues on a global scale. He worked hard to build alliances with dock workers in Australia, France, Great Britain, Vietnam and elsewhere, thus strengthening the leverage workers had everywhere. In 1967, when migrant farm laborers were organizing under the leadership of Cesar Chavez as the United Farm Workers, Bridges led the ILWU in a sympathetic boycott of grapes being shipped out of California’s Central Valley. Because of the alliances he had fostered, the boycott was honored by unions all across Western Europe and Australia (my family observed that boycott and it’s my earliest memory of social protest!).

Witch Hunts

The U.S. Justice Department attempted to deport Bridges in 1938 and again in 1941 on the grounds that he was a member of the Communist Party. In both cases the government’s case dissolved: its witnesses included an admitted perjurer, a lawyer who had been disbarred by New York and Illinois for jury tampering and racketeering, and a former party employee facing prosecution for fraudulent receipt of relief checks. Bridges never buckled under the constant extremist attempts to discredit him, both local and national. By the late 1940s, the clouds of McCarthyism were gathering. Harry Bridges had already been an object of J. Edgar Hoover’s unrelenting scrutiny for more than 10 years. The latest of several attempts — all ultimately unsuccessful — was underway to have him deported as an “undesirable alien” and a Communist.

In 1948 the federal government tried Bridges for perjuring himself when he stated in his application for naturalization that he was not a member of the Communist Party. The jury convicted Bridges and his two co-defendants; the Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 1953. While the Supreme Court’s decision ended the criminal prosecution against Bridges and his co-defendants, the government’s civil case to revoke his naturalization proceeded in federal court. The trial judge ruled in Bridges’ favor in 1954; the government did not appeal.

On July 28, 2001, on what would have been Bridges’ 100th birthday, the ILWU organized a week-long event celebrating the life of Harry Bridges. Over 8000 members and supporters of the longshoremen shut down the port of San Pedro California for eight hours in honor of Bridges.


Selvin, David F.: A Terrible Anger: The 1934 Waterfront and General Strikes in San Francisco.

Seldes, George: San Francisco’s Press and the 1934 General Strike. (


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