FIRST PRESIDENT OF THE ILWU
Harry Bridges was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1901 and joined the merchant marines at 16. In 1920, he jumped ship in San Francisco, paid his legal alien tax and two years later was working as a longshoreman.
In 1924, Harry joined the San Francisco local of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA). In 1932 he became spokesperson for a group of dockers who promoted unionism in the maritime industry. A year later, S.F. longshoremen received their first ILA charter, but the employers refused to bargain. This led to the strike of 1934.
Harry organized the strike, which spread up and down the west coast and eventually became a general strike of all San Francisco workers. The employers gave in and agreed to a coastwise agreement, union hiring hall, shorter hours, safer working conditions, and a pay increase.
The ILWU was the Pacific Coast District of the ILA, but when the union and its national president were exposed as an extension of the company to control the workers, the ILWU voted to leave the ILA. In the summer of 1937 the ILWU as an independent union was born. That same year, charters are issued to Hawaii longshore locals in Hilo, Honolulu, and Port Allen, Kauai.
At the 3rd ILWU Convention in 1940, Harry proposed a plan for organizing Alaska, Hawaii and the Pacific Coast. By 1941, the ILWU was firmly established in Hawaii and in 1944, a district office was opened in Honolulu, with Jack Hall appointed as district director.
Over the next 35 years, until his retirement in 1977, Bridges led the union—including Hawaii’s Local 142—and built the ILWU into an ideal of democratic unionism. To this day, Harry’s vision remains strong and vital in our organization. Harry Bridges passed away in 1990.
HARRY BRIDGES IN HIS OWN WORDS ON HAWAII
On Local 142
Local 142 represents a tough and unified force. They make their weight felt when need be and when the chips get down. Some of the problems that they have had to face and solve in the past 12 or 15 years have been problems that have never faced our locals on the Mainland. This local of ours in the new State of Hawaii certainly knows how to operate, knows how to organize, and, above all, when necessary, knows how to stick together and carry on. (1961 ILWU Convention)
Unionism Is Important to Hawaii
The changes that we have brought about in the lives of many people these last two years are far-reaching and significant. I am sure, as the convention develops and as our mainland delegates especially listen to the statements of our Hawaiian representatives and members, they will appreciate just how much the Union has accomplished here in Hawaii and just how much the Union means to our Hawaiian people.
I would say that at the present time the Union in Hawaii is in somewhat the same position as it was on the West Coast mainland around 1934 and 1935. It is still struggling to win the right of existence; it is still struggling against forces that would like to put it out of business; and it is still struggling against a combination of powerful employers that, in terms of economic, social and political power in this Territory, I would say is far more powerful than the ship operators were on the West Coast in 1934, 1935, 1936.
In the past two years we have had some real battles, the toughest one, of course, being the strike that went on down here for nearly six months in 1949. And we battled that out with the resources of the ILWU, aided by some other organizations, most notably the Marine Cooks and Stewards. The issue is pretty simple. It was purely a question of the organization living down here. And our workers in Hawaii knew that if the longshore strike was lost, the rest of the Union would not last very long. (1951 ILWU Convention)
HARRY ON THE PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE OF LABOR
A Look at 1934 from 1984—fifty years later, what was it really all about?
First of all, it was about power. We showed the world that when working people get together and stick together there’s little they can’t do.
Second, it was about democracy. We said that the rank-and-file had the right to decide, and if you gave them the facts, they’d make the right decision.
Finally, it was about how people treat each other: it was about human dignity. We forced the employers to treat us as equals, to sit down and talk to us about the work we do, how we do it, and what we get paid for it.
But, I believe that the principles for which we fought in 1934 are still true and still useful. Whether your job is pushing a four-wheeler or programming a computer, I don’t know of any way for working people to win basic economic justice and dignity except by being organized into a solid, democratic union.
Future of the ILWU
In leaving office after so many years, I don’t want to spend any time at all hardly on the record of the Union so far. I am more concerned with the future of the Union tomorrow; how our present program fits the development and progress of the Union in the days ahead. The record, such as it is, right or wrong, mistakes and otherwise, of the last 30-40-50 years is written. It is written by all the members of the Union—those here and those who are gone and those who are retired; and it is written by other workers in the labor unions of other countries. That is history. It will remain history. and what we should get out of it, in my opinion, is not to make the same errors and mistakes in the future that we made in the past.
What we have to do is decide what we want, why we want it, and then figure out ways to go and get it. We can do that. I am confident of that. (1977 ILWU Convention)
HARRY ON THE POWER OF LABOR
Labor Power—The True Power of This Country
Labor power we have. The organized worker as well as the unorganized worker has labor power, whether they are working by the hour, by the day, whether they are salaried workers paid by the month, whether they are working in private enterprise or whether they are working for the government. This is the true power of this country. It is not the banks, it is not the big corporation, and it is not those so much with wealth. Neither, I must say with all due respect, is it the power of teachers and students. Basically the true and real power is with working people of all colors, of all beliefs, of all national origins.
Our job, the job of this Union, is to properly reappraise, properly harness, properly organize and direct what we know we have got. and that is labor power. Everything we have achieved has been through the proper use, the judicial use, of that particular labor power. (1967 ILWU Convention)
On Political Action
…There is a weapon we can fight with. We have had a little proof of it in the last few months. That is the weapon of political action. That is going to be the main fighting weapon of all labor, international as well as national, if we are going to do those things that we are in business to do as a labor union.
Along with that we will have to understand that labor from here on in is only going to be able to make gains and protect itself to the degree that it convinces and educates a community that unless [labor unions are] taken care of in certain ways, not in their own interests, but in the interests of the community, the community suffers. (1945 ILWU Convention)
HARRY ON RACE RELATIONS, PEACE AND INTERNATIONAL SOLIDARITY
On Racial Discrimination
We were fighting against racial discrimination in the days before it was a very popular thing at all. Many of our members didn’t understand and certainly other people didn’t understand it, but we plugged along and made tremendous progress. But the point is: there is still more to be done. (1973 ILWU Convention)
On Different Races and Getting Along
You know, when we examine the structure of our Union, the way it was built, the way it was organized, the way it functions, its solid democracy and, above all, its internal solidarity, I think we cannot help but remark upon the various races and nationalities we have in our organization.
Here in Hawaii we have a complete round-out of Asiatic people. We have Negroes and whites, both here and on the mainland, and of course our membership, in terms of national strains, runs all the way from our delegates in Alaska and elsewhere, with part Indian blood in them, to our Scandinavian members—including even some Russians. And don’t forget the one Australian, too! [Bridges was Australian by birth.]
And, you know, we seem to able to get along, we seem to be able to work together and get things done…Certainly we have our quarrels and our differences, but we know how to resolve them. We have always resolved them and still somehow pulled together and pulled ahead. And the reason is simple. We are concerned first of all with the welfare and the future of the lives of working people. We do that job and we do it first. And we are concerned about the welfare of the working people notwithstanding where they were born or what color they are, what religion they espouse, or what political belief they hold. (1951 ILWU Convention)
War and Peace
We still have to deal as an organization of labor with the number one problem facing the people of this nation and every nation: that of war or peace; an armament race or disarmament; higher or lower living standards for all the world’s people; and the right of people in any nation to be independent or to struggle for their independence. These problems are becoming or are now the greatest problems that face any organization, any nation in the world. (1955 ILWU Convention)
Foreign Policy and International Unity
There are many who hold to the belief that in matters of foreign concern, of foreign policy, we should let well enough alone. There are plenty who think a union should not speak out, fight for or criticize the foreign policy of our government; that it should be a matter of our government, right or wrong, in matters of foreign policy.
We have never adhered to that belief. And we shouldn’t. If we had, we would never have taken in years gone by a position on the shipments of war materials to Japan. We would never have engaged in the boycott of Mussolini during the rape of Ethiopia. We would never have been among the first in 1933 to snap a boycott of German goods when Hitler ascended as top man in Germany. We never would have taken the position that we did in support of and in sympathy with the Loyalists in Spain. And the reasons are simple: the question of our own welfare, our own interests, our own existence. (1947 ILWU Convention)
HARRY ON SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY
Concern for Social Questions
We get bogged down with the work of handling grievances, of negotiating agreements, seeking greater gains, more money, more fringe benefits for our members. But sometimes we tend to forget the importance of the trade union concerning itself with the broader aspects of life, the social questions, the questions of all the people, including the younger people, and some of the ills of our society. (1965 ILWU Convention)
We are not going to neglect the other aspects of society as a part of our responsibility. And I include fighting pollution as well as discrimination, as well as fighting for peace (not fighting against war, but fighting for peace) and the other important problems that face all of us. (1971 ILWU Convention)
On Civil Rights
We have not neglected a continuous, day-to-day fight on the issue of civil liberties and civil rights as a part of the work of this organization, not only with respect to members of the Union and members of other unions, but the rights and liberties of people everywhere. Very, very soon our Union will participating in a march on Washington over the integration of our schools, that is, the schools in some states of the United States, where there is objection to some of the children attending schools. (1959 ILWU Convention)