A man named Harry Bridges founded the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) on the West Coast in the 1930s and led it for more than 40 years. He was a major figure in 20th-century American labor history—for good and ill. From the moment he emerged as the central figure in a 1934 strike that paralyzed the port of San Francisco, Bridges was denounced as a dangerous Communist, and for almost two decades Democratic and Republican administrations sought to send him back to his native Australia.

The Labor Department initiated failed deportation proceedings in 1939. The Department of Justice succeeded in 1941, only to have its order overturned by the Supreme Court in 1945. In 1948, the Immigration and Naturalization Service tried to prove that Bridges had committed perjury in 1945 when he swore in a citizenship hearing that he had not been a Communist. Found guilty, his citizenship was revoked, and he was sentenced to five years in prison. On appeal, he was exonerated once again by the Supreme Court in 1953. The attorney general of the United States immediately revived the denaturalization suit but lost in court in 1955.

Bridges fought not only the U.S. government but other unions. He was a thorn in the side of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA). A brief effort at unity with other maritime unions ended after disputes with the Teamsters and the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific. In 1949, Bridges’s ILWU was booted out of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) for its long-standing connections with the Communist Party.

Throughout these battles, Bridges retained the loyalty of the overwhelming majority of his members. Unlike virtually all the other Communist-dominated unions expelled from the CIO, the ILWU fended off raids on its membership and remained relatively healthy, successfully negotiating contracts with management. By the early 1960s, Bridges had improbably crafted a reputation as a labor statesman, inspired in part by a path-breaking Mechanization and Modernization Agreement (M&M) that his union reached with the Pacific Maritime Association, which gave its members pay raises, pensions, and a share of the savings achieved by the elimination of decades-old feather-bedding arrangements and the acceptance of labor-saving innovations. It paved the way for containerization, the practice that revolutionized longshore work and drastically downsized the port workforce.

Although widely hailed as a  breakthrough in labor-management relations, M&M also stoked rank-and-file discontent. The ILWU leadership faced accusations that it had become too friendly with management. Efforts to protect older ILWU loyalists against layoffs also ran up against claims by black workers that the union discriminated. Together with the rise of the New Left, and an influx of young radicals into the union, these controversies even led the Communist Party of the day to accuse its long-time ally Bridges of class collaboration and opportunism.

Robert Cherny, a retired historian from San Francisco State University, has written a detailed account of Bridges’s life and achievements, using not only the extensive government files from his various prosecutions and the ILWU’s voluminous archives but also Bridges’s own papers, a number of interviews with him, and, crucially, CPUSA files in Russian archives. It is unlikely that a more complete story of the man will ever be told.

Harry Bridges: Labor Radical, Labor Legend makes no effort to hide the author’s admiration and enthusiasm for Bridges and his scorn and distaste for Bridges’s enemies. Cherny grudgingly accepts the truth of the latters’ claims that Bridges had indeed been a member of the American Communist Party for at least several years and shamelessly lied about it for his entire life.

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Born in Australia to immigrants from England and Ireland in 1901, Alfred Renton Bridges grew up middle-class. Family tensions led him to spend increasing time on the waterfront, where he was influenced by the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, familiarly known as “the Wobblies”). He became a sailor in 1917. Two years later, he shipped out of Australia for good, arriving in San Francisco in 1920.

He was employed there as a longshoreman from 1922 to 1929. The work was not only physically taxing but dangerous, with injuries a frequent occupational hazard. A company union extorted dues from anyone wanting a job but provided few benefits. Malcontents or protestors were easily denied employment by “shape-ups” at the beginning of every day, when men seeking work were selected by gang bosses. Severely injured on the job in 1929, Bridges was forced to go on relief in 1932 after losing his small house and car.

In 1933, Bridges and several friends formed a left-wing caucus to work within the International Longshoremen’s Association. With assistance and advice from Sam Darcy, the Communist Party’s district organizer, Bridges’s caucus slowly made inroads—and by 1934 he had become an officer of the ILA and the chairman of its strike committee.

In May 1934, longshoremen in San Francisco went on strike for two key demands. They wanted a union hiring hall and a Pacific Coast–wide contract to prevent shippers from playing different ports off against one another during labor–management disputes. The Pacific Maritime Association fought back, recruiting strikebreakers, equipping a freighter as a floating hotel for scabs, and using hundreds of police to disrupt pickets along the Embarcadero.

In July 1934, strikers attacked freight cars trying to move cargo and were met by police clubs and tear gas. Two were killed and hundreds injured as clashes continued throughout the city for hours. The governor called out the National Guard and took control of the port. Enraged unions called for a general strike that lasted for three days. The longshore work stoppage continued until September when arbitrators awarded the union, now led by Bridges, with a small pay raise, a six-hour day, a 30-hour week, and that hiring hall.

The victory made Bridges a national figure and amplified charges that he was a Communist. While his faction did include Communists, they were in a minority and the strikers’ demands had been formulated by non-Communists. Still, CPUSA organizer Darcy boasted that “there would have been no maritime or general strike except for the work of our Party,” further evidence to many that the longshoremen and Bridges were Party cat’s-paws.

While Bridges did not enforce Communist orthodoxy within his union, he was vocal about his Marxist beliefs and taking advice and support from Communists. On all the major issues that divided Communists from the broader American left from the mid-1930s until the 1960s, Bridges reliably followed the Party line, from support for the Nazi-Soviet Pact, to endorsement of a no-strike pledge during WWII, to opposition to the Marshall Plan and the Korean War. Not until he criticized the Soviet invasion of Hungary did he publicly attack Soviet foreign policy, but it was a fleeting deviation; in the late 1970s, he even attacked the Polish Solidarity movement.

And yet, despite his unapologetic support for Communists and the Soviet Union until his death in 1990, Bridges consistently denied that he was a member of the Communist Party. During his seemingly interminable hearings, appeals, and trials, Bridges never invoked the Fifth Amendment, always swearing under oath that he had never belonged to the CPUSA. Cherny regards the question as far less important than his effectiveness as a union leader and insists that there is “no simple answer” to the complex question of whether Bridges was a Party member.

Numerous witnesses, many of them old comrades, did testify over the years that they had known him as a Party member, but many of them were sketchy. His first wife claimed she had seen his Party dues book and that there had been Party meetings at their home, but an affidavit from their divorce included her denial that she knew he was a Communist. At his final denaturalization trial in 1955, one witness who had supported Bridges in 1939 testified against him, while another who had testified that he had been a Communist now supported him.

Cherny has unearthed internal Party documents in which Communist leaders call Bridges a comrade, note that he had been chosen for a Party district committee, and complain that he sometimes ignored Party directives. The most startling claim made by ex-Communists John Leech and Arthur Kent in public proceedings in 1939 was that Bridges had been elected to the CPUSA Central Committee in 1936 under the name “Rossi,” the same name as the anti-Communist mayor of San Francisco.

John Haynes and I discovered in Russian archives in the early 1990s a list of Central Committee members provided to the Comintern in 1937 by CPUSA leaders. Number 21 was “Rossi.” He was described as follows: “ROSSI (Bridges)—C.P. USA Central Committee member. President of the Dockers and Port Warehouse Workers’ Union. He is a strong leader in the trade movement and a mass worker, but up till now has only domestic party knowledge and experience.”

Cherny admits that this document is genuine and that “the simple answer to the question about [his] lying can only be yes, but a simple yes is not a complete answer.” Cherny reluctantly admits that he was a Party member. He hems and haws, explaining that Bridges was probably only a Party member for a short period of time, most likely from 1934 until the end of the decade.

Like other secret and important Party members, Bridges could avoid Party demands that others had to follow. And Cherny is right that his initial denial of Party membership landed him on a slippery slope where telling the truth became very difficult.

Whatever his accomplishments as a union leader, Bridges was a serial liar and perjurer who gave his loyalty to a vile ideology and regimes that crushed independent unions. There is no evidence that he ever reflected on his good fortune that his fondest ideals were never realized in his adopted home.

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