Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

Harry Bridges and Seattle's Local 19

Harry Bridges met with Local 19 many times during his years as president of the ILWU. Below are summaries of forty different meetings and transcripts of five of the sessions.

Harry Bridges maintained a close and complicated relationship with Seattle's longshore Local 19 throughout his long tenure as president of the ILWU. Between 1935 and 1972, he visited Seattle over forty times, meeting with the local's officers as well as the rank and file. Bridges’ remarks at Local 19 membership meetings were preserved in the local’s official minutes, now housed in the Shaun Maloney Papers, Labor Archives of Washington State, University of Washington Special Collections Library. Transcribed versions of the original minutes are available in the Ronald E. Magden Collection, also in the Labor Archives of Washington State.

Here we present summaries of Bridges' many visits and transcripts of five important appearances in  1941 1948  1949,  1950 , 1953  1960 , and  1971 . The minutes provide a rare glimpse of participatory democracy in the ILWU and how Harry Bridges worked with one of the most important locals in the coastwide union. The membership meetings provided an open platform for debate on a range of subjects from port mechanization to national politics, at which neither the rank and file membership of the local nor Bridges were shy about voicing their opinions. Local 19 often clashed with their International President in fierce discussions and intense question and answer sessions. In other encounters, particularly when the subject turns to Bridges’ ongoing deportation trials, the local showed its strong commitment toward unity and collective action. Likewise, Bridges demonstrated his dedication to a democratic style of leadership that was rooted in close coordination and communication with the union’s membership.  

Leo Baunach researched and summarized the meeting minutes. These materials are made available courtesy of ILWU Local 19, Ronald E.Magden, and the UW Special Collections Library.   

·April 18, 1935 ‘Brother Bridges from Frisco’ talks about the need for more organized labor involvement in politics and the Maritime Federation of the Pacific.
·August 15, 1935 Bridges reports back on meetings of the International (ILA) and its Executive Board. Also speaks about a meeting in Washington, DC concerning a strike in Vancouver, BC. During Q&A, he denies being a member of the Communist Party.
·July 16, 1936 Bridges, now ILA District President, reports back on E-board meeting.
·April 15, 1937 Bridges details the agreement with the employers, which averted a strike. Talks about the CIO.
·May 20, 1937 Bridges talks about workload issues
·August 5, 1937 Talks about the East Coast/ West Coast split in the ILA, followed by a Q&A. Membership votes in support of/thanks of Bridges. [Six days later, the West Coast locals formally withdrew from the ILA to form the ILWU]
·April 21, 1938 Bridges talks about the situation in ports on the East Coast and Gulf Coast. Believes that the East and Gulf can be organized into the CIO by September.
·August 3, 1938 Local 19 votes to donate to the Bridges Defense Committee and a letter from Bridges addressed to the Local was read.
·February 16, 1939 ‘District President Bridges’ talks about the economic state of the West coast. Says that a strike is possible in September, in particular ‘lift boards’ are an issue.
·August 17, 1939 Bridges reports on the status of contract negotiations, Q&A
·March 7, 1940 Bridges talks about a recent trip to DC, where he says Congress has become strongly anti-labor. Worries that rights might be trampled on if the US becomes involved in a war. Says the wages and working conditions are in good shape at the moment.
·April 18, 1940 Bridges talks about the next contract. Problems of the Wagner Act and the potential for war. Talks about the importance of community support in wining the 1934 strike.
·July 18, 1940 Bridges talks about contract negotiations, saying the relationship between the employers and the local is very fragile. Speed-ups and cash bonds are the main issues, but the employers are stalling because of possible amendments to the Wagner Act that would strengthen their power.
·September 4, 1940 Bridges gives a detailed report about the current contract agreement, which he says is the best in the world. Talks about the conflict with the Tacoma Local 23 [still in the ILA] who he says is trying to undermine the ILWU’s coast-wide contract by going on strike.
·September 7, 1940 Bridges talks about contract negotiations, says they are again slowing. Talks about the problems of going on strike during war/times of heightened national defense.
·November 4, 1940 Local 19 members read a petition at the meeting calling for Bridges to resign from the ILWU because of statements he made opposing FDR and the New Deal.
·March 6, 1941 Bridges on working and dispatching conditions, says many of the problems have been in Seattle. He wants more cooperation from Local 19, and asks that they stop taking (illegal) action on issues that are not covered in the contract, especially dispatching rules. An arbitration agent will be brought in, and Bridges says he would resign as President if proven wrong about the dispatch rules.
·March 20, 1941 Bridges talks about his continuing legal problems, and returns to the issue of arbitration over dispatching rules. He says that Seattle has a disproportionate number of issues over dispatching compared to the rest of the West Coast. Bridges goes on to explains that he opposed FDR because of speed-ups and longer hours. Goes on to say that union fights cannot be won by politics and finally responds to the criticism of the new contract by some members.
·January 18, 1945 Bridges talks about the ILWU Longshore Division case in front of the War Labor Board
·July 5, 1945 Bridges talks about manpower problems
·January 17, 1945 Bridges on the future of the contract and back pay issues. Asks for a strike authorization vote to strengthen the position of the ILWU in contract negotiations. Talks about the need for a national maritime federation [all port and sailing unions] that could strike as a single unit.
·January 28, 1946 Reports on the negotiations with the government that took place in Washington, DC, Bridges says they have made the biggest gains in the history of the shipping industry and stopped an attempt by the government to negotiate with each maritime union individually. The ILWU will bring its demands to the employers on September 1.
·July 15, 1948 A letter from Bridges is read during the Local 19 meeting in which he urges them to support ‘liberal’ University of Washingotn professors being attacked during the anti-communist Canwell hearings.
·September 7, 1948 Bridges talks about the coast-wide ballot on whether to accept the Taft-Hartley provision requiring all union officers to sign an affidavit saying they are not a communist. He fears the provision may later be extended to all union members and urges a ‘no’ vote. Also says that the employers are looking to bust the union by causing a drawn-out strike. Finally, says that ILWU work for the Army and Navy is determined by President Truman.
·June 2, 1949 Bridges reports on recent CIO E-board meetings, and says that the ILWU has autonomy on economic but not political issues within the CIO. Worried about a slippery slope of losing autonomy from the CIO. Also speaks about his recent indictment, which he sees as an attack on ILWU rank and file.
·April 20, 1950 Bridges talks about the need for solidarity, but also about ILWU conflicts with the Sailor’s Union of the Pacific and conflicts between the ILWU and the Teamsters in San Francisco. Bridges will go on trial May 17 th in Washington, DC.
·October 19, 1950 Bridges speaks about his trial and says he is being targeted because he is the leader of a progressive union. Also believes that the CIO leadership wrongly saw him as too democratic in his leadership.
·November 22, 1950 Bridges speaks about security/screening of Longshore workers as a union-busting tactic
·December 18, 1952 Bridges talks about his trial, which is headed to the Supreme court, and a Longshore conflict in New York
·February 18, 1954 Bridges is again facing a deportation order, and asks for Local 19’s support
·March 22, 1956 Bridges thanks Local 19 for their support during his legal problems with the Department of Justice. He says that the union needs to move forward by cooperating more with the ILA and developing positions on port mechanization. The ILWU’s support for the ILA when it was expelled from the AFL was an important first step. With contract expiration upcoming, the union needs to understand the it must adjust to mechanization, and move workers to jobs where they are needed, not stubbornly fight to keep jobs that have been mechanized.
·September 18, 1958 Bridges says that the union’s top priority is to get a new contract in 1959 that will cover mechanization and unemployment. Workers need to adjust and sacrifice hours in order to preserve job security.
·July 21st, 1960 Bridges says the ILWU intends to demand an 8-hour day in 1961, and will try to establish a fund of $20 million to provide relief for those who are laid off or retire early because of mechanization.
·December 1, 1960 Along with coast committeemen Bodine, Bridges speaks about shift length and the relationship between the contract and mechanization. He believes the contract cannot fully solve the problem mechanization, which the employers will only do if it increases their profit. Touches on unemployment, wages, pensions and work stoppages. In Q&A, says that the contract contains guarantees protecting workers from mechanization but not economic downturns.
·March 27, 1961 Local 19 vote to demand that Bridges come to the next membership meeting.
·July 26, 1961 Bridges talks about the relationship between the ILWU and the Teamsters.
·August 16, 1962 Bridges explains some decisions by the Coast Committee and explains the contract. Followed by Q&A.
·November 21, 1963 Bridges details the Coast Committee’s position on mechanization. The future seems worrying with the expiration of the contract in 1966, which could threaten the hiring hall system. He believes that the Pacific Maritime Association [the employers] is hiding behind the federal government, which is trying to stop unions from striking over mechanization. “We have to have a union ready and willing to struggle. Our prospects will be to keep at least what we’ve got and improve. We’ve got a fighting chance if we still have a union.”
·May 20, 1971 Bridges reports on negotiations and a conflict with the Teamsters. Says that the federal government is unlikely to interfere in the event of an ILWU strike
·June 23, 1971 Bridges appears in his role as chair of the Coast Negotiating Committee, which is currently arguing strategy with the Longshore Caucus. He strongly opposes calling a new meeting of the Longshore Caucus, saying it would undermine the negotiating committee’ and arguing that a caucus meeting cannot replace rank and file power. Says that the ILWU needs to line up AFL-CIO support in case of a strike.
·September 21, 1972 Bridges says that Local 19 does not have the support of the International in its lawsuit against Sealand and the PMA. Goes on to say that the International will not mobilize support by other Locals. A tense Q&A follows.