Harry Bridges and the cockeyed table

Issue 

Harry Bridges: A man and his union
Directed and produced by Berry Minott
Commentary written by James Hamilton
Narrated by Studs Terkel
Reviewed by Karen Fredericks

In the 1930s Harry Bridges, leader of the US International Longshoreman's and Wharehouseman's Union (ILWU), regularly faced shipping company bosses at the negotiating table.

At one such meeting a company rep assured Bridges he was only trying to do the right thing by the workers, so they could keep their jobs. Bridges looked the man in the eye and told him, "Get back on your own side of the cockeyed table. It's my job to represent the workers. Your job is to make a profit. That's the way it has always been, and that's the way it will always be."

In these days of "best practice" bullshit and "industrial consensus" claptrap, Harry Bridges is a timely portrait of a working-class leader with the class instincts and political nous to detect bullshit artists at 50 paces, and the ability to expose them with a few plain words.

Bridges was born in Melbourne in 1901. At 16 he ran away to sea. In 1923 he came ashore in San Francisco and got work on the docks. It was a harsh and dangerous industry where workers were pitted against each other just to get enough work and shipping companies reaped the benefits of worker disunity.

By 1934 Bridges was leading the longshoremen in a bitter strike for union control of the distribution of work by way of a union-operated "hiring hall". The dispute forged a strong union, with massive community support, which survived concerted government strikebreaking attempts to emerge as one of the most militant unions in US labour history.

Harry Bridges reveals the importance of Bridges' uncompromising leadership to the success of that struggle. One former longshoreman recalls that Bridges

once addressed a mass meeting at the height of the strike and told the gathered workers that the shipping companies had offered him a huge sum of money to leave the US. He asked the meeting whether they wanted him to take the cash, donate it to the fighting fund and head back to Melbourne. The workers were in no doubt, recalls the longshoreman; they chose Bridges.

Bridges faced four concerted attempts by the government to prove in US courts that he was a member of the Communist Party of the United States. They were successful on one occasion, but the verdict was overturned on appeal. Despite intense FBI surveillance and harassment Bridges maintained a straightforward approach to answering the constant accusations about his politics, enticing at least one judge into a long philosophical discussion which perplexed his prosecutors.

While never a member, Bridges rarely broke from the CP's general line and, as a result, made similar mistakes to those made by Moscow-liners the world over. Nevertheless, he was more than a good unionist. He was internationalist, anti-racist and unafraid to participate in politics on a broad scale. To the end of his life, in 1990, he maintained that Marx's observations on the fundamental antagonism of capitalists to the interests of working people hold true today.

"Working people of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains", he says at the beginning of the film. "I still believe that. Nothing has changed."

The film received rousing applause at its weekday afternoon screening during the Sydney Film Festival. It is a short (50 minutes), sharp pastiche of fascinating historical footage, interspersed with modern interviews with both Bridges and others who knew him. Studs Terkel's clipped, plain language narration sits perfectly with Bridge's own no-nonsense style, and the comments from former longshoremen and political activists are both pithy and unsentimentally affecting.

The film does not shy away from criticisms of Bridges, especially in his later years when he had obviously

been "king" of the ILWU for rather too long. Harry Bridges emerges, however, as a man with a twinkle in his eye, his enormous energy and intellect fuelled by loyalty to his class and an astute perception of his enemy — the owning class.

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