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Bridges, Alfred Renton (Harry) (1901–1990)

by Peter Love

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Alfred Renton Bryant (Harry) Bridges (1901-1990), trade union leader, was born on 6 July 1901 at Kensington, Melbourne, third child of Alfred Ernest Bridges, a newsagent who had been born in New Zealand, and his London-born wife Julia, née Dorgan. Educated at local Catholic and state schools, Harry left at 14 to work successively as a rent collector for his father, a clerk in a stationery store and a merchant seaman. He later attributed his radicalisation to the influence of his uncle Renton Bridges, who was a Labor Party activist, shipmates who were members of the Industrial Workers of the World, and the 1917 general strike. In April 1920 he landed at San Francisco and became a resident of the United States of America.

After two more years as a sailor, during which he was briefly a member of the IWW, Bridges sought work as a longshoreman on the San Francisco docks but, choosing to join the International Longshoremen’s Association rather than the employer-sponsored 'Blue Book Union', was only employed intermittently. In 1924 he married Agnes Brown; they were later divorced. Family responsibilities forced him to enrol with the company union to get work in 1926-27, after which he found a steady job with a steel-handling gang until 1932.

As unemployment and industrial tensions increased in 1933, there was pressure to replace the company union. Several ILA factions sought control, including a small rank-and-file group, led by Bridges and called Albion Hall after its meeting place. During the bitter, 83-day maritime strike of 1934, Bridges played a prominent role in union strategy and negotiations. The strike ended with an arbitrated award that bolstered the union’s role in the industry and delivered improved conditions for the members. Bridges emerged as an assertive, canny and incorruptible leader. To employers and political conservatives, his industrial militancy and truculent socialism personified the alien communist menace.

The unions were strengthened during a major strike in 1936. Next year Bridges and close colleagues established the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, with Bridges as president. As his power increased, his political and industrial enemies launched repeated attempts to deport him to Australia, usually on the grounds—which he denied—that he was a member of the Communist Party of the USA. Government agencies brought criminal charges and civil suits against him, the Congress enacted laws specifically aimed at his deportation, and he twice appealed successfully to the Supreme Court. Although he had begun proceedings to become a US citizen in 1921 and 1928, it was not until 1945 that he completed the process. Efforts to strip him of his citizenship and expel him continued until 1955.

While consolidating on the West Coast, the ILWU had started organising the multi-racial workforce in Hawaii in World War II. This initiative confirmed the union’s growing reputation as a champion of civil rights and added Hawaii’s business elite to the burgeoning ranks of Bridges’ enemies. He married Nancy Fenton Berdecio on 27 September 1946 at a civil ceremony in San Francisco. She divorced him in 1955, alleging, 'He’s married to the union, not me'. On 10 December 1958 in a civil ceremony at Reno, Nevada, he married Noriko Sawada, a civil rights activist of Japanese heritage.

Despite his strong opposition to American Cold War politics, Bridges built his reputation as a charismatic labour leader on his skill and resolution as an organiser, strategist and negotiator. Eventually, his business opponents realised that they had to deal with a highly effective union chief rather than a communist conspirator. In 1960 the employers and union negotiated the Mechanisation and Modernisation Agreement, which facilitated technological change on the wharves while giving ILWU members greater security of employment and a generous pension plan. Although Bridges’ legendary status as the leader who had transformed the longshoremen from 'wharf rats' to 'lords of the docks' was established, by the 1960s and early 1970s his power and influence were declining. Younger unionists saw the M&M agreement as an 'old man’s' contract and radicals among them began to question his civil rights record. Industrial action in 1971 did not result in real improvements for ILWU members.

Described as 'rangy and thin, with a long, narrow head’, a 'hawk nose' and 'sharp eyes under heavy lids', Bridges remained in office—some said for too long—until 1977, after which he lived comfortably in retirement as an elder statesman of the American labour movement. He died on 30 March 1990 in San Francisco and was cremated. His wife survived him, as did children from his first and third, and possibly second, marriages. Songs by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, a plaza on the San Francisco docks and an endowed chair at the University of Washington commemorate him. Much of a growing body of writing about him and the ILWU has been published on the Internet by two educational foundations, the Harry Bridges Institute and the union-funded Harry Bridges Project.

Select Bibliography

  • C. P. Larrowe, Harry Bridges (1972)
  • Nation Review, 19-25 May 1977, p 738
  • San Francisco Chronicle, 31 Mar 1990, p 1.

Citation details

Peter Love, 'Bridges, Alfred Renton (Harry) (1901–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bridges-alfred-renton-harry-12253/text21985, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 16 October 2018.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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