What would Harry Bridges do?

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LONG BEACH, Calif.—Legendary, militant union leader Harry Bridges was born July 28, 1901. Yet, more than 100 years later, the city of Long Beach declared July 28, 2008, to be Harry Bridges Day celebrating the man and the contributions of the union he helped found, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. The ILWU is recognized for its “long history of grassroots democracy, advocacy of social justice and a commitment to the community.”

The Long Beach-Los Angeles harbor, which handles 40 percent of the nations imports, is a stronghold of the ILWU.

Which is why on July 27, the ILWU Southern California District Council and Long Beach City Councilman Dee Andrews held a pancake breakfast to celebrate the birthdays of Bridges and the councilman at McBride Park in a multiracial, working class community here.

The Peoples Weekly World asked numerous breakfasters what they thought Bridges would be doing today.

Councilman Andrews said “Bridges was a key leader who helped open the doors of the unions to people of color. I know he would be helping to elect the first Black president, Barack Obama who is a strong labor supporter.

Congresswoman Laura Richardson said, “Bridges was all about working people, whoever and wherever they were, he would be protecting working people and fighting for higher living standards, advocating for benefits.

“He would be working hard to pass the Employee Free Choice Act so the workers can have unions where the majority of them want one, he would be fighting hard on the housing crisis and telling us all to be more active”

“Bridges would be out organizing,” agreed three rank and file workers who load petroleum coke at the port and who became ILWU Local 13 members just two years ago when the workers decertified a company union.

“We got a $10 raise over three years and full medical, dental and eye care and just $5 for prescription,” said Steve Cannon who was fired during the struggle but reinstated when the ILWU was certified.

“It changed everyone’s lives, before we were all sinking into poverty, getting 30 cents a year raises” said David Morales.

“Before I was doing all kinds of jobs everyday, now I have one job. I used to just work and pay bills, now I can do things with my daughters,” said Ben Cuevas.

Longtime longshore activist and leader Dave Arian, now president of the Harry Bridges Institute said, “Harry would be campaigning for Obama and for peace and standing up for immigrants’ rights.” Bridges, an immigrant from Australia, often faced deportation threats by red-baiting anti-labor government officials.

Recently-elected Assemblyman and veteran labor activist Warren Furutani said Bridges would be “in the thick of it all” especially in the issues of “transportation and the ports, labor rights, good jobs, and a quality environment.”

State Senator Allan Lowenthal said Bridges would be “putting forth a workers manifest and not be frightened by globalization but fight for American workers. Too many say we have to give in, kowtow to the multinationals who move jobs all about with no care for anything but their profits.”

Lowenthal also is the author of state bill SB1322 that would delete membership in the Communist Party and refusal to sign a loyalty oath as a reason for firing a public worker. “No one should be fired for political beliefs, it is unconstitutional but still such laws are on the books,” said Lowenthal adding that citizens like many Quakers will not swear to bear arms.

Bridges immigrated to the United States in 1920 and soon was a port worker and union advocate. In 1934, he helped lead a successful west coast wide strike that grew to a general strike in the San Francisco Bay area. He lead in organizing other port and transport workers like warehouse workers inland. Under Bridges leadership, the ILWU was formed and chartered in the newly militant CIO labor federation, it fought for equal rights for minority workers. It refused to load ships with war materials for fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in WWII. He protested the Vietnam War, apartheid and dictatorships in Latin America. He retired in 1977 as a union leader and died on March 30, 1990 at the age of 88.

The ILWU, with which his name is historically linked, represents more than 65,000 workers in six states and Canada. It has 60 locals uniting longshore workers, marine clerks, foremen, warehouse workers, watchmen, ferry and tugboat workers, bookstore, mining, tourism industry and agricultural workers.