A debut book delivers a searching history of a labor leader’s relentless persecution by the U.S. government.
Most Americans probably haven’t heard of Harry Bridges, despite the fact that he was one of the most consequential, and vilified, labor leaders in the nation’s history. Born in Australia, he found work in the United States as a longshoreman in San Francisco, and was drawn to the power of unionization as a tonic to absolutely appalling employment conditions. But in the 1930s, even the existing unions were essentially co-opted by bullying ship owners, who ultimately had the last say on wages and working environments. Bridges not only refused to join the “Blue Book” union, as it was dubbed, but advocated for a centralized union for the whole West Coast, too large and unified to be intimidated. He also progressively championed fully democratic procedures and representation, financial transparency, and an end to racial discrimination. In a move that made him infamous, Bridges led a mammoth strike that strangled the industry for nearly three months, during which police fired haphazardly into an open crowd of demonstrators. The strike was ultimately successful, unionizing the totality of the West Coast. But the government then embarked on a 20-year campaign to brand Bridges a member of the Communist Party, and have him exiled from the country. Afrasiabi follows this prosecutorial hunt like an investigative journalist, which includes four separate trials and the involvement of the Supreme Court. He scrupulously produces evidence that the government spied on Bridges, suborned perjury, and essentially falsified evidence. The author, admirably judicious in his presentation, acknowledges that Bridges’ rhetoric often seemed like boilerplate Communist fare. The labor leader expressed convictions that aligned with Communist ideology, and even turned to the party for help on occasion. But Afrasiabi produces persuasive evidence that Bridges was never a full-fledged party member, and was simply too practical to be overly infatuated with philosophical platforms. As Bridges once said: “As far as I have delved into them they are pretty much a matter of theory, and our hands are full with practical matters...I generally stay with the practical matters.” This is a meticulous and measured account of both an intriguing man and a historically significant movement.
A rigorous and balanced examination of a sadly neglected figure in the American labor movement.