Burning Bridges: America’s 20-Year Crusade to Deport Labor Leader Harry Bridges

Peter Afrasiabi

Reviewed by Fred Beauford

Peter Afrasiabi

An Amazing Story

When I moved to San Francisco in 1980, I was struck by how most blacks lived in the large Victorian houses that the city was so famous for.  I also soon discovered that in the Bay Area, from as far away as Vallejo, to Richmond, Berkeley and Oakland, there were large communities of blacks living in nice, large single family homes.

“You can thank Harry Bridges for that.” one of my colleagues at my department at UC Berkeley informed me. He also said dryly that those blacks’, “days were numbered because most of those houses were now owned by elderly black women. The gays and the Chinese are going to get them soon.”

I knew little about Harry Bridges at that time. I knew that he was the leading labor leader on the West Coast, and he ran the longshoreman union. But that was about it. But there was a hell of a lot I didn’t know, and this book provided me with a hallowing tale that was well worth knowing about: the 20-year crusade to deport Harry Bridges. But what made so many in the United States so fearful of Bridges?

Harry Bridges was born in Melbourne, Australia, on July 28,1901. He arrived in the United States as a teenage sailor in 1920. By the tumultuous 30s, he was working in San Francisco as a longshoreman. He was also knee deep in union politics and soon became an outspoken, daring and popular labor leader, organizing longshoremen on the entire west coast. Afrasiabi points out that, “Bridges tolerated no racial discrimination in the union,” something few labor leaders did in the 30s.

All of this soon put a huge bullseye on Bridges’ back. Writes Afrasiabi, “at the same time, various quarters had started to take note of Bridges and his perceived agitation. Government agents working for the National Rifle Association had sent messages to Washington, D.C., warning that Bridges was communistic in nature and would lead to communist control of the waterfront.”

Other union leaders, jealous of his growing power and influence among the working class; and ship owners, who did not want to pay the living wages that Bridges demanded, and could no longer just move their ships to another port on the west coast because of Bridges’ organizing longshoremen from Washington state to California-- joined in on the attacks.

Notes Afrasiabi, “These communiques to the halls of power—all revolving around fears of communism on the waterfront, and specifically about Bridges as an alleged centerpiece of the communist movement—started as a slow trickle in 1933, but events were about to turn into a raging river.”

By the mid-30s an “Axis” of private organizations and government agencies, mainly The American Legion, and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) were determined to prove that Harry Bridges was indeed a card-carrying member of the Communist Party and should be sent back to Australia.

The government and his other distractors had a powerful weapon to use against Bridges, who always maintained that he was not a member of the Communist Party, because “under American immigration law of the time, if a non-citizen was affiliated with an organization that advocated the overthrow of the government, then he could be deported. The Communist Party was one of the primary organizations that triggered governmental deportation actions. Thus, if Bridges could be proven a member of the party, then he could be deported and his radical voice for labor permanently silenced,” writes Afrasiabi.

The bulk of Burning Bridges deals with the many trails, hearings and even a short stay in jail for Bridges. But despite the machinations of his opponents—and it was a series of hair raising events, of lies so unbelievable, that trial after trial, for 20 years, starting in 1934 and ending, finally in 1955—each verdict of guilty was overturned. They could never pin the charge on Harry Bridges that he was a member of the Communist Party, and he was never deported.

In the end, this was great news for the men he championed, who endured the backbreaking work of loading and unloading shipping from around the world. They did finally become well compensated for their work, including the work of black Americans. And, it wasn’t the ship owners or political witch-hunts that spelled the end for these men, but in 1962, the Port of Oakland began to admit container ships, and the need for thousands of men with strong backs was soon all over.

This was why my colleague at my Department at UC Berkeley said dryly that those blacks, still living large in great houses, “days were numbered.”

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