One of the first things to strike an outsider about San Francisco is the respect and esteem in which longshoremen are held by the rest of the community. They are good credit risks; they are homeowners (yes, some have swimming pools); they are pillars of society; Negro members are deacons and elders of their churches and are regarded in their neighborhoods as doctors used to be by the newly-fledged Jewish communities. I cannot think of another part of the country in which, thanks in large part to their union, laborers are so well regarded and are in turn so proud of their work and their affiliation.
One reason why these workers—and the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, it must be added—are so well regarded and themselves have so much self-respect is that the union has substantially complete control over the labor force (so that worker loyalty is always to the union rather than to any employer who buys his services through the hiring hall), and control too over the way in which the work is done. Everybody on the West Coast knows that these workers have had a pretty good life, and a pretty clean union (this is not the place to probe such minor sores as the alleged job-selling activities of certain union-elected dispatchers at the hiring hall). Contractual negotiations have been carried on not merely in public, but in a “goldfish bowl,” with workers free to observe while union president Harry Bridges, surely one of the most adroit, sharp-tongued, and agile-witted maneuverers in the entire labor movement, sparred with the Pacific Maritime Association’s J. Paul St. Sure, the most universally respected management negotiator on the Coast (and very possibly in the nation). His political heresies aside, Bridges has been incorruptible and has spoken always for the ranks, acutely sensitive to their voice.
However, contrary to popular opinion, the ILWU is not a massmembership industrial union. In fact its entire longshore membership (exclusive of Hawaii) is little more than 15,000. And of these a number are ships’ clerks. The actual number of working longshoremen is therefore very small indeed. Nor is the ILWU, as many believe, a Communist-dominated union. In fact the Communist party in Harry Bridges’s own Local 10 (San Francisco) now consists of one aging stalwart, who turns to with his little bundle of newspapers and leaflets, and a handful of his followers. The CP is a foundering hulk on the waterfront, of no use to anyone as either vote bloc or whipping boy. Still meaningful, however, are the existence of a substantial number of sophisticated workingmen in the union, most of whom received their political education in or around the CP, and also the undimmed passion of Harry Bridges for the Soviet Union and Communist China, though he no longer needs the Communist party.