On May 14, 1937, a throng of curious students packed the University of Washington Commons building, eager to hear the electric words of a man they had only heretofore read about in newspapers – provocative labor leader Harry Bridges, president of the West Coast longshore workers’ union.

Those without seats stood. Those who could not make it through the door strained to hear anyway, leaning through open windows. As Bridges expounded on the tenets of his union, few could have believed this firebrand port worker would one day be honored with a Center named for him, housed but a short walk from the site of his speech. Few could have believed that a statue of this man would stand prominently in the entrance to the library of that very campus. 

Indeed, over fifty years later in 1992, on the eve of its establishment, many still believed the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies could not happen – or in the minds of some University of Washington administrators, should not happen. But happen it did. Very much in the spirit of the union he helped build, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union,  it happened thanks to the efforts of rank and file workers and their dedication to creating a place for working people in higher education.

The Story of Harry Bridges

Born in July 28, 1901 in Melbourne, Australia, Harry Bridges went to work as a sailor at the age of fifteen. Exposed to the extreme poverty of port city slums and the radical politics of his fellow sailors, a young Bridges developed the talents and beliefs that would later make him a working-class leader. By 1922, Bridges had settled in San Francisco, longshoring on the docks. Working conditions there led to a strike in 1934, one of the fiercest in United States history. Bridges emerged as an influential member of the strike committee, and then, when the strike ended in victory, became union president, first of the San Francisco local in 1935, then the entire Pacific Coast District of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) in 1936. When the Pacific Coast Division split the following year from the ILA to become the independent International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), Bridges remained as president – an office he would hold for over forty years before retiring in 1977.

Though he faced opposition from time to time, and though he was subject to regular and free elections, Harry Bridges was re-elected time and again as the union’s president. Bridges was less popular with the federal government. Between 1939 and 1953, four separate deportation cases were brought against him, alleging that Bridges was a Communist Party member, charges he always denied. Bridges survived the legal battles each time, including two cases decided by the United States Supreme Court.  Weathering the McCarthy era intact, the ILWU remains today one of the strongest unions in the United States, characterized by its contentious, free internal debates, its dedication to the equitable distribution of work – represented by the union hiring hall, a key outcome of the 1934 strike – and its strong commitments to internationalism and social justice.

Honoring a Working Class Leader

As dedicated as Bridges was to the union, members of the ILWU were dedicated to Harry. When Harry’s health began failing severely in early 1990, ILWU members both active and retired began wondering how they might properly memorialize him when he passed. Among them was Robert Duggan, a lawyer for the ILWU and once a Seattle dock worker himself. As the former president of the University of Washington Alumni Association, Duggan had often sat in Association meetings reviewing the names of major donors and the various institutions at the University named after them. If millionaires could be remembered at the University of Washington, thought Duggan, why not Harry?

Specifically, what Duggan envisioned was an Endowed Chair in Labor Studies named for Harry Bridges – a permanent fund invested at the University that would fund a professor who specialized in the study of working people, their organizations and experiences. It was a tall order. Establishing a Chair required an initial investment of one million dollars – not exactly chump change, especially for working people. Moreover, in conversations with William Gerberding, then the UW President, Duggan learned that a fundraising campaign for an endowed Chair was unheard of. One or two large donors traditionally supplied the funds for a Chair, not a collection of smaller donations. Nevertheless, Gerberding was supportive, and Duggan remained determined to honor Harry.

Knowing the idea would gain little traction without support from active ILWU members, Robert Duggan convened a marathon dinner with influential Seattle leaders including Pat Vukich of Local 19, Jimmy Dean of Local 52 and Tony Hutter of Local 9. The support of these local leaders secured, the idea gained further traction in discussions with retired Seattle leader Martin Jugum, of Local 19, and Tacoma leader Phil Lelli, of Local 23. Both Jugum and Lelli were enormously respected by their fellow workers, and as strategic thinkers and persuasive speakers, they would be huge assets to the campaign.

When Harry Bridges passed away March 30, 1990, Martin Jugum and Duggan publicly raised the idea of a Harry Bridges Chair at memorial ceremonies for Bridges in Tacoma and Seattle. Shortly thereafter, a Harry Bridges Memorial Committee was formed. Jean Gundlach, a long-time labor activist and a staffer for Bridges in the San Francisco office, became involved in the effort, as did Ronald Magden, a UW PhD in History and Tacoma Community College professor who had forged deep ties with Puget Sound longshore workers during his research. The task before them was huge, but it was underway.

To Martin Jugum, a man not easily daunted, the idea was simple arithmetic: “You get a thousand guys to give a thousand bucks.” Jugum immediately set to the task of putting this idea of a rank and file, grassroots fundraising campaign into action, visiting ILWU locals up and down the coast soliciting funds. The effort had momentum, but as with any decision among the ILWU faithful, the idea of an endowed chair underwent substantial debate. Some were unsure of the university setting, fearing it was too far removed from working people. Many were unclear on the function of the Chair or doubted its potential relevance. “A million dollar chair?” some asked. “That chair must be made of gold!”

On the other hand, history was in the University of Washington’s favor. Harry Bridges himself had given one of his most quoted speeches at the UW in 1937. Earlier, during the legendary coast-wide longshore strike of 1934, then-UW President Hugo Winkenwerder had refused to allow students to serve as scabs.

Now, sixty-years later, increasing numbers of union members’ children were attending the University. And thanks to Robert Duggan’s influence, support for the Harry Bridges Chair was growing quickly at the University itself. A key moment for the effort came in June 1991, when William Gerberding accepted Duggan’s invitation to the ILWU International Convention in Seattle. President Gerberding was warmly received at the Convention following an introduction by Jugum, and spoke about the importance of labor. He ended his speech by personally donating $1,000 to the fundraising effort and donning an ILWU t-shirt.

By July 1992, one year and thousands of dollars in donations later, the goal had been met: over 1,000 gifts from individuals and local unions had contributed the amount  necessary to establish a Harry Bridges Chair in Labor Studies. Over the continued objections of some in the University, including some members of the Board of Regents, Gerberding ensured that the University signed an agreement with the Bridges Memorial Committee that same month. Departments across campus lobbied to house the Chair, submitting proposals to Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Joe Norman, who eventually settled on two: History and Political Science.

On July 28, 1992, hundreds of active and retired longshoremen, UW faculty and supportive administrators filled the halls and gardens of the UW President’s Seattle mansion, gathering at William Gerberding’s invitation to mark the new Chair’s creation. There to address the crowd was Noriko “Nikki” Sawada Bridges, Harry’s widow. Nikki, an early supporter of the Chair, commended everyone for their accomplishment, recalling Harry’s strengths and shortcomings, his tenacity, and his commitment to working people. Nikki’s words were a stirring send-off as the newly formed Harry Bridges Chair in Labor Studies sailed into unknown waters.

The Harry Bridges Chair in Labor Studies

A key principle of the ILWU’s union-controlled hiring hall, won in 1934 and still in operation today, is the fair and regular rotation of waterfront jobs among union members. In the same spirit, it was decided upon its founding that the Harry Bridges Endowed Chair would not be held by a single professor in perpetuity. Instead, the Chair is held in two-year terms, alternating between departments.

To date, the Bridges Chair has been held by nine professors on the three University of Washington campuses in Seattle, Tacoma, and Bothell. Reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of Labor Studies itself, each Chair has brought with them their own particular strengths, interests and abilities, establishing new programs and building upon what has come before. Most importantly, while Chair they serve as the public face of Labor Studies at the University of Washington – reaching out to the community, speaking to the media, offering expert testimony to government, writing op-eds, and more. To learn more about our current and previous chairs click here