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 seven 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.

David Olson, 1992-1994

The first holder of the Harry Bridges Chair, David Olson, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Washington beginning in 1974, was already well-known to local longshore workers for his extensive research on ports. As a young man Olson worked as a Teamster truck driver, an experience that give him an appreciation for labor that carried throughout all his academic scholarship, whether on urban politics or living wage campaigns.

A former Chair of the Political Science department, Olson was keenly aware of how the university worked, and understood the need to build a firm institutional foundation for the Bridges Chair on campus. In particular, he moved to establish a “Center for Labor Studies” to organize programs that would go beyond the personal activities of the Chair.

Reservations on the part of some in the University administration almost stalled the new Center out of the gate. Some thought there were too many Centers on campus already, and hesitations about supporting labor still lingered from the establishment of the Chair itself. At a tense, seminal meeting with top university officials, President William Gerberding again extended his support to the endeavor. In an exchange that, in later years, became one of Olson’s favorite anecdotes, Olson turned to Gerberding and asked, “So you’re giving us the green light?” Gerberding replied: “I’m giving you an amber light.”

Heeding Gerberding’s cautionary blessing, Olson’s infused his activities with purpose. He established a board of faculty to advise the new Center, the Standing Committee, and built a network of Bridges Center Faculty Associates, professors from departments all across campus, to ensure the Center broad university support. In order to connect students with the Center, he inaugurated a student paper prize competition, awarding cash to the authors of the best labor-related papers written during the academic year. To remain in touch with the community, Olson oversaw the creation of the Center’s newsletter, christened “Building Bridges” at the suggestion of Jean Gundlach.

Olson capped his tenure as Chair in January 1994 with a special conference, “Harry Bridges and the Tradition of Dissent Among Waterfront Workers,” bringing together scholars from across the country to discuss Bridges’ legacy as a union activist. As part of the conference, a special statue of Harry Bridges was presented to the University by the ILWU’s Pacific Coast Pensioners Association. The statue today stands prominently at the entrance to the Suzzallo Library, facing Red Square, the very heart of campus. Later, in July 2001, on the occasion of what would have been Harry Bridges 100th birthday, it was decided to rededicate the “Center for Labor Studies” as the “Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies.”

Charles Bergquist,1994-1996

Charles Bergquist, Professor of History, was originally named, along with David Olson, to be the initial Harry Bridges Chair, it being left to them and their departments to decide who would go first. When Bergquist received a Fulbright Fellowship to teach labor history at the National University in Colombia in 1992, the matter was settled: Olson would be first, and Bergquist would become the second to hold the Chair.

A highly regarded historian of Latin American labor, Bergquist brought an international perspective to the Chair, along with a strong commitment to bridging top-notch labor studies scholarship with the labor movement itself. Prior to assuming the Chair, Bergquist had pursued these objectives through a series of seminars for graduate students and area high school teachers, some hosted with future Bridges Chair Michael Honey, to discuss and learn about working class history. As Chair, his outreach to the community continued, both with additional seminars, as well as a regular lecture series held at Seattle area machinist and longshore union halls.

Back on the university campus, Bergquist encouraged labor scholarship with the establishment of research grants for graduate students and faculty, and oversaw the Bridges Center’s second major conference, “Workers in the Global Economy: Organizing for a New Century,” held in May 1995. Two paper series were established, the “Occasional Paper Series” and “Comparative Labor History Series,” to publish and circulate scholarly papers on a range of subjects by established labor scholars.

Perhaps most importantly, Bergquist initiated “Introduction to Labor Studies,” a course taught with Sociology Professor Sharon Reitman, which sought to give undergraduates an engaging, approachable venue to learn more about labor. While other courses emphasized labor, they were almost exclusively upper-level courses available only to upperclassmen. The class became a major part of the Center’s engagement with undergraduate students, and the keystone course of a new Labor Studies Minor, also initiated by Bergquist. The class continues today under the direction of Margaret Levi, and the Labor Studies Minor has grown to encompass over fifty courses in a dozen different departments.

Margaret Levi, 1996-2000

On July 28, 1996 – what would have been Harry Bridges’ 90th birthday – the chair was symbolically passed from Bergquist to Margaret Levi, a Professor of Political Science held in high regard for her work in theories of democracy and the politics of organized labor. Over her two terms as Chair, Levi built substantially upon the work of Olson and Bergquist, continuing to bridge the university and the labor movement while paying special attention to culture and the arts.

In May 1997, Levi staged “The Fight for America’s Future,” a two-day festival featuring music, lectures and workshops focusing on the history and future of the labor movement. It was followed immediately by a Labor Arts and History Festival at the Northwest Folklife Festival. Both events featured a performance by legendary folk singer Pete Seeger, drawing a crowd of 3,000, and the latter event featured the debut of the Seattle Labor Chorus, now a mainstay of the Seattle labor movement.

Major conferences and teach-ins became a specialty of Levi’s. A conference on “Metro Unionism” took place in March 1998, bringing together academics, community members, and AFL-CIO officials from around the country to evaluate the labor federation’s then-new Union Cities strategy. In 1998, she helped organize a three-day series of lectures and workshops called “STRIKES!,” commemorating the 80th anniversary of the 1919 Seattle General Strike and the 65th anniversary of the 1934 Maritime Strike.

Through it all, Levi continued to teach “Introduction to Labor Studies,” utilizing the class as a platform to educate on pressing current issues. In the months leading up to the November 1999 meetings of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, Levi’s class hosted a series of speakers on “Worker Rights, Labor Standards, and the WTO.” When protests at the WTO proved a landmark moment for organized labor, she spearheaded the on-line “WTO History Project,” documenting the events and interviewing the protest organizers.

Deepening the Center’s commitment to students, Levi used her Labor Studies course to launch a program of service-learning internships to send students into the community to learn first-hand with labor organizations. She also oversaw the establishment of the Martin and Ann Jugum Scholarship in Labor Studies. The scholarship’s first recipient, Ligaya Domingo, the daughter of Seattle labor leaders Terri Mast and Silme Domingo, was part of an informal cohort of students that, with Levi’s encouragement, inaugurated the Student Labor Action Committee – a tradition of U.W. student labor activism that lives on today in the campus chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops.

Michael Honey, 2000-2004

In 2000, the Harry Bridges Chair moved from Seattle to the University of Washington’s Tacoma campus with the appointment of Michael Honey, a founding faculty member of UW Tacoma and Professor of Ethnic, Gender, and Labor Studies. A renowned historian, Honey was known for his work on the origins of the United States civil rights movement in the Black labor movement. Continuing Margaret Levi’s engagement with the arts, Honey also brought his unique talents as a folk singer, regularly regaling Bridges Center events with traditional labor songs and spirituals as well as his own original numbers.

Following from his scholarship in civil rights, a consistent theme of Honey’s tenure became expanding the traditional boundaries of the labor movement to build community alliances and recognize marginalized groups. In 2002, the Bridges Center co-sponsored a conference on “Women of Color in Labor and Community Struggles” and a series on the histories of Latino/a and Asian American workers. In May 2004, UW Tacoma hosted the conference “From Chaos to Community: Strategies for Social and Economic Justice,” bringing together labor, faith, environmental and community leaders for an expansive conversation on social change. Honey also helped the campus develop an Ethnic, Gender and Labor Studies Major.

The labor movement came to campus in 2001 when, after years of organizing, UW graduate student employees went on strike to demand their right to unionize. The action resulted in the establishment of UAW 4121, representing more than four thousand academic student employees who work as teaching assistants, research assistants, graders, and tutors. In October 2002, to spread the conversation about labor rights on campus, the Center held a conference on “Campus Unions: Building For Our Future.” Sponsored by major campus unions and professional organizations, the two-day event was attended by several hundred people.

Daniel Jacoby, 2004-2008

Daniel Jacoby became the fifth holder of the Bridges Chair in 2004, its first-ever economist. As a founding faculty member at the UW Bothell campus, Jacoby’s appointment ensured the Bridges Center’s profile continued to expand beyond the Seattle campus. An expert on the role of labor in higher education and an activist for the rights of contingent faculty, Jacoby’s agenda included making labor research a priority at the university and overcoming artificial barriers between professionals and traditional labor

Under Jacoby, the Bridges Center continued a tradition of hosting events to discuss the tough questions facing the contemporary labor movement. Drawing on Jacoby’s academic expertise, in May 2005 was held “Faculty, Organization, and Higher Education Policy: A Forum to Discuss Labor Perspectives on the Future of Higher Education.” It was followed only days later by a large collaboration with local Labor Councils discussing the shake-up in the AFL-CIO with the withdrawal of SEIU and the formation of Change to Win. Subsequent years saw other major conferences and forums on caring labor, the role of hiring halls, and the questions faced by workers in the midst of today’s technology-based “knowledge economy.”

An enduring hallmark of Jacoby’s term as Chair was an increase in the research capacity of the Bridges Center. In 2004, the Bridges Center began sponsoring “working groups,” unique research collaborations between UW scholars and members from the local labor community. Over the years, the Center has funded groups on waterfront history, union democracy, civil rights, white collar workers, and more. Additionally, Jacoby helped secure annual funding from Washington State for a special labor research program exploring labor-related issues in the state with policy implications. Since 2005, the Center has funded eighteen different projects through the program.

James Gregory,   2008-2012

In 2008, James Gregory, Professor of History, would become the Harry Bridges Chair. An award-winning author of books on migration and labor politics, Gregory had been hired in 1993 in part thanks to funds provided by the Harry Bridges Chair, a time when few historians specializing in labor called the University of Washington home.

Prior to becoming Chair, Gregory had developed the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, an on-line collection of oral histories, photographs, documents and essays made possible in part with support from the Bridges Center. As Bridges Chair, Gregory would develop additional public history projects, including one on the Great Depression in Washington State and another on Waterfront Workers.

In 2009, Gregory was integral in having Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire declare a “Year of Labor Heritage” on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the 1919 Seattle General Strike and the 10th anniversary of the WTO protests. To observe the anniversary of the General Strike, the Center helped organized a discussion and commemoration at the Seattle Labor Temple. Most importantly, the event marked the kick-off for a fundraising campaign to establish a Labor Archives at the University of Washington.

The idea for a Labor Archives was first envisioned in 2008 when a budget-strapped UW Libraries was unable to process many new and old donations of labor-related material, leaving entire collections uncatalogued and inaccessible. Gregory, in coordination with the ILWU, King County Labor Council, State Labor Council and other important stakeholders, developed a plan to build a dedicated labor archives within the UW Libraries Special Collections. By 2010, thanks to the support of hundreds of labor unions, individuals, and a $150,000 matching grant by the ILWU, sufficient donations had been gathered to hire a full-time labor archivist and establish the Labor Archives of Washington.

While honoring labor history was his forte, Gregory’s term ended in Spring of 2012 with an event focused on the present: the Unemployed Nation Hearings. The two day event, hosted at the University of Washington and Seattle City Hall, brought unemployed and scholars together to discuss the on-going crisis of un- and underemployment that has failed to garner attention despite its scope. As a result of the dialogue started by their hearings, a joint committee of the Washington State Legislature held hearings on the topic in July 2012.

George Lovell, 2012-2014

George Lovell, who became the seventh Harry Bridges Chair in Labor Studies in 2012, joined the UW Department of Political Science in 2001 and is a longstanding member of the Bridges Center’s Standing Committee.  A scholar of American politics, law, and constitutional development, Lovell brings to the Chair knowledge of how law has both facilitated and obstructed efforts by workers to exercise collective power.

Lovell’s first book, Legislative Deferrals, looked at the labor’s legal reform efforts in the early 20th century.   Focusing on the fight against the labor injunction, the book shows how enduring features of American government make it difficult for workers to exercise political power.  His second book, This is Not Civil Rights, focuses on unorganized citizens who sought redress for rights violations during the Depression.  He is now conducting research for a new co-authored (with Michael McCann) book on the struggles of Filipino cannery workers in the Pacific Northwest, highlighting the role of law as both a force of repression and as an occasional weapon for activist workers.  

Lovell takes over as Bridges Chair at a time of deepening political dysfunction, and plans to bring together members of the labor and academic communities to build practical knowledge of how to restore democracy in an era of enormous inequality and heightened attacks on collective bargaining and voting rights.  He contributes to the legacy left by each Bridges Chair, the legacy of each and every rank and file worker who has contributed to the Chair and the Center, and the legacy of Harry Bridges himself.