By Robin Walker, Director of Educational Services, Librarian and Archivist, ILWU . Originally printed inThe Dispatcher, December 2022.

On November 13th, the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies at the University of Washington (UW) held an event to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Harry Bridges Chair in Labor Studies. Members of the ILWU and the Washington state labor community joined students and faculty to celebrate the legacy of Harry Bridges and the work of the Center.

The anniversary event honors the many students receiving the Center’s scholarships and awards. This year was the first time the event was held in-person since the Covid-19 pandemic and was well attended—especially from ILWU members and affiliates, over 70 of whom attended. ILWU locals and the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific (IBU) sponsored tables at the event, and young workers committees played a huge role in mobilizing so many ILWU members to participate.

Alison Steichen of Local 19 was one of the members in at the event. Chair of the local’s Young Workers Committee, Alison took time to speak to the Dispatcher about the importance of the Bridges Center.  “The University of Washington is a world class university,” she said. “To have a Center named after us, and to have them respect and honor labor, is special and uncommon. Labor sometimes gets bad press, but this banquet honors the labor movement, and specifically the ILWU. This shows why it is so important that the ILWU helped establish the Center and supports its role in the community.”

Steichen is one of a handful of ILWU members in attendance who are UW alumni themselves. Zack Pattin from Local 23 also attended school at UW.  As students, Steichen and Pattin were both recipients of Bridges Center Awards: Pattin received the award for Best Undergraduate Paper in Labor Studies, 2016-17, and Steichen received the Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes Scholarship in the same year.

“I was the first person in my family to be a part of the ILWU,” Steichen reported to the Dispatcher. “I appreciate the ILWU old-timers who took the time to give me books and talk with me about the union, which was very important to me as a young worker—especially as a person who did not grow up with family members in the union. As a student at the University of Washington, the Bridges Center helped teach me a lot about ILWU history that many others from union families learn about at the dinner table.”

The Bridges Center used the event to highlight a much-anticipated new book, Seattle’s Working Waterfront, 1884-Present. Written by the late historian Ron Magden, an honorary member of the Local 23 Pensioners Club, the book documents the history of the waterfront and highlights the contributions of Local 19 members. “Dr. Ron,” as Magden was affectionately known and who passed away in 2019, always took time to educate younger workers in the ILWU on the union’s history. The Local 19 and 23 young workers committees honored Magden by volunteering at the book table so participants could sign up for free copies of the volume.

Pattin commented on the event and the number of young workers who attended. “The Center is deeply important to me personally, both as a former student and as a worker. The Center’s work helps inform our union’s young workers and education committees, and it’s powerful to be at this event and see students, faculty, and scholars in the same room breaking bread with workers and union organizers, finding ways to connect and celebrate one another’s work.” He added, “when we’ve introduced our young workers to the Center, it makes them swell with pride knowing that the ILWU’s legacy exists beyond the union and into the community.”

The Harry Bridges Chair was established in 1992 through the financial support of ILWU members who wanted a way to honor Harry Bridges’ life by creating a place for working people in higher education.  Among these people was Robert Duggan, a lawyer for the ILWU who once was a dockworker in Seattle. Duggan envisioned a permanent fund to support a professor who specialized in the study of working people, their organizations, and their experiences.

Establishing a Chair required an initial investment of $1 million. Generally, university Chairs are established by large donors—not working people—but Duggan and a few others in the ILWU were determined. A small group of ILWU members, including Phil Lelli of Local 23, Martin Jugum of Local 19, former Bridges secretary Jean Gundlach, and ILWU historian Magden and others formed the Harry Bridges Memorial Committee to launch a grassroots fundraising campaign to raise money to establish the Chair. They raised money from ILWU locals and affiliates, hundreds of individual ILWU members, plus other labor organizations in the Puget Sound.

The first Harry Bridges Chair holder was David Olson. Olson moved to establish the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies to organize activities that would go beyond the personal research and activities of the Harry Bridges Chair. Despite some initial resistance from the university, the Center was established.  Among the Center’s first activities was a conference in 1994 “Harry Bridges and the Tradition of Dissent Among Waterfront Workers,” which brought together scholars from across the country to discuss Bridges’ legacy as a union activist.

In the years since its founding, the Center has expanded its programs. This includes working with the university libraries to establish the Labor Archives of Washington, and creating a Labor Studies minor within the university. In recent years, the Center acquired additional funding from the State of Washington, which has allowed them to further expand to include a labor internship program and to hire a labor research coordinator to develop research programs in the center.

Student scholarships remain at the heart of the Center’s programs. Each year, the Center offers more than 20 scholarships and research grants to students—several of which were established by members of the ILWU community. This year, the Center awarded more than $150,000 in funding to students and researchers to support the study of labor-related issues.

Among this year’s recipients was Dr. Ligaya Domingo, who was given two awards: the Robert H. Duggan Distinguished Supporter of Labor Studies, which honors individuals who have been exceptional supporters of the Center; and the inaugural Labor Studies Distinguished Alumni Award.  The daughter of Inlandboatmen’s Union activists and a graduate of the UW, Ligaya has deep ties to the local labor community and the university.  She helped establish the Center’s current “Building a Movement” labor internship program and the Domingo and Viernes Labor scholarship.

The evening’s keynote speaker was Cherika Carter, Political and Strategic Campaigns Director of the Washington State Labor Council. Carter is also the Council’s newly-elected Secretary-Treasurer. Former Secretary-Treasurer April Sims is now the first African American person to head the Council. Carter gave a rousing speech on the role of the labor movement to build up communities.

Also speaking at the event was the new Harry Bridges Chair, Professor Moon-Ho Jung, who was featured in last month’s issue of the Dispatcher. A historian of race, labor and politics, Moon has been a part of the Bridges Center since he joined the university in 2001. His talk focused on “racial capitalism” and how the Bridges Center’s work highlights where the diverse needs of working people intersect.

Moon said of the current labor movement: “We are living through a seemingly endless wave of crises, with an immense toll, especially on the most vulnerable among us. That is why Labor Studies matters now more than ever. To me, Labor Studies is ultimately about framing, understanding, and highlighting the struggles of those who confront the horrors of racial capitalism, state violence, and gendered exploitation every single day. I believe it is in studying those struggles that we can find hope and creativity in our own strivings for collective justice.”