Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 19, 2018

Wild About Harry … Bridges; Our Man on the Waterfront

This year, I’ll write a number of posts about the Port of Los Angeles. I’ll never “cover the waterfront;” it’s far too extensive. There are 3,200 acres of harbor and channels along 43 miles of waterfront lined with docks, piers, shipping operations, cruise lines and marinas. 7,500 acres of land hold enormous arrays of warehouses, highways, railroad lines and forests of cranes supported by towering gantries.

LA Port Brad Nixon 7180 400 (640x472)

Those cranes load and unload metal containers on and off ships. The containers are typically 20 or 40 feet long. Here’s a closeup of the above scene showing one 40-foot container (red circle) to give you a sense of scale.

Port Gantry circle Brad Nixon 7182 400 (640x480)

The port offers mind-boggling views from the Palos Verdes peninsula to the west. Here’s a shot looking down from the street in front of my house, zoomed in at the limit of the lens I had that day.

LA Port Brad Nixon 5805 (640x472)

That’s a small segment of the port. In the distance is downtown Long Beach, to the east.

Amidst the ships, machines, roads and rails, it’s possible to lose sight of one component of the port operation: people. There’s a human being operating each one of those cranes (a highly sought-after job), and armies of longshoremen (and women), warehouse staff, accountants, inspectors, auditors, logisticians, security, the U.S. Coast Guard, pilots and seamen (and women). In all, the port and its adjunct businesses employ more than half a million people in Los Angeles County, and about 1.6 million worldwide.

Employment in and around the port has undergone significant changes. At one time, the harbor was the base for a large fishing fleet, and fishermen from around the world came here to work. There were seafood processing firms and canneries, with L.A. supplying much of the fresh and canned fish in the U.S. During WWII, the port was primarily a shipbuilding center, employing 90,000 workers. Shipping, although now “containerized,” has always been a mainstay since its earliest days.

A strip of green along Harbor Boulevard in San Pedro on the west side of the port — Gibson Park — has a number of monuments to people who’ve spent their lives working there. The Fishing Industry Memorial features a statue of a fisherman holding one of the big tuna that used to arrive by the boatload.

Fisherman Mem Brad Nixon 9288-2 (476x640)

The commercial ships are crewed by merchant seamen from many nations, and the U.S. Merchant Marine Veterans’ Memorial honors American seamen who perished aboard ships in peace and war.

Merch Marine Mem Brad Nixon 9270 (640x472)

Then there’s this bronze bust.

Harry Bridges Brad Nixon 9284 (480x640)

You may not know the name, Harry Bridges. If you live in a western U.S. port, there’s a good chance you do.

If you’re at all familiar with the history of industrial employment in the U.S., you know that the early 20th Century was fraught with confrontations as workers sought to establish labor unions, often opposed — sometimes with extreme prejudice — by employers and the government, often working together.

At the Port of LA and other ports, primarily on the west coast of the U.S., British Columbia and Hawaii, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) represents more than 32,000 workers. The critical event in the ILWU’s history was a 3-month strike in 1934, which closed every west coast American port. The strike was organized by a predecessor union, the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA). Violence erupted in many locations, resulting in the shooting deaths of two strikers here in San Pedro. A police shotgun blast killed two more in San Francisco on “Bloody Thursday,” July 5, 1934, a date still commemorated by ILWU members.

Every movement has its heroes. Harry Bridges organized the ILWU as a breakaway from the ILA and led the organization for 40 years. As a young Australian inspired by Jack London’s stories, he’d arrived in Jack’s town, San Francisco, in 1921 as a merchant seaman. He stayed on to work on the docks and became a member of the International Workers of the World, an activist union. He became a U.S. citizen in 1945, and was a galvanizing figure in the U.S. labor movement. The monument above is one of several in his honor in west coast port cities.

The U.S. government made a number of attempts to reduce Harry’s influence or remove him from the scene entirely. Twice the U.S. Supreme overturned convictions the government had secured that would have led to his deportation, once because the statute of limitations had expired before the government made its case, another when the high court ruled government witnesses were unreliable.

I’m oversimplifying the life and work of a contentious, controversial individual. Harry was, essentially, a hard-liner aligned with the Communist Party, although not actually a member for most of his life. He didn’t agree with the union’s decision to arbitrate the end of the 1934 strike, proposing instead to continue, but lost that effort. He did revise his previously anti-Roosevelt stance in 1941 in favor of accelerating the pace of work to support the war effort, and sponsored a no-strike policy for all unions during the war, earning some enemies within the labor movement.

The complexity and scale of any of the world’s large ports makes it difficult to fully understand the multiple, interlocking workings of systems, processes and machines. Ultimately, though, they’re all places that only function because people make them work. Now when you visit L.A., you can stand in Gibson Park and look out across the Main Channel with one more thread of its warp and woof in mind. Harry doesn’t have to be one of your heroes, but if you’re in San Pedro on July 5th for the Bloody Thursday observance, keep it to yourself. He has a lot of friends here.

Gibson Park begins at the intersection of 6th and Harbor in San Pedro, California.

San Pedro Map Google

Harry’s monument (red star) is a few hundred feet north. For the next couple of years, parking on the water side of Harbor will be limited while the port rebuilds the waterfront, just beginning as I write in February, 2018. You can park in downtown and walk across Harbor to access Gibson Park and the nearby L.A. Maritime Museum. The U.S.S. Iowa’s within walking distance a few hundred yards farther on (top right), but if you’re going there, the Iowa has plenty of parking.

Say hi to Harry. Another immigrant who made good.

Harry Bridges Brad Nixon 9285 (480x640)

Most of the photographs in this post and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon. Map © Google


  1. Very interesting! I read a little bit about modern seafaring and merchant vessels on a book by Rose George, “90% of everything”, as well as a few trip reports, but it’s nonetheless interesting to know more about ports. We know so little about them, yet they’re so crucial. Looking forward to the next instalments.


    • I hope you’ll find some interest. Thanks for commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Both the Port of Houston and Port of Galveston now have containerized shipping, and I’ve always thought the cranes and gantries look like enormous giraffes. The addition of a third container terminal not far from me has increased truck traffic considerably, and now there are plans for highway expansion, which will make already irritating trips nearly unbearable. File under “price of progress,” I suppose. Still, it’s fascinating to hang around the docks and watch the activity.

    It was interesting to read about Harry. Obviously, not everyone was wild about him. Still, there’s no better way to get a grasp of such complex history than to start with one of its main players. His story reminded me of Lech Wałęsa.

    As for the International Workers of the World, just seeing that name reminded me of a bumper sticker that was in vogue when I lived in Berkeley in the 70s. It read, “Intellectual Coolies of the World, Unite — You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Mentors.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Somewhere, I suppose, there is more than one compilation of the slogans of those days. Painted on a wall in Paris in ’71: “Best things in life are free, when stealing from the Bourgeoisie.”
      Truck traffic and diesel exhaust (as well as labor issues) are massive burdens stemming from container ports. We have it in spades here, and I suppose I should bring that up in a future post.
      Yes, some parallels with Walesa, although in a radically different political context. Thanks.


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