"How can I possibly get it all into one hour?"
Harry Bridges sat in his cell-sized $57-a-day room at the Capital Hilton and worried about the lecture he had to give last night on "50 Years of Waterfront Unionism" at the National Portrait Gallery.
The National Portrait Gallery? Right. He's opening a series of talks there that will feature Lee Strasberg, Robert Moses and Robert Menninger.
The years have drained some of the tight anger from the intelligent eyes and given his long, pale face a certain rugged distinction. Still, one senses the ready temper and the conviction of rightness that infuriated not only capitalists but large numbers of liberals and (Norman Thomas) Socialists.
Harry Bridges and the world have come a long way from the days when he sailed on square-riggers, and the United States Congress passed bills to bar him personally from this country, and he shut down San Francisco for three days in the 1934 general strike.
He insists that he's not the one who changed. Now that he is 76 and retired from the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, he can point to the unemployment insurance and pensions, the concept of a job being for life, the industry-wide contracts -- all wildly radical ideas just a few years ago.
Of course, he was a radical. Joined the I.W.W.'s Wobblies in 1921. Fought for socialist goals all his life. Accepted aid from the Communist Party for the waterfront strike ("We took money from anywhere we could get it. We even got some from the waterfront employers. . . We didn't turn down any source at all, including the Communist Party. . . The money was gratefully received and was spent so we could eat" he said at the time). Battled for seven years against deportation to his native Australia. He won that one with a Supreme Court decision.
Justice Frank Murphy said at the time, 1945, "Seldom if ever in the history of this nation has there been such a concentrated and relentless crusade to deport an individual because he dared to exercise the freedom that belongs to him as a human being and that is guaranteed by the Constitution."
Bridges has always denied being a Communist. But yesterday he had to add, "95 per cent of the evidence against me is true."
There was always some uproar around Harry Bridges. The time he came out against our intervention in Korea, his own longshoremen turned their backs on him and he went to jail for 20 days after a judge excoriated him as "one of the most potent figures in the Communist Party in America."
The jail sentence resulted when his bail was revoked; he had just been convicted of perjury in denying that he was a Communist.
Bridges viewed the Korean war as a family fight -- one analogy was our own civil war: How would we have liked the British to move in on it? --and noted that when Vietnam came along, the longshoremen's thinking had come around to his.
"There's a long history of these struggles," he said. "One of the first was the Indonesians against the Dutch in 1925. In the '30s when Japan invaded China, we boycotted the shipping of scrap iron. I saw cargoes myself that were labeled farm machinery but were actually Pratt & Whitney plane engines."
The consistency that links his various stands, he believes, is his basic cause: the welfare of working people.
Even on this, he would get an argument. A lot of prominent union figures thought he was destroying labor. In the '60s he accepted the containerization concept that would eventually automate the loading of ships, costing thousands of jobs in the very union he had founded.
"It's just a practical thing," he said yesterday, the Aussie twang lingering in his voice though he had lived here nearly 60 years and has been a citizen since 1945. "Automation is not the end of labor. But there's no solution for the displacement of workers by machines." Except he added in socialist countries where the workers' welfare is considered before profit.
Furthermore, he doesn't think automation has made the strike obsolete.
"The strike is the only weapon labor has. You can make it work if you strike on a broad enough basis. When they were trying to form a newspaper guild in San Francisco and ran into trouble, we refused to unload newsprint at the docks. You have to stick together, labor may be divided today, but if you get the right issue at the right time, labor will mobilize within 24 hours and join together and fight till hell freezes over. I don't know what the issue will be, but it will come."
For years he has talked of a great merger of all the nation's dock workers, but despite enthusiastic debate it has never come off.
Newly retired, he has carried the idea of mass power to his new post as a leader of the Congress of California Seniors.
"Senior citizens are a badly neglected group. They could make one powerful outfit if they could get together, not for a revolution, but to improve their lot, to lobby. They could be an economic force, too. Right now we're working for a national health plan, something this country is long overdue on."
He must be at home with strife. His father was "an Empire man" and his mother came from an Irish family of revolutionaries. His first two marriages ended in divorce, and to marry his third wife, Noriko Sawada, he had to change the laws of Nevada.
"The clerk wouldn't give us a license," he said. "Told us it was a mixed marriage and a license was only for American. I said, Noriko's the American; I'm the foreigner. We got a judge to issue an order stating the whole thing was unconstitutional . . ."
His wife, by the way, has turned into a writer. One of her poems won a prize in a Japanese-American newspaper. It made him weep, he said proudly. In the poem she mentions him. "A man who cares," she calls him.