Nearly 400 ILWU members, pensioners, students, activists, and community members gathered at the University of Washington in Seattle (UW) to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Harry Bridges Chair in Labor Studies.
The celebration included an all-day conference on November 17 held at the university and concluded with a banquet that evening at the student union. The event was a bittersweet celebration; David Olson, the first holder of the Bridges Chair passed away unexpectedly in September. A memorial service was held on November 16 and was well attended by ILWU members, pensioners, students, friends and colleagues of Professor Olson.
Since its inception in 1992, the Harry Bridges Center has been a source of scholarship and a leader in research in labor studies and in preserving the stories, experiences, culture and struggles of working people.
The department promotes academic research among students and also emphasizes the need for students to be actively engaged with labor struggles, civil rights and social justice movements. Many graduates of the center have gone on to work in the labor movement as organizers or researchers while others have gone on to academic careers specializing in labor studies.
Thanks to the generous support of retired ILWU members, the Center also provides numerous scholarship to graduate and undergraduate students who have demonstrated a strong interest in research related to working people and to individuals with a working class or labor background.
For the working class, by the working class
Unlike most academic chairs and institutions which are named after and funded by millionaires and billionaires, the Harry Bridges Chair was funded by over 1,000 small donations from working class people to honor one of their own.
In early 1990 when Harry‘s health began to fail, active and retired ILWU members began to think about how to properly honor and memorialize Bridges. Robert Duggan, a former Seattle dockworker and lawyer for the ILWU got the idea to establish an endowed chair in the labor of Washington—even though he admits, he was not quite sure what an “endowed chair” was. The UW had various buildings and programs named after millionaires, why not one named after Harry Bridges, Duggan asked.
Establishing the chair was not cheap—it required an initial investment of million. But this “million dollar chair” was not made of gold as some ILWU members wondered. Instead, the chair was a permanent investment at the University of Washington that would fund a professor who specialized in the study of workers, their experiences and their struggles. Most academic chairs are funded by one or two wealthy individuals and named after businessmen or captains of industry.
What Duggan and others were proposing was unprecedented; the Harry Bridges Chair would not be funded by millionaires but by small contributions from working class donors.
The proposal was not without controversy and the proposal sparked debate in the ILWU. “Some of us were skeptical of academia,” said IBU Secretary-Treasurer Terri Mast
“Would they teach workers’ stories? Could they present our history in a way that would move students to action? Would they teach how government and industry collaborated against our unions and leaders? Twenty years later the answer, we know the answer to those questions is ‘yes’.”
A living memorial
Duggan first secured the support of several important ILWU leaders from the Northwest including Pat Vukich of Local 19, Jimmy Dean of Local 52, Tony Hunter of Local 9 and retired leaders Martin Jugum of Local 19, and Phil Lelli of Local 23. Then, when Bridges passes away in March of 1990, Juggum and Duggan first publicly raised the idea of the Harry Bridges Chair at memorial services in Tacoma and Seattle. Shortly afterwards a memorial committee was formed.
Raising a million dollars from the rank and file required a grassroots fundraising campaign and wasn’t a simple matter of getting “a thousand guys to give a thousand bucks” as Martin Juggum had said. There was substantial debate among ILWU members who wondered if the university was too far removed from the experience of workers.
The project had to overcome some opposition among some members of the University’s Board of Regents and there were those in the University’s fundraising department who feared that having a chair named after Bridges would scare away corporate donors.
But there were supporters as well. UW President William Gerberding attended the ILWU International Convention in Seattle in 1991 and personally donated ,000 to the effort.
By July of 1992—one year into the fundraising effort—the million goal was reached from over 1,000 donations from individuals and local unions. And on July 28, hundreds of ILWU members—active and retired— gathered with faculty members at Gerberding’s house to mark the chair’s creation. Harry’s Widow, Noriko, was there and commended everyone for their accomplishment.
“The Bridges Chair and Labor Center was a way to keep the legacy of Harry alive, It’s a living memory of education and honors Harry’s important legacy to the labor movement and society at large,” said Mast. “This is a one-of-a-kind program. The labor movement helps to implement the programs and we benefit from the students it produces.”
Labor, Labor Studies and the future
The anniversary celebration started on the evening of November 16 with a keynote address by labor lawyer and author Thomas Geoghegan. In his talk, Geoghegan argued that demographic shifts and increasing inequality would force the Democratic Party to become more labor friendly if they want to remain relevant. He argued that current levels of economic inequality were not sustainable in the United States.
Geoghegan said that most workers lack the wages to produce a healthy consumer market and the austerity hysteria in Washington means that government won’t be spending money to stimulate economic growth. He argued that rebuilding the labor movement was the most effective way to increase income for workers and grow the US economy. His lecture sparked a lively discussion and many people expressed doubt that the Democratic Party would become champions of the labor movement anytime soon.
On Saturday, the department hosted an all-day conference. Topics included the history of the Bridges Chair, union democracy and civil rights, youth and the labor movement, and the 2012 election and the future of the labor movement. Panelists included ILWU members and others from the labor movement, professors, and student activists. IBU Secretary-Treasurer Terri Mast was a panelist on the history of the Bridges Chair and IBU Regional Director Richard Gurtiza and ILWU International Secretary-Treasurer Willie Adams both spoke on the civil rights panel. Gurtiza talked about the history of racism in the Alaska fish canneries and the efforts by Filipino workers to fight against discrimination, for fair wages and better working conditions.
Adams spoke about the ILWU’s long history of supporting civil rights and Harry Bridge’s leadership in integrating the union.
“In my experience, civil rights, workers’ rights, women’s rights, aboriginal rights are all connected,” Adams said. “Before Martin Luther King, Harry Bridges integrated the ILWU—in the 1930’s; he went up and down the Coast to all-white locals and said that he was going to integrate the union. That’s leadership. It was unpopular, but it was the right thing to do.”
ILWU members are still making history
The anniversary celebration concluded with a banquet that highlighted the history of the Bridges Chair and it’s many accomplishments over the years. Several scholarships were awarded to UW students. Honors were provided to past professors who held the Bridges Chair. Many speakers expressed their grief over the loss of Professor Olson and celebrated the important role he played in making the department a success.
The evening’s keynote address was delivered by ILWU International President Bob McEllrath. He was introduced by Local 23 President Scott Mason. McEllrath congratulated everyone involved with the program on reaching the 20th anniversary milestone and said that he looked forward to attending the 40th anniversary celebration. While acknowledging the importance of documenting and studying past labor struggles, McEllrath said that ILWU members were currently involved in historic struggles with employers on many fronts up and down the coast—including the Local 63 Office Clerical Unit fight against outsourcing in Southern California, the Northwest grain handlers agreement and Local 28 security officers contract fight in Portland, OR.
“Harry didn’t get us here without a struggle. There will always be a struggle and it doesn’t come from a book, it comes from the heart,” McEllrath said.
The event also raised ,000 for the University of Washington Labor Archives which plays a central role in preserving working people’s history, supporting related research, and educating people about the importance of unions in shaping the political and social landscape in the US.