Harry Bridges Prowls the Stacks at Powell’s

This article is found in Trouble Maker’s Handbook 2, published by Labor Notes, and is reproduced here with permission.

Imagine if the call was for Henry Miller…

by Michael Ames Connor

Harry Bridges works at Powell’s Books. He keeps an eye out for fellow workers. At least, that’s what they say.

The story, repeated by many members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 5, goes something like this: Every once in a while, over the store intercom, comes a page for Harry Bridges. “Harry Bridges to manager Block’s office.” “Harry Bridges to the loading dock.” It’s a pretty good intercom system, so everyone can hear it.

These union folks who work at Powell’s — clearks, booksellers, loaders, techno-cats, and book buyers — they know, together, a little about everything: cooking, fly fishing, Japanese poetry, and labor history. They know about Harry Bridges. People know Bridges has been dead for years. But they know his reputation — fierce ILWU fighter who led the 1934 longshore strike that established the union. Part of joining ILWU means learning a little about their union and learning what Harry Bridges stands for: members know that if he’s going to check out the loading dock, they should too.

When they get there (and it’s usually 30 or 40 people who show up), they find one of their co-workers in a little difficulty with the boss. A disagreement, an argument, a confrontation. Before they show up, maybe that co-worker is in a little trouble. Maybe the boss is taking a hard line, getting ready to make an example, thinking about tossing a troublemaker out the door. That’s why Harry Bridges gets the call.

So 30 or 40 people show up, and the manager backs down. Happens every time. With one or two people there, the boss can do what he likes. But with 30 or 40 people, as Arlo Guthrie once pointed out, you got yourself a movement.

Nobody’s ever seen Harry Bridges at Powell’s. They just know he’s there, watching to make sure nobody gets picked on, or picked off.