Chapter XXII: The Do-Gooders
By now Swanson and Madigan had moved into their own quarters. It had been tough for a while. But by sharing the same stew pot and adding a little more water here and there, we managed to survive living on a shoestring in Eureka. Our time together was always spent figuring ways to advance the union's best interest, and that meant making life on the job a little easier for the working stiff.
One of the main weaknesses of the local was the fact it had so few full-book members. Those few ran everything, while the vast majority of the workforce were just common soldiers with no voice or vote at the union meetings. Decisions were made for them, not by them.
We pressed to have the union and the employers agree to increase the port's workforce. It took a few months, but we were able to convince the employers and some of the conservative elements in the union that it was to our advantage to open the books and take in at 50-some men who over the years managed to stick close to the waterfront for their employment. These men had been the steady, loyal guys that were always there when the union needed men.
Jerry Bulke came up from San Francisco and sat in on the labor relations meeting that week and helped to finalize the decision to open the books. It was nice seeing Jerry again. After the meeting that would help change the local's position on many things, we had dinner together and discussed the upcoming convention of the union in Long Beach.
For the next two weeks, we went over work records and helped men with their applications for registration. Since I had been one of the more fortunate ones who became a full-fledged member a few months earlier, I was called on to help steer the procedure along the lines best suited for the men and the union. Once the list was approved by the joint committee of employers and the union, the next step was to get them accepted as full-book members. This would take a month or two, but in the end we got the old-time full-book members to agree to accept the new registrants. Even in this procedure, the local fell back on its old method of passing around a "pill box" for approval or disapproval of each new candidate for membership. The master-at-arms went to each old member with a box that contained white balls and black balls. To approve a new member, you took a white ball out of one side of the box and put it in another side of the box. To disapprove, you put a black ball in. Then they were counted by the chairman. In this manner, no one was supposed to see how you voted. It was really an outmoded balloting procedure, unfair and undemocratic. A black ball could doom your livelihood by ending your chances for membership in the union. In the reorganization of the local, this practice would have to go, and it did.
Working in the port of Eureka had its advantages. Since ships' arrivals were infrequent, they were posted on the bulletin board in the union hall, and from this you got a fairly good bearing on when to be on hand for the next ship. This permitted me to take off for a few days and drive down to San Francisco, work on the Black Gang News and pick up some loose ends. By now my whereabouts were fairly well-known.
I had been about five months in Eureka when I got a call to drop in and see the dispatcher. "Old Man Hazard," one of the founders of the local and a decent guy, took me up the street to a local coffee shop. "Bill," he said, "two FBI agents were around early today. They tell me that I have a notorious Communist working here named Bill Bailey."
"Oh?" I replied. "So?"
"Well," continued Hazard, "one of the guys went on with the story that you were prevented from working as a fireman on ships because they were convinced you were going to blow one up at sea in protest against the Korean War. He said you are extremely dangerous and bear watching. The other guy said I should call them as soon as someone noticed something suspicious that you were doing. They wanted to know what I intended to do about you."
"Well, Hap, what did you tell them you were going to do?"
A smile crossed his weather-beaten face. "I told them that what I was intending to do was to inform you that they were here checking on you and for them to get their asses off the union property, because you were a member of this union and the union position is that we are opposed to screening and we have not forgotten what the FBI tried to do to our union by harassing our president, Harry Bridges. After I told them that, one of the agents looked at me and pointed a finger in my face and said, `Maybe we better investigate you, too.' They left here mad as wet hens. What did you do to the FBI that made them so mad?"
"I think they got peeved because I sneaked out of San Francisco without telling them where I was going or leaving an address for them. Thanks, Hap, for being in my corner."
"And thank you, Bill, for being in our corner," said Hap.
Convention time was close at hand. Since Eureka was considered a small local, the membership was entitled to send only one member to the convention. For the past five conventions (which were held once every two years), the president of the local always chose to go. However, this time he asked me to run for the job, and I agreed. I was elected without opposition and drove down to Long Beach for the week-long convention and caucus. Among many of the outstanding things that took place at this convention was one little episode created by Harry Bridges. It came at a time when people throughout the world were paying their respects to Winston Churchill for the job he had done as Prime Minister in the destruction of the Hitler fascist empire.
Harry read off a resolution that applauded Churchill. But before he read it, he made a few comments: "I look around at the faces and people in this convention and I recognize a lot of them as men who helped build this union from the ground up. I note that many are Irish We know that the Irish have been fighting against the British empire for ages, struggling for England to right the wrongs and to get the hell out of Ireland, which I agree with 100 percent. I know that to pin a medal on any British statesman will not ride by quietly while an Irishman fighting for freedom is close by. However, I am asking that we follow in the footsteps of the anti-fascist and peace-loving people of the world and pay our respects to Churchill for a job well done."
I was sitting between two outspoken Irishmen, Jack Hogan, a longshoreman of Local 10 in San Francisco, and Marty Callihan, president of Local 10. Scattered throughout the huge auditorium were other members of the Celtic race who, had it not been for Harry, might have taken the Churchill resolution and blown enough holes in it to have it withdrawn.
The convention was a success from a trade union point of view. It came out strongly for strengthening the worldwide peace movement, to support political action in our own country, for solidarity with the working class fighting for its liberation throughout the world, and to improve contracts in our own industry. After seven days, our delegates departed for their home ports. Before I left, Harry spent an hour with me, explaining in some detail what he determined was important for me and the few progressive elements in the port to accomplish. The main thing, thought Harry, was a strong fight against any manifestations of Jim Crowism. Eureka, like a few other small ports, had no blacks in its membership and they were doing nothing to reverse the situation. If a "traveling" black worker from one of the big ports came through Eureka and decided to work a few days, he found much to be discouraged about. Harry wanted that attitude to change and for the port to conform to the true principles of the union--no discrimination in any shape or form. This I promised to get busy on right away.
And so I did. In the report I made to the local membership, I stressed the position on discrimination and urged the port to show the rest of the union that it understood what discrimination can do to a union--that it could ultimately be the force that could destroy the union and its effectiveness.
A week after that report, a young black longshoreman came to town from another port and wanted to stick around in Eureka for the next two weeks. There was no problem finding a partner to work with him. After a few days, when the men saw that he carried his own weight on the job, he had no problems. There never was another case of discrimination in that local. Today it includes African Americans, Native Americans, a Chinese American, a Japanese American, and an Alaskan Indian.
A year and a half passed; our local grew. The men who were one-time drifters were now full-book members of the union. Their attitudes had changed. They were more interested in what went on about them. Our labor relations improved. The employers no longer took us for granted. More ships entered the port. Jobs were longer and paychecks are bigger.
I was homesick for San Francisco. I had a girlfriend there, Betty. She helped with the typing of the Black Gang News. She wanted me to spend more time down there, and she was in no mood to differ with. I worked on a plan to make it possible for me to transfer from Eureka to San Francisco as my home port. I took out a "traveling" card and head south. I talked to members of the local executive board about transferring from Eureka to San Francisco. They saw no problem and within two weeks the transfer was made.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Three