Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Why do we vote Democrat? Part I

Picture of the author's grandfather (circa 1972). "Bompa" worked on the waterfront most of his life, dropping out of school in sixth grade to support his family. He joined "Harry Bridges and his men" in 1934. During WWII, he and his fellow longshoremen laid on their backs and rolled 55 gallon barrels of oil with their feet into the hull of freighters destined for the war effort. After the mechanization of the waterfront, he became a hod carrier and then a brick mason until his retirement at 65.

Why do we vote as Democrats?

It would be 82 years ago that my grandfather was shouldering 100 lb. sacks of sugar from ship to warehouse on the Oakland waterfront. The year was 1934 and the times were desperate. During my youth, when the discussion turned to politics  my grandfather would often say with some emphasis:
"We knew people, Ryan. We knew people who were hungry. They were standing in the bread lines and starving to death!"
My grandfather maintained to the last that "(Harry) Bridges and (Franklin) Roosevelt" saved America. He believed that without "Bridges and Roosevelt" (or 'Roooosevelt' as he pronounced it), America would have collapsed and never recovered from the Depression. "Roosevelt," my grandfather would say, "had a great personal strength."  My grandfather detailed to us his work habits that year in 1934: 10 - 12  hour days, 6 days a week amidst a job market so vicious with unemployment no one would think of walking away from such labor.  But my grandfather's breaking point came in 1934, in that warehouse while shouldering those sacks of sugar.
"The foreman called us all over Ryan. He said 'Boys you are going to have to put your shoulder to the ground and your nose to the grindstone now. You are going to have to work Sundays (e.g. seventh day) without any extra pay.'" 
For the rest of his life, my father's life, and his grandchildren's life, the phrase "shoulder to the ground and nose to the grindstone" was used quite often in our family. I was always a good student and hard worker.  One day as it happened, we were looking at the difference in the shape of our noses, trying to figure out who inherited what nose from what ancestor. "Why is Ryan's nose so flat?" one of my brother's said. "Because he keeps holding it to the grindstone," came my father's quick reply. I can scarcely remembering feeling so proud.

But on that day in 1934, my broad shouldered, hard working grandfather had had enough. The very next day after his foremen announced the arrival of unpaid Sundays, "Bompa" as we called him in our youth, joined with "Harry Bridges and his men".  The waterfront those days was ruled by corruption, ruthless capitalists and hazardous working conditions. The water front and the "general strikes" of 1934" were among the most vicious and violent in the history of the American labor movement.  My grandmother once recalled to us that "Harry Bridges and your grandfather would meet in our house with the shades drawn", because "unions were illegal in those days!"  Illegal or not, my grandmother also recalled tending to the wounds of my grandfather as he battled police, the national guard, "indudstrial association agents", and  teamsters on the strike lines.

The United States government would persecute, harass and ultimately jail Harry Bridges for years afterward. (See "The 18-Year Plot to Frame Harry Bridges" PDF).  In the end, Harry and the ILWU won lasting victories for themselves, for labor  and for their families. The waterfront strike of 1934 remains one of the most important victories for labor in United States history. The ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union ) is still today is one of the strongest, most vocal unions in America. But union or not, the waterfront strike of 1934 remains embedded in the memory of the descendants whose forefathers who fought in that war on the waterfront; a testimony of the corruption, greed and violence of those in power and of how much the powerful will take from you and your family if we don't commit ourselves fully to the struggle for our future.

Some end notes

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