By Ginny McPartland
During the Cold War, the average American scorned any ideas that even hinted at socialism. Going against mainstream politics in the 1950s was fraught with danger.
Henry J. Kaiser and Sidney Garfield, MD, took their licks from the conservative medical establishment for their nontraditional ideas of health care. They were called “socialist” even though both were adamantly opposed to “socialized medicine.”
Their contemporary– and sometimes collaborator — militant labor leader Harry Bridges was accused of being a communist, which he was not, as he fought hard and dangerously for bargaining power for dock workers.
Marking the 20th anniversary of Bridges’s death this month brings to mind the groundbreaking 20th century achievements of these working class heroes. Despite the opposition, they didn’t back down.
For Harry Bridges, elevating the worker to the bargaining table was a lifetime passion. His heart was with the “working stiff” who was considered almost like property of the employer before unions. “The basic thing about this lousy capitalist system,” Bridges declared, “is that the workers create the wealth, but those who own it, the rich, keep getting richer and the poor get poorer.”
Born in Australia in 1900, Bridges was inspired by Jack London’s books to go to sea. He jumped ship on his first job because he disagreed with the skipper on the treatment of the seaman. He landed in San Francisco and soon began to organize the waterfront workers.
His work culminated in 1934 in the San Francisco dock workers strike that resulted in the death of two men, casualties of police bullets. Union members refused to work until they could negotiate higher wages and a method of getting work on the docks without having to pay a kickback. The strikers won and Harry Bridges was set for 40 years as the president of the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) starting in 1937.
“A Working Class Hero Is Something to Be” — John Lennon
By 1950, the ILWU had become a strong advocate for its members, and its leadership worked to spread unionism to other industries. The ILWU pioneered health and welfare benefits for its members.
Enter Sidney Garfield:
After the War when the Richmond shipyards closed, Kaiser and the Permanente doctors were ready, willing and able to take care of people. Both men had track records of providing affordable care to the working man. The health plan had been opened up to the public in 1945 but the enrollment was small.
Enter Harry Bridges:
It was a marriage with great potential. Bridges needed a health plan for his members and Henry Kaiser needed health plan members. Instant symbiosis.
In many ways, the goals of the two organizations converged. Bridges wanted all of his workers to have a health assessment and screenings to prevent disease. Kaiser Permanente’s Garfield saw how to accomplish the “multiphasic” examinations for all twenty thousand workers and later set up a way of collecting the results, at first on paper, and then in KP’s pioneering computerization of medical records. In effect, the ILWU members were guinea pigs for what has grown and expanded into KP’s electronic medical records prowess.
Along the way, Bridges helped Kaiser Permanente by writing editorials in the ILWU newsletter supporting the health plan physicians. In 1953 Bridges assailed the San Pedro Community Hospital in Los Angeles for refusing privileges to KP doctors. In 1954, he criticized the American Medical Association for trying to block group medicine. “Group medicine is here to stay,” he wrote.
In turn, Permanente physicians at times provided medical care on credit for striking ILWU members. Henry Kaiser was in favor of unions. In 1954, Kaiser said problems can be averted “simply by genuine recognition that the right of collective bargaining . . . is sound, essential human relations. I agreed a long time ago that unions are here to stay.”
In 1965, Kaiser received the AFL-CIO’s highest honor for his achievements in voluntary medical care, housing and labor relations. Previous winners included former President Harry Truman and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
To view Arlo Guthrie’s tribute to Harry Bridges on Youtube: http://tinyurl.com/y87jt34