By Sam Whiting
Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.
Retired Chronicle columnist Leah Garchik contributed to this report.
Twenty years after its designation, Harry Bridges Plaza is still waiting for its waterfront statue — and the closest thing to it is still waiting in the front hallway of Richard Mead’s waterfront home in San Leandro.
Exquisitely cast in bronze by Piedmont sculptor Bruce Wolfe, who gave the city the full-length Tony Bennett bronze at the Fairmont, the Bridges statue is atop a pedestal inscribed with the San Francisco labor leader’s heroics in the victorious waterfront strike of July 1934, which led to his co-founding of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. But the statue is only 4 feet tall, a maquette or scale model that was used to gain design approval by both the San Francisco Arts Commission and the Port of San Francisco.
The finished work is expected to be 10 feet tall on top of a 4-foot block, 14 feet in all, and already has a designated home in the heavily traveled pedestrian zone that separates the Ferry Building from the foot of Market Street. It was named Harry Bridges Plaza in a 1999 resolution by the Port Commission and dedicated in a 2001 ceremony. The port left it to the union to take it from there in terms of signage or a monument. That is the job of the statue if it ever gets built, and that seems less likely with each passing Labor Day.
Richard Mead shows an image of the Harry Bridges statue superimposed into Harry Bridges Plaza.
Photo: Gabrielle Lurie, The Chronicle
“If you stand in the middle of the ILWU hiring hall and scream, ‘God save Harry Bridges!’ everybody will applaud. But they really don’t understand why they are applauding,” says Mead, a retired president of ILWU Local 10. “Harry Bridges represents how a working person in this country can actually build and transform himself into something else.”
Mead minored in labor studies on the GI Bill at San Francisco State University before putting in 30 years with Local 10, loading and unloading ships. To him, it is a disgrace that there is no major monument in the town where Bridges lived and built the ILWU into a union that still controls every major dock on the West Coast.
Mead chairs the Committee for Harry Bridges Plaza, a nonprofit dedicated to one cause: getting the statue built. That requires additional funding and the cooperation of organized labor to install and secure the artwork, but the willpower to get the job done is not there — and hasn’t been for about 15 years.
“We’ve had a couple of false starts, but we have not given up hope,” Mead says. “Harry never abandoned the working people, and the working people are not going to abandon him.”
Bridges arrived in San Francisco in 1920 as a teenage dock worker, or wharf rat, after leaving his native Australia at age 15 to join the merchant marine. He was short and slight, but fiery and a natural leader.
The waterfront strike of 1934 took on the powerful shipping industry and its oppressive and unfair hiring tactics for day laborers. The waterfront strike lasted 83 days and reached its peak on Bloody Thursday, July 5, 1934, when two strikers were shot and killed by San Francisco police. This resulted in a three-day general strike, combining all trades, which swung public sentiment to the strikers’ favor. It resulted in union control over hiring and a six-hour workday.
Eventually, Bridges led the dockworkers out of the old International Longshoremen’s Association to form the ILWU, which he led for 40 years. By the time of his death at age 88, in 1990, he was “arguably the most significant labor leader of the 20th century,” said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who read a proclamation into the Congressional Record on July 26, 2001, to mark his 100th birthday.
“Harry Bridges is sacred to the city of San Francisco, beloved by the workers of this nation and recognized as one of the most important labor leaders in the world.”
Harry Bridges (center) joins his striking waterfront workers in a demonstration at Fort Mason.
Photo: The Chronicle 1934
The dedication of Harry Bridges Plaza two days later was the last thing to happen there. Meanwhile, in the 18 years since, other Bridges monuments have been completed in other cities.
Most recently, a 6-foot bronze statue of Bridges was unveiled July 28 outside the new dispatch hall at ILWU Local 13 on Harry Bridges Boulevard at the Port of Los Angeles. A few years before that, there was a dedication of a Bridges statue at Local 23 in Tacoma, Wash. But you have to know where to look to find any kind of monument to Bridges in San Francisco, the city that holds him sacred.
The ILWU represents 50,000 members on the West Coast, Canada, Hawaii, Alaska and Panama, and its headquarters is in the Harry R. Bridges Building on Franklin Street. There is a bust of Bridges in the lobby, but the front door is locked and you have to look through glass and the branches of a ficus tree to see it.
There is a plaque outside the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, former site of the longshoremen’s hall on the Embarcadero. There is a mural of the general strike inside Rincon Annex and another on the corner of Mission and Steuart streets.
But at Local 10, there is nothing — unless you count a picture of a Bridges plaque in a display case.
The idea to honor Bridges with a statue came from Griffin Fariello, a Stanford graduate and labor writer. Fariello served as chairman and Mead as secretary and foot soldier in the Committee for Harry Bridges Plaza. The fundamental event for any union cause is a breakfast, and in 2003, Breakfast With Harry was hosted in a San Francisco hotel. The tally was $80,000, “which surprised the hell out of everybody,” Mead says.
Wolfe was commissioned to build the maquette, which took its image from a Chronicle photo of Bridges at the San Francisco Labor Day Parade. The idea was that the scale model, which weighs 100 pounds and travels in a case on wheels, would be a fundraising tool. But nothing has come of it.
Photo: The Chronicle
“The project took too long,” says ILWU historian Harvey Schwartz of El Cerrito. “It has been my experience that when you have a project that cannot be brought to fruition quickly, people lose interest and drift away from it.”
What little momentum they had stopped altogether when Fariello died of a heart attack at age 61 in 2012.
When contacted by The Chronicle, officials with the ILWU international and Local 10 would not comment on the statue or Mead’s efforts. When approached at the hiring hall, members referred all questions about Mead to union officials, who also declined comment.
“He can appear to steamroll people,” Schwartz says of Mead, “and you have to have a team. You can’t pull this off by yourself.”
Mead admits to being controversial, but no more so than his idol Bridges. Mead blames the stalled support on “internal union politics” but declines to specify.
“When the statue is unveiled, the people who are ignoring it now will be the first in line to make speeches at the unveiling,” Mead says.
Since his retirement three years ago, at age 60, Mead has dedicated himself to seeing the project through. He has assumed Fariello’s position as acting chair, and Mead’s wife, Roxanne, is in his old role as the foot soldier.
“The plan was to do another fundraiser but it fell through because we cannot get a politician to stand up for it,” he says. “We need a politician or celebrity of a stature high enough to pull it off.”
The Chronicle image from 1939 used by sculptor Bruce Wolfe.
Photo: The Chronicle 1939
Between getting the maquette built and creating a website, harrybridgesplaza.org, the committee is down to just under $50,000. Mead also says he has a $100,000 commitment from the ILWU. But Mead says he is determined to do the job right, not on the cheap, and that will require at least $100,000 more.
“We need just one more fundraiser to get us over the line,” he says, adding that Wolfe is standing by, ready to carve it in clay and cast it in bronze once all the funding comes through.
So many Labor Days have come and gone without a Harry Bridges statue in Harry Bridges Plaza that Mead can no longer depend on the holiday as a target date. So he has a new target date in mind: July 28, 2021, the 120th birthday of Bridges.
“That would be a great day,” he says.
Profile of Harry Bridges in the maquette at Richard Mead’s home in San Leandro. Photo: Gabrielle Lurie, The Chronicle