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Two Decades of Bridges

Story by
Nancy Joseph

“Your effort will keep his spirit alive.”

That comment, scribbled on notepaper, accompanied a check from a union member to help establish the Harry Bridges Endowed Chair in Labor Studies in 1992. The sentiment was echoed by hundreds of other union members who sent donations to honor Harry Bridges, who led the effort to organize the waterfront from San Diego to Anchorage and helped found the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

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Bridges Center program coordinator Andrew Hedden (left) and Bridges Chair George Lovell flank a bust of Harry Bridges in the UW's Suzzallo Library. Media credit: Nancy Joseph

Today the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies is a hub for research, teaching, and outreach about labor studies. The Center’s many accomplishments will be celebrated at a 20th anniversary conference and banquet on November 16-17, 2012.

“We do a tremendous amount with our limited resources,” says George Lovell, associate professor of political science and incoming Bridges Chair. “We have just one full-time staff member but we take on a lot of ambitious projects.”

Past projects have included conferences on the Seattle General Strike and Good, Green Jobs; topic-specific websites covering everything from Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History to the Great Depression in Washington State; Unemployed Nation Hearings; and a recent exhibition and symposium on activism in Seattle. In addition, undergraduate scholarships and research grants for faculty and graduate students are awarded annually.

James Gregory, professor of history and Lovell’s predecessor as Bridges Chair, explains that each faculty member who serves as Bridges Chair arrives with specific interests and talents that enrich the Center’s offerings. “Former chairs continue to look after programs they have created,” says Gregory. “There’s so much buy-in.”

Gregory credits first Bridges Chair David Olson with setting the precedent of remaining involved after stepping down as chair. “He established a tone and presence and authority that has benefited those of us who have followed him,” says Gregory. Sadly, Olson died unexpectedly in September.

The Center recently embarked on its most ambitious effort, the Labor Archives of Washington, which houses historical materials related to labor history. The project grew from concern that old records of historical value were being discarded and that labor-related materials in the UW Libraries’ archives were not being identified as such. Archivist Conor Casey was hired in 2010 to oversee the collection.


Harry Bridges

Harry Bridges.

“The archive is a transformative shift for us,” says Lovell. “It will be of great scholarly importance, with materials—official documents, fliers, and even correspondence— that give backstory on internal deliberations. It’s quite fascinating. We anticipate that a lot of dissertations will be written using these materials.”

Undergraduates may also tap the collection. The Center offers a popular introductory course in labor studies as well as a labor studies minor. Students can tailor the minor to their interests, choosing from about 40 labor-related courses in more than half a dozen UW departments. “If students are interested in working in nonprofits or labor, or if they plan to go on to law school and want to have a social justice component to their resume, it’s helpful,” says Andrew Hedden, program coordinator for the Bridges Center.

All of these facets will be celebrated at the 20th anniversary event, an opportunity to acknowledge all that the Center has accomplished.

“I always think of the Bridges Center as the little engine that could,” says Gregory. Adds Lovell, “It’s a labor of love for a lot of us. That’s how we’re able to do so much.”

For more information about the Bridges Center for Labor Studies’ 20th anniversary celebration, visit or call (206) 543-7946.