Dave Arian, Harry Bridges and Bernie Sanders
By James Preston Allen, Publisher
The sky was overcast on Saturday, Feb. 8 when I showed up at the foot of Kaiser Point at the intersection of 22nd and Miner streets for the street renaming ceremony in honor of labor icon Dave Arian. Arian, who passed away in 2019, was both president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and Local 13 at different times and had more recently been appointed to the Los Angeles Harbor Commission by two different mayors. This event, held a year after his passing, was yet another eulogy of his life that honored him with his own bench and a plaque with his likeness at this tip of land overlooking the harbor where he once sat.
In attendance were a mixture of old longies, political friends and family, as well as an assortment of port staff. This was a reconciling of Dave Arian’s legacy as a working class hero with his radical roots in the labor movement and his role as a thinker on the Harbor Commission. He was a local raised in Pedro by parents with equally radical views and a connection to the great ILWU leader Harry Bridges, who was accused of being a “communist” many times during his life. However, Arian was not limited to just parochial views, but thought more globally — as any good Marxist would — of world perspectives on injustice and working class causes. In his later years he was remembered as just this guy in a hat and a Hawaiian shirt who’d come into the port commission greeting everyone with, “Hey, hey.”
Arian’s radical roots weren’t explicitly acknowledged in the outpouring of the gathering this year. His radical roots weren’t really acknowledged during the public street renaming of Miner Street to Dave Arian Way, with the exception of his daughter, Justine, who referenced a line in his journal in which he asked, “What’s happened to all the Marxists in the ILWU?” There was some polite laughter that underlined these words, but few cared to answer this question. There also wasn’t any commentary about his dying of cancer after living a short distance from the port, near one of the most toxic chemical terminals in the Los Angeles Harbor — an area once studied as a cancer cluster by UCLA. And, there wasn’t any commentary about how he worked for some 50 years at jobs that exposed him to some of the worst pollution at the twin ports.
At this point, no one was red-baiting Dave Arian, as he had made his point by sitting on the Harbor Commission, which if anyone cared to notice is a curious form of socialism run like a capitalist enterprise. After all, the ports of California are technically owned by the people of the state of California and run under agreements with cities that are adjacent to them — supposedly for the benefit of the people.
The reason for this ownership by the people was something that came from the Progressive Era, roughly 1890-1920, that brought about great reforms in California and the nation. The main objectives of the Progressive movement were addressing problems caused by industrialization, urbanization, immigration and political corruption. If one were to replace the first two of these with automation, homelessness and gentrification today, we might recognize that we are facing some of the very same conflicts our nation was in 1906 — and we think we’ve made such great advancements.
Back then the progressive movement primarily targeted political machines and their bosses. By taking down corrupt representatives in office, a further means of direct democracy was established with the referendum, recall and initiative. They also sought regulation of monopolies (trust-busting) and corporations through antitrust laws. Upton Sinclair, the popular socialist author of those early years, wrote his 1906 novel The Jungle to expose the unsanitary and inhumane practices of the meat packing industry. This resulted in the creation of the Food and Drug Administration under the last progressive Republican President Teddy Roosevelt.
These reforms shaped most of what we now accept as commonplace in regards to child labor laws, public education, old age pensions (think social security) and much later, Medicare for senior citizens. All of these and more were considered “radical ideas” at the dawn of the 20th century and were fought for by muckraking journalists, radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World, later the ILWU and socialists like Eugene Debs, who ran for president from inside a federal prison in 1920. Some of these very same popularly supported reforms are now being attacked in President Donald Trump’s budget.
Back then, our forebears were confronted with some of the same kinds of tyrannies that are affecting us today—low wages, expensive or no health care, unregulated capitalism and a political system rigged to favor the monied elites, not the working class, or as we now call them, “the one percenters.”
Candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders come from this same historical line of American democratic socialists. Yes, he and his supporters are reformers in the very American sense of the term “socialist” that believe the economic system that runs our country should be for the benefit of the majority of the people not for the exclusive profit of the few.
For most of Arian’s life, he was red baited and branded as a commie. Yet this didn’t stop two successive Democratic Los Angeles mayors from appointing him to the Harbor Commission. The hand wringing that the Democratic party and corporate media are engaged in over whether Sanders is too red to beat Trump is curious, especially given Trump’s penchant for palling around with Russian oligarchs, North Korean dictators and just about every other corrupt autocrat, king and bully on the global stage. Frankly, Trump may have more friends who actually are practicing communists than Sanders or Arian ever had.
The question still remains: will the majority of voting Americans be more afraid of Donald J. Trump getting four more years to corrupt our nation or will they agree that the antidote to this kind of corruption is a strong dose of democracy with a side-dish of social ownership to curb what ails this nation?
March 3 may tell us the answer to that question.