Social Innovators: Harry Bridges and today’s Labor Management Partnership

Social Innovators – Harry Bridges – click to enlarge, or (view on

When I had the opportunity to address the Kaiser Permanente Labor Management Partnership leaders, I asked (because I didn’t know), “Who is the labor union equivalent of Henry J. Kaiser and Sidney Garfield, MD?” The answer: Harry Bridges, a person that they don’t teach doctors about. So I looked him up.

I also spent my morning with the Labor Management Partnership (@LMPTalk) all hands group, who are Harry’s descendants. They are all social innovators, per the qualities I outlined yesterday (Just Reading: “Social Innovation” and Social Innovators (people who take no as a question) | Ted Eytan, MD).

Both Kaiser Permanente’s history and the history of the Labor Management Partnership (see it in video here) are incredible examples of social innovation. I read about it in Harry Bridges’ biography and on my favorite history web site @KPHistory (Harry Bridges and Sidney Garfield: Synergistic Collaboration « A History of Total Health | Kaiser Permanente History Blog). All three innovators possessed an unsatisfaction with the status quo formed through their own personal experiences, the kind of drive that can’t be contained, a familiar story…

When I watch my colleagues in the Labor Management Partnership connect and share how they are impacting almost 10 million members:

And then, in a casual game show format as they describe performance improvement concepts that I’d argue 85% of physicians don’t use in daily practice (yet):

I’m a little impressed. Actually, I’m not impressed, because they just modeled the DNA which we all possess, and lived up to what I tell people is the, “you have no idea that what you do here is revolutionary in 90 percent of health care.” So I’m really saying that what my colleagues are doing every day is revolutionary in 90 percent of health care.

The persistence, taking no as a question – the first meeting of Henry J. Kaiser and Harry Bridges

My learning journey was already fantastic, and then Lincoln Cushing, our Archivist in Kaiser Permanente Heritage Resources pushed it over the edge with this account of the first meeting of Harry Bridges and Henry J. Kaiser, co-founder of Kaiser Permanente. The history I read previously to this account discussed how they collaborated to make something great. This is how it started – innovation to meet basic social needs.

From A World War II Diary by Lawrence E. Davies, The West Coast Correspondent for The New York Times, HiStory ink Books, Hat Creek, California, 1994, pages 143-145.

Wednesday, Dec. 30, 1942 – on the S.P. “Lark” train, enroute to San Francisco

Henry J. Kaiser today, in an orange grove about fifty miles east of Los Angeles, opened the blast furnace of the first integrated steel plant west of the Rockies. He did not expect, however, to meet Harry Bridges before the day was over. Nor did Harry Bridges have any idea that, as he returned home on the Lark tonight, he was going to discuss affairs with Kaiser.

As I waited for a seat on the diner I saw Bridges and Mervyn Rathborne, secretary of the State Industrial Union Council, playing cards. I went over to ask Bridges how his longshoremen were going to fare in their demands for a fifteen-cent-an-hour wage raise. “Fine,” he said. “We won’t get the full fifteen cents but we’ll get part of it.”

Bridges said that in spite of the criticisms from Frank Foisie, chairman of the Waterfront Employers Association, that longshoremen were still slowing down the loading of ships on the West Coast, ships here were now down to an average of four days for the “turn around.” This compared, he said, with a nine-day average for the East Coast, where his old enemy, Joe Ryan, of the A.F.L., is running things.

On Jan. 11, in Portland, the N.L.R.B. expects to open its hearing on unfair labor charges filed against the Kaiser shipyards on complaint of the C.I.Q. I asked Bridges if he had had any dealing with Kaiser. He mentioned this case and the recent bargaining election among technical workers at Kaiser’s Permanente Magnesium plant near Los Altos. But, I asked, have you dealt with Kaiser personally? Neither Bridges nor Rathborne had met him. He is on this train, I said. Why, Bridges asked. He and about fifty of his top officials have been down to Fontana opening the new iron plant. “Well, we’re going to move in on them down there pretty soon,” Bridges commented.

Just then Kaiser rose from a table in the diner and walked toward us. Bridges and Rathborne craned their necks to see him and I asked Bridges if he would like to meet Kaiser. “No, we’ll meet him soon enough,” he replied.

But Kaiser stopped at our table to say something to me and he and Bridges were not more than two feet apart. “Have you met Harry Bridges?” I asked Kaiser. He stuck out his hand and they shook heartily. Then Bridges introduced Kaiser to Rathborne. Instead of going on to his bedroom in a forward car Kaiser eased his 250 pounds into the seat beside Rathborne, across from Bridges and me.

“Are those Liberty ships of yours made from a design used by the British in the First World War, a mass production design?” Bridges asked.

“It’s a British design but it was not drawn for mass production. We have developed that part of it,” Kaiser replied.
“I wish you would do something about it,” Bridges said. “The ships are hard to load. They slow up production on the waterfront and are interfering with the morale of the longshoremen.”

He mentioned two or three things which he said made loading difficult and Kaiser said that the design was about to be changed in several particulars. Now, he suggested was the time to get the complaints before the proper authorities. He told Bridges he ought to see the Maritime Commission. Bridges said he already had discussed it with the commission.

“It isn’t going to do any good for you to keep on building ships as fast as you’re building them and it isn’t going to do any good for us to load them in four days here on the West Coast if it takes two weeks or longer to unload them in India, in North Africa and in Australia,” Bridges said.

He told Kaiser that he ought to do something about it. Kaiser looked surprised. “I am a shipbuilder,” he said. “My job is to turn them out, not to load and unload them.”

“You have influence,” Bridges persisted. “We have sent gangs of longshoremen to foreign ports to try to show them how to do it and you ought to use your influence to help out. If you don’t act as a shipbuilder, you ought to do so as an American citizen.”

Later the talk turned to postwar topics. Bridges made several comments along this line and Kaiser said that he had mentioned the same thing in all of his recent speeches. The two men were certainly not far apart in their views.

Then Kaiser said some persons had told him he ought to stop talking and go back to building ships. “Well, they’re probably right,” Bridges said.

Kaiser retorted, “But now you’re saying just the opposite of what you said a few minutes ago when you said I ought to use my influence in a realm outside shipbuilding.”

Later the matter of the Portland hearing came up. I asked Kaiser if he expected to be subpoenaed. “Oh, no,” he laughed. “Oh, yes, you will, undoubtedly,” Bridges told him. Then Bridges added that he personally had no great interest in the hearing, “for the fellows who are pushing it all were against me in my deportation hearing.”

While the two men talked, thirty or more of the Kaiser department heads, scattered through the diner and club car, watched tensely and felt much relieved when the conversation ended. Tod (sic) Inch, one of Kaiser’s lawyers, said he told Gene Trefethen, Kaiser’s right-hand man, that “Mr. Kaiser is sitting up there talking to Harry Bridges.” “The blood,” he said, “receded from Gene’s forehead, leaving him white as a ghost.”

The evening was well worth the 1,000-mile trip to Fontana.

Read the Kaiser Permanente History Blog Post to see what happened in the years after this meeting. Today you can speak to a current day Kaiser Permanente nurse, physician, staff member, union member or member and you’ll see the same dynamic, between the shipbuilders and the loaders and the unloaders, with the accountability and drive to transform everything to meet the needs of the people we serve. I left the day as a member of the Labor Management Partnership. I accept! Social innovation 🙂

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Ted Eytan, MD