A touch of class – working class
Joe O’Neill, Irish Echo, Feb. 12-18 1992.
Labor Legendary Bailey Honored in San Francisco
Ten years before I saw the light of morning
A comradeship of heroes was laid
From every corner of the world came sailing
The Fifteenth International Brigade
(Viva La Quince Brigade, Christy Moore
Christy Moore wrote that song in Spain in 1985. It was written, he said, “in memory of the many Irish men who fought in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. They went out under Frank Ryan to oppose the rising fascist tide and many of them never returned."
At the United Irish Cultural Centre in San Francisco recently old comrades from the American Abraham Lincoln Brigade, who formed part of the international brigades during the Spanish Civil War, trade unionists, friends and admirers, gathered to celebrate with Bill Bailey, a legendary working class hero on the occasion of his 82nd birthday.
Bailey’s adventures, in his lifelong commitment to socialism, read like a script from a Hollywood movie. At 17, he left his Hell’s Kitchen home in New York to go to sea. The harsh conditions aboard ship in those days led Bailey to become involved in the struggle for better working conditions through trade union action.
Bailey was active in the famous San Francisco waterfront strike in 1934 and, like contemporary Harry Bridges, was active in the Hawaiian Islands as a trade union organizer before his deportation under the Criminal Syndication Act.
Bailey’s name also hit the headlines during a protest in 1936 when he and five other anti-fascists, all Irish or of Irish descent, were arrested for an incident on the German ship Bremen, anchored in New York harbour. Bailey and his comrades had boarded the ship, fought off the crew and climbed the mast to dispatch the swastika flag. In Bailey’s word, the flag went “into the filthy New York harbour where that dirty rag belonged.” Held back by a cordon of police, hundreds of anti-fascist protesters on the dock cheered.
The incident was reported to have infuriated Adolf Hitler to such an extent that the Nazi government took immediate steps to have the swastika adopted as the national flag of the Third Reich.
In 1936, Bailey’s political beliefs led him once again to confront Hitlerism as a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which fought on the side of the Republican forces in Spain, against General Franco and the German and Italian fascist legions.
Bailey served his own country in World War 2, in the Pacific theatre, as a first engineer in the Merchant Marine.
Like many people in the United States who held socialist views, Bailey fell victim to the malice of Senator Joe McCarthy. He was subpoenaed by McCarthy’s Congressional Committee on Unamerican Activity. For refusing to answer their questions (or as Bailey puts it in a statement preserved on tape and now on a film documentary about the period: “It is none of your dammed business.”) Bailey paid a heavy price. The Coast Guard denied him sailing papers and an MFOW union book was withdrawn, which left him unable to find employment at sea. In 1949 the Marine, Firemen, Oilers, Watertenders and Wipers Union reinstated him as an honorary member.
Bailey resigned from the Communist Party in 1956 after the Soviet invasion of Hungary but continued his activity as a radical trade unionist.
In recent years Bailey has appeared in film documentaries and several Hollywood movies, including “Guilty by Suspicion”, “Seeing Red”, “The Good Fight”, “On the Edge”, and “Strike Story”.
Bailey is at present working on an autobiography. At Bailey’s birthday gathering, City Supervisor Kevin Shelly presented him with a commemorative plaque on behalf of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors giving recognition to his sense of public spirit. Congressman Tom Lantos and his wife also attended the event.