Updated: Feb. 28th 2007

Bill Bailey (1911-1995)

The Volunteer, Vol. XVII, No. 1, Spring 1995

Bill Bailey, whose craggy face, imposing stature and gravel voice well suited his legendary career, died in San Francisco on February 27 after a long pulmonary illness. He was 84.

Bill first won celebrity in antifascist circles in 1935 when he ripped a swastika flag from the bow of the passenger liner Bremen at a dock in New York City. Several months later, Bill upgraded his anti-fascism to the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War where, as an International Brigader, he became commissar of the Lincoln Battalion's machine gun company.

Bailey grew up in extreme poverty - his mother sent him barefoot to first grade and he was sentenced to two stretches in reform school, before shipping out at age 15. In his 1993 autobiography, The Kid from Hoboken (Smyrna Press, Union City, NJ) Bailey brings to life the Irish slums, where he grew up, his life at sea, his experiences in the Communist Party, which he quit in 1956, and the ups and downs of his trade union career.

Bailey joined the Marine Workers Industrial Union in 1934, attended the Communist Party's national training school, and was dispatched to a succession of difficult organizing posts, including Norfolk, Virginia, and a sugar cane plantation in Hawaii.

During World War II, Bailey served as business agent for the Marine Firemen, Oilers and Watertenders Union (MFOW), until he couldn't stand sending out any more men to risk death. He shipped out himself, taking part in the invasion of the Philippines.

Expelled from the MFOW in the McCarthy years of the 1950s, he edited a dissenting rank-and-file newspaper, The Black Gang News, before switching over to longshore work. He was elected dispatcher at ILWU Local 10 in San Francisco. Bailey became a celebrity again in his '70s, nearly running away with the documentaries, Seeing Red and The Good Fight. He was invited to speak at Harvard University and college campuses across the United States, and was interviewed by Studs Terkel for The Good War. He played dramatic roles in the Hollywood feature films On the Edge and Guilty by Suspicion. Bill was extremely generous with his time, was supportive of activists, young and old, seeking to make a better world. Like Eugene Debs - "a warmer heart ne'er beat, betwixt here and the Judgment Seat." '

Bill's own postscript

This is the text, undated and unedited, of a letter in Bill's handwriting that he had asked his son Michael to send to T h e Volunteer after he passed away.

Dear ----,

My dad, Bill Bailey, often told me that his telephone book contains the names of some of the best people in the world - people who in their lifetime have done much to improve the lot of the working man & woman to achieve a better life as well as bring peace in this world and a safer and longer life for the children yet to come.

I thought that in this aspect it would interest you to know that he died on -- after battling a long complication of lung problems. For some 21 years he worked in the engine room of our merchant marine, being around and handling asbestos - long before anyone would dare admit it was dangerous or even permit safety precautions to be used. For 22 years he worked in longshore, until he retired, again working around and with dusty and dangerous cargoes.

I know he tried to remain active in helping achieve those political and trade union objectives and if he experienced any bad days it was because he could not be active enough. He was loyal to his many friends and was in pain when they were in trouble & he could not help.

In respecting his wishes I k n o w he would have liked to have his ashes alongside of those brave comrades he helped bury in Spain but knowing this was not possible - his ashes will join those of the rest of his family by being sprinkled at sea. Like he would say, "May my ashes wash up on the shores of the world," and thank you for enriching his life by friendship over the years. '

March 2, 1995

The Kid from Hoboken

There is a biography of Bill Bailey available, The Kid from Hoboken. Extracts from it are available on this site, with a link thru to the main document.