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From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks: the Remarkable Story of Labor Leader Harry Bridges

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Ian Ruskin as Harry Bridges
(image by Ian Ruskin)

When teenager and Australian merchant seaman Harry Bridges disembarked in San Francisco for a visit in 1919 he didn't know that he'd stay for a lifetime, grace the cover of Time magazine and change the course of American history!

Bridges would be instrumental in forming one of America's most radical and democratic unions, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. As ILWU President for 40 turbulent years, he was the kingpin of groundbreaking advances in rights for workers. Pro-peace, pro-civil rights, and pro-worker, Bridges stood up for what he believed was right--and Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger sang about him!

Harry Bridges circa 1918 and, inset, circa 1978.
(image by Public Domain)

Bridges sparred with American presidents. The US government vilified him, and J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI tried to deport him for over 20 years. But Bridges won out every time.

In spite of that, or perhaps because of it, he is often painfully absent from American history lessons. It took a British-born actor-screenwriter to shine a spotlight on an Aussie-born labor leader who changed the face of American unions.

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Ian Ruskin is an actor, playwright, and producer who was classically trained in London at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. You may have seen him guest starring on such shows as "Murder She Wrote," "Scarecrow and Mrs. King" and "MacGyver", or you may have heard his voice work in over 100 films and television shows.

Ian Ruskin as Edgar in Shakespeare's King Lear, late 1970's.
(image by Ian Ruskin, used with permission)

Ruskin offers a captivating glimpse into Bridges' dazzling life in his one-man play From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks. The film version was directed and shot by multi-Academy Award-winner Haskell Wexler, and features the voices of Elliott Gould and Ed Asner.

Elliot Gould and Ed Asner
(image by Used with permission by
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From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks aired on PBS for four years to over 150 million Americans. Ruskin continues to offer live performances around the country, and upcoming performances are scheduled at Harvard Law School and Cornell University.

Meryl Ann Butler: Ian, thanks for visiting with us again. I know that Harry Bridges championed many of the issues that we are dealing with in American politics today, and I want to hear about those connections, but first, can you tell us how you happened to write a play about Bridges...and what inspired you?

Ian Ruskin: I was finding anything but inspiration as an actor in Los Angeles. When work came it never seemed to have any real meaning or importance, nothing to really challenge or uplift the audience or me. All that changed in 1994 when I played Harry Bridges--who I had never heard of before--in the play, Citizenship: the Harry Bridges Story. This was a true story about a man fighting for equality and democracy and workers' rights, a long way from the sound stages of "MacGyver"!

When we presented it to his union, the ILWU--an audience that knew what it meant to fight for your rights--the reaction was stunning, a huge standing ovation, and I knew I had found a story worth telling! I had never written anything before, but I had also never experienced an audience quite like this before. I felt that I had been given a gift if I had the courage to take it. And so, six years of procrastination later, I took the leap and wrote the one-man play, From Wharf Rats to Lords of the Docks, and in about 250 performances since then, in all kinds of settings, I have seen how his story touches people and gives them hope and determination to stand up for themselves.

Bridges was a man of great bravery and personal honor who had a strong vision of a better world, and I get to present that vision all over America and abroad. Because of his economic philosophy some saw him as the devil incarnate, but for me and my audiences he is better described as a hero!

MAB: Sounds like it was the one percent who thought he was the devil, and the 99 percent who thought he was a god! I know that Harry Bridges promoted the ideas of a National Health Care System and Social Security, he cautioned against government surveillance, and was concerned about the widening gap between rich and poor...and this was nearly a century ago! And here we are, still dealing with this stuff--Can you share a little about these and the other causes he championed which have direct meaning for us today? What advice would he give us?

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Meryl Ann Butler is an artist, author, educator and OpedNews Managing Editor who has been actively engaged in utilizing the arts as stepping-stones toward joy-filled wellbeing since she was a hippie. She began writing for OpEdNews in Feb, 2004. She became a Senior Editor in August 2012 and Managing Editor in January, (more...)

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