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.
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?
IR: It is extraordinary how many of the issues that Bridges faced are still with us today, sometimes in a different form but no less challenging, and that is why I think his story inspires. Yes, he was fighting for a National Health Care System and Social Security in 1930, when many people considered both to be communistic ideas (and it seems that some people still do!) He would see "Obamacare" as a beginning--and a beginning, only.
The government bugged his hotel rooms, tapped his phones and tore through his wastepaper baskets for decades. Cruder methods than today, but with the same attitude that the government must protect itself from many of its citizens.
Coming out of the Great Depression, Bridges saw an ever-widening gap between rich and poor, although the enormous gap today would take his breath away! He saw unions as organizations which could counter this gap; organizations which were for the benefit of workers, workers of all colors, ethnicities, religious beliefs and political associations. So he would still be fighting against the prejudice and discrimination that continues to stain America today.
Bridges saw almost all wars, with the exception of World War Two, as being created for the benefit of the rich at the expense of the worker. So he would be fighting against all the American invasions and orchestrated coups of the last 40 years, just as he was against the Korean and Vietnam wars--not always a popular position with his membership. He believed in widespread worker control of the means of production, almost the opposite of the power that global corporations have over our lives today.
Bridges had a great respect for the U.S. Constitution and would be shocked that voting rights are still suppressed and that gerrymandering voting districts steals away democracy. And this applies to both parties. In fact, he said that the union movement should never let the Democratic Party assume that it had their support, and that instead, politicians needed to earn the support of the unions by legislating in the interests of the working people.
Harry Bridges believed in international solidarity and he had great success in supporting and being supported by workers around the world. The ILWU would send delegations made up of their members (rather than union officers) to meet the workers of the world. Fighting against the massive and unrelenting power of our global corporations would be one of his greatest challenges today.
But perhaps most important is that he believed that if you give the working man and woman--in his case the members of his union--all the facts about a situation, most of the time they would make the right decision. And MOST of the time, in his opinion, they did. On the occasions when he felt that they didn't, he let them know about it but ALWAYS said that his job was to follow the lead of the membership, wherever it might take them.