July 15, 2004
Actors’ Equity is the Star of the Show At San Francisco’s 2004 LaborFest
Readings Mark the 70th Anniversary of the San Francisco General Strike
Actors' Equity was the star of the show at the kick-off for LaborFest 2004, an annual month-long celebration of union solidarity in San Francisco. The event was held at the Victoria Theatre, near 16th Street and Mission, on Monday evening, July 5, 2004, marking the 70th anniversary of the historic San Francisco General Strike. LaborFest is sponsored by dozens of Bay area unions, including locals representing maritime workers, engineers, electricians, teachers, various construction trades, pressmen, writers, taxicab drivers, and actors.
LaborFest organizer Steve Zeltzer and AEA member Jarion Monroe, who also is President of the AFTRA SF Local
“LaborFest is an annual event established to institutionalize and memorialize the history of labor and working people,” said organizer Steve Zeltzer. "Too many members of various locals don't know much about other AFL-CIO locals. LaborFest brings us all together and encourages us to support, not only members of our own local, but members of other unions."
It was fitting that this year's celebration, featuring Equity Actors from the Bay Area, was held at the venerable Victoria Theatre, a century-old playhouse once known as Brown's Opera House and where many illustrious performers of the past hundred years trod its boards. Anni Long, AEA's San Francisco/Bay Area Business Representative, opened the program with an eloquent welcome speech in which she stressed Equity's current concern over non-union road companies, which travel under sub-standard conditions. "Remember," Long warned, "if it's not Equity, it's not Broadway!"
This year, LaborFest featured readings from legendary filmmaker Haskell Wexler’s documentary, FROM WHARF RATS TO THE LORD OF THE DOCKS, starring actor Ian Ruskin, which is based on his one-man play. The film chronicles the life of the revered labor leader Harry Bridges and his struggle to organize longshoremen on the West Coast. Bridges arrived in the US as an immigrant seaman in 1920, and became a longshoreman and militant labor organizer. He led the 1934 West Coast maritime workers' strike that expanded into the general strike. In 1937, Bridges founded the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU), and served as its president for 40 years.
Ruskin was joined Bay Area actress Marie Shell (who happens to be Bridges' granddaughter), drawing on letters and personal resources in their preparation of a script dramatizing the strike of 1934. Shell remarked that she knew her grandfather well. “He retired in 1972 when I was ten, and he lived till 1990. I spent a lot of time with him. He was very supportive of my career and he loved actors. He once dated Stella Adler, in fact," she confided with a laugh.
Petite, charming Bonnie Akimoto began the staged reading with a short poem that was said to be Bridges' favorite. Michael Keys Hall was razor-sharp and authoritative as he reported Bloody Thursday, one of the most violent labor confrontations in American history. On July 5, 1934, two strikers were killed and hundreds more wounded by San Francisco police, precipitating a sympathy march and funeral procession behind the coffins of the dead men. The historic and successful General Strike followed, shutting down San Francisco and Oakland for four days.
"It was a hundred riots," read Shell. "Don't think of it as one battle, but a dozen battles." The strikers were spat at, beaten, called Communists ("Hell, no," retorted one man. "I'm a Baptist!") and sometimes killed. L. Peter Callender read a moving account of a funeral march on Market Street. Steven Anthony Jones and Joan Mankin read proclamations by Mayor Angelo J. Rossi and Governor Frank Merriman. Ruskin, as Bridges, was highly effective recalling tear gas, straw brooms, buckets of water, and attacks by mounted police during the riots. Six thousand members of the National Guard had been called out. "Labor Acts to Rule City," read the Chronicle headline on July 16, 1934.
One of the evening's dramatic highlights was Jones' impassioned interpretation of speeches made by Paul Robeson, while Shell's reading of a letter written by her grandfather to her mother provided a more tender, poignant tone to the evening.
This record of the San Francisco General Strike in 1934 was a profound and deeply moving reminder of labor's struggle throughout the past century. Our Bay Area Equity actors did us proud in their scripted performance.
"And so I trust that you will realize the depth of this struggle, that you
will give your energy, give your time, give your money, to see that we can
put representatives in Congress and a President in the White House and a
Vice President who will represent our interests."
"Finally, it was about how people treat one another. It was about human
dignity. We forced the employers to treat us as equals, to sit down and
talk to us about the work we do, how we do it, and what we get paid for
it. And I believe that the principles for which we fought in 1934 are
still true and still useful. Whether your job is pushing a four-wheeler,
or programming a computer, I don't know of any way for working people to
win basic economic justice and dignity except by being organized into a
solid, democratic union."
For more information about LaborFest, which continues through July 31, 2004, visit www.laborfest.net. To learn more about Harry Bridges and the San Francisco strike visit: www.holtlaborlibrary.org/sfstrike.html or www.theharrybridgesproject.org
(Reported by Dean Goodman, an AEA member since 1943, who founded the Bay Area Advisory Committee for Equity in 1976 and was elected its first chairperson.)