reviewed by Larry Shoup in the ILWU DISPATCHER, March 2004
The many-faceted play "Fire on Pier 32" takes its title from a dramatic historical event. Worker demands for an organized voice on the waterfront during the crisis of the Great Depression led longshoremen to burn their company union contract books, the infamous "blue books," on San Francisco’s Pier 32 in 1933.
This collective act of defiance was pivotal in the history of both the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the larger American labor movement. The blue books were concrete representations of the slave-like conditions imposed on working people. Their burning was a mass act of rebellion that posed larger questions of the union shop, of how jobs were to be allocated, (the workers’ demand for a union-controlled hiring hall),of pay and pensions, as well as bigger social and political questions.
There was no turning back for the courageous workers who organized this waterfront bonfire. Their lives were now committed to the concept of democratic industrial unionism by and for the workers, and they now survived only through solidarity and struggle, through building their union. Their direct action and the actions of others around the country during the 1930s breathed life into a near moribund labor movement, showing that the way forward was militant democratic industrial unionism, organizing all workers irrespective of skill, race, gender or status.
The history of the ILWU represents one of the purest expressions of class consciousness and class militancy in the U.S., making its past, present and future of immense interest to us all. Perhaps no union in the U.S. has a more inspirational history for advocates as working people, real democracy and social justice. "Fire on Pier 32" reviews this dramatic history in three acts, with a cast of twelve, over two-and-a-half hours, covering the ILWU story from 1933 to 2003. It is about repeated employer offensives against labor and organized, militant solidarity as the only effective union response.
The play begins with the 1934 maritime and San Francisco general strike, then covers the epic "march inland" to organize warehouse workers, the successful organizing in Hawaii, and the great strikes of 1948 and 1971, using solidarity to turn back successive employer offensives. Final scenes of Act 3 include the lockout of 2002, when the union’s solidarity and strength was tested as the ILWU had to face down both the corporate bosses and the Bush faction of the national power structure.
In "Fire" National Writers Union playwright Jack Rasmus uses the Epic and American Musical theater traditions, as well as historic photo montage, to capture the conflict, spontaneity and passion of varied situations as the ILWU leadership and the rank and file collectively made history together. By establishing context using a narrator and ILWU archive photographs projected on an overhead screen, along with longshore workers and their key leaders as central characters, Rasmus is able to educate by provoking critical thinking and raising consciousness about social, economic and political relationships. His portrayals of boss and politician scheming at secret meetings expose the totalitarian impulses and venality of those who rule the corporate capitalist system. In another scene he shows how solidarity and the union’s collective democratic power enforce safety standards and make a real difference in people’s daily lives on the job.
At the same time, "Fire" entertains, with six new songs in contemporary musical styles, performed by a chorus of three singers-dancers and the cast of actors. The lyrics and music of the play’s two theme songs, "The Song of Solidarity and "Song of the New Unionism," are particularly memorable, representing in musical form the main premise of the play. Other key songs include "The Song of Desperation," "Government Man," "The Web," and "Moving the Money Around." These songs focus on secondary themes: government always siding with the bosses, the infamous Taft-Hartley law and how the corporations play games during negotiations.
The acting is also outstanding. "Fire’s" central protagonists, Frank and Joe, are two young workers who grow and develop as they build a union that resists corporate attacks through solidarity. Their passionate portrayals of the rank and file helps us feel in our guts what it must have been like to be a worker with only his fists, courageously facing police and National Guard machine guns and tanks during the decisive battles of July 1934.
This play is a powerfully important contribution to the entire American labor movement. In "Fire" historical events and the union movement live again through art, allowing our collective history to emerge clear and true. We see the personal and social transformations that take place as workers and their leaders debate the strategy and tactics of resistance while facing the manoeuvres of the bosses and the betrayals of some corrupted leaders.
The play succeeds in giving a human face and emotion to the meaning of solidarity—born of struggle, nurtured by sacrifice and cherished forever in the hearts of those who come to know it as more than just a concept. The universality of Rasmus’ art helps us see deeper truths about ourselves and our current predicament. The result is a useable past, helping us see that our ultimate goal must be democratizing the world, confronting the corporate capitalist usurpation of our inalienable rights and emancipating all working people everywhere.
It has been said that the theater houses a nation’s soul. If this is true, it can be said that "Fire on Pier 32" is one place where the soul of American labor resides. "Fire" is now on video and DVD, get a copy and see it with your union brothers and sisters. It is wonderfully entertaining and instructive at a time when we face the Bush-Leaguing and Wal-Marting of America.
About the Reviewer
Larry Shoup grew up in a union household, his father was a member of the Machinists Union. He has had a varied work career and has been a member of both the old Retail Clerks Union (today’s UFCW) and American Federation of Teachers. He now makes his living writing and is a member of the National Writers Union, serving on its steering committee and as its delegate to the Alameda County Central Labor Council. Shoup has written three books and numerous magazine articles. He is currently working on his fourth book: "Rulers and Resisters: A People’s History of California."