Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

Ronald E. Magden oral history
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Ron Magden was born in Mountain Home, Idaho in 1926. After receiving his PhD in History from the University of Washington in 1965, he started teaching at Tacoma Community College, and has worked there ever since. In 1977, Ron was asked to help edit ILWU Local 23’s grant proposal to the Washington Commission for the Humanities. Two years later, after the hired writers couldn’t quite get the history of Local 23 right, the Local asked Ron to take on the project. This was the beginning of a thirty-year involvement in Longshore history and education on the Pacific Coast.

His first book, The working waterfront: the story of Tacoma's ships and men (written with Art Martinson) was based on extensive oral history interviews with several generations of Tacoma longshoremen, and was published in 1982. As a gesture of appreciation, Local 23’s Pensioner’s Club made Ron an “honorary pensioner” in 1984. While he spent the next few years working on a history of the Washington State Teamster Unions, he continued to write articles on waterfront history for the Port of Tacoma, and at the request of legendary Tacoma longshoreman, Phil Lelli.

In 1987, Frank Reikel, an old-timer from Tacoma, took Ron over to the longshore hall in Seattle. When Local 19 wanted to write their history, they turned to Ron, who spent every Thursday for the next three years interviewing Seattle pensioners. A history of Seattle waterfront workers, 1884-1934 was the result, and was published alongside his updated history of the Tacoma local, The Working Longshoremen, in 1991.

Working with the ILWU’s Education Committee, he continues to help new generations of longshoremen understand the union’s rich history of struggle. He was intimately involved in the creation of the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies at the University of Washington, and serves on the Center’s Visiting Committee. He continues to publish regularly in the Port of Tacoma’s Pacific Gateway magazine.

In this videotaped interview conducted by Rod Palmquist in 2008, Ron Magden talked about his life and provides fascinating details about the 1934 Longshore Strike and the history of Locals 23 and 19. Video editing by Stephen Beda.