The trials and tribulations of organized labour powered more than one Hollywood epic before the idolatry of corporatism took hold in the wake of Wall Street, but even in the age of a Donald Trump presidential bid and Wal-Mart wages, the union cause still looks heroic though a high-end lens
By Rod Mickleburgh
My mother hated Labour Day. For her, a high school English teacher, it was not only a day to pay tribute to workers and unions, but a signal that the lazy, hazy days of summer were over, and it was time to go back to work. Every year, the prospect of facing classroom after classroom of demanding new students caused a thick knot of apprehension in her stomach. And my mother was an excellent teacher. Long after she retired, she continued to feel those same old familiar twinges of Labour Day dread.
Last year. B.C. teachers were on the picket line. Classrooms sat empty. This year, one hopes some of them reflect back on the original purpose of Labour Day, a celebration of struggles to improve worker wages and working conditions. You know, Labour Day… that one day of the year when newspaper editorial writers and politicians pretend they really admire unions for what they do on behalf of their members.
So, teachers, on your last day of “free time” before the bell tolls, why not watch a Labour Day movie to get you all inspired? Good for non-teachers, too! (One doubts many will be following the example of the loony-right Freedom Foundation to the south of us, which is urging all Americans to work today, to protest “all the abuses of organized labour.”) As a Mickleblog public service, here’s my Top Ten List of Movies to Watch on Labour Day. Further suggestions welcomed!
(Thanks to Mark Leier, former director of the Centre for Labour Studies at Simon Fraser University, specializing in union and left-wing worker movements, for the idea. And a cautionary note: not all of these movies paint unions as 100 per cent good.)
10 LABOUR DAY MOVIES:
10. On the Waterfront. Okay, this isn’t going to get anyone fired up to join a trade union, but it’s a vivid depiction of what happens when unions go bad, and ordinary workers are faced with tough choices. “I coulda bin a contender…,” Brando laments.
9. Roger and Me. I am not as big a fan of Michael Moore as others. The journalist in me doesn’t like the way he sometimes distorts chronology, stages stunts and edits interviews for his own purposes. But he’s often funny and, at his best, provides some badly-needed skewering of “things that are wrong” with U.S. society. Roger and Me, dealing with massive layoffs by General Motors in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, was his first documentary to hit it big. Lots of good moments.
8. North Country. Another movie that does not show a union in a particularly good light, but well worth watching for the courage of a female mine worker combatting on-the-job sexism in a northern Minnesota town. The union meeting is a classic. Stars Charlize Theron, along with the ever-excellent Frances McDormand. And, as a special bonus, there are many songs by Minnesota native Bob Dylan, including a killer version of Tell Ol’ Bill.
7. Silkwood. The harrowing, true life story of Karen Silkwood, who became a union activist when she discovered serious safety violations in the Oklahoma nuclear power plant where she worked. Screenplay by Nora Ephron. Directed by Mike Nichols. Starring Meryl Streep and Cher. All four received Oscar nominations. Very well done.
6. Blue Collar. It’s been a long time since I saw this little known film, starring Harvey Keitel, Richard Pryor and Yaphet Kotto. But I remember finding it quite powerful in its presentation of “ordinary” blue collar workers, and, like On the Waterfront, what to do when they discover their union is corrupt. It’s useful to remember that corruption used to be far more pervasive years ago in unions based in the United States. Many were subsequently cleaned up by vigilant prosecutors and an aroused membership. While Canadian labour organizations, like the rest of us, make mistakes, union corruption has always been relatively rare up here. A movie that exposes union corruption and intimidation is not necessarily anti-union, unless it suggests such matters are endemic, which they are not. Note: this strong movie is not a comedy, despite the presence of Richard Pryor.
5. Grapes of Wrath. This tremendous, moving adaptation of Steinbeck’s classic novel about downtrodden Okie sharecroppers during the Depression would have been at the top of my list, but it’s not strictly a union movie. However, it certainly touches on the fight for decent wages and the thuggish forces unleashed against those simply standing up for their rights. Henry Fonda’s famous speech that closes the movie is unforgettable.
4. Made in Dagenham. This excellent, under-appreciated film, staring Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins and Rosamund Pike, deals with the tensions and ups-and-downs of a pivotal strike by a group of determined women at a Ford plant in England in 1968. They wanted equal pay with men. Imagine that. I found it quite uplifting.
3. Harlan Country, USA. I know there are other terrific documentaries about strikes and unions, but it’s hard to imagine any better than this riveting profile of a coal miners’ strike in deepest Kentucky. Directed by Barbara Kopple, the film won an Academy Award for best documentary in 1976. Powerful.
2. Matewan. Independent film-maker John Sayles is one of my favourite directors. I’ve seen most of his films and rarely have I been disappointed. Although there’s a lot of competition, this may be his best. It covers a violent, real miners’ strike in the coal fields of West Virginia in the early 1920’s. The marvellous David Strathairn is particularly wonderful as the town sheriff trying to keep law and order, when both sides have guns. James Earl Jones, as always, is great, too. Hazel Dickens dominates the soundtrack with several haunting songs straight out of the backwoods. Extremely satisfying movie on all counts.
1. Norma Rae. No surprise. The best movie ever made about union organizing in a tough environment. Yet Norma Rae succeeds so well because it is more than that. There’s also a great deal of human drama, too, as individuals caught up in the action struggle with their own lives, not merely against conditions in the textile mills. If you’ve already seen the movie, you’ll remember that one scene destined to live forever in union lore. I dare you to remain unmoved. Sally Field won a well-deserved Oscar for her strong performance, but her husband Beau Bridges does a good job as well, trying to cope with forces he never imagined when the two were married. Essential viewing.
P.S. Also recommended are some movies I haven’t seen but are touted by others: Bread and Roses, Strike (Eisenstein’s silent movie classic), Salt of the Earth, and Germinal, based on Zola’s epic novel of coal miner families and a strike in northern France.
HAPPY REST OF LABOUR DAY!
And a final word to teachers, if you’d rather spend the day not thinking about anything to do with unions — an understandable sentiment — treat yourself to Mr. Holland’s Opus. Guaranteed to cheer you up.
For more Mickleburgh, please visit Mickleblog.
(* A note from the comrades of the editorial collective: Another great bet for union lovers and rainbow flag flyers is Pride, a feisty and surprisingly moving little film about the unlikely alliance forged between Welsh workers and the the Gay Rights movement in London at the height of the homophobic 1980s.)