POWER CLASS DIVISION THREAT
The Strike has become a symbol in our culture of worker power or worker threat. Portrayals of labor union life in film and on television feature strikes as a major form of union activity, even though statistically few unions these days actually go out on strike.
The Strike has become a vehicle through which major filmmakers dramatize their vision of working-class life (Sayles, Kopple, Eisenstein), a plot device used by science fiction television to safely tell stories about class division (Battlestar Galactica, ST: Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5), and even a hook for singing (The Simpsons) and dancing (Newsies, Pajama Game).
These films focus on the workplace and workers (though not all feature strikes or unions).
Many films are available through YouTube, Vimeo, Netflix, Amazon, your local public library, and other film sources.
Films on workers and the labor movement are shown at film festivals, including
American Dream. 1990. Directed by Barbara Kopple, this Academy Award-winning documentary chronicles the six-month strike at Hormel in Austin, Minnesota which pitted the local union against its national organization as well as its employer.) [Available for streaming, free, from Snagfilms,
American Standoff. 2002. Documentary, directed by Kristi Jacobson about the Teamster Overnite Transportation strike. Shown on HBO but so far not available through them.
At The River I Stand. 1993. Well-known documentary about the Memphis sanitation workers strike of 1968, a fight for a living wage and human dignity. It is also the story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who came to Memphis to support the workers and was assassinated there.
Billy Elliot. 2000, Directed by Stephen Daldry, this story of a young working-class boy who wants to dance is set against the bitter miners’ dispute of 1984-85 in northeast England.
Bread and Roses. 2000. Directed by Ken Loach, the fictional story of two Mexican sisters who become involved in a union organizing drive of janitors in L.A., based on the real-life Justice for Janitors campaign. Loach infuses the story with romance and humor.
Cesar Chavez. 2014. Directed by Diego Luna. Controversial film about United Farm Workers founder.
Clerks. 2004. Directed by Kevin Smith. A day in the life of two convenience store clerks and their acquaintances; this low-budget, independent film was an unexpected success and was praised for its authenticity (not surprising as Smith filmed it at locations where he himself had worked).
The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworker’s Movement. 1997. Directed by Rick Tejada- Fores & Ray Telles. Well-reviewed documentary on the United Farm Workers Union, their famous grape boycott, and the life of leader Cesar Chavez. (available on YouTube, ).
F.I.S.T. 1978. Directed by Norman Jewison. Sylvester Stallone as an organizer for the Federation of Inter- State Truckers in this depiction of a fictional Teamsters union.
Glengarry Glen Ross. 1992. Written by David Mamet, starring Al Pacino, Alec Baldwin. A surprisingly gripping drama about what goes on in a Chicago real estate office. No unions, just frustrated, emotional white- collar workers. (non-union)
Gung Ho. 1986. Directed by Ron Howard, starring Michael Keaton. This comedy is based on the culture clash that takes place when a Japanese company takes over a U.S. automobile plant.
Harlan County War. 2000. Fictional treatment of Harlan County miners.
The Help. 2011, directed by Tate Taylor. Based on the best-selling novel, this film about a young writer who decides to write about the African-American maids in her hometown during the 1960’s was both praised and severely criticized. (non-union)
Hoffa. 1992. Starring Jack Nicholson, a “biopic” of Teamster president James Hoffa.
The Intern. 2015, directed & written by Nancy Meyers, starring Anne Hathaway and Robert de Niro. A retired executive becomes an intern to the founder and CEO of a successful but Internet business.
The Molly Maguires. 1970, directed by Martin Ritt, starring Sean Connery, based on the real-life Molly Maguires, a secret group of Irish miners in 1876 Pennsylvania.
Newsies. 1992. This Disney musical, also turned into a Broadway show, is based on an actual newsboy strike in 1899 in New York City.
Nine to Five. 1980. Stars Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton. Comedy about women office workers that makes broad points about how to improve the corporate workplace. (not union)
On the Waterfront. 1954. Directed by Elia Kazan, starring Marlon Brando. Classic film about an ex-prize fighter, now a longshoremen, who must either join or oppose the corruption of the Hoboken waterfront.
One Day Longer: The Frontier Strike. 2000. Directed by Amie Williams. Starting in 1991, 550 Frontier workers maintained a picket line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 6 years and 4 months; this lively documentary (produced by HERE, the union) tells their story. Available online:
The Organizer. 1963, Directed by Mario Monicelli. Italian language film starring Marcello Mastroianni about organizing workers in a textile mill at the end of the 19th century.
The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter. 1980. Excellent documentary about five women who worked in factories and the shipyard while the men were overseas during World War II.
10,000 Men Named George. 2002. Directed by Robert Townsend, stars Andre Braugher. A fictional portrayal of A. Philip Randolph’s efforts to organize the sleeping car porter.
With Babies and Banners: The Story of the Women’s Emergency Brigade. 1979, Directed by Lorraine Gray,. Documentary on the role of the Women’s Emergency Brigade in the famous 1936 Flint sit-down strike.
Working Girl. 1988, directed by Mike Nichols. A modern fairy tale in which working class secretary (Melanie Griffith) from Staten Island finds career success and a man (Harrison Ford) in corporate Manhattan. Mostly by working behind the back of her evil, successful female boss (Sigourney Weaver). (non-union)
Students author an original film analysis:
Film basics (year, director, major actors)
Plot summary NO LONGER than 1 paragraph
A discussion of how the film succeeds (or does not succeed) in portraying the world of work, the labor movement, specific occupations/professions, the conflicts of the central characters and their organizations.
Conclude your review with your personal, informed recommendation of whether or not you recommend this film and to what type of audience.
How do worker actions (strikes, lockouts, group or personal activities in a non-union environment) play a role in the film? Are characters portrayed as stereotypes or individuals?
How realistic is the film’s portrayal of the workplace?
Points of discussion may include (but are not limited to) these film elements: setting, script, camera work, costumes and make-up, casting, acting. It is highly recommended that you be specific in your review, and refer to at least one scene to illustrate your thesis.
SALT OF THE EARTH
Based on an actual strike against the Empire Zinc Mine in New Mexico, the film deals with the prejudice against the Mexican-American workers, who struck to attain wage parity with Anglo workers in other mines and to be treated with dignity by the bosses.