This weekend is Labor Day weekend, and for many Americans, it is an annual ritual marking the end of the summer; a last chance to wear white, fire up the ol’ grill, spend time in the sun, watch Jerry Lewis’ annual telethon, and enjoy an extra day off from work with friends and family. But like much of American history, the origins of the holiday are generally misunderstood by the public as just another day off. Labor Day is actually the result of political action.
In 1884, a newly organized U.S. labor movement began demanding an eight-hour workday. When business and the government refused to relent, a general strike began on May 1, 1886 across the U.S. The strike was brutal, especially in Chicago, where workers faced some of the worst working conditions. On May 4, in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, workers gathered to protest the violent retaliation of police against the strikers, the police showed up again and someone threw a bomb at them, killing 8 policemen. A riot ensued, and the subsequent crackdown pressed labor’s cause forward, ultimately winning the eight-hour workday. In commemoration of the general strike and labor’s victory, nations around the world adopted May 1st as International Workers Day. Why did President Cleveland forego May 1st? Cleveland, not wanting to be seen as capitulating to labor’s victory, but hoping to avoid the conflict of not honoring American laborers, instead selected the first Monday in September, aligning the national celebration with the Knights of Labor’s annual parade in New York City. The move distanced the celebration from commemorating the general strike of 1886. And so, while the rest of the world’s workers point to the success of the American general strike of May 1, 1886 as International Worker’s Day, Americans now end their summer on what is essentially a federal holiday that has lost its meaning.
When Unions Mattered: An Old Union Rally Poster
Long time readers of The Back Row Manifesto know that I was raised in Flint, MI, which has its own special place in U.S. Labor history. Although the city always had an annual Labor Day celebration and parade, my understanding of what Labor Day means didn’t really come until college. Since that time, and having myself been a worker in all kinds of employment situations, I have watched American labor become essentially neutered as union politics have failed miserably, corporations have effectively kept organized labor out of the workplace, and the political concerns of the working man have been co-opted by the moralizing of the right who preach the gospel of deregulation and quality of life while stripping working people of the rights that were so hard won all those years ago. Organized labor has been its own worst enemy, imposing arcane contracts and policies on companies that work in 21st century models, losing tons of local battles, fighting internal corruption, and alienating itself from the real concerns of its membership base. At the same time, as labor has stumbled, the political landscape has changed substantially, to the point where talking about worker’s concerns sounds strange; it has literally been removed from the lexicon of public discussion. Meanwhile, the only national holiday meant to celebrate American labor has become just another day in the sun.
I don’t want to get too heavy handed about the topic (this is a film blog after all), so in honor of Labor Day, The Back Row Manifesto remembers the fight for worker’s rights and the impact those changes have had on our lives with a list of Labor Day films that remind us of what this holiday is all about. Enjoy!
Strike by Sergei Eisenstein (1925)
This film, the first by Russian master Sergei Eisenstein, is the standard bearer for movies about workers and their struggle for worker’s rights. That it was made in the Soviet Union under the watchful eye of the Stalin regime only adds to its reputation as pure propaganda, but Eisenstein was known for his feuds with Stalin. The film itself details a strike at a Moscow factory, and uses an interesting blend of vaudevillian comedy, dramatic violence and Eisenstein’s revolutionary montage technique to showcase the power of the worker’s unity against the selfishness of the greedy bosses. I think the movie is also interesting in its depiction of capitalists; none of them are anything like the benign looking, well-heeled suits working at companies today. For silent films fans, regardless of your political opinions, this is a must see.
It’s On DVD, So No Excuses: Eisenstein’s Strike
Salt Of The Earth by Herbert Biberman (1954)
In his upcoming Good Night, And Good Luck, George Clooney dramatizes the battle between newsman Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy, the man responsible for the communist witch hunt of the 1950’s. It looks like Clooney has adopted the Arthur Miller approach and gone after current day politicians by using a comparable historical model. Those interested in Clooney’s film should grab a copy of Salt Of The Earth, the apotheosis of the McCarthy-era blacklist film. The film is a simple melodrama about a miner’s strike, carried out by primarily Latino workers, in a New Mexico town, but the story of the film’s production is legendary. The production was relocated many times after several New Mexico towns forcefully prevented filming from taking place, acts of sabotage were committed, and the film had to be shipped out for processing in unlabelled cans in order to avoid destruction of the negative. After its completion, the film was immediately banned and almost everyone who worked on it was blacklisted from Hollywood. And they said it couldn’t happen here. Hmm.
Harlan County USA by Barbara Kopple (1976)
Of all the films on this little list, none stands shoulder to shoulder with what I consider to be one of the finest documentaries ever made, Barbara Kopple’s stunning Harlan County USA. I remember the first time I saw this movie on video as a teenager; growing up in a big union town, where it was commonplace to see and walk on a picket line, I was literally shocked to see a company employee brandish a handgun and fire at workers on strike. That act of injustice, caught on film and projected on my television screen, did as much to fuel my own sense of right and wrong as any single moment in my life. Recently, I watched a documentary (I can’t for the life of me remember which one) showing footage of a shootout between workers and corporate security where the workers were gunned down in cold blood outside their meeting place, and it echoed this singular cinematic moment for me. Recent films detailing the plight of foreign workers, like Life and Debt, show that violence and intimidation in the workplace are absolutely front and center in the 21st century, but like many American jobs, the conditions have been shipped overseas. Harlan County USA is a masterpiece; as dramatic as any fiction but still, all too real.
Workin’ In A Coal Mine: Harlan County USA
F.I.S.T by Norman Jewison (1978)
Sylvester Stallone, fresh on the heels of his performance as the ultimate American working class underdog Rocky Balboa, partnered with director Norman Jewison on F.I.S.T, the story of a teamster’s rise to power and eventual martyrdom. The film is actually pretty good, a sentence that is required when considering Stallone’s post-Rocky body of work. In retrospect, what is really astounding is not F.I.S.T itself, but actually watching Stallone in a movie celebrating organized labor. Someone should look at Stallone’s films and trace them against the rise of Reaganism; how could the same man who played Johnny Kovac and Rocky Balboa go on to play Marion Cobretti (which, along with Snake Pliskin in Escape From New York, is possibly my favorite character name in film) in Cobra and John Rambo in First Blood AND WRITE THE SCREENPLAYS?!?! Wow. It is a long way to the top.
Norma Rae by Martin Ritt (1979)
I am going to pitch you a storyline and you tell me if the movie would be made today: A single mother of two, working in a southern textile factory, becomes fed up with the working conditions in her plant and finds empowerment as a woman and as a leader by organizing her co-workers to join a union. Let’s get real; no one in Hollywood would dream of touching Norma Rae today, but in 1979, the film won two Oscars and made Sally Field into a star. The film is as good as it gets in Hollywood and stands as one of the best examples of the labor movement in film. I defy anyone not to get goose bumps when Norma holds up the Union sign; it is a singular moment in movies. Films like Erin Brockovich owe a big debt to Norma Rae‘s consciousness raising message, but no film since has truly captured the personal passion of the fight for unionization and worker’s rights. Who could have guessed the film would be labor’s swan song?
There Is Power In A Union: Sally Field in Norma Rae
Silkwood by Mike Nichols (1983)
We have all had bosses we’ve hated. My personal favorite was a buffoon in a toupee I worked for who, knowing nothing about the internet, decided he should be the CEO of a dot com start up. He then sabotaged meetings I held with developers by asking questions like ‘” have to know… Will this website work on the internet AND the information super highway?” And I admit, when you work for someone like that, there are days, several days, where the thought of a possible meeting between the boss and the front of a bus moving at 40 miles an hour might be a satisfying experience. I’m sure the feeling was mutual.
In all seriousness, one of the most moving films ever made about the violence inherent in the process of exposing corporate misdeeds is Mike Nichol’s telling of Karen Silkwood’s story. Silkwood was a real-life worker at a metallurgy plant who was purposefully exposed to radiation, began a whistle blowing campaign, and was killed (or had an accident) en route to a meeting with a New York Times writer on the verge of exposing the horrors at the Kerr-McGee plant where Silkwood worked. Meryl Streep is exceptional in the leading role, Nichols’ direction is outstanding, and the film is a powerful indictment of the lengths private industry can go to protect their interests.
Matewan by John Sayles (1987)
I love this film and rank it first among John Sayles’ work. The story of Wobbly union organizer Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper) and his quest to organize West Virginia coal miners into the IWW union in the 1920’s. By having the audacity to organize, the workers set off a war with management. Yes, a war; men with guns trying to kill each other, often with great success. The film is an excellent period piece, capturing the challenges of organizing uneducated workers, paid with company money, living in the company town, to fight against their well-armed bosses. There is also an element of High Noon at play in the film, and the final showdown between the Pinkerton army of thugs and the union men is a shattering expose of the life and death stakes of labor organizing at the time. Outstanding.
Roger & Me by Michael Moore (1989)
Home sweet home. This film sent shockwaves through my hometown when it was released in 1989. I was still in High School, but many of the faces in the film were familiar to me and certainly the economic situation in Flint was something I knew very well; stories about General Motors and its pullout from Flint were daily news. Michael Moore was also a well known person in the community; the former publisher of the Michigan Voice had been a local raconteur for years, and many Flintstones saw Roger & Me as an extension of Moore’s muckraking journalism and an attempt to make our town look a foolish example of incompetent management, silly citizens, and bad civic ideas run amok. But guess what; Flint in the late 1980’s was all of those things. It still is. I return home several times a year and still write a film column for the local independent newspaper, but Flint is a jewel in the crown of late 20th century industrial change; the city that founded the United Auto Workers union, left in the ruins of its former glory. I give Moore kudos for exposing it.
Just Doin’ His Job: Deputy Fred Gets Ready For Another Eviction in Michael Moore’s Roger and Me
American Dream by Barbara Kopple (1991)
Barbara Kopple follows her masterpiece with a powerful example of how much things had changed in labor; the fight to unionize on display in Harlan County USA comes face to face with the impact of Reganomics at a Hormel meat plant in Minnesota in American Dream. The film is simply devastating; After turning a $30 million profit for the year, the Hormel company asked its employees to take a two dollar an hour pay cut. When the union decides to engage in a long, bitter strike to fight the pay cut, the will of the workers is sorely tested. What American Dream really represents is a shift in the landscape; by 1991, the only people who deserve to benefit from corporate profitability are shareholders and executives. The shift in value from rewarding workers for profitability into slashing the workforce and payrolls to shift value solely to investors is at the heart of the film’s dilemma, conditions that are commonplace in the labor market today. That is a short, fast and tragic road from Harlan County USA and sets the stage for the WorldComs and Enrons of the world.
Darwin’s Nightmare by Hubert Sauper (2005)
What is the old movie trailer tagline? “If you see only one documentary this year, make it Darwin’s Nightmare!” Amen to that. I have already documented
my thoughts on the film, but if you want to see the front lines of 21st Century labor, look no further than the developing world. Darwin’s Nightmare has it all; the companies using natural resources to create high-value exports, taking the money out of the country and leaving the local economy in tatters. Looking back from atop America’s perch atop the economic food chain here in the late 21st century, from Eisenstein to Darwin’s Nightmare, it is impossible to describe how much the world of work, our idea of labor and its just rewards has changed and how much has stayed the same elsewhere in the world. This Labor Day, reflect for amoment and take the long view; remember why this Monday is a true national holiday.