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Not Marching? Celebrate May Day with These 10 Labor Docs for International Workers’ Day

Not Marching? Celebrate May Day with These 10 Labor Docs for International Workers' Day

As the May 1 day of action ramps up, we know not all of you are able to get out and fight against the powers that be. Meant to commemmorate the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, where workers fighting for the eight-hour workday entered into a violent interaction with police, International Workers’ Day has been celebrated since the 1880s.

The documentary community has helped the labor movement gain attention over the years, with some periods seeing more labor sympathy than others.  Below are 10 documentaries we suggest you consider watching as part of your International Workers’ Day education:

“American Dream,” Barbara Kopple

Barbara Kopple’s 1990 film documents workers at a Minnesota plant who must fight against the Hormel corporation and the national union that represents them after both organizations disagree with the way they handled a dramatic cut in the Hormel plant’s minimum wage. The film, which went on to win the Oscar, is seen as a showcase of the real life human effects of Reaganomics. 

“Finally Got the News,” Stewart Bird, Rene Lichtman and Peter Gessner

Also documented in the book “Detroit, I Do Mind Dying,” the work of the Leage of Revolutionary Black Workers was essential for the recognition of the work of black workers in Detroit’s robust industry in the 1960’s and 1970’s. “Finally Got the News,” produced in 1970 during the League’s heyday, tells a history of black labor in America that is both searing and unmissable.

“Harlan County, U.S.A.” Barbara Kopple

It’s no surprise that a list of labor documentaries includes two films from the cinema verite director most sympathetic to the labor cause, Barbara Kopple. Also an Oscar winner, “Harlan County, U.S.A.” takes a look at coal workers in the eponymous Kentucky county as they strike against their employer, Duke Power Company, which owned the Brookside Mine and Prep Plant, for proposing a contract with a no-strike clause.

“The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant,” Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert

A GM plant in a small Ohio town is closing just days before Christmas. In Bognar and Reichert’s Oscar-nominated 40-minute film, the workers take center stage to show exactly what the impact of outsourcing and the death of American industry looks like.

“Maquilapolis,” Vicky Funari and Sergio De La Torre

As American jobs in the garment industry move south to Mexico for lower wages, women from all over Mexico head to Tijuana for jobs in the maquiladoras. The filmmakers allow the women to document their own story, allowing them to take to the assembly line with cameras to document their working conditions and the dignity with which they treat each other.

“Mardi Gras: Made in China,” David Redmon

David Redmon’s “Mardi Gras” takes a look at the ways that something as seemingly innocuous as Mardi Gras beads are a part of globalized industry. By looking at the path of the beads from production in Fuzhou, China to New Orleans for their standard debaucherous use, and finally to a New York gallery, the filmmakers show the often ignored path of just one of the manufactured objects we encounter in our everyday life.

“Roger & Me,” Michael Moore

Michael Moore made his first real impact on the doc world in 1989 with what is perhaps his finest film, a tribute to his hometown of Flint, Michigan and the workers that sustained it. The film is a quest to meet with General Motors CEO Roger Smith, who ordered the closing of several plants in Flint, which caused the loss of scores of jobs. The film also famously documents an interview with Nike CEO Phil Knight, who with great hubris says that he does not make his shoes in America because “Americans just don’t want to make shoes.”

“Studs Terkel’s ‘Working’,” Kirk Browning and Steven Schwartz

Perhaps the best documentary about labor made since the dawn of the 20th century has not been a film at all; Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Studs Terkel’s book “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do” is one of the most ambitious and riveting documentations of the lives of workers ever to have been made. A few years after publication, it was turned into a musical and “American Playhouse” filmed the production, which included Barry Bostwick, Rita Moreno, James Taylor, and Patti Labelle in the cast.

“Triangle Fire,” Jamila Wignot

As part of the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which an overcrowded garment factory with unsafe working conditions in downtown Manhattan caught fire, leaving many of the workers dead, PBS’ “American Experience” produced a film about the tragedy. The fire led to a number of laws to be added to the books to protect workers’ rights. The film is available to watch for free on the “American Experience” website.

“Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price,” Robert Greenwald

Director Robert Greenwald has taken on FOX News in his film “Outfoxed” and the U.S. government in several films about the Iraq War, and in 2005 he took Wal-Mart to task for crushing small businesses in small communities around the country.

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