Hollywood Made A Calculated Decision To Stop Making Movies About Labor Unions — And It’s Not Because People Weren’t Watching Them
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Hollywood Made A Calculated Decision To Stop Making Movies About Labor Unions — And It’s Not Because People Weren’t Watching Them

Jul 26, 2023

The question of how industry exploits labor is as old as the concept of industry itself. It is the engine that runs Charles Dickens’ novels, the jungle of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and Oil!, the central concern of British Romanticism and the target of Franklin Roosevelt's legislative slate establishing an 8 hour work day and creating a Department of Commerce and Labor in the pursuit of his utopian vision of a classless society. FDR signed the Wagner Act, officially the National Labor Relations Act, into law in 1934, giving employees the right to form and join unions and obligating employers to engage in good faith collective bargaining. It wasn't altruism. Roosevelt was responding to a recent spate of bloody labor conflicts, factory and town takeovers, in the United States. He hoped negotiation would supplant bloodshed. For a while, it did. Movie depictions of labor strife often find inspiration in the conflagrations flaring up at home and abroad pre-Wagner Act. Sergei Eisenstein's first feature Strike (1925) utlizes the cross-cutting montage style originated by Lev Kuleshov that Eisenstein's largely credited with popularizing, remains a shockingly modern take on how factory owners treat their workers. The resolution of the film has the government herding striking workers into a field to execute them as images of a bull being slaughtered are intercut to underscore the horror of state-sponsored intervention and, literally, how workers are seen by their masters. It's not subtle, but it is evergreen.

Other great labor films include John Sayles’ extraordinary Matewan (1987) which dramatizes a 1929 coal miners’ strike in a small West Virginian mining town; Mario Monicelli's The Organizer (1963) tackles textile workers in Turin at the turn of the last century; Martin Ritt's The Molly Maguires (1970) grimly, ambiguously essays a kind of grassroots terrorism at play in Pennsylvanian coal mines in 1876; John Ford's How Green Was My Valley (1941) (now unfairly known primarily as the film that beat Citizen Kane for best picture) features a divisive mine strike in its first half, paid off in its second by a mine disaster in 19th century Wales; and Youssef Chahine's hard bitten The Land (1970) details the struggles between landowners and their tenants in an Egypt under British control circa 1930. All catalog the suffering of the powerless, forced to work in order to survive and taken for granted for their desperation. Each end in violent, sometimes deadly interventions in order to force compliance. Bill Duke's uncompromising The Killing Floor (1984) adds a strong racial element to these histories, recounting the true struggle of poor Black sharecroppers during WWI, joining the Amalgamated Meat Cutters & Butcher Workmen of North America union in order to organize against widespread and endemic racism and assorted quotidian abuses. While each of these films can be read as metaphors for issues that remain unresolved, as period pieces they’re more likely to be enjoyed — or possibly dismissed — as artifacts of a less enlightened age suffering indignities modern workers no longer have to endure. The powers that be would like every inch conceded to be the last ground given, and films about progressive issues of any sort have a tendency to make those who could make a difference feel as though they’d already given at the proverbial office.

Harder to dismiss is something like Herbert J. Biberman's Salt of the Earth (1954), with its cast of professional and non-professional actors, gathered to protest their treatment at the hands of a zinc-mining conglomerate that controls a town populated by their predominantly Mexican-American employees. Based on a 1951 strike against Empire Zinc Company in Grant County, New Mexico, part of its outrage is in the company's new strike-breaking tactic of employing the new 1947 Taft-Hartley Act which restricts a broad range of strike and boycott activities of unions, blunting many of the advances of Roosevelt's Wagner Act. Truman tried to veto it but was overridden by a Republican Congress. (Not for nothing, the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959 continued to water down the bargaining power of unions.) Salt of the Earth, with a creative team that had, to a one, been blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, proceeds with righteous fury against a police force that was created to and has only ever been effective as a protector of the property of the wealthy as well as corporations designed, as all corporations are designed, to only care for the pocketbooks of its shareholders. That same year, Elia Kazan, after naming names during his testimony before HUAC, made On the Waterfront (1954) with Marlon Brando and screenwriter Budd Schulberg rewriting a script initially penned by Arthur Miller. Its story of ex-prizefighter and longshoreman Terry Malloy testifying against his corrupt union leaders is unquestionably a classic, but also stained indelibly by Kazan using labor racketeering as a cover, even an apologia, for his own dishonorable behavior. Nonetheless, the final sequence as a badly-beaten Malloy (Brando) staggers to work to the approval of his blue collar peers, remains a stirring moment in the career of one of our great actors even if its effectiveness as a working class rallying cry is dampened because of its creator. In truth, both Salt of the Earth and On the Waterfront can be discredited as pro-labor films, or at least distracted from their union message, for the duality of their creators’ motivations.

Three key films in the 1970s, however, centered labor movements while forcing them into a modern conversation. They are Barbara Kopple's stunning documentary Harlan County, USA (1976), Martin Ritt's populist and award-winning Norma Rae (1979) and Paul Schrader's extraordinary directorial debut Blue Collar (1978). The most widely popular of these, Norma Rae, is arguably the least effective of them. In it, Sally Field, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of a smalltown North Carolinian cotton mill worker who is convinced by fancy New York labor organizer Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman) to demand better pay and conditions from her masters. Field is a force of nature in it, but much of the picture is broad and given to class caricature. It's prestige hicksploitation. Upon learning Reuben is Jewish, Norma Rae declares he's the first she's ever met and that she was raised to think they were inhuman monsters. For his part, he disapproves of the non-Nathan's quality of the hotdogs served at the community baseball game. The film works best when it deals with the conflict between organizers and factory administration, but it spends a significant portion of its runtime on fish-out-of-water nonsense, Norma Rae's marriage to schlubby co-worker Sonny (Beau Bridges), and her irrepressible spunkiness in responding to various situations. The key moment in the picture isn't the inevitable work stoppage that's framed like the pyrrhic protest that ends Dead Poets Society (1989), but an early meeting at Norma Rae and Sonny's house where they invite a few of their Black co-workers to participate. Suddenly, Norma Rae recognizes, if only for a second, the importance of intersectionality in organizing labor and how racism is used as a divisive tool to keep workers fragmented and powerless. The rest of it, alas, is mostly an underdog melodrama centering a white woman's individual heroism. It's a superb entertainment, but that's really all it is.

Kopple's Harlan County, USA is, in contrast, a transformative film, a milestone in which Kopple weaponizes the Maysles Brothers’ theory of "direct cinema" in which the documentarian is strictly an observer of their subjects, allowing the stories to unfold without artistic interference. Kopple worked with the Maysles on their landmark documentaries Salesman (1969) and Gimme Shelter (1970) before starting her own production company for which Harlan County, USA was its first project. She is one of the unsung heroes of the greatest period of filmmaking in the history of the medium. It would take four years to complete with Kopple writing constant grant requests from on site while carrying two guns because of death threats from the mine owners against which the miners of Kentucky's Harlan County were organizing. The product of her dedication is a still-unmatched chronicle of a time and a people engaged in a battle for basic decency against a capitalist machine entirely disinterested in them as anything other than grist for their enterprise. One retired miner recounts a time he was warned not to lead mules into unsafe areas of the mine. "What about me?" he asks. His overseer says "We can always hire another person, we have to pay for the mules." Kopple provides metrics showing the mine's outrageous profits compared to the workers’ almost complete lack of wage adjustments during the same period. The wealth disparity is shocking and as it happens all too familiar for modern viewers. The wealth gap in the United States has never been more stark in 2023, wages are stagnant, labor activism is rising again, people are angry and there is a conspicuous paucity of labor-related films. More on that in a second.

Schrader's Blue Collar (1978) is a pitch-black, even nihilistic film about auto workers in Wayne County, Michigan. Tension on the set (Richard Pryor and his bodyguard beat Harvey Keitel for ruining a take is the best story) helped to create a film of unrelieved angst and aggression. Pryor, Keitel and Yaphet Kotto play blue collar joes who conspire to rob their corrupt labor union, only to find them pit against each other with promises of meaningless titles and paltry wage increases. What begins as a heist caper flick ends as a devastating indictment of how the effectiveness of unions is hamstrung by the cupidity of individuals in paycheck-to-paycheck straits designed to keep them in line. Tying healthcare to work is barbarous, a moral abomination, and homelessness proves an effective and constant existential threat held over Schrader's working class antiheroes.

Barbara Kopple made another extraordinary documentary about a labor movement in 1990, American Dream, and Boots Riley made the indescribable and ferocious Sorry to Bother You in 2018 — a brilliant, cogent synthesis of racial and class satire that paints a dire picture of the Amazon warehouse's next evolution into prison work colony. It's so brilliant in fact, and so prescient, that it will still be a couple of years before it's seen as visionary rather than just maximalist science fiction satire. John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962) was perceived the same way upon its release and now it plays as a quaint warning that failed to predict how bad things were really going to get. And beyond that? A notable silence around what is again arguably one of the most popular and pressing topics in the United States.

Reagan fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981, but Joe Biden signed a law forbidding rail workers from striking for better working conditions and safety at the end of last year. None of this is settled history. The Buffalo-born movement against Starbucks and that company's egregious and manifold violations of the Wagner Act culminated in a humiliating testimony from their once and future CEO, Howard Schultz, before Congress. Everything will roll back if unchecked. Our planet of apes tends towards brutality. Nazis are marching without hoods and winning elected office and child labor is becoming, again, permissible in a world with a depleted entry level workforce.

In very real ways around issues of diversity and social progress, Hollywood controls the popular narrative and has been found, repeatedly and egregiously, to be not only lacking but dangerously regressive.

And now, the Writers Guild of America has engaged in a work stoppage, likely to be joined by actors and directors as their own collective bargaining agreements expire. Perhaps the reason we don't see more labor movies, and haven't for some time, is because it's in Hollywood's best interest (a Hollywood largely owned by multinational corporations if you’re searching for a reason to care) not to encourage accord amongst a workforce currently asking for as little as a 3% share in what is by all accounts (except Hollywood's own) is an unprecedented profit surge. In very real ways around issues of diversity and social progress, Hollywood controls the popular narrative and has been found, repeatedly and egregiously, to be not only lacking but dangerously regressive. There is no real diversity in its ruling class, after all, and they are unteachable so long as they have no reason to learn. The only way to get through to corporations — which are not people, no matter what the 14th Amendment allows — that see the work of others as somehow the product of its own hand, is to stop producing until money, and the creative decisions around its deployment, is redistributed to the people actually doing the work. Watch Harlan County, USA and Blue Collar to understand how nothing was ever given to us: only won. Watch them to be reminded that the politics of division in all of its ugly forms benefits only one side. This is why unions are important in every industry. It's all one fight. Stand in solidarity or squander your life in the further enrichment of the already impossibly wealthy.

Walter Chaw is the Senior Film Critic for filmfreakcentral.net. His book on the films of Walter Hill, with introduction by James Ellroy, is now available.