News & Events

Summer guide to union/activist themed movies

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
June 2007 Edition

By Joe Twarog
Associate Director, Labor Education & Training

It is summer and time to relax. The following is a list of labor-themed and activist oriented films that have been compiled from various sources. The list includes popular big-screen movies—some with light themes to shorter serious documentaries. Either way, they are alternately thought-provoking, uplifting, educational, entertaining, funny, inspirational and, sometimes, depressing.

Matewan (1987). Directed by John Sayles. The story of a bitter clash between a union and coal company in West Virginia in the 1920s as well as a clash of two different economic systems—capitalism and feudalism. It is a drama about the coal miners’ strike in 1920 with Chris Cooper playing the fictional United Mine Worker’s organizer Joe Kenehan, and Will Oldham playing a fictional narrator/ miner Danny Radnor, and James Earl Jones playing black miner Few Clothes Johnson. The film shows the world of the miners in West Virginia, especially the cooperation between blacks and whites despite the coal company’s attempts to create racial divides. The characters of Sid Hatfield, Cabell Testerman, C. E. Lively and Few Clothes Johnson were based on real people.

9 to 5 (1980). Directed by Colin Higgins. This is a comedy with a serious underlying message revolving around office politics, male chauvinism, and sexism. It stars Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, Dabney Coleman, Elizabeth Wilson, Sterling Hayden. Three female office workers combine forces to kidnap their incompetent, deceitful, egotistical, and chauvinistic boss and raise office efficiency to an alltime high during his absence.

Norma Rae (1979). Directed by Martin Ritt. With Sally Field, Ron Leibman, Beau Bridges, Pat Hingle, Barbara Baxley. Norma Rae, a textile worker in a small Southern town, works with a labor organizer to establish a union and change the intolerable working conditions at the plant. It is based on the real-life story of textile union activist Crystal Lee Sutton in her fight against the J.P. Stevens Co. in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., which resulted in a labor contract between Stevens and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. Sally Field won an Oscar for best actress for her role as Norma Rae.

Salt of the Earth (1954). This film was written (Michael Wilson), directed (Herbert J. Biberman) and produced (Paul Jarrico) by members of the original “Hollywood Ten,” who were blacklisted during the height of McCarthyism hysteria. The film was denounced by the U.S. House of Representatives and the American Legion called for a boycott of the film because it was allegedly too pro-labor and subversive. It is a semidocumentary of the year-long struggle by Mexican-American zinc miners (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. When an injunction is issued against the striking workers, the wives take up the battle. The film is an early treatment of feminism, because the wives of the miners play a pivotal role in the strike. The cast includes only five professional actors with the rest made up of locals from the area and members of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, Local 890 (many of whom were part of the actual strike that inspired the story). A must see!

North Country (2005). Directed by Miki Caro and written by Linda Miklowitz. This is a semi-fictionalized account of the long legal battle of a group of women miners who endured a hostile work environment and continuous insults and unwanted touching when they became the first women to go work at the Eveleth Mines in Minnesota. They successfully broke the gender barrier working in the Minnesota iron mines and broke legal ground with the nation’s first class action sexual harassment lawsuit. Charlize Theron won an Academy Award nomination for her role in the film.

Silkwood (1983). Directed by Mike Nichols and written by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen. Starring Cher and Meryl Streep. This film is based on the real life story of Karen Silkwood, a union metallurgy worker who fought for safety in her plutonium processing plant, the Kerr-McGee plant in Oklahoma. (Robert J. Kerr, one of Kerr-McGee’s founders was a governor and U.S. senator from Oklahoma.) Silkwood joined the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) and testified before the Atomic Energy Commission about the shoddy safety practices and the company falsified inspection records. Silkwood died under suspicious circumstances in an automobile crash while en route to meet with an AEC official and a New York Times investigative reporter to share her findings.

The Willmar 8 (1982). Produced by Lee Grant and Mary Beth Yarrow. Directed by Lee Grant. A documentary about eight women who went on strike because of employment discrimination at a bank in Willmar, Minn. Eight unassuming, apolitical women were driven by sex discrimination at work to take the most unexpected step of their lives and found themselves in the forefront of the struggle for women’s rights.The women not only were passed over for managerial positions, they were required to train the all-male managerial staff who would become their supervisors. The National Labor Relations Board eventually ruled in favor of the bank. As a consequence, the women lost their jobs, as well as their demands for equality and they were not gainfully employed after the strike. The movie is especially relevant given the May 2007 Supreme Court ruling severely limiting lawsuits on pay disparity and sex discrimination in the workplace.

With Babies and Banners: Story of the Women’s Emergency Brigade (1978). Women’s Labor History Film Project. Produced by Lyn Goldfarb, directed by Lorraine Gray. The story of the Women’s Emergency Brigade which was formed during the United Auto Workers’ 1937 sit-down strike in the General Motors Flint, Mich., plants. The Women’s Emergency Brigade was composed of female GM workers and the wives of men involved in the strike. The brigade became the backbone of the strike and not only provided support services (like running the union kitchens that provided food to the strikers occupying the plants) but did picket duty themselves. They ultimately won recognition of their union and improved wages and conditions.

At the River I Stand (1993). Directed by David Appleby, Allison Graham and Steven Ross. This documentary recounts the two eventful months that transformed a local labor dispute of 1,300 Memphis AFSCME sanitation workers into a national Civil Rights campaign. It also relates the events that led to the tragedy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. This documentary brings into sharp relief issues such as the connection between economic and civil rights, the debate over violent vs. nonviolent change, and the demand for full inclusion of African Americans in American life.

Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1987). Five women reminisce about their jobs and working conditions during World War II. Includes topics of sex discrimination, the women’s movement, and the role of movies and radio in helping mold public opinion during World War II. This is an excellent documentary on the American home front during the Second World War. Women were strongly encouraged to join the factory workforce to replace the m en who went to fight the war. This film offers a rare glimpse of World War II from the female perspective, and is a vital document of American history.

Maid in America (2004). Produced and directed by Anayansi Prado. An intimate look into the lives of three Latina immigrants working as nannies and housekeepers in Los Angeles. The issue of worker’s rights is introduced in the film through Dynamic Workers, a collective of women who have formed their own business to provide job security and benefits, and Domestic Workers Association, a support organization providing information and advocacy. The film offers insights into the immigrant experience, labor issues and contemporary Latina culture.

Miles of Smiles: Years of Struggle (1982). A documentary on the formation of the first African-American trade union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and its key leader, A. Philip Randolph. It includes personal narratives of retired porters about their work and duties on the Pullman trains and about the formation of their union, and their struggles that helped pave the way for the Civil Rights movement. It also reveals the harsh discrimination that impacted the porters every day lives.

Poletown Lives! (1982). Produced and directed by George Corsetti. This documentary tells the story of the destruction of Poletown, an inner-city Detroit neighborhood. Poletown was destroyed in 1981 when the city used its power of eminent domain to provide tax-free land to General Motors for construction of a Cadillac plant. A total of 1,500 homes, 16 churches, 144 businesses and two schools are now a parking lot and landscape for the Cadillac plant. The film is from the residents’ point of view in their own words. It illustrates the change in attitudes as the people realized that the institutions they trusted most—the courts, the United Auto Workers, the Archdiocese, the City Council, and the media—were not going to help them. The film focuses on the human cost of corporate power to control investment of capital and to transport that capital at will.

Roger & Me (1989). Directed by Michael Moore. A documentary about the closure of the General Motors’ plant in Flint, Mich., which resulted in the loss of 30,000 jobs. It details the attempts of filmmaker Michael Moore to get an interview with Roger Smith, the CEO at GM. Moore emerged as a modern folk hero because he doggedly and hilariously pursued what every working person wants to do—talk to the man at the top. Moore’s efforts to meet Smith and to get Smith to visit Flint provide the framework for the film.

American Dream (1989) Barbara Kopple’s documentary follows a contentious 1987 meatpackers’ strike at a Hormel plant in Austin, Minn. Hormel had cut the average hourly wage from $10.69 to $8.25 after posting a net profit of $30 million. In addition other benefits would be cut by about 30 percent. The local union (P-9) opposed the cut, but the United Food and Commercial Workers Union did not support them. The local union rejects the guidance of their national parent and takes on the process themselves, hiring strike consultant Ray Rogers to help them. The film features footage of union meetings, news broadcasts and in-depth interviews.

Other recommended films:

Erin Brockovich (2000); A Civil Action (1998); An Inconvenient Truth (2006); Union Maids (1976); Harlan County USA (1976); The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers’ Struggle (1997); Harvest of Shame (1960); The Masses and the Millionaires: The Homestead Strike (1974); A Union Man: The Life and Work of Julius Margolin (2006); Bread & Roses (2000); Rebuilding San Francisco 1906-1910: The Workers Story (2006)