Back to home page click here

TRADE UNION FILMS

Contents

  • "Adalen '31"
  • "The Ballad Of Joe Hill"
  • "Battleship Potemkin"
  • "Billy Elliot"
  • "Blue Collar"
  • "Bread And Roses"
  • "Business As Usual"
  • "Comrades"
  • "F.I.S.T."
  • "The Grapes Of Wrath"
  • "Hoffa"
  • "I'm All Right Jack"
  • "The Life And Times Of Rosie The Riveter"
  • "Made In Dagenham"
  • "Matewan"
  • "The Navigators"
  • "Nine To Five"
  • "Norma Rae"
  • "On The Waterfront"
  • "Potiche"
  • "Pride"
  • "The Organiser"
  • "Salt Of The Earth"
  • "Silkwood"
  • "Strike"
  • "24 City"
  • "Two Days, One Night"
  • "Wal-Mart: The High Cost Of Low Price"
  • "Wall Street"

  • "Adalen '31" (1969)

    This is a Swedish-language film by the distinguished Swedish director Bo Widerberg who, three years later, made an English-language film about trade unionism. In this case, the action centres around a prolonged strike at a paper mill in small-town Adalen in 1931. It ends in tragedy and death when the troops move in. The movie was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Film.

    "The Ballad Of Joe Hill" (1971)

    Swedish director Bo Widerberg - who also made the trade union film "Adalen '31" and the beautiful "Elvira Madigan" in Swedish - created this English-language movie about a young Swedish immigrant, called Joe Hill, who lived and died in America almost a century ago. Hill wrote 'hymns of hope and hate' before, accused of the murder of a grocer, he died a labour movement martyr in front of a Utah firing squad in 1915.

    Joe Hill's name will forever be associated with an American workers' movement called the Wobblies. The Industrial Workers of the World obtained their popular name from the difficulty which immigrant workers had in pronouncing the initials IWW. It was founded in 1905 following a meeting in Chicago and advocated the abolition of capitalism and the formation of industrial unions. By 1913, IWW membership approached 250,000. However, the strength of the Wobblies was shortlived - almost immediately, it was riven with internal dissension and, during the First World War, more than 150 of its leaders were jailed. Nevertheless it still exists today [click here].

    One memory that remains is the song written to commemorate its Swedish martyr. The last of its four verses states:

    "And standing there as big as life
    And smiling with his eyes,
    Joe says, 'What they forgot to kill
    Went on to organize
    Went on to organize.'"

    "Battleship Potemkin" (1925)

    Made the year after "Strike" and - like it - a silent black and white directed by the genius Sergei Eisenstein, this is not strictly a labour movement film, but I've included it in this collection because it is centred on a workers' revolt - the sailors in the battleship mutiny which sparked the 1905 revolution in Russia - and it is quite simply a masterpiece. The famous Odessa Steps sequence was borrowed by Brian de Palma for "The Untouchables" (1987).

    "Billy Elliot" (2000)

    "Flashdance" meets "The Full Monty" in this sentimental but uplifting movie début by British director Stephen Daldry. Jamie Lee - a 13 year old lad from Billingham chosen from 2,000 hopefuls - is outstanding as the 11 year old Billy who discovers a passion for dance that enables him to channel his frustration and anger and to escape the problems of his widowed family and strike-ridden community.

    I've loved Julie Walters ever since her Mrs Apron character in the television sketch 'Acorn Antiques' and here she gives a remarkably assured performance as the boy's mentor. Gary Lewis is effective as Billy's father, a man of pent-up emotions who cannot understand his son'a strange ambitions. Set against the bitter miners' dispute of 1984-85 in the north-east of England, there is a great deal of pain in this film, but also much humour, real exhilaration and ultimately personal triumph.

    "Blue Collar" (1978)

    This was co-written and directed (his debut) by Paul Schrader who wrote the classics "Taxi Driver" & "Raging Bull" and subsequently directed such different works as "American Gigolo" & "Cat People". Three auto workers in Detroit are represented by Richard Prior (Zeke), Harvey Keitel (Jerry) and Yaphey Kotto (Smokey). Released in the same year as the avowedly pro-union film "Norma Rae", this depicts the familiar theme of trade union corruption, but does it in an intelligent and compelling manner. The scene in the paint shop is one you won't forget.

    "Bread And Roses" (2000)

    Like most films about trade unionism, this one is based on actual events (even though, at the end, it proclaims that everything is fictional). The title comes from the historic slogan of the striking textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912 and the contemporary storyline is inspired by a three-week strike of janitors in Los Angeles in 1990 which was a turning point in the 'Justice for Janitors' campaign waged by the Service Employees International Union. This is an LA that one never sees in the countless movies shot in the city which show glamour and gangsters but never the under-paid and exploited workers who keep so much of the metropolis going.

    The key characters in the narrative are Mexican sisters: the elder one Rosa (played movingly by Elpidia Carrillo), who already works in the city as a janitor and is struggling with a sick husband and young children, and the younger one Maya (a fiesty Pilar Padilla), whom we first see as an illegal immigrant crossing the US-Mexican border at dead of night. As in "Norma Rae", the workers are encouraged by a white, male, Jewish trade union organiser: in this case, Sam Shapiro (ably played by Adrien Brody). Although not without some humour and drama, the characters in the film are essentially one-dimensional and there is never any doubt where justice lies in this unequal battle between working-class Latinos and middle-class whites.

    The real surprise of the movie is its source. This may be a very American story, but the director Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty are British and the work was funded by five European countries. Most of the dialogue is in Spanish and sometimes the subtitles are shown against a bright background which makes them difficult to read. But the use of the immigrants' own language certainly adds to the authentity, as does the classic Loach documentary-like style of shooting. Indeed many real-life janitors played small roles and a couple of real-life organisers make appearances.

    Link: Justice for Janitors campaign click here

    "Business As Usual" (1987)

    This is a rarity - a British film which portrays the Labour movement in a positive light - and it is surprising that so few people have heard of it. Set in Liverpool, it is the story of the successful fight of a shop manageress called Babs against her peremptory dismissal, following her complaint about the sexual harassment of her colleague Josie by the Area Manager. Babs is played by Glenda Jackson - a native of the Wirral - then best known for "Women In Love" (1969), but later a Labour Member of Parliament and Government Minister. The Josie character is portrayed by the then new but talented black actress Cathy Tyson who was so impressive as the prostitute in “Mona Lisa". <"M "Business As Usual" is a woman's film in the sense that the central role is taken by a woman and both the writer/director, Lezli-Ann Barrett, and producer, Sara Geater, are woman. However, the issue at the heart of the work - sexual harassment - is equally relevant to both sexes, although it is men who have the most to learn about it.

    "Business As Usual" is based on actual events in Liverpool in 1983 when Audrey White was sacked by the management of 'Lady At Lord John'. Both Audrey White and Lezli-Ann Barrett were supporters of Militant - the sectarian faction subsequently expelled from the Labour Party - and such activists are depicted in the film as the real force in the campaign against the sacking.

    The strengths of "Business As Usual" are its relevance as a British film about an actual incident, its novelty in raising the subject of sexual harassment in what was then an unprecedentedly direct way, and its appeal in showing that the trade union movement could fight and win a dispute even in Thatcher's Britain. The weaknesses of the film are twofold. First, there is a certain amateur air about it, reflecting the lack of experience of the director and producer and some of the younger actors and actresses. Then there is the mono-dimensional nature of the film, with each of the characters so obviously 'good' (trade unionist or picket) or 'bad' (manager or policeman) with very little subtlety or complexity of characterisation, a fault so common to many well-intentioned pro-labour movies.

    Footnote: Audrey White, whose story inspired the film, is the sister of Phil Holt with whom I worked at the Post Office Engineering Union (POEU) where he was a leading member of the National Executive Council and I was a Research Officer. Years later, he explained to me the title of the film and some of the features of the dispute:

    "The film was called 'Business As Usual' because the Thatcher Government had introduced trade union legislation just prior to the events surrounding my sister's case which, amongst other things, outlawed secondary picketing. As my sister was the only one from the shop who was in a union, all the other pickets were illegal including my dad who also picketed. However, because my sister's cause was so popular on the Merseyside, the police were reluctant to do anything about it. So, when a reporter asked a Transport & General Union official about the restrictions imposed by the law, he merely replied that as far as he was concerned it was just 'business as usual'.

    For over six months, no one crossed the picket line except the two police agent provocateurs dressed in civvies. A little know fact is that the shop's telephones became faulty and, when they reported this to BT, the engineers were constantly losing the fault report and even their bosses didn't seem to have much enthusiasm for locating it. After the dispute was over, it was mysteriously discovered at the bottom of the pile! Another interesting fact was that John Thaw, who played my father-in-law, insisted they used the Militant newspaper instead of a made-up title because he wanted the film to be as authentic as possible. This gave the Tendency unexpected good publicity. Ironically what wasn't authentic is that in the film he has an affair which didn't happen and greatly upset my sister and her husband."

    "Comrades" (1987)

    In 1834, six English agricultural labourers – George and James Loveless, Thomas and John Standfield, James Brine and James Hammett - were sentenced to transportation to Australia because they had formed a trade union (which was legal) and administered oaths (which was not). This is the compelling story told in “Comrades”.

    It took writer and director Bill Douglas eight years to make the film and it was finally released in 1987 when Margaret Thatcher was doing her best to neuter the British trade union movement. It was poorly received at the box office and quickly withdrawn from cinemas; it was rarely shown on television and spoiled by advertisements; only in 2009 – to mark the 175th anniversary of the Tolpuddle martyrs - did the British Film Institute reissue the film as a DVD which is how I came to see it.

    As someone who spent 24 years as a professional trade union official, I approached the film with enthusiasm but I cannot let my political values diminish my critical faculties as a reviewer. Elements of this film are masterly but it is deeply flawed.

    Let's start with the positives. This seminal event in the history of the British labour movement deserved the big screen treatment. It was shot entirely on location in Dorset and Australia. The cinematography – by Gale Tattersall – is wonderful. It is a marvellous evocation of the times with great attention to clothes and buildings and the 'new' technology of the laternists. There are mesmerising close-ups of characterful faces. The acting is impressive with the working class portrayed by relatively unknown actors and some well-known stars – such as James Fox and Vanessa Redgrave – taking on the role of the rich.

    But there are such serious weaknesses. It is far too slow. It is far too long – just over three hours. The dialogue is excessively sparse – so too little information is provided and frequently it is unclear what is happening. We do not see the trial of the labourers or anything of the campaign to have them released. It is uneven with more action and dialogue in the Australian scenes and an incident with an Italian photographer that is totally out of place both in subject and tone.

    And the characters are far too one-dimensional: the labourers and their families are presented as mythic in their nobleness while the landowners and their allies are shown as unremittingly callous and evil (there is a scene with a dog that has no justification whatsoever). The little speech at the end – reminiscent of the conclusion of “The Grapes Of Wrath” - is unnecessarily polemical.

    When all is said and done, “Comrades” should be seen and admired, but this is not the masterpiece that some would pretend.

    F..I.S.T" (1978)

    Fans of Sylvester Stallone’s testosterone performances as Rocky and Rambo may be surprised to learn that he has starred in - and indeed co-wrote - a movie on American trade unionism in which one can actually understand what he is saying. He plays an organiser for the Federation of Inter-State Truckers (which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Teamsters). As in "Norma Rae" and "Silkwood", a safety issue sparks the revolt of the workers, but this work - more cynically - shows the union leadership to be as violent and corrupt as the management. The other co-writer was Joe Eszterhas who went on to write such money-spinner works as "Basic Instinct". The director and producer of the movie was Norman Jewison who moved on to lighter works like "Moonstruck".

    "The Grapes Of Wrath" (1940)

    This film of John Steinbeck's novel was directed by John Ford and stars doe-eyed Henry Fonda as Tom Joad and Jane Darwell as Ma. It depicts the consequences of the dust-bowl disaster of the Thirties as Oklahoma farmers trek to California in the hope of finding work and it is a highly effective portrayal of the brutal conditions of the dispossessed families. The movie won Ford an Oscar and has become a classic, but - to my mind - it is seriously flawed by the failure to proffer an answer to the travails. The ending - softened from the book - is particularly unsatisfactory.

    "Hoffa" (1992)

    In 1984 I addressed a New York picket line of telecommunications workers organised by the American union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. This led to a lurid report in the "Daily Mail" accusing me of attempting to wreck the forthcoming Los Angeles Olympics. The Teamsters - which mainly represents truck drivers - is that kind of union. It frequently evokes vilification - regrettably much of it justified - and therefore it is astonishing that anyone would want to make a major film about the man who ran the union for 10 years: the infamous Jimmy Hoffa.

    Yet this is just what the diminutive Danny de Vito has done. In fact, as in "The War Of The Roses", de Vito is not only director but takes a role - in this case, Hoffa's ever-loyal Italian-American aide. Unfortunately de Vito seems to have confused his directorial and thespian roles because his portrayal of Hoffa - a man with well-established links with the Mafia who was jailed for jury tampering, fraud and conspiracy - is far too generous. The promotional material for the film is telling of de Vito's position on Hoffa: "He did what he had to do".

    Nevertheless there are so few Hollywood films that even mention trade unions, let alone assert so powerfully the need for them, that one must welcome "Hoffa". Furthermore Jack Nicholson - facial features cleverly altered by prosthetics - gives a charismatic and compelling performance in the eponymous role. The script by David Mamet ("The Untouchables") is hard-hitting and, as in the earlier "F.I.S.T.", there are some some brutal sequences of clashes between striking unionists and company thugs.

    The film involves a series of flashbacks, as the Nicholson and de Vito characters await a meeting with the Mafia. This means that one is not always clear what is going on, but the technique does provide a dramatic framework and offers an explanation for Hoffa’s mysterious disappearance in 1975.

    "I'm All Right Jack" (1959)

    British trade unionism in the 1950s was not exactly a beacon on modernity and made an easy target in this film which came out in the year that the Conservatives' General Election slogan was "You've never had it so good". Directed by brothers John & Roy Boulting who made so many comedies, this work was supposed to be equally satirical about both management and trade unions, but the comedian Peter Sellars was so brilliant as the intransigent shop steward and strike leader Fred Kyte that the film came over to many as particularly anti-union.

    "The Life And Times Of Rosie The Riveter" (1980)

    Connie Field produced this illuminating documentary about the treatment of women workers in the USA during and after the Second World War. While the men were fighting, the women were encouraged to enter the factories and found empowerment and companionship there. But, once the war was won, they were required to assume the traditional female roles of housewife and mother. Propaganda film, newsreel footage and contemporary interviews combine to make the case.

    "Made In Dagenham" (2010)

    Released in Britain in the week that the Equalities Act was largely brought into force, this film tells the true story of a 1968 three-week strike for equal pay which indirectly led to the Equal Pay Act of 1970. The scene of the stoppage was the Ford car works in Dagenham near east London, although the actual shooting of the factory scenes took place in a former Hoover factory in Merthyr Tydfil in Wales. At the time, Ford's Essex factory employed 55,000 men who were always involved in stoppages and strikes but this is the story of the 187 women machinists at the River Plant who were demanding regrading.

    There are many fine performances here, notably Sally Hawkins (who was so impressive in "Happy-Go-Lucky") as the feisty strike leader, Geraldine James as her co-worker, Bob Hoskins as the women's shop steward, and Richard Schiff ("The West Wing") as Ford's representative from the United States, but also Miranda Richardson as the Labour Minister Barbara Castle and Rosamund Pike as a senior manager's wife. Sadly though, scriptwriter Billy Ivory and director Nigel Cole ("Calendar Girls") have made too many of the characters one-dimensional or even caricatures, especially all those who opposed the strike, whether managers, trade union officials or civil servants.

    There is a lot of attention to period detail in the clothing and the music and the film's theme song, with lyrics by Billy Bragg, is performed by Sandie Shaw, herself a former Dagenham Ford worker. And there's a nice touch at the end of all the credits when an injunction from early in the film is repeated: "Everybody, out!"

    "Matewan" (1987)

    This is a true life account of a coalminers’ strike in West Virginia in the 1920s written and directed by John Sayles who even takes a small acting role. Sayles has a fine record as an independent film-maker directing such works as "Passion Fish" and"LLone Star". Here he has chosen a dramatic subject worthy of his talents and portrays well the brutal tactics of the management including the attempt to divide the workers by setting blacks and immigrants against one another. He is aided by an excellent cast which includes James Earl Jones (who supplied the voice of Darth Vader) and Mary McDonnell (who achieved greater prominence with "Dances With Wolves"). For many trade unionists, this film is one of the best of the genre. Certainly it is both powerful and polemical but, for me, it is a little slow and too one-dimensional.

    "The Navigators" (2001)

    Most movies are escapist, depicting a world and a lifestyle that are unknown to the viewer. We rarely see the working class - except as criminals - and there is virtually never a reference to trade unions. But British director Ken Loach makes utterly different films, as is well-evidenced here. Set in Yorkshire in the mid 1990s, this work looks at the impact of rail privatisation on a group of maintenance staff or 'navvies', forced to confront a new management style where in theory the customer comes first but in practice cost is always the prime factor. Using an unknown cast, naturalistic dialogue and minimal plot, Loach presents us with something close to a documentary and we just know that it is not going to end well.

    "Nine To Five" (1980)

    In big city America, three female office workers plot revenge against a sexist and arrogant boss in this clever comedy which includes a number of fantasy sequences. The trio are played by Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton (who also sings the title song) and the manager who receives his comeuppance is the unfortunate Dabney Coleman.

    "Norma Rae" (1978)

    Norma Rae is a 31 year old textile worker at the O P Henley Mill in a small town in southern USA. Her husband is dead and she lives in cramped conditions with her two children and her ageing mother and father, both of whom work at the mill as well. There is no union at the Henley Mill, but there is punishing work, excessive noise, authoritarian management and low pay coupled with job insecurity. Norma's mother is becoming increasingly deaf from the noise of the machinery and her father eventually collapses and dies in the mill from a heart attack occasioned by sheer pressure of work.

    Into this explosive situation comes a union organiser called Reuben Warshovsky. The film centres on his attempts to organise the workers and his success at persuading Norma Rae to lead the struggle from the inside. The campaign comes to a head when Norma is arrested for refusing to stop copying down the words on a viciously anti-union notice which management has displayed illegally. There is a tremendously powerful scene when she seeks to avoid arrest by standing on a table holding aloft a hastily scrawled card which reads simply "UNION". One by one her fellow workers show their solidarity by turning off their looms until the weaving room is bathed in a most eloquent silence. From then on, the workers are fighting back.

    The film is loosely based on the life of Crystal Lee Jordan who in 1973 was fired by the J P Stevens Company in Roanoake Rapids, North Carolina, USA. Her offence was to organise a membership drive for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers of America (ACTWU). In 1978, she regained her job with five years back pay.

    “Norma Rae” was directed by Martin Ritt and has a lively script from husband and wife team Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Junior. Tremendous performances are given by Ron Liebman as the union organiser and Sally Field in the title role for which she received the 1980 Oscar for Best Actress. All the interior mill scenes in the movie were filmed inside a company under contract to the ACTWU and most of the extras in the film were mill workers and union members. At the time of its release, the ACTWU said: "As a pro-union film that combines high drama with the nitty gritty of day to day organising, "Norma Rae" is unique." In 35 years of watching films, I've never seen a better production for explaining why we all need a union.

    "On The Waterfront" (1954)

    If asked to name a film featuring trade unions, most people recall "On The Waterfront" which is strange considering that it is a black and white work made so long ago, but it is a memorable movie containing some fine acting and scenes of great drama and violence. The central character, a New York dock worker called Terry Malloy, is played by Marlon Brando ("I cudda become a contender") who has gone on to become one of the most distinguished film actors of our time. However, several other members of the cast have moved on to much greater things. This is especially true of Rod Steiger who plays Terry's brother Charley and Karl Malden who portrays the priest Father Barry. Even the composer of the music, Leonard Bernstein, went on to distinguish himself with "West Side Story".

    "On The Waterfront" depicts the corruption in a trade union local in New York City harbour and shows one man’s fight to call a halt to the violence and death used to enforce the brutal reign of the president and his mob. Although it is often thought of as a rare film about trade unionists, really it has little to do with the role of trade unionism in defending and advancing the interests of working people against authoritarian management. Instead, essentially it is a movie about informing and the central dilemma which it poses is whether or not Terry Malloy should testify before the Crime Commission investigating gangsterism on the waterfront.

    The question was a familiar one to the director Elia Kazan, because he testified as a 'friendly witness' before the Un-American Activities Commission of the US House of Representatives (better remembered as the McCarthy Commission). Other such witnesses were the writer of the film, Budd Schulberg, and the man who played the mobster heavy in the film, Lee J Cobb. This triumvirate produced a work that views informing, under certain circumstances, as a noble act and obviously there is a considerable element of self-justification in this.

    "The Organiser" (1963)

    Beth Lamont writes:

    This is a Italian trade union film that offers hope and promotes the importance of education for working people, while also warning of the sacrifice involved for individuals taking part in industrial action and the need for unity between all workers – black, white, male, female, local or not. The film centres on a textile mill in Turin at the end of the 19th century. It highlights the universality of the struggles of workers for safer working conditions and a better work/life balance such as shorter working hours. A visiting professor, played by Marcello Mastroianni, provides the vision to drive the mill workers on to achieve their goal of a shorter day and compensation for an injured colleague. However, his ideological focus leads to a lack of responsibility and sensitivity for the suffering of the individual workers. There are many touching scenes where director Mario Monicello really breathes life into the people involved in the action taken at the mill and these provide warmth and humour to the grim backdrop.

    "Potiche" (2010)

    I first saw the French actress Catherine Deneuve in a movie in the English-language "Repulsion" in 1965 when she as just 22. Playing the 'trophy wife' of the title in this 2010 French film, Deneuve is 67 but still glamorous. When Suzanne Pujol's husband (Fabrice Luchini) - a sexist partner and a harsh boss - has to absent himself from his 300-employee umbrella factory for health reasons, she takes over and transforms both the industrial relations and the business performance of the plant with a sensitive feminine touch that makes full use of her connections including the local mayor (Gérard Depardieu).

    Set in 1977 and a comedy, this is an old-fashioned and very light work that lacks any subtlety or nuance with writer and director François Ozon simply satiring both the factory owner and his trade unions (CFDT and UGT).

    "Pride" (2014)

    In the summer of 2014, my wife and I went to a north London dinner party where one of the other guests was Mike Jackson, a leading member of Gays and Lesbians Support the Miners ((GLSM), a support group during the bitter industrial dispute of 1984-85 which provided money and assistance to a mining community in South Wales. He told us how he had been acting as a principal adviser to writer Stephen Beresford and director Matthew Warchus who had crafted the forthcoming film "Pride" which explored this unlikely pairing of groups fighting the iniquities of Thatcher's Britain and he made clear his delight at how the subject had been treated for the big screen.

    So, the first weekend that the movie was on show, four of us from that dinner party were in the cinema to view it and we were all thrilled with how brilliantly this story has been told. Some of us even cried.

    The film is unashamedly political, both in its representation of the prejudice against homosexuals at a time was AIDS was devastating the gay community and the hostility of ministers, media and police to the miners' fight to keep pits open, but the treatment ensures that this is an immensely entertaining and often very funny work. Although the movie wears its political heart on its sleeve, it avoids an over-simplistic portrayal of the gay cause by showing entrenched opposition to their involvement in the miners dispute from sections of the Welsh community and challenge from gays themselves as to why they should be involved in a workers' strike, although the controversy of the lack of a ballot authorising the strike itself is avoided.

    The script is a triumph with every line making an impact and telling us something and there are some wonderful jokes. A disco dancing scene and a solo-to-group singing session are destined to become favourite recollections of a memorable movie. The cast is magical: a combination of distinguished charactor actors like Imelda Staunton, Dominic West and Bill Nighy (although his South Wales accent is wobbly) and young newcomers like Ben Schnetzer, Joseph Gilgun and George MacKay. And there is remarkable attention to period detail (we had the same design of coffee cup as in an early scene), enhanced by music from the time.

    Although GLSM was eventually shunned by the official strike committee and the miners lost the strike and almost all of Britain's pits have subsequently closed, the concluding scenes of the film and the final bits of informative text turn this historic interaction into a success that should inspire the present-day gay community and labour movement alike. As Mike Jackson put it in an article about the film: “The one thing the ruling class don’t want is solidarity; they don’t want us to join the dots up.”

    "Salt Of The Earth" (1953)

    Jack Frohlich writes:

    "Salt of the Earth" was the only movie blacklisted in the United States during the Cold War. The movie, filmed in Bayard, New Mexico, is based on the true story of a miners' strike by the Mine-Mill Union against the Empire Zinc Corp. The film examines the miners' lives in a company town inhabited predominantly by Mexican-American workers, and also looks at the changing role of women in family life, through the eyes of family matriarch Esperanza (Rosaura Revueltas). The Mine-Mill Union struck to gain wage parity with white workers, end the company's policy of hiring only Mexican-Americans for underground work, and other inequities. The Empire Zinc Corp paid dual-wage rates, which gave more money to Anglos than to Hispanics. Many of the workers and wives who took part in the strike played themselves in the movie.

    The film, made in cooperation with the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, was produced by Paul Jarico and directed by Herbert Biberman, both of whom had been blacklisted. Biberman, a member of the Hollywood 10, had spent five months in prison after refusing to cooperate with the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities. The two men formed a film company to create work for other blacklisted members of the industry. The role of the evil sheriff in "Salt of the Earth", for example, was played by Will Geer, who had also been blacklisted.

    As a result of anti-communist fever in the United States, the political views of Biberman and his partners, and the film's focus on workers' rights, racial equality, and women's empowerment, made the project controversial. Those wishing to suppress the movie's message tried to keep it from being made, then blocked its distribution and showing. Laboratories refused to process the film, projectionists would not show it, theaters canceled bookings, and one of the film's stars Rosaura Revueltas, who played Esperanza, was deported to Mexico.

    Members of the miner's union received death threats from local vigilantes, who set fire to the union's headquarters in Silver City, N.M. Toward the end of the filming, Revueltas was arrested by immigration officials and charged with entering the United States illegally. She was deported back to Mexico and the film makers had to use a double for the remainder of the movie. Once in Mexico, she was banned from acting there and never acted again. Still, the film was completed and is now available in video stores.

    "Salt of the Earth" was never released widely, but played briefly in New York City and San Francisco to enthusiastic crowds and generally warm reviews. There also were screenings in Toronto and Mexico City, and the film won the 1955 International Grand Prize from a French academy.

    "Silkwood" (1983)

    Like "Norma Rae", This is a true story about an American woman who becomes active in her union as a result of a health and safety issue, only to face the full force of the company. Karen Silkwood was a laboratory technician at the Kerr-McGee plant in Cimarron, Oklahoma. The factory worked with radioactive plutonium which was pressed into fuel rods for a breeder reactor. Over a period of time, she became more and more anxious about the company's safety standards: a contaminated truck had to be taken apart and buried, there were nothing like enough showers for the workers, and the staff doctor was only a veterinarian. Matters became even more frightening when she discovered that the X-ray negatives of welds in the fuel rods were being doctored to remove white spots.

    The film depicts how the safety issue drew Karen, a rank and file trade unionist with no previous skill at negotiation, into more and more active participation in union matters, first the battle to win a certification election - something we in Britain have not faced - and then the struggle to expose the company's working practices. In these efforts, she is assisted by a national officer of her Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union. But Karen paid the price for her growing union involvement. Her live-in boyfriend walked out on her. Even more serious, someone contaminated her with plutonium - but the company suggested that she had contaminated herself to make the management look bad. The scenes in which she has to undergo the humiliating and painful procedure of being scrubbed down with brushes and detergent, in order to eliminate the contamination, are among the most dramatic in the film.

    "Silkwood" was directed by Mike Nichols whose others successes include "The Graduate" for which he received an Oscar for Best Director. The part of Karen Silkwood is played by Meryl Streep, one of the finest actresses of her generation, and her friend is portrayed by the singer Cher, both of whom received Academy Award nominations for their impressive performances. Yet the film is not without its faults. At times it is rather slow and sometimes the dialogue is a little hard to follow. Above all, the ending backs away from making a clear stand on the central issues. On 13 November 1974, Karen Silkwood drove off to meet a reporter on the "New York Times" with a dossier on the work conditions at her company. She never arrived, suffering a fatal car crash that - depending on whose version of events you accept - was the result of her taking tranquillizers and alcohol or the consequence of the deliberate ramming of the back of her car by another vehicle.

    "Strike" (1924)

    This was one of the very first films to show strike action by oppressed workers and remains one of the most powerful, even though it was a silent made in black and white. Directed by the famous Russian propogandist Segei Eisenstein, it concerns a 1912 strike of factory workers which is brutally put down by the Tsarist authorities.

    "Two Days, One Night" (2014)

    This French-language film is both written and directed by brothers Jean Pierre & Luc Dardenne and set in their native Wallonia part of Belgium, poorer than the Flemish north of the country and hard hit by the post-2008 recession. It is the complete antithesis of the Hollywood movie: slow and deliberate with no special effects or action sequences.

    A small company has a vote of its workforce which decides that it would rather all the staff receive a bonus than take back a female colleague who wishes to return to work after a bout of depression. The woman at the heart of this moral dilemma is Sandra, played by the talented French actress Marion Cotillard, who has just a weekend to persuade her colleagues to change their mind. Essentially this is a film about solidarity - or lack of it - not just in the workplace but also at home and shows how different factors influence our decisions and how those decisions have consequences for ourselves and for others.

    "24 City" (2008)

    Not many Chinese films obtain a release in Western cinemas. Those that do tend to be set in the distant past and have large casts, colourful costumes and exciting action - think "Hero", "House Of Flying Daggers", "Curse Of The Golden Flower" and "Red Cliff". This is not one of those movies. "24 City" is contemporary in subject, pedestrian in pacing, and documentary in style (director Jia Zhang-ke uses a mix of real characters and actors including Joan Chen).

    It is set in the city of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in south-west China, which I visited a few weeks before seeing the film and I took along two friends from Sichuan who know the city well. It tells the terribly sad tale of the closure of a factory, which once employed 4,000 workers on the manufacture of military hardware, so that the site can be used for a modern complex of apartments and hotels - the 24 City of the title.

    The unusual part documentary/part fiction style - there are five authentic interviews and four fictional scenes delivered by actors - means that the work lacks the 'bite' of a real documentary and the narrative of full fiction, but the critics liked it.

    "Wal-Mart: The High Cost Of Low Price" (2005)

    This year has seen two hard-hitting documentaries exposing the unacceptable face of American capitalism: one on energy giant Enron and this one on retail hegemoth Wal-Mart. Enron went into bankruptcy and its most senior managers have been convicted, while Wal-Mart is still enjoying massive commercial success, but this film makes clear that this success is at a very high cost to individuals and communities.

    Small businesses in small town USA are put out of business; staff are paid low wages and denied representation by a union; shoppers risk rape and robbery in the store's car parks; east Asian suppliers are exploited. Director Robert Greenwald illustrates all this with a succession of personal testimonies and emblazoned statistics that leave no room for sublety or doubt. The company itself only has an indirect voice through archive footage of CEO Lee Scott at a company rally messianically addressing loyal staff and then defensively in a television interview suggesting that any opposition is confined to a small minority.

    The final section of the 95-minute film turns this tale of devastation into a call to arms by showing how well-organised local communities can and have resisted the onward march of Wal-Mart. This is not a balanced documentary but a powerful polemic that is a much-needed antidote to so much of the commercial propaganda to which we are all so subject.

    Link: Wal-Mart Watch site click here

    "Wall Street" (1987)

    OK, I know this isn’t a film about trade unionism, but it does feature a trade unionist who is shown sympathetically and that’s why I’ve included it in this compilation. Oliver Stone, fresh from his success with "Platoon", co-wrote and directed this, as well as being on screen for a few seconds and it is dedicated to his stockbroker father. Michael Douglas won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Gordon Gekko and a highlight of the film is his "Greed is good" speech. However, for me, the movie is about how the ambitious young financial broker played by Charlie Sheen is forced to choose between the values of his ruthless hero and his selfless father. The role of the father is taken by his real-life dad Martin Sheen who is aircraft mechanic and trade union official Carl Fox and it is so welcome to see such a positive portrayal of union values.

    Except where indicated, all film reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON.

    Last modified on 23 September 2014

    Links:
    British trade union history: click here
    Online Labor Film Database click here
    Reel Work web site click here
    "Working Stiffs, Union Maids, Reds, and Riffraff: An Expanded Guide to Films about Labor" click here


    Back to home page click here