Movies that Motivate
hard can it be to find a good labor film? Sometimes, too hard! Here's a
handy guide to "movies that motivate," a film list that you can
take to your local video outlet or use to order by phone or on the
Internet. There's nothing like a good labor movie to get yourself
energized, to use as a draw to get people to a union meeting...or both.
begin with what I call, in more ways than one, A Blockbuster list, since
these are old or new feature films easily available, films that will
sometimes get us cheering in our seats or on our living room
Norma Rae, 1979.
Based on a true story, this is the gold standard in many ways; we
see how an unusual team of leaders -- big city organizer, small town
gal who gets around -- win a recognition vote by defeating apathy,
favoritism, racism, company-police coziness, and just about everything
Based on the West Virginia Coal Wars after World War I, local
miners learn in order to win a strike they must accept into their
ranks the Italian immigrants and African-Americans who had been
brought in as scabs.
The Grapes of Wrath,
1940. It's a Hollywood black and white classic that has never
gone out of style: it exposes the cooperation between farm owners and
sheriff's lackeys and points to the need for solidarity among the
migrant workers of the 1930's as Henry Fonda brings John Steinbeck's
hero Tom Joad to life.
Some adults find it silly, but your potential preteen labor
organizer will love this Disney family film, in which NYC's newsboys
organize to defeat evil newspaper bosses: based on actual incidents in
1899, it includes an incredibly militant trolleymen's strike that
inspired the newsies.
Bread and Roses,
2000. A relatively recent dramatization of SEIU's Justice for
Janitors campaign in LA which expalins -- with Academy Award winner
Adrian Brody as an organizer! -- the nuts and bolts of the campaign to
organize the immigrant labor force.
If these are not available locally, you can rent or buy
them: as DVDs now dominate the market, prices have come down, but there
are still outlets to rent either DVD or VHS tapes or buy both. Here's a
highly selective list of outlets I use, but don't forget that even
amazon.com can offer some good deals as well, selling both new and used
films. The following will work for the classics listed above as well as
some of the feature length films I recommend below:
The following feature length films are really worth
seeing, but they are usually not available around the corner; you will
have to go on line or call. If you are fortunate enough, you can check one
of them out at a local library or media center:
Harlan County, USA,
1977. Academy Award-winning documentary on a strike won in part
by miners' militant wives in eastern Kentucky.
The Killing Floor,
1984. Feature film on organizing in the meatpacking industry in
Chicago, when black-white conflicts before and after World War I had
to be resolved to win.
Salt of the Earth,
1954. A blacklisted feature film in which (again) the wives of
Mexican American miners carry on the struggle, not only against the
mine owners but against their suspicious husbands.
Ten Thousand Black Men
Named George, 2002. How to win respect and a union
for African-American sleeping car porters.
Too many people hear the word "documentary"
and groan ("not exciting," they say, or "not
entertaining"), but I can point to three documentaries that are not
only exciting and entertaining but ones in which the good guys win and
show you how they do. They're a little harder to find (and usually more
expensive to rent or buy), but worth the effort:
Justice in the Coalfields,
1995. How the UMW fused a successful coalition of
supporting unions, regional workers, and national organizations to
stop Pettston Coal from destroying the health provisions of their
contract. Order at www.appalshop.org
One Day Longer, 2000.
The moving story of the HEREIU strike at the Frontier Casino in
Las Vegas, when workers walked the picket line for six years and won.
Order at www.balmaidenfilms.com
At the River I Stand, 1994.
The story of the bravery of the Memphis sanitation workers, all
African-American, whose AFSCME strike brought Martin Luther King to
the city to help mediate, with tragic consequences. Order at www.newsreel.org
-- Tom Zaniello. The writer is
director of the honors program at Northern Kentucky University. He also
teaches Images of Labor in Film in the National Labor College at the
George Meany Center and is author of Working Stiffs, Union Maids,
Reds, and Riffraff: An Expanded Guide to Films about Labor (ILR/Cornell
University Press, 2003), available at www.unionist.com
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