5 Little-Known Movies That Dramatize America’s Rich Labor History

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(THE CONVERSATION) Labor unions are more popular today than they have been since 1965, and the United States is in the midst of a new wave of labor organizing. Is a Hollywood drama about angry Starbucks baristas or frustrated Amazon warehouse workers far behind?

Hollywood studios and independent producers have long documented the collective efforts of working people to improve their lives and make themselves heard in their workplaces and in society at large.

Some of the best-known workers’ films defend the struggle of the everyday worker: “Modern Times”, released in 1936, features Charlie Chaplin who goes crazy because of his work on an assembly line. It features the famous image of Chaplin caught in the gears of factory machinery. “The Grapes of Wrath,” a 1940 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel, tells the story of the radicalization of sharecropper Tom Joad after his family and other migrant workers experience miserable conditions in the growing fields and California’s overcrowded migrant camps.

1979’s “Norma Rae” is based on the life of Crystal Lee Sutton, who worked at a JP Stevens factory in North Carolina. The textile worker and single mother inspires her co-workers to overcome their racial animosity and work together to vote in a union. “Bread and Roses”, a 2000 film about low-wage janitors in Los Angeles, is based on the Service Employees International Union’s “Justice for Janitors” movement.

There is also an anti-working class strain in Hollywood history, particularly during the Red Scare after World War II, when studios purged left-leaning writers, directors and actors through a blacklist at the industry scale. Red Scare-era releases, such as 1952’s “Big Jim McLain” and the 1954 film “On the Waterfront”, often portrayed labor unions as corrupt or infiltrated by communist subversives.

When teaching labor history, I have used films to supplement books and articles. I have found that students more easily grasp the human dimensions of workers’ lives and struggles when depicted on screen.

Here are five underrated work movies, all based on real events, that I think deserve more attention.

1. “Aurora Borealis” (1978)

This is a fictional account of a fascinating but little-known political movement: the Non-Partisan League, which organized farmers in the Upper Midwest in the early 1900s.

During this period, farmers in the Midwest worked long hours to harvest grain which they were then forced to sell at low prices to elevators, while paying high prices to major railroads and banks. Economic insecurity was a part of life and foreclosures were routine.

The film follows Ray Sorenson, a young farmer influenced by socialist ideas who leaves his farm in North Dakota to become an organizer for the Non-Partisan League. In his ramshackle Model T he roams the back roads, talking to farmers in their fields or around the potbellied stoves of country shops. He eventually persuaded skeptical farmers that electing NPL candidates could lead the government to create cooperative grain elevators, state-chartered banks with farmers as shareholders, and limits on the prices the railroads can charge farmers to transport their wheat.

In 1916, the nonpartisan League actually elected farmer Lynn Frazier as governor of North Dakota with 79% of the vote. Two years later, the NPL took control of both houses of the state legislature and created the North Dakota Mill, still the only state-owned mill, and The Bank of North Dakota, which remains the only government-owned general services company in the country. bank.

2. “The Devil and Miss Jones” (1941)

In this twisted comedy with a pro-union twist, Charles Coburn plays John P. Merrick, a fictional New York City department store owner.

After his employees hang him in effigy, the tycoon goes undercover to unearth the agitators of a union campaign led by a shoe department salesman and a union organizer.

As he learns more about their lives, Merrick grows sympathetic towards his employees – and even falls in love with one of his employees – none of whom know his true identity. As workers prepare to go on strike and even picket his house, Merrick reveals he owns the store and accepts their wage and hour demands – and even marries the employee he fell in love with. .

The film was likely inspired by the 1937 strikes by New York department store workers.

3. “Salt of the Earth” (1954)

Decades ahead of its time, this story of New Mexico miners deals with issues of racism, sexism and class.

After an accident in a mine, the Mexican-American workers decide to go on strike. They demand better safety standards and equal treatment, since white miners are allowed to work in pairs, while Mexicans are forced to work alone. The strikers expect women to stay at home, cook and take care of the children. But when the company wins an injunction to end the men’s protest, the women step in and hold the picket lines, earning greater respect from the men.

Made at the height of the Red Scare, the film’s writer, producer and director had been blacklisted for their leftist sympathies, so the film was sponsored by the International Union of Mine, Factory and Labor Workers. foundries, not by a Hollywood studio.

Will Geer, a blacklisted actor who went on to portray Grandpa Walton in the TV drama ‘The Waltons’, played the repressive sheriff. Mexican actress Rosaura Revueltas played the leader of the wives. The other characters were played by real miners and their wives who participated in the strike against the Empire Zinc Company, which inspired the film.

The film itself was blacklisted and no major cinema chain would show it.

4. “10,000 Black Men Named George” (2002)

Andre Braugher plays A. Philip Randolph, who organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black-led union.

Being a porter on a Pullman wagon was one of the few jobs open to black men. But wages were low, travel was constant, and white train passengers frequented the porters, calling them all “George”, after George Pullman, the tycoon who owned the business.

The company hired thugs to intimidate the porters, but Randolph and his top lieutenants persisted. They began their crusade in 1925 but did not obtain the signing of a contract with the union until 1937, thanks to a New Deal law which gave railway workers the right to unionize. Randolph became America’s foremost civil rights organizer in the 1940s and 1950s and orchestrated the 1963 March on Washington.

5. “Northern Country” (2005)

Charlize Theron plays Josey Aimes, a desperate single mother who runs away from her abusive husband, returns to her northern Minnesota hometown, moves in with her parents, and works in an iron mine.

There, she is constantly groped, insulted and intimidated by the male workers. She complains to business leaders, who do not take her seriously. The male-dominated union says it can’t do anything. Aimes sues the company, which, after a dramatic scene in the courtroom, is forced to settle down with her and other women.

With stellar performances from Theron, Sissy Spacek, Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson, “North Country” is based on a groundbreaking lawsuit brought by female miners at Minnesota’s Eveleth Mines in 1975 that helped make sexual harassment a human rights violation. workers.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/5-unsung-films-that-dramatize-americas-rich-labor-history-188442.

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