Labor disputes are sweeping the nation, as workers demand improvements in the health and safety conditions in their workplaces. The United States and other countries across the globe are seeing a rise of class consciousness, and workers are recognizing the power that they have when they come together. Unions and labor organizing have a radical and inspirational history of workers uniting to fight against their common enemies: the bosses, the capitalist system, and sometimes even their own union bureaucracy. Here are some of the best films based on the historical and militant organization of the working class. There is power in the union, power in the people, and unity is always the best weapon against the capitalist class.
1) Salt of the Earth
In 1954, Salt of the Earth was made in defiance of the Hollywood blacklist. The film portrays the struggles of a Mexican family and their fellow workers on strike for better working conditions at the zinc mines, based on a 1951 miner’s strike in New Mexico. During this time period, American films were under strict control by McCarthy era politics. Anything deemed “communist” by the Committee on Un-American Activities was unable to premiere in Hollywood. This led to brutal self-policing and public outing of anyone who had even vaguely leftist politics. Those who were named as potential communists were then barred from working, leading to the mass repression of scores of leftist artists. It should come as no surprise that anything deemed pPro-union was considered un-American. Unions were coming under attack as a major source of communist activity, and any film that portrayed American capitalists as the antagonists was automatically disposed of, and any crew attached was blacklisted. Salt of the Earth was sponsored by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, the union that was a part of the strike the film was based on. The International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers had been previously expelled from the CIO due to its alleged domination by communists. Blacklisted film workers were invited to work on the film, and it even featured many of the union workers as main and background actors. The film industry tried everything to stop the making of this film, including deporting the lead actress, Rosaura Revueltas, back to Mexico before she could finish filming her scenes. Despite all of this uncertainty on set, the outcome was a truly beautiful film that allows each scene to unravel slowly and lets the viewer settle into the stark scenery. In content, the film focuses on solidarity in its intersectional realities that was rare to be seen in the 1950s. One of the main demands of the actual strike portrayed in the film was to end the discriminatory practices against the Mexican workers, including the introduction of equal pay and the end to segregated housing in the company town. Additionally, the film puts the women of the strike front and center and allows them to voice their own demands to the strikers. This neorealist union film will have you singing “We Shall Not Be Moved” by the end with tears in your eyes.
Based on a true story, Pride spins the tale of the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) and shows how one marginalized community can support another, especially when the common enemy is a right-wing austerity government. Set during the miners’ strike of 1984-85, one of the largest and longest strikes in European history, a group of LGBT activists chose to turn their community support towards the striking workers once they realized their communities had both been targeted by police brutality. Unlike the bleak energy of most labor struggle films, Pride is surprisingly funny and sweet. However, one point of contention is that this film seemingly refuses to acknowledge the communist roots of its protagonist’s activism. The viewer has to search in the corners of the screen to find the hammer and sickle posters decorating the character’s van and homes. At one point, Mark Aston, the founder of LGSM, gets up on stage at a bar, and someone yells “Commie” at him. These small acknowledgments are merely easter eggs scattered around the film, and there was no attempt to use the real life activists’ identity as communists to flesh out the story further. The film falls victim to modern cinema and history classes’ tendency to tell victorious stories about the activism of marginalized groups without giving credit to the fierce adherence to socialist and communist values that gave these historical actors the clear, theoretical framework to create the change they sought. Regardless, Pride is a wonderful film that shows true class solidarity in action.
3) Harlan County, USA
In 1973, Director Barbara Kopple and her crew spent 18 months with the striking miners in Harlan County and managed to create one of the most important and moving documentaries about labor struggles in all of American cinema. The film traces the militancy of the striking miners back to the infamous Harlan County War of the 1930s, a bloody and long lasting labor dispute in response to a 10% pay cut across the board, a conflict that led to the violent deaths of many miners. The famous union song “Which Side Are You On?” was written about this battle by labor activist and wife of a mining man, Florence Reece. In the most striking scene in the film, Reece sings that song in front of a huge crowd of miners, 40 years later, and every lyric still resonates. Many miners still lived in company towns, in company owned homes, most without running water or electricity. The miners striking for better pay and safer working conditions brought the spirit of their ancestors’ militancy with them to the picket line every day. Many elders in the community still spoke of the days of “Bloody Harlan” with reverence, wanting only union men in their family line and speaking disdainfully of the scabs or gun thugs, as they are known colloquially. Though this strike was not as bloody compared to the 1930s, the strikers still faced constant threats of violence and an armed resistance. The wives and daughters of the miners were major players in the strike, forming councils of their own and with militant actions organized alongside the almost exclusively male miners. Oftentimes, the women’s council would organize riskier strike work, such as laying down in front of the mine’s entrance, in order to save the men from the police brutality that was less likely to come down on women. The most stunning part of this movie is the soundtrack. The music featured in this film originated organically from within the mining community itself, songs of coal mining, songs of capitalist aggressions, songs of corrupt unions. The community’s bravery and defiance against the capitalist class lives on through this film and the music.
Newsies is a product of an unlikely partnership: that between Disney and labor dispute films. Add the musical numbers of Alan Menken with some truly awful Brooklyn accents and many, many dance numbers featuring boxing moves and gymnastic flips, and you have a box office flop with a massive cult following. The fact that Walt Disney, a famously anti-union boss who played a major role in the brutal in-house McCarthy era policing, would have his name on this film is quite frankly hilarious. The film is loosely based on the historical Newsboy Strike of 1899. The leader of the strike was a one-eyed boy, nicknamed “Kid Blink”; however in true Hollywood fashion, the film’s leader is played by a handsome, young Christian Bale. The film glosses over some of the less agreeable parts of the story, choosing to keep everything clean and cheery, instead of highlighting the abject poverty that many of the newsboys lived in. The set looked like a quintessential soundstage, lacking the hustle and grit of New York City streets. Often, the streets are barren until the dozens of young newsies run in to sing and dance through their number of the day. Due to all of these silly elements, which lent the film its large cult following, it is easy to get swept away in the excitement. However, the film does remain a pretty honest portrayal of the newspaper boys strike, a short strike that was incredibly violent, leading to many of the neighborhood boys being too afraid to turn scab, knowing that the gangs of newsies, the majority of whom were under 19, would “soak em” and rip up their papers. In the end, seeing a young Christian Bale declare that the power is in the union and in the people is a powerful message that is really driven home hours later when “King of New York” is still stuck in your head.
5) Bread and Roses
Bread and Roses takes its name from the slogan of the 1912 Lawrence textile strike, a strike led by immigrant women against starvation wages. The film is based on the Justice for Janitors strike in Los Angeles on April 3, 1990, which fought against the sharp decline in janitors’ wages from the previous decade and the cutting of access to health care. The plot begins with a group of migrants crossing the border with two coyotes, and follows one of the undocumented women, Maya, as she attempts to start a life in the United States. She finds a job at a cleaning service, Angel Cleaning, with her sister Rosa and is exploited in multiple ways due to her lack of citizenship and class position. Her wages are garnished by her corrupt boss for giving her a job despite her undocumented status, he fires and berates the employees with impunity, and her sister’s husband’s precarious health suffers because they have no access to health care. In comes Sam, played by Adrian Brody, a union representative who wants to unionize Angel Cleaning and give the workers access to not just bread but roses too. Sam’s own privilege is called out immediately, as Rosa calls him one of those “union college boys,” knowing that it is her and her community’s jobs and lives, not his, at risk. Bread and Roses is a rare labor film that puts Latinx identity and organizing front and center. Still occuring 30 years after this film takes place, the hyperexploitation of undocumented Latinx workers benefits the capitalist class, which instills fears of deportation in order to quell any form of workplace organizing. The film also does not stray away from the reality that union leadership is often in allegiance with the capitalist class and not the workers, whom it claims to protect. Bread and Roses is a beautiful portrait of what workers stand to gain and lose when confronting capitalism.