I’m a union man. My dad was in the American Federation of Teachers. My grandfather was in the Teamsters. I’m an emeritus member of the Writers Guild of America - west (yes, that’s the actual capitalization). I suppose there’s something metaphorical there, but I’ll save that for another time.
We’re all union men, and all three of us complained about our unions. And yet where would I be today without the health insurance they provided my family during my kids’ childhood years? Where will I be without that union pension when I retire? Sure, unions can be annoying and pushy and sometimes corrupt. They also are indispensable. They’re not here for you to like them. Nobody really likes their dentist, but who are you going to see when you have a massive toothache?
It is no coincidence, in my opinion, that the rise of income inequality in this country has coincided with the decline in union membership and power.
So, in honor of Labor Day, here are my picks for the best movies that celebrate the American worker and the unions that represent them.
“I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.” Everyone has heard that line a hundred times over the years. It is one of the most famous lines in the history of movies. It was uttered by Marlon Brando’s character in this gripping drama about longshoremen who battled the corrupt union and the even more corrupt businesses controlling the docks in Hoboken, NJ. The screenplay is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles in the now-defunct New York Sun that covered the crime and corruption in the docks in the late 1940s. This is one of the greatest American films of all time. It stars Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, and Eva Marie Saint. It was directed by Elia Kazan, was written by Budd Schulberg, and the score was composed by Leonard Bernstein. If you’ve never seen this movie, now is the time for you to rent it.
Documentarian Barbara Kopple went to a coal-mining region in southeastern Kentucky to examine the conditions surrounding a strike by coal miners against Duke Power Company. The strike took place in 1973 and was over the dangerous working conditions in the mines. She and her crew ended up staying there for several years. What’s especially powerful is that the documentary doesn’t use an off-screen narrator to tell the story like most would. Instead, Kopple let the workers speak for themselves. Duke Power was phenomenally profitable, while its coal miners lived in squalid conditions. The film is shocking and powerful, even today. This movie is a great reminder of why unions exist and what they have done for workers in some of the most dangerous and necessary jobs in the country.
Ken Loach is an unfamiliar name to many movie-goers. He’s British and most of his relatively short filmography consists of movies set in the U.K. His film Kes (1969) was voted the seventh-best British film of the 20th century by the British Film Institute and he has won the prestigious Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival twice. (He’s one of only nine directors to have received this honor twice.) This film, however, is set in Los Angeles and is about the efforts to organize janitorial crews working in large downtown Los Angeles office buildings. The workers are almost universally immigrants and thus rather easily taken advantage of by the management companies that hire them. Based on the true story of the unionization efforts by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in the early 1990s, this is a passionately told story and focuses on one immigrant woman janitor, Maya, (Pilar Padilla) and her decision to get involved with the unionization efforts led by SEIU rep Sam Shapiro (Adrien Brody). This worthy and compelling drama is one you should add to your Labor Day viewing list.
I suppose most people remember this movie because of Sally Field’s acceptance speech when she won the Oscar for Best Actress: “You like me. You really like me!” It was probably the most actress-y thing anyone has ever said in public. Let’s get past this and consider this film—and Field’s performance—for what it is: perfect. Field plays Norma Rae Wilson, a struggling single mom who works in a cotton mill in North Carolina. It’s based on the true life story of Crystal Lee Sutton, who was a union organizer and activist at the J.P. Stevens mill. Norma Rae is no saint. She has two children by different fathers and has brief affairs with men to alleviate the boredom and loneliness that afflicts her life. But she knows a wrong when she sees it, and Norma Rae takes matters into her own hands one day when she scrawls the words “UNION” on a piece of cardboard and stands on her work table in the center of the shop to protest working conditions in the mill. Gradually, all the other workers stop working as well, and the drive to unionization is on. This is a complex tale about a complicated woman, and it’s an inspiring one as well. Field is magnificent. I like her. I really like her. You will too.
Unions have had virtually no success organizing workers in high-tech industries. Mike Judge created this brilliant comedy about the inanities of office work in a suburban tech company, and to me, it illustrates why workers at these kinds of companies would benefit from the kinds of work rules that unions help install. Once these companies get past the manic early days of hypergrowth, they settle into being normal companies with normal offices…with normal jerk bosses who demand you work on weekends and expect uncompensated hours of overtime. I have watched this movie perhaps ten times now, and it gets better each time. Judge, who also created such brilliant TV comedies series as King of the Hill, Beavis and Butthead, and Silicon Valley, perfectly captures the characters most of us know so well—the smiling but nasty boss, the weird guy who is obsessed with his desk, the endlessly annoying birthday parties. The film stars Ron Livingston, Gary Cole, and Jennifer Aniston as the woman who works at the “fast casual” chain restaurant across the parking lot. This movie has the tagline “Work Sucks.” It may be true. But it’s also great fodder for comedy.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and theBBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.