LABOUR DAY MOVIE VIEWERS OF THE WORD UNITE!

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My mother hated Labour Day. For her, a high school English teacher, it was not only a day to pay tribute to workers and unions, but a signal that the lazy, hazy days of summer were over, and it was time to go back to work. Every year, the prospect of facing classroom after classroom of demanding new students caused a thick knot of apprehension in her stomach. And my mother was an excellent teacher. Long after she retired, she continued to feel those same old familiar twinges of Labour Day dread.

This year, of course, there will be no back to school on Tuesday. Instead, B.C. teachers will be on the picket line, while classrooms sit empty. One expects at least some of them, then, to reflect on the original purpose of Labour Day, a celebration of struggles to improve worker wages and working conditions. You know, Labour Day….that one day of the year when newspaper editorial writers and politicians pretend they really admire unions for what they do on behalf of their members.

So, teachers, on your last day of “free time” before re-donning those good old picket signs tomorrow, why not watch a Labour Day movie to get you all inspired? Good for non-teachers, too! (One doubts many will be following the example of the loony-right Freedom Foundation to the south of us, which is urging all Americans to work today, to protest “all the abuses of organized labour”.) As a Mickleblog public service, here’s my Top Ten List of Movies to Watch on Labour Day. Further suggestions welcomed!

(Thanks to Mark Leier, former director of the Centre for Labour Studies at Simon Fraser University, specializing in union and left-wing worker movements, for the idea. And a cautionary note: not all of these movies paint unions as 100 per cent good.)

10. On the Waterfront. Okay, this isn’t going to get anyone fired up to join a trade union, but it’s a vivid depiction of what happens when unions go bad, and ordinary workers are faced with tough choices. “I coulda bin a contender…,” Brando laments.

9. Roger and Me. I am not as big a fan of Michael Moore as others. The journalist in me doesn’t like the way he sometimes distorts chronology, stages stunts and edits interviews for his own purposes. But he’s often funny and, at his best, provides some badly-needed skewering of “things that are wrong” with U.S. society. Roger and Me, dealing with massive layoffs by General Motors in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, was his first documentary to hit it big. Lots of good moments.

8. North Country. Another movie that does not show a union in a particularly good light, but well worth watching for the courage of a female mine worker combatting on-the-job sexism in a northern Minnesota town. The union meeting is a classic. Stars Charlize Theron, along with the ever-excellent Frances McDormand. And, as a special bonus, there are many songs by Minnesota native Bob Dylan, including a killer version of Tell Ol’ Bill.

7. Silkwood. The harrowing, true life story of Karen Silkwood, who became a union activist when she discovered serious safety violations in the Oklahoma nuclear power plant where she worked. Screenplay by Nora Ephron. Directed by Mike Nichols. Starring Meryl Streep and Cher. All four received Oscar nominations. Very well done.

6. Blue Collar. It’s been a long time since I saw this little known film, starring Harvey Keitel, Richard Pryor and Yaphet Kotto. But I remember finding it quite powerful in its presentation of “ordinary” blue collar workers, and, like On the Waterfront, what to do  when they discover their union is corrupt. It’s useful to remember that corruption used to be far more pervasive years ago in unions based in the United States.  Many were subsequently cleaned up by vigilant prosecutors and an aroused membership. While Canadian labour organizations, like the rest of us, make mistakes, union corruption has always been relatively rare up here. A movie that exposes union corruption and intimidation is not necessarily anti-union, unless it suggests such matters are endemic, which they are not. Note: this strong movie is not a comedy, despite the presence of Richard Pryor.

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5. Grapes of Wrath. This tremendous, moving adaptation of Steinbeck’s classic novel about downtrodden Okie sharecroppers during the Depression would have been at the top of my list, but it’s not strictly a union movie. However, it certainly touches on the fight for decent wages and the thuggish forces unleashed against those simply standing up for their rights. Henry Fonda’s famous speech that closes the movie is unforgettable.

4. Made in Dagenham. This excellent, under-appreciated film, staring Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins and Rosamund Pike, deals with the tensions and ups-and-downs of a pivotal strike by a group of determined women at a Ford plant in England in 1968. They wanted equal pay with men. Imagine that. I found it quite uplifting.

3. Harlan Country, USA. I know there are other terrific documentaries about strikes and unions, but it’s hard to imagine any better than this riveting profile of a coal miners’ strike in deepest Kentucky. Directed by Barbara Kopple, the film won an Academy Award for best documentary in 1976. Powerful.

2. Matewan. Independent film-maker John Sayles is one of my favourite directors. I’ve seen most of his films and rarely have I been disappointed. Although there’s a lot of competition, this may be his best. It covers a violent, real miners’ strike in the coal fields of West Virginia in the early 1920’s. The marvellous David Strathairn is particularly wonderful as the town sheriff trying to keep law and order, when both sides have guns. James Earl Jones, as always, is great, too. Hazel Dickens dominates the soundtrack with several haunting songs straight out of the backwoods. Extremely satisfying movie on all counts.

1. Norma Rae. No surprise. The best movie ever made about union organizing in a tough environment. Yet Norma Rae succeeds so well because it is more than that. There’s also a great deal of human drama, too, as individuals caught up in the action struggle with their own lives, not merely against conditions in the textile mills. If you’ve already seen the movie, you’ll remember that one scene destined to live forever in union lore. I dare you to remain unmoved. Sally Field won a well-deserved Oscar for her strong performance, but her husband Beau Bridges does a good job as well, trying to cope with forces he never imagined when the two were married. Essential viewing.

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P.S. Also recommended are some movies I haven’t seen but are touted by others: Bread and Roses, Strike (Eisenstein’s silent move classic), Salt of the Earth, and Germinal, based on Zola’s epic novel of coal miner families and a strike in  northern France.

HAPPY REST OF LABOUR DAY!

And a final word to teachers, if you’d rather spend the day not thinking about the strike, or anything to do with unions, — an understandable sentiment — treat yourself to Mr. Holland’s Opus. Guaranteed to cheer you up.

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14 thoughts on “LABOUR DAY MOVIE VIEWERS OF THE WORD UNITE!

  1. Thanks for the list. I shared it on FB. Another anti-union, union pic is Sometimes a Great Notion, but I’ve asked for more and I’ll let you know of any additions..

  2. Yeah, Sometimes a Great Notion, unlike movies that expose union corruption, which should be exposed, extols a family that is scabbing against union woodworkers who are on strike….hard to see any virtue in that….

  3. Excellent selection Rod!

  4. Pretty good list, Rod. It’s been decades since I’ve seen most of them, and now I’m motivated to see some of them (like Matewan and Harlan County) again.

  5. At your suggestion, Barb and I watched Matewan Labour Day Night and loved it. The bad guys were right out of Popeye, particularly Kevin Tighe. No subtlety there, and we cheered when he got blasted through the laundry. It is the first Sayles film I’ve seen, knowing him only for a few short stories, particularly The Anarchist Convention, a must read for us all in our dotage. What’s your next favourite film by him? Mark Warrior has suggested “Brassed Off” of which he says is “a union film, even though the union really doesn’t play a role except off-stage at the start.” Wikipedia says it’s “about the troubles faced by a colliery brass band, following the closure of their pit.”

    • I love John Sayles movies…they dont have the big production values and big stars of Hollywood movies, but they tell their tales well….I really like “Eight Men Out’, his take on the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, when the White Sox players fixed the World Series for gamblers….mostly because they were workers, exploited by the team’s odious owner….John Cusack, too! Also a fan of Baby, It’s You, Return of the Secaucus Seven, his first movie and a more political version of The Big Chill….Also Lone Star, perhaps his best film….kinda lost track of him the last few years….happy viewing!

  6. Great selection Rod – thanks. I would add these – Hoffa (1992), Billy Elliot (2000), Brassed Off (1996), The Miners Hymns (2010), I’m All Right Jack (1959) – and How Green Was My Valley (1941).

  7. I should add these films – not ones likely to show up at our local cinemas – from the National Film Board of Canada, “12,000 Men” (the struggles in the coal and steel industries in Cape Breton) and “That’s the Price” (the twin coal towns of Natal and Michel in BC and what happened to them in the late 1960s/70s) – plus, “Out of Darkness: The Mine Workers’ Story” – the UMWA’s battle with the Pittston Coal Group – this documentary is by Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, USA).

  8. i have to admit i have not seen Blue Collar but will try to see it. Sayles’ short story, Anarchist Convention is terrific. if people have not read Sayles they should. he is not only a film director. glad to be reminded of it. in solidarity….sister labrie

  9. Hello, Recovering Journalist. I discovered your Labour Day list on Rabble.ca, and found my way to Mickleblog as a result. As an unrecovered critic, I took great delight in your choice of films. In return, here’s a link to my 11-months old website Reeling Back. My own Labour Day posting highlighted Canadian director Norman Jewison’s 1978 telling of the Jimmy Hoffa tale in a picture called F.I.S.T. (At the bottom there’s a hyperlink to your own favourite, Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae. Isn’t the Internet fun?)

  10. You missed “Brassed Off.” I’d say it’s a close second to Norma rae, and maybe even tied.

  11. Pingback: MICKLE RECOMMENDS FILMS FOR LABOUR DAY! | Mickleblog

  12. Pingback: WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE WATCHING MOVIES….YET AGAIN! – Mickleblog

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