Couch Potato Briefing: Solidarity Forever!

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Global Spin’s weekly offering of rental movie recommendations to bring you up to speed on world events, this week, gets in the spirit of the Labor Day weekend with five movies devoted to those who show up for work in blue collars…

Matewan

For Global Spin’s money there is no finer American labor movie than John Sayles’ 1987 tribute to the striking workers and their families gunned down in the notorious massacre at Matewan, West Virginia, in 1920. It’s a gritty piece of social realism featuring Chris Cooper as Joe Kenehan, an organizer for the United Mineworkers Union, convincing workers striking against desperate working conditions in the local coal mine to overcome their prejudices against standing together with Italian immigrants and African-American workers the company brings in to try and break the strike. James Ear Jones features in a compelling cameo as Few Clothes, a black miner who is willing to overlook the racist taunts of his white coworkers in order to convince them that standing together is their only hope. Matewan is a harrowing tale of courage and desperation, and a reminder that even more blood was spilled in the struggle for trade union rights in America than in the struggle for civil rights.

Norma Rae

Sally Field memorably won an Oscar for her portrayal of Norma Rae Webster, a cotton mill worker in a small town in North Carolina who fights the good ole boy alliance of owners, managers and local cops to unionize her factory and give them the means to fight for decent wages and conditions. Based on the true story of textile worker Crystal Lee Sutton, Martin Ritt’s film highlights the individual acts of courage it took to overcome the prejudices of race and gender to organize in an environment decidedly hostile to trade unions — not exactly a Hollywood leitmotif, but the Academy liked it.

Made in Dagenham

Think of it as the English Norma Rae, although infinitely cooler and more stylish. And while that movie was simply about the struggle to organize, Made in Dagenham deals with the trickier issue of gender equality in the work place, and therefore in the trade union movement. Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins) simply stands up for what’s right after Ford downgrades her and the other 187 women machinists who sewed the seat covers at the company’s Dagenham plan to “unskilled” status, and takes the first halting steps towards understanding her own power to act to change her circumstances. Bob Hoskins plays a lovable old communist union organizer whose own life story fuels his fight for equal pay for women workers, helping them break out from under the thumb of the sclerotic and corrupt old union bureaucracy and wage a strike action that has global repercussions. It’s a marvelous and stylishly (think Biba!) rendered true story of a group of working class women learning the power of collective action.

Salt of the Earth

The 1954 movie Herbert J. Biberman movie Salt of the Earth was the only movie blacklisted during the McCarthy era because of the radical politics of most of those involved in making it — and a message every bit as incendiary in today’s highly charged political atmosphere on the issue of Mexican immigrants. The movie depicts a 1951 strike in a New Mexico town, where Mexican migrant workers — mindful of the fact that the land on which the mine sat belonged to their forefathers long before the Anglos arrived — challenge exploitative working conditions and the fact that they are paid less than their Anglo fellow employees for the same work. The movie is told from the point of view of Esperanza Quintero (Rosuara Revueltas, who was later deported to Mexico) and shows the wives of the striking workers challenging their own subordinate role in the household and joining their husbands on the picket line. Not the sort of propaganda Senator Joe McCarthy wanted polluting the minds of Americans to soften them up ahead of the coming Red Army invasion.

Harlan County, USA

Just in case you thought all those tales of near-Dickensian working conditions in 20th Century American towns was pure fiction, we include in our list Barbara Kopple’s searing, Oscar-winning 1976 documentary Harlan County, USA, which chronicles the efforts of 180 coal miners in a small Kentucky town to organize a union in the face of increasingly violent resistance by the mine’s owners and local authorities. It’s a reminder that the four movies listed above might as well have been documentaries, too — and of the fact that many of the labor rights enjoyed by working people in America were earned at a heavy price.

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