Labor Unions and the Movies

As we head into the 2016 presidential campaign season, we can expect to start hearing references to working-class origins, either that of the candidate himself or his ancestors.  During the last presidential Republican primary in 2012, Rick Santorum spoke glowingly of his grandfather’s “big hands,” which he got from working as a coal miner.  Not to be outdone, Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann, talked about her coal-miner grandfather.  In a previous election, Joe Biden didn’t have his own coal-miner grandfather, so he borrowed Neil Kinnock’s, though he soon had to give him back.  And so it appears that a politician just loves having a coal miner in his family, though I doubt if he would want his daughter to marry one.

Presumably, these millionaires that run for president need some way of proving that they are essentially just like us, and they trot out their coal-mining ancestry to show that they have not forgotten where they came from. Their wealth notwithstanding, they are working class, same as us, and thus have our interests at heart.  Of course, it doesn’t have to be coal mining. During the Republican National Convention of 2012, we heard speech after speech by politicians trying to establish their blue-collar bona fides, with tales of hard work and tough times.  While few of them could boast of having a coal miner in their family, they managed to find reasonable working-class substitutes.  Soon they may start hiring genealogists for this purpose.

Even God saw the good in it, which explains why Jesus’ stepfather was a carpenter.  God knew what he was doing when he made sure Mary got married to someone who worked with his hands, rather than to a money lender or tax collector.  God wasn’t worried about his son getting elected, of course, but he knew that a working-class background would go a long way in establishing his son’s moral worth, a point not lost on modern politicians. In other words, in addition to showing that they are just like us, politicians try to establish a connection with certain kinds of work as evidence of virtues like integrity, trustworthiness, courage, and even piety.

In the song Coal Miner’s Daughter, Loretta Lynn sings about the way her father loved his children, and the way her mother read the Bible every night. Undoubtedly, there are also coal miners who get drunk, beat their wives, and screw their daughters, same as might be found in the general population, but we are persuaded of the purifying effects of hard work, and thus are predisposed to embrace her idealized portrayal of a coal-mining family. In The Razor’s Edge (1946), Larry Darrell is on an existential quest, precipitated by his experiences during the Great War.  He turns down a job as a stockbroker and goes to work in a coal mine instead.  He says that while he works with his hands, his mind is free to think about other things, like the meaning of life.  In How Green Was My Valley (1941), Roddy McDowall plays Huw, the youngest child in a coal-mining family.  He is given a good education, with the opportunity to pursue a professional career, but he chooses to go to work in the coal mines instead, notwithstanding all the misery and mistreatment suffered by his father and older brothers.  He does not explicitly state his reason for doing so, but we get the impression that he goes down into the mines as a matter of pride, as if to prove that he is just as good as the other men in his family.  As opposed to these movies that romanticize working in coal mines, a cold splash of reality is provided by Harlan County U.S.A. (1976).  The movie is a documentary about a strike that took place in Harlan County, Kentucky.  Even though the events took place in 1973, at a time when most of us took modern conveniences in America for granted, the movie informs us that houses for the families of coal miners do not even have indoor plumbing.  The women start having babies at sixteen and have rotten teeth by forty.

Still, the association between coal mining and virtue remains strong.  If the industrial revolution had taken place two thousand years ago, I am sure that God would have seen to it that Mary had a coal miner for a husband instead. But carpentry was good enough, as is any job where you either produce some basic resource, as in coal mining, or you make or repair something, as in carpentry.  In Office Space (1999), a man who hates his soul-crushing job sitting at a computer in a claustrophobic cubicle finally achieves peace and contentment doing construction work in the open air.  And farming always has the aura of spiritual purity, as in Easy Rider (1969), where a bunch of hippies work the land rather than sell out by working for the government or big business.

When it comes to honoring the worker, there is no difference between liberals and conservatives.  But when those same workers band together and form a union, the difference becomes profound.  It would be a gross oversimplification to say that conservatives invariably despise unions, while liberals wholeheartedly adore them, but there is no doubt that unions tend to find support on the left of the political spectrum, and opposition on the right.  As a result, there are movies about unions reflecting each of these attitudes.  Examples on the left are many, such as Salt of the Earth (1954), Norma Rae (1979), and Matewan (1987), in which the companies are the villains, and the unions formed by the workers are an unqualified force for good.

Examples on the right are fewer in number.  We have On the Waterfront (1954), of course, in which the union is so corrupt that the union boss and his henchmen are the villains, not the shipping companies that need the longshoremen to load and unload their ships.  Rather, the union boss and his men exploit both the shipping companies and the workers.  But most movies that express an anti-union sentiment do not make that the central part of the story.  Rather, the story tends to be mostly about something else, such as organized crime or communism, with the unions being associated with these evils, but only as a minor part of the movie.  The Sherlock Holmes novel, The Valley of Fear, was very anti-union, with Pinkerton detective being the hero, no less.  The fact that none of the dramatizations of this novel ever capture its full anti-union sentiment testifies to the general pro-union bias that prevailed in the movies for a long time.  The novel was based on a true story concerning the Molly Maguires in Pennsylvania in the nineteenth century.  A movie based on that story, The Molly Maguires (1970), however, is pro-union, unlike the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

And then there are movies which, in accordance with a well-established Hollywood tradition, try to have it both ways.  In The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), the business tycoon is shocked to see a picture of himself in the newspaper being hanged in effigy by workers trying to form a union in a department store he didn’t even know he owned.  He goes undercover as an employee and ends up becoming so sympathetic to the plight of the workers that he ends up helping them form the union.  In other words, the capitalist is a good person, and the workers forming the union are good people too.  The villains are just some underlings who have caused the discord between labor and management.

Because there are more leftwing, pro-union movies than rightwing, anti-union movies, it might seem that the nation is more favorably disposed to unions than not.  However, I have noticed that since 1990, all the pro-union movies are set before that date, while recent anti-union movies are set contemporaneously.  This suggests that the left must look nostalgically back to the past, while the right can make its case in the present.

For example, Bread and Roses (2000), Made in Dagenham (2010), and Cesar Chavez (2014) are pro-union movies, based on actual events that occurred before 1990:  the 1980s for the first; 1968 for the second, and the late 1960s through the early 1970s for the third. On the other hand, Waiting for “Superman” (2010) is an anti-union documentary concerning the decline in education in America, depicting events that have occurred quite recently. The film places the blame for all our educational ills on the American Federation of Teachers, which stands in the way of progress by insisting on tenure.

This is a new kind of worker in a union movie, one who does not work with his or her hands, and certainly does no physically demanding labor.  The workers, that is, the teachers, are associated with children, however, and the teachers benefit from that association.  As all politicians know, having children is even more important for political success than having a coal-miner grandfather.  Bill Clinton, except when he had to address his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, never gave a speech in which he did not refer to children.  And Jesus certainly cashed in on this association, insisting that his disciples allow the children to come to him.  Today, it would be called a photo op. The downside of such association, however, is that much evil befalls those who are accused of harming children, as is the case with those who belong to the teachers’ union.  Since the union is depicted as failing the children out of a selfish concern for tenure, the unionized teacher becomes the scourge of our education system, as depicted in Won’t Back Down (2012), another anti-union movie in a contemporary setting.

As an exercise, try to imagine a movie set in the present that portrays the teachers’ union in a favorable light.  In general, public employees’ unions suffer from the same fate:  no one has ever made a mainstream movie that presents them in a positive manner.  Whatever the merits of the case, leftwing, pro-union movies about civil servants do not exist.  Police and firefighters’ unions might get more sympathy, owing to the public’s favorable attitude toward first responders, though even here there are no movies depicting the police or firefighters being treated miserably and having to go on a bitter strike to redress their grievances.  And as for ordinary civil servants, the kind disparagingly referred to as bureaucrats, there are absolutely no pro-union movies about them.

Of course, part of the problem is that public employees have decent wages and benefits of which a lot of people are envious, as opposed to people who do hard work for low pay and no benefits, depicted in the pro-union movies mentioned above.  The notorious example is that of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO), which illegally struck in 1981, during the first year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.  The result was that Reagan fired the workers who refused to return to work.  As columnist George Will pointed out at the time, because their salaries and benefits were quite good, they made an “unsympathetic proletariat.”

Returning, then, to the kind of work traditionally found in a union movie, we have North Country (2005).   The story begins in the year 1989, and it is about a woman who tries to make a living working in an iron mine.  This would seem to be a liberal-slanted movie, inasmuch as it is a feminist film about sexual harassment.  But the animosity toward Charlize Theron’s character is for the most part shared by both labor and management.  The union members, who are mostly men, are cruel and obscene in the way they treat the few women who work there.  So while the movie is liberal in its feminist stance, it is conservative in the negative way it portrays the union and its members.

The television show The Wire, which is set in this century, featured a corrupt longshoremen’s union in the second season, so technically that makes it rightwing in its negative attitude toward unions.  But then, everyone in that show was corrupt, including the good guys, so maybe we should not try to make too much of that.  Still, the union does not come off looking very good.

To sum up, every movie or television show involving unions that is set in a period of time after 1990 presents unions negatively.  All the movies that are pro-union, regardless of when they were made, are set before 1990, as if the story must take place in a remote, mythological past in order for us to see the union as good.  The fact that no one is willing or able to make a pro-union movie set in contemporary times is an ominous indicator of public sentiment.

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