by John Hess
Cut, no. 42, December 1998, pp. 61-64
At the same time that increasing numbers of labor unions have made organizing a major priority, they have also begun to avail themselves of many new media forms and to use them in new ways. Organizers now use cell phones, fax machines, email, websites, short video pieces, role-playing, and house calls. They do so to stay informed, find possible supporters, and develop solidarity and leadership among workers. This renewal of organizing and development of media forms coincides with encouraging changes that have taken place in the labor movement in recent years, marked by the election of Ron Cary's reform slate to head the Teamsters Union in 1991, the subsequent election of John Sweeney to head the AFL-CIO, followed by labor and academic teach-ins around the country, the founding convention of the Labor Party in 1996, and the founding of Scholars, Artists, and Writers For Social Justice (SAWSJ).
The Labor Party has its base in a number of international, regional and local labor unions as well as in various chapters across the country. It has concentrated on organizing within labor unions and has so far hesitated to enter electoral politics, though many of its activists want to do that (www.labornet.org/lpa/index.html). SAWSJ grew out of the labor and academic teach-ins and wants to recreate the bond that used to exist between unions and intellectuals. Its chapters engage in a great variety of actions in solidarity with labor such as strikes, organizing drives, and legal struggles (www.sage.edu/html/SAWSJ).
Here, I will discuss four films and videos that examine and reflect on organizing drives, strikes, and legal struggles. All concern internal organizing, that is, the effort to develop greater participation and leadership among a union's rank and file. Often, the works try to grasp what happened in a labor struggle and to explain it to others; they want to teach us about various aspects of trade union activity and enlist our solidarity.
WONDER OF THE WORLD (Lawrence Budner, 1996) seeks to explain the outcome of a long and bitter strike during the early 1980s at Brown and Shape, one of Rhode Island's "Wonders of the World" in the early part of the century when the state became a center of precision tool manufacturing. Typical of current documentaries made with television and the educational market in mind, it mixes current interviews done with participants in the events and varied, illustrative documentary footage, such as news reports, company documentaries, material shot by the filmmakers, and some still images. The film gives information about the company's history. It analyzes how the company's changing from a family to a corporate business at the turn of the century and then to a transnational corporation after the Second World War created the circumstances whereby the company withdrew first from a familial relationship with its workers and then from most of its connection to the local community. However, the film remains rather sketchy about both the company's decision-making during the strike and the union's thinking and decision-making. For example, we hear hints of differences between the local officials and those at the national headquarters, as one would actually expect in a long strike. But Budner does not examine the division between local and national union policy in the extensive way that Barbara Koppel does, in great detail, in her feature documentary, AMERICAN DREAM.
The strongest part of WONDER OF THE WORLD lies in its presentation of company history, a shining success story until after WW2 when the company lost direction and could not adjust quickly enough to the rapid changes taking place in world capitalism. At the same time, the International Association of Machinist's (IAM) strike came at a bad time, just after Reagan had broken the PATCO strike and given capital strong encouragement to go after labor. Prior to this historical political intervention, negotiations and strikes usually centered on money, but now they come to center on other issues: job security, work rules, seniority, pensions, part-time workers, two-tier wage scales, and grievance procedures. This was a moment in recent U.S. economic and political history when corporations, large and small, began seriously to try to weaken labor's ability and will to resist speed-ups, downsizing, outsourcing and other forms of work place reengineering. Regretfully although the filmmaker seems to have enough material to explain these issues, he chooses not to, concentrating instead on a rather uncritical history of a local company.
AUMENTO YA! / A RAISE NOW (Tom Chamberlin, 1996) offers a lively contrast to WONDER OF THE WORLD in that it unabashedly represents the views of the workers and their union, the Oregon Farm Workers Union (Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Nordeste, PCUN). The film concentrates on what the union calls the summer 1995, "10th Anniversary Organizing Campaign." A young Latina who worked in Chicago with the Farm Worker's Ministry (a religious organization that provides assistance to farm workers throughout the country) has come out to Oregon for this campaign. It is her first actual organizing campaign, and she provides an intelligent voice-over narration, which captures her personal excitement and learning as well as presents important factual information about what see in the film. Very much in a cinema-verité style, the camera seems to represent the view of this young woman, following the action, attending meetings and walking picket lines. This style seems particularly appropriate because the film focuses on the organizing process itself and especially on the changing consciousness of the Mexican migrant workers. The film emphasizes community formation, bringing together the Mexican workers, mostly indigenous people, the Latino and Anglo organizers, and the hundreds of supporters from all over the country. On the other side we see the non-Spanish-speaking Anglo growers and their Mexican labor contractors milking the workers for all they can get, and we also see the local police who mostly support the growers. The film has a prologue and an epilogue; it begins with the gathering of forces for the summer campaign and then ends with a review of the campaign's successes. Most of the film, however, concentrates on two particular struggles with two recalcitrant growers who fight the union and win more than they lose.
The film shows us the "messy," imprecise, inconclusive, and even intimate nature of farm worker organizing. The New Deal in the 1930s did not include farm labor in its innovative and progressive labor legislation. When regulated at all, agricultural labor falls under state regulations. Most farm workers have no social security, no minimum wage, no unemployment insurance, and no workman's compensation. INS raids, often invited by the growers, make the work even more terrifying for the mostly immigrant work force. Because of agricultural work's seasonal nature, few growers employ more than a small number of continuing workers. At key moments in the agricultural cycle, for planting and especially for harvesting, labor contractors bring in workers for just few days or weeks. The growers pay as low as they can and then charge the workers for the usually miserable housing the bosses offer. The labor contractors also charge the workers for a ride out to the fields each morning. The grower can pay 15 cents today and 10 cents tomorrow; nothing compels the owner to fix a wage, even from day to day. In many cases, such as these shown in the film, the grower himself deals with the workers in the fields and labor camps. The only real countervailing force is the precariousness of the crops themselves, many of which rot quickly if not picked when ripe.
The film concentrates on two specific organizing drives (really efforts to get a grower to pay more for one harvest of a few days) in strawberry fields, both of which we would have to call failures. In both cases the grower successfully brought in new workers to pick the berries, although one grower lost a considerable portion of his crop because of the delay. Just as the first union drive fails, the union hears that the workers at a nearby farm have, on their own initiative, walked out of the fields, striking for higher pay and better housing conditions. The union organizers move over to that farm, spending a lot of time in the miserable labor camp, in crowded plastic-walled cabins without heat, inadequate bathing facilities, and no phone in the camp. For this the boss charges the workers rent and collects over $7,000 a month from them.
These farm workers have developed some internal leadership and decry their miserable housing even more than their low pay. They understand that since the grower offered another cent a pound for the strawberries after they walked out, he could pay more. And since he could, he should. At one point the union leadership encourages the workers' elected representatives to bargain directly with the grower themselves rather than have the union leaders take that role. Developing leadership skills and encouraging the workers to build up their the courage to confront the boss directly will increase these workers' ability to organize and maintain a union over the years. The union leaders understand that they have taken on a long-term struggle to change consciousness among the farm workers.
OUT AT WORK (Kelly Anderson and Tami Gold, 1997) is a highly polished film that tells the stories of three people, a white lesbian from Georgia, a white gay man from Detroit, and a black gay man from New York. All three lead fights against various forms of discrimination which they face in the work place. In all three cases unions play important supportive roles. The film alternates the stories, moving through the stages of discrimination, resistance, group involvement, and denouement. Cheryl has worked for several years as an open lesbian in the kitchen of Cracker Barrel, a Southern-based, anti-union as well as anti-gay restaurant chain, in Bremen, Georgia. Suddenly the company issues a directive that it will not employ homosexuals. Cheryl's pink slip specifically states that they fired her for being a lesbian. Ron, an autoworker in Detroit, hears about the campaign against Cracker Barrel and enlists the support of his UAW local in a march to protest Cracker Barrel's policies. When a picture of him participating in a mostly gay protest appears on the front page of the Detroit Free Press, he begins to suffer vicious harassment on the job, from both co-workers and supervisors. Finally, Nat, a librarian in a public library, becomes involved in issues of discrimination when his lover, David, falls ill with AIDS. Nat becomes involved in a successful effort through his AFSCME local to win domestic partner benefits for gay couples.
Like AUMENTO YA! this film examines consciousness, here in regard to people thrown out of their usual routine who react by becoming involved in types of struggles that were previously foreign to them and in which they still feel quite awkward. OUT AT WORK is about the coming to consciousness of ordinary working class people. Cheryl becomes involved in Queer Nation (because Act Up sounded too confrontational to her), which in turn builds a broad coalition of church, civil rights and trade union groups to fight Cracker Barrel's anti-gay policies. At the end of the film we learn that Cracker Barrel did not change its policy, and that 41 states still do not have laws protecting gays and lesbians from this kind of workplace discrimination. Ron finally goes to his union local for help and gets it in the form of Mike Harrald, a black union rep who has his own stories of discrimination to tell and who vigorously supports Ron. Finally Ron transfers from Trenton Engines to Chrysler Technology. When anti-gay harassment begins here, several workers in the shop stand up for Ron. He, in turn, takes on management around shop-floor issues and finally his co-workers elect him a delegate to the UAW bargaining convention. There he movingly tells his story from the podium in support of a resolution calling on the union to include protections against discrimination for sexual orientation in all future contracts. The resolution passes unanimously. Nat also turns to his union when David's medical bills become impossible to pay. Nat gets elected to the Executive Board of his AFSCME local, and he also becomes involved in and then chair of the union's Gay and Lesbian Issues Committee.
With considerable justice, unfortunately, unions have received criticism for not protecting gay and lesbian members and even for discriminating themselves. At the same time, unions have also provided many workplace protections against all forms of discrimination. Because they had a union, Ron and Nat had a place to turn to not just for help but also for a way to become actively involved in the issue at hand. Cheryl had no union and lost her job. The community protest she initiated became a valuable learning experience for her and greatly extended her community, but it could not save her job. Clearly we need both more community protests and more righteous unions to fight this kind of discrimination.
DRAWING THE LINE AT PITTSTON (Paper Tiger TV, 1990), like most Paper Tiger productions I have seen, exhibits the series' ragged, low-budget look, feeling as rough and rugged as the people in the Southwestern Virginia mining communities on which it focuses. Some of the video's footage comes from miner participants, who videotaped events both to record them for posterity and also to document their actions and those of the VA State Police and Pittston's security forces. In February, 1988, the Pittston Coal Co. withdraws from the Bituminous Coal Operators Association and stops making payments to BCOA (which bargains for sixteen coal companies and manages their pension and healthcare plans). This act leaves elderly retirees without healthcare insurance. For the next fourteen months, the company, while bargaining fitfully and certainly not in good faith, tries to impose a variety of changes on the miners. At the same time, however, the miners and particularly the women organize into the Daughters of Mother Jones and prepare for the inevitable strike that came on April 5, 1989.
The video deals with three main issues: first, the extent and result of the women's organizing work in the local community; second, the constantly growing local, then regional, then national, and finally international solidarity; and third, the overwhelming effort on the part of the government at all levels especially the state of Virginia-and the local media to crush the strike. The national media mostly ignores the strike. Toward the end of the film, one miner states: "This is class struggle at its finest." And by this time in the film, his comment seems, if anything, an understatement. Like AUMENTO YA! and OUT AT WORK, this video also stresses consciousness raising, the way that involvement in struggle teaches people about their world. Watching the State Police roughly handle peacefully demonstrating men and women, watching a judge impose huge punitive fines on individuals and the union, being called terrorists by the company president and by the Wall Street Journal, and reading articles sympathetic to strikes in Poland and Russia but nothing about their strike shocks people and teaches them a lot about their position in the world.
At one point, 39 women take over the lobby of the Pittston Company Headquarters and sit-in for 32 hours, identifying themselves only as Daughter of Mother Jones #1, #2, #3, etc. As they tell this story, their pride and excitement are palpable. The miners build Camp Solidarity and hold rallies there every Wednesday evening. As the strike wears on, more and more people from all over the world came to the camp to offer their solidarity and material aide. Finally, on September 17 a group of miners occupy a huge coal-processing plant while 5,000 supporters block the road leading into the plant. When they march out four days later, the struggle is essentially over. Serious negotiations begin, and in February a contract is approved by the rank and file.
These four films employ essayistic interpretive structures imposed after the fact, the better to explain the issues to viewers less familiar with them. This allows filmmakers to make connections that would not have been easy to see in the middle of the battle. Yet, at the same time, the pieces are all straightforward documentaries, appropriate for a wide range of audiences which the works will find in unions and labor studies classes, among community groups interested in working with unions, and in various sorts of high school and university classes. Film teachers will use them as examples of activist media.
In each case, the filmmakers collaborate very closely with individual union participants and leaders. In AUMENTO YA! / RAISE NOW! and DRAWING THE LINE AT PITTSTON union members and leaders play a very direct role in the construction of the film or video. Similarly, filmmakers work with a labor studies institute to make WONDER OF THE WORLD, and activist filmmakers with labor's financial support make OUT AT WORK. In other words, all four films grow out of very close collaboration between filmmaker-intellectuals and trade unionists. Internal organizing in conjunction with a particular struggle becomes very intense and exciting as this is depicted in terms of visuals, narrative and especially characters. Organizing people who have no union is, in real life, much less dramatic and usually agonizingly slow. Yet we need films and tapes for a more general audience that demonstrate this process in interesting ways, and also ones that unions can use in conjunction with organizing drives. In future issues of JUMP CUT, we intend to discuss these kinds of works, usually made in video, as well. We are excited by this new activity and want to cover it on a regular basis in JUMP CUT.
Web sites for these works: