While Labor Day isn’t until September (and is traditionally celebrated more for its long weekend than its supposed recognition of workers’ rights), May Day is the real deal. Called International Workers’ Day, it’s also the date of Space directors Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer’s free screening of the 1979 documentary “The Wobblies.”
Presented by Space, alongside the Southern Maine Labor Council and Southern Maine Workers’ Center, “The Wobblies” explores the founding, principles and lasting legacy of the Industrial Workers of the World (aka the IWW, or The Wobblies). Founded in Chicago in 1905, this labor union was a broad and influential movement to organize all workers against exploitation and unfair employer practices. Unlike the more traditional American Federation of Labor (AFL), the IWW accepted all workers, regardless of occupation or – what was most revolutionary and menacing at the time – race, gender or labor status. ‘immigrant.
The film interviews still-feisty Wobblies half a century after the IWW was brought down by government and industrial persecution and even violence. This is not surprising, since the mission statement of the IWW is quite clear about the main cause of the suffering of the vast majority of people in the world: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace as long as there is hunger and want among millions of working people, and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the finer things in life.
Unequivocal things and sentiments that remain relevant at a time when, to take just one example, corporate profits during a multi-year pandemic have grown exponentially while real wages (wages adjusted to inflation) have fallen. Oh, and where huge, incredibly successful employers (like Amazon and Starbucks) are currently engaged in very public efforts to discredit, discourage, and retaliate against employee efforts to unionize for better wages and conditions.
So, workers (and moviegoers) around the world, unite! Here are the best films about workers, unions and sticking it to the man.
“Matwan” (1987, available at the Portland Public Library). Maverick indie director John Sayles has created the most moving and heroic portrayal of the American labor movement in this wonderfully acted multi-character story about a United Mine Workers organizer (the great Chris Cooper, in his early days) tempting to unionize the miners of West Virginia in 1920. Based on a true story (which, to top it off, is known to this day as the Matewan Massacre), “Matewan” is a sadly overlooked American classic. (The famed Criterion Collection finally released a deluxe edition of the film in 2019. I have mine.)
While the IWW are mentioned, the Wobblies were on the verge of leaving at the time, with Cooper’s Joe Kenehan blaming the union’s nosy miners for excluding both Italian and black workers (brought in as unwitting scabs) who want to join them. There is no more moving scene in the movies than when the stranger Kenehan stands up to a room full of armed white miners to blame them for disrespectfully rejecting the efforts of the brave and formidable miner James Earl Jones. Navigating the volatile situation with the passion of a speaker, Cooper’s Kenehan sums it up perfectly: working, and those who don’t. A masterpiece any time of the year.
“Bread and Roses” (2000, available at the Portland Public Library). Controversial and outspoken British director Ken Loach was just the filmmaker to tackle those same issues, updated and transplanted into the underclass of Mexican goalkeepers in Los Angeles. Two years before his Best Actor Oscar, Adrien Brody plays a live-action union organizer who approaches undocumented immigrant Pilar Padilla to form a union for her and her horribly underpaid and abused janitors. There’s a hint of a charming little romance in the film, but Loach, a lifelong idealist and pragmatist himself, remains focused on Padilla’s many heartbreaking conflicts as she deals with it all. , of a sleazy supervisor preying on undocumented workers with no options (George Lopez comic strip, which is excellent), dangerous and degrading conditions, and, most evocatively, the divisions of race, class and family that make her position an apparent failure no matter what she chooses. As in the better-known pro-union film “Norma Rae”, there is a big scene where Maya de Padilla reminds the well-meaning but privileged outsider (thanks to his gender, color and status) that, even if they may be on the same side, she has much, much more to lose than he does.
“Pride” (2014, available on Amazon Prime). Based on real events from 1984 in Britain, this unlikely real-life story of unity depicts the time when a group of LGBTQ activists teamed up with Welsh miners. A group of great British actors (Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy, Andrew Scott, Paddy Considine) show how two oppressed but very different groups have managed to form a bond based on the progressive understanding that there are forces in this world that depend on people they variously exploit being at each other’s throats. A feel-good film with some very serious points to make, “Pride” is cautiously optimistic about people’s willingness to find some common ground in the face of systemic persecution. This is why films about unions (and unions themselves) can seem so threatening – to certain interests.
“The Wobblies” screens at Portland’s Space Sunday at 7 p.m. The screening is free, but people are advised to RSVP.
Dennis Perkins lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.
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