Labor Day - Unions on Film

September 5, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

A guy I know who hates teachers unions equates them with the corrupt and violent Longshoremen’s union portrayed in “On the Waterfront.” True, the union comes off badly in this movie. When Brando, having testified against union boss Johnny Friendly says, “I’m glad what I done to you, Johnny Friendly,” the audience is glad too. But what about other films?

Hollywood is much more likely to give us business executives than workers. The corporate biggies are usually corrupt and evil, but at least they’re up there on the screen. Workers, not so much.

I tried to think of American movies (non-documentary) where a union or even the idea of a union had an important role. The list I came up with on the spur of the moment was very short
  • Norma Rae (1979)
  • The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Putting the question out to my Facebook friends brought only a few more to the list (ht: Philip Cohen).
  • Matewan (1987)
  • Hoffa (1992)
  • Salt of the Earth (1954)
Googling “movies about unions” added
  • The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)                                   
  • F.I.S.T. (1978)
  • Bread and Roses (2000)
  • Blue Collar (1978)
  • Won’t Back Down (2012)
  • The Garment Jungle (1957)
  • Black Fury (1935)
Given the Hollywood depiction of corporated bosses as bad guys, I expected that movies would also portray unions as  virtuous organizations helping virtuous workers.  That’s sort of true of 40s and 50s, though obviously “Waterfront” is an exception.* But in “Hoffa,” “F.I.S.T.,” “Blue Collar,” and “Won’t Back Down,” unions don’t come off so well.  Of movies from the last 30 years, only “Matewan” is unambiguously pro-union, and it was a low-budget indie. So much for the idea that Hollywood is dominated by leftists and liberals.

My favorite nomination – one ignored even by Google – came from my cousin, who wasn’t even born till about twenty years after the movie came out: “The Pajama Game” (1957).

* The point of “Waterfront” was to make a virtue out of testifying to the government against the team you used to be on. Both the writer and the director, Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan, respectively, had testified before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities and had ratted out other Hollywood people – naming names and ruining careers. Kazan acknowledged the parallel – he was glad what he done to his former associates. But Schulberg denied that the movie had anything to do with HUAC investigations.

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