Ahhhh, Labor Day. The day where we celebrate the end of summer by roasting meat on an open fire and drinking beer while sitting in a kiddie pool. Of course, it’s supposed to be a day where we remember the awful Pullman Strike, which featured workers rebelling against a monstrous employer and a bunch of them getting shot. But that’s depressing. Still, if you’d like to celebrate the holiday the way we’re supposed to, we’ve got five movies that’ll do the trick.
Whether you’ve got an anti-union family member or a dedicated Wobbly in your grilling group. Let’s get organized on that ass!
- The Set Up: Detailing the union strike in West Virginia that ended in the Battle of Matewan, this John Sayles movie is a meticulously researched look at how unions and unionized workers were treated in the 1920s. It’s all here, every dirty tactic done by the coal mines who were essentially too cheap to pay their workers.
- The Struggle:These guys were the modern day equivalent of billionaires, and they were afraid that if they gave the workers a wage they could actually live off of, they’d get all uppity and start demanding things like health-care. And to make matters worse, they didn’t even pay them with real money! Seriously!
- The Outcome: As you might guess from the term “Battle”, it doesn’t exactly end well for everybody. But Sayles’ dedication to period makes this movie a gold mine, and it really does demonstrate the importance of labor unions when workers are faced with terrible conditions and the kind of boss willing to label the union organizer a rapist because he doesn’t want people to actually own their own houses.
Since that’s depressing, let’s talk about strippers…
#2) Live Nude Girls Unite!
- The Set Up: This documentary explores the history and struggle of the dancers at the “Lusty Lady,” which is not a salty ocean vessel, but rather a strip club in San Francisco. The Lusty Lady holds a pretty unique place in the world of sex: it’s the only unionized strip club. How the employees got there, though, is an entertaining strange journey that offers a lot of insight into the sex industry.
- The Struggle: As you might guess, the club’s original management was less than happy with the idea of arranging benefits for strippers, so they fought the union pretty hard. But ultimately in 1997, they pulled together, got the union founded, and forced the management to accept them.
- The Outcome: If you follow up, you learn that in 2003 the union was so successful that it actually bought out the owners and took over the Lusty Lady as a worker’s cooperative. So celebrate Labor Day, by unionizing your local strip club; Communism was never this awesome.
#3) Norma Rae
- The Set Up: Based on the story of Crystal Lee Sutton, this is about, well, OK, everybody knows just the one scene, with Sally Field standing on a table with a “Union” sign (it’s literally so famous we couldn’t find another still from the movie on Google Images). But it’s actually a pretty good unionizing drama.
- The Struggle: Back in the ’70s, they hadn’t yet discovered that they could treat illegal immigrants like crap and get away with it, so instead they treated people in Alabama like crap because what are they going to do? Complain to the corrupt state government?
- The Outcome: Sure, Norma Rae takes some liberties (unsurprisingly, in real life the hero got fired from her job), but it’s an award-winning, uplifting kind of movie, perfect for everyone.
#4) Harlan County, USA
This, not so much.
- The Set Up: Barbara Kopple’s documentary details the strike by workers in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1973 and illustrates just how scary striking was back in the day. It explores the politics of the union and the death of union activist Joseph Yablonski and his family, and the daily, often painful lives of the miners as they fight the Duke Power Company, which thinks the best way to settle labor dispute is to hire thugs with guns.
- The Struggle: The guns aren’t an exaggeration: there’s literally a point where the thug’s leader points a gun at the camera, and several workers have insisted that if the camera crew weren’t there, people would have died!
- The Outcome: The people of Harlan County win…only to discover that they’re part of a union that might not be interested in protecting them. It’s a powerful, engaging film and worth seeking out.
#5) Blue Collar
- The Set Up: Three auto workers (Yaphet Kotto, Harvey Keitel, and Richard Pryor himself in a rare and excellent dramatic role) are sick of being treated like crap at work and sick of being treated like crap by the union.
- The Struggle: They decide to take matters into their own hands and rob the union blind but neither of them are prepared for what they find in the top secret safe.
- The Outcome: As it’s written and directed by Paul Schrader, filmmaker behind such feel-good hits as Auto-Focus and screenwriter of such uplifting films as Taxi Driver, it turns into a movie about how neither companies nor unions work in their member’s best interests, and in fact turn the workers who should be united against each other.
Why should you watch these movies this weekend? Because spending your Labor Day thinking about the complexities of labor negotiations and race politics is a lot of fun! Well, at least for us. You might want to stick with Norma Rae.
Happy Labor Day! Remember your job may suck but it could be worse!