The Best Labor Union Movies Of All Time
I’m a big fan of “Best of” lists, so it was only a matter of time until I compiled a list of the best movies related to unions and the workplace. I scoured the Internet for lists of films related to unions or workers and made sure to include my personal favorites. Here, in chronological order, are the results:
How Green Was My Valley (US, 1941)
John Ford’s epic story of a family of Welsh coal miners (with Walter Pidgeon and Maureen O’Hara playing the parents) contains at its heart a debate about unionizing. While Ford keeps the focus on the family dynamics and the issue of worker safety, he weaves throughout the film the various pro- and anti-union arguments, leaving the final word for the local minister: “First, have your union. You need it. Alone you are weak. Together you are strong.”
Salt of the Earth (US, 1954)
Directed by Herbert Biberman, Salt of the Earth is famous in film history because nearly everyone involved in making the movie was blacklisted by Hollywood as part of the Red Scare of the 1950s, also known as the McCarthy Era for Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. The film tells the story of a 1951 strike in New Mexico against a zinc mining company. The story is unusual for the time in that most of the workers are Mexican immigrants; in addition, a major aspect of the story is the struggle between the male workers and their wives. The striking male workers want their wives to stay at home, cook and take care of the children. The women want to help the men win the strike. Guess who wins that argument? When the mine owner obtains an injunction against the striking workers, the women step up and maintain the picket lines.
On the Waterfront (US, 1954)
For many people of a certain age, Elia Kazan’s movie of conflict on the docks between a brutal union leader (Johnny Friendly, played by Lee J. Cobb) and a disillusioned dockworker (Marlon Brando) was their first introduction to the idea of a union and it was not a positive image. Kazan, who had just testified before the Un-American Activities Committee, where he named names of possible Communists, was clearly trying to make a point about the heroism of standing up for what you believe against overwhelming odds. But union workers know that the power of a Johnny Friendly pales in comparison to the power of the people that run the companies that ultimately pay the workers. Perhaps it would have helped to know that Johnny Friendly was based on an actual ILA leader who severely disciplined by the American Federation of Labor for his violent tactics.
The Pajama Game (US, 1957)
At first glance, The Pajama Game is just another Hollywood musical based, in this case, on the play of the same name and featuring the song “Steam Heat.” But upon closer examination, The Pajama Game turns out to be a story about a labor-management struggle. Doris Day plays the union steward in a pajama-making factory who has been pushing for a raise. John Raitt is a superintendent. These representatives of labor and management begin a love affair, but their work roles drive them apart, and after Day damages some machinery during a slowdown, Superintendent Raitt fires her. But then (through the magic of movies), Raitt discovers nefarious doings in management and manages to bring Doris back (to work and to him), get everyone the raise and they all live happily after. OK, it’s not Schindler’s List, but there is a message beneath the singing and dancing. Co-directed by George Abbott (also a co-writer) and Stanley Donen.
I’m All Right, Jack (UK, 1959)
John Boulting directed this satirical British film about the plot of a sinister company owner to drive the price of his product up by inciting the workers to strike, and then having the business transferred to a rival company, which he also secretly owns. The whole thing is played for broad laughs, most of them generated by Peter Sellers as the union boss with Bolshevik sympathies and a Hitler mustache. A cynical look at union leaders and management both, in the end it is clear who has the real power.
The Molly Maguires (US, 1970)
Martin Ritt directed this tale of coal miners in Northeastern Pennsylvania in the 1870s, which is based on a true story. The Molly Maguires, led by Jack Kehoe (Sean Connery), is a sort of proto-union that is at war with the mine owners in pursuit of better pay and working conditions. The differences between the Molly Maguires and a true union are significant: Connery’s group is a secret organization, and they are comfortable with using violence to achieve their ends. A Pinkerton Detective (Richard Harris) infiltrates the group and attempts to uncover its secrets, with tragic results. Ritt would revisit the union theme in 1979 with Norma Rae.
Harlan County, USA (US, 1976)
Director Barbara Kopple won an Oscar for Best Documentary for her on-the-spot reporting of a 1972 Kentucky miners’ strike in Harlan County, USA. Confrontations between striking workers and hired strikebreakers quickly became violent, and even Kopple and her cameraman were beaten. The film reminds audiences that, even in the 1970s, management tactics such as these were commonplace and the dream of a workplace where management and labor lived in perfect harmony was still far off.
F.I.S.T. (US, 1978) / Hoffa (US, 1992)
Hoffa is a well-made but ambivalent biopic of the Teamsters leader, with a pitch-perfect performance by Jack Nicholson, directed by co-star Danny DeVito. We get the good, the bad and the ugly of the controversial union leader, both his tireless dedication to the workers he represented as well as some of the poor choices he made while in power. Made 14 years earlier, F.I.S.T., directed by Norman Jewison and starring Sylvester Stallone, takes the basic outlines of Hoffa’s biography and fictionalizes them. The result is not great moviemaking and Stallone proves that he should keep to the boxing ring. Neither movie has an answer to the question, Where is Jimmy Hoffa’s body?
Blue Collar (US, 1978)
Paul Schrader, the man who wrote Taxi Driver, wrote and directed this crime drama, which places itself squarely in the “unions are corrupt” camp. Richard Pryor, Yaphet Kotto and Harvey Keitel are Detroit auto workers who are so angry at mistreatment by management and their union that they decide to rob the union. In the safe, they find evidence of corruption and links to organized crime. As in On the Waterfront, the theme is little guys vs. big organizations, but the assumption that all unions are corrupt was by that point a stereotype, not an accurate assessment based on the facts. At the same time, the movie fails to explore the vast power differential between the two purported “enemies” of the little guys – as always, management holds most of the cards.
Norma Rae (US, 1979)
If On the Waterfront established the prototype of unions for one generation, Norma Rae reversed the impression for the next. Directed by Martin Ritt and starring Oscar-winner Sally Field and Ron Liebman, the film focuses on a union organizing campaign in a southern textile mill. Along the way, we get a “two different worlds” love story between Field and Liebman, a look at family life and coping on the low wages of textile work, and a view of what working in a textile mill actually looks and sounds like. The movie ends optimistically, but in real life (as is often the case, especially in right to work states), the pro-union vote was only the beginning of the struggle.
Silkwood (US, 1983)
Mike Nichols directed Meryl Streep in this taut thriller about an employee of a plutonium company who stumbles on to some serious safety defects in the radioactive products. Streep plays a union steward at Kerr-McGee and it is clearly her association with the union that underlies much of her activity in the second half of the movie, although the script keeps union references to a minimum. The film is very effective at showing how union stewards communicate with other workers at work and at home. Ultimately, Silkwood decides to blow the whistle and give the information to a reporter, but is killed in a mysterious car accident on the way to the meeting. The movie suggests that the “accident” may have been murder, but the case has never been solved.
Matewan (US, 1987)
Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones and Mary McConnell star in this fictionalized recreation of a 1920 struggle between West Virginia coal miners trying to improve their lot by organizing a union and the owners (and their hired thugs) who want to continue to exploit. John Sayles, who wrote and directed Matewan, explores not just the willingness of the owners to use all means necessary to regain control, but also tensions between black and white workers, between men and women, and between the outsider (Cooper, playing a UMW organizer) and the natives. Somehow, Sayles completed the project, with its massive cast and spectacular battle scenes, for under $4 million.
Roger & Me (US, 1989)
Michael Moore, documentarian and propagandist, had his first hit with this wry tale of his attempts to meet with General Motors CEO Roger Smith (presumably to tell him off). Along the way, Moore guides us through a few decades of history (mostly accurately), focusing on the men and women employed by GM over the years, especially those in Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan. While Moore has his critics, and his throw-it-all-up-there-and-see-what-sticks approach can be annoying, his central point is sound: that the big companies who decide to lay off workers and close plants or move plants overseas are not controlled by the economy – they are the economy. The best evidence of this is the fact that no matter how badly the workers and former workers are doing (to the point of selling rabbits “for pets or meat”), people like Roger Smith do just fine.
Newsies! (US, 1992)
Another labor musical – this time from Disney. Based on the 1899 New York City newsboys strike, this dancing and singing extravaganza stars a young Christian Bale, with support from Bill Pullman, Ann-Margret and Robert Duvall. More than just Annie with newspapers, the film shows the desperate poverty that newsboys lived in, although it doesn’t explain how they can sing and dance so well on such a meagre diet.
Germinal (France, 1993)
Claude Berri directed this film version of the 19th Century novel by Émile Zola that relates French coal miners’ attempts to organize a union in the 1860s. Gerard Depardieu stars as the leader of a strike that begins well but collapses into a riot. Depardieu is blamed for the failure, leading his arch-enemy, an anarchist miner, to attempt to kill him in the mine. I won’t spoil the ending.
Office Space (US, 1999)
Mike Judge’s contemporary comedy doesn’t really have anything to do with unions, but it does say a lot about the absurdity of the modern workplace, particularly the business office setting. Though the concept and characters are better than the actual plot, there are enough knowing laughs (TPS reports, flair, etc.) to sustain the viewer though to the end. For some reason, Jennifer Anniston is in it. And would someone please give me back my stapler? You know the one, red, Trimline…
Bread and Roses (UK, 2000)
British filmmaker and chronicler of the working class Ken Loach went to California to tell the fictionalized story of two Central American immigrants who become involved in a janitors strike in Los Angeles. The film is based on SEIU’s April 1990 Justice for Janitors strike and also deals with issues of race, class and immigration. Adrian Brody plays a union lawyer.
Made in Dagenham (UK, 2010)
Underrated British actress Sally Hawkins turns in a subtle and convincing performance as a unionized sewing machinist, one of many women who sewed upholstery for cars at a Ford plant in England. Eventually, Hawkins and her union lead the women on a strike based on unequal pay between male and female workers. The movie is based on actual events in the Dagenham Ford plant in 1968. Nigel Cole directed. Co-stars include Bob Hoskins, Miranda Richardson and Rosamund Pike.