I always like to draw attention to the original intent of Labor Day, which is to honor America’s working people. In keeping with that sentiment, I came across this terrific list of union-inspired meaning. Below, there is also a rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “Bound for Glory,” performed by Johnny Cash. The song recalls Guthrie’s union experience among California orange pickers.
The Grapes of Wrath and Bound for Glory: Released in 1940, a year after the John Steinbeck novel of the same name, The Grapes of Wrath offers a gritty, cold glimpse at the plight of displaced “Okies” desperately struggling for living wages and collective bargaining in California’s produce fields. A few decades later, the Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory covered similar territory, focusing on the famed songwriter’s union work among the Golden State’s orange pickers. (As a side note, while The Grapes of Wrath starred John Carradine, Bound for Glory featured his son, David.)
Norma Rae: Although it’s been more than 30 years since Norma Rae hit movie screens, the image of Sally Field silently holding a sign reading “Strike” remains one of the powerful cinematic images of unions. Based on a true story, the film focuses on the struggles of a union organizer in a North Carolina textile mill. For her performance as the plucky activist, Field won an Academy Award.
Matewan: This 1987 film commemorates the 1920 Battle of Matewan, a real-life conflict between West Virginia coal miners and detectives hired by the Stone Mountain Coal Co. While the heart of the dispute was a shootout that cost the lives of several miners and detectives, the film also explores the spies, assassinations and random shootings that West Virginia coal companies brought to bear against workers fighting to unionize.
Sometimes a Great Notion: Based on a novel by Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, this film delves into the uneasy relationship between unions and independent loggers in Oregon. Told through the eyes of the fiercely independent Stamper family, it stars Paul Newman, who also directed.
Blue Collar: Famous for his comedy routines, Richard Pryor shines in a rare dramatic role here. Joined by Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto, Pryor’s Zeke Brown is a fictional Detroit autoworker who is mistreated by management and ignored by his union. When the trio robs their union’s safe, they find evidence that the union is closely tied to organized crime.
Bread and Roses: A dramatic retelling of the 2000 Los Angeles janitors’ strike, Bread and Roses focuses on the plight of California cleaners, who watched their pay drop by 35% between 1983 and 1986, at the same time that they lost many of their benefits. Starring Adrian Brody as a crusading lawyer, the film explores the battle for unionization among the illegal immigrants who provide much of California’s blue-collar work force.
Hoffa and F.I.S.T.: Featuring a script by David Mamet, an over-the-top performance by Jack Nicholson and somewhat worshipful direction by Danny DeVito, Hoffa has been criticized for its rose-tinted depiction of the famed union organizer. For a different perspective, Norman Jewison’s F.I.S.T. features Sylvester Stallone in a thinly veiled (and far less eloquent) portrait of Hoffa. Both movies explore the abuses that led to the formation of unions — and the union abuses that led to frequent their investigation by the federal government.
Salt of the Earth: Howard J. Biberman was one of the “Hollywood Ten,” a group of screenwriters and directors who went to prison for refusing to answer questions posed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. After his release, Biberman made this film, which was inspired by an actual miners’ strike against the Empire Zinc Co. Although the film carefully changed the names of the company, the town and other identifying factors, its cast was largely composed of real-life miners who had been involved in the strike.
Silkwood: Directed by Mike Nichols from a script by Nora Ephron, Silkwood tells the story of Karen Silkwood, a real-life union organizer at a Kerr-McGee plutonium plant in Oklahoma. Confronted with safety violations that threaten the lives of the plant’s workers, Silkwood begins investigating her company. In response, she is harassed by management and repeatedly contaminated by plutonium. Combining outstanding performances with a hearty dose of paranoia, the film also pairs the outrage of abused workers with the jittery terror that comes from standing on the bottom rung of America’s nuclear industry.