On DVD: How to Organize a Do-It Yourself Labor Day Film Festival

Sure, Christmas movies for Christmastime, ad infintum, but Labor Day movies? Why not? Most of us seem unaware of it, but Labor Day is in fact a day federally designated to celebrate the unions and a unionized working class. It was initiated in 1887 by President Grover Cleveland to appease the a discontented working class, and the possibility of labor groups using the anniversary of the Haymarket riots and hangings of 1886 to institute an annual protest parade against the ownership class. Today, it's merely a salute to the very work everyone gets a day off from. But hey, a little labor history's good for the colon -- and these 13 films (or any selections thereof) aren't the worst way to honor the holiday.

Strike (1925)

Soviet propaganda wizard Sergei Eisenstein's first film, a reckless montage frenzy revolving around a chaotic, pre-Revolutionary workers' strike. Woo-hoo.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

The classic John Ford version of John Steinbeck's Dust Bowl epic, and acidic and tough-skinned, especially for 1940. Did Hollywood poor people ever look this real? The film was stark and truthful enough to warrant a boycott call from banks and farming corporations, and its unionizing stance was forceful enough to get Ford, a confirmed right-winger, investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee years later.

Salt of the Earth (1954)

Independently made -- when only exploitation movies were "indie" -- by real union miners and McCarthy blacklistees, this clumsy but gutsy movie about Mexican miners organizing resistance against their white company bosses remains the premier American union film. The production met with federal interference at every juncture, and Mexican star Rosaura Revueltas was imprisoned and deported as a Communist. Stirring not just as a movie but as evidence itself of corporate injustice.

On the Waterfront (1954)

Famous, influential, gritty, pioneering, acted within an inch of its life, and an anti-union movie that's also the most famous union film ever made. Coincidence? Director Elia Kazan was a rat (remember his lifetime achievement Oscar and the sitdown strike it got from certain Academy members?), and this movie is him covering his tush. Still, with Brando, Steiger, Cobb and Malden chewing at each other like junkyard dogs, it's tough to resist.

The Molly Maguires (1970)

A ham-fisted depiction of a slice of labor history that has been, like so many others, largely excised from history: Irish immigrant coal miners in 1870s Pennsylvania battle the injustice and oppression of the mining company with what amounts to terrorism -- and their leader is Sean Connery.


Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)

An Oscar-winning socialist-cinema signature film, this shocking Barbara Koppel documentary follows a 1973 Kentucky coal-miners' strike in what amounts to a nerve-wracking present tense of summary murder, gun threats, crowd madness, abject poverty, corporate greed and an astonishing portrait of communal solidarity.

Norma Rae (1979)

Don't be fooled by the old ad art, featuring Sally Field leaping and beaming like a cheerleader. This is a rough-hewn product of the 1970s, and her character is a poor, uneducated factory worker who's had children with men she barely knew, and decides to unionize her workplace against all odds. It's better than feel-good -- it's convincing.

The Wobblies (1979)

Another great union doc, a portrait of the Industrial Workers of the World, its promise and demise at the hands of government and corporations. If you've never heard of the IWW (outside of Warren Beatty's Reds, that is), there are reasons why.

Silkwood (1983)

Meryl Streep rocks the house in this too-true story about corporate evil and whistle-blower persecution. The trampy, naive nuclear power worker of the title tries to expose safety compromises at her plant, and gets whacked for her trouble.

Matewan (1987)

John Sayles's earnest, moody dramatization of a true 1920 incident among West Virginia miners, who were brutally oppressed by the company until a union organizer (Chris Cooper) arrives and tries to unite the disparate racial groups against The Man.

Riff-Raff (1991)

The great British lefty Ken Loach had his first Stateside hit, of sorts, with this film, his first comedy, about low-rung construction workers. With Robert Carlyle.

Land and Freedom (1995)

Both a Marxist rant and a cold squint at the consequences of political idealism, Ken Loach's film vividly surveys the psychic wreckage of one of the century's greatest and least-remembered political shitstorms: the Spanish Civil War. A young Liverpudlian bloke (Ian Hart) goes to Spain to fight with the Loyalists on the dusty Aragon front, where the weight of worker ideology is just as tangible and riveting as the battlefield grit.

The Awful Truth (1999-2000)

Michael Moore's short-lived cable-TV show had some lazy fat on it, and Moore's not to everyone's tastes, but nowhere else in American mainstream media are you likely to see active and fearless concern for real workers and real union solidarity. Besides that, it's savagely funny. A key example: Moore's portrayal of a group of Mexican Holiday Inn maids who tried to unionize and got exported for their troubles. Moore throws them a farewell party (complete with INS-agent piñata) and then proceeds to document the hotel's many health and fire violations on tape.


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