This is a list of the best movies on labor unions and the workplace I’ve compiled because of my love of “best of” lists. To compile this list, I searched the web for films about labor unions or workers’ rights and included a few of my own personal favorites. Listed here are the results, in order of appearance:
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1. How Green Was My Valley (US, 1941)
The central conflict in John Ford’s epic tale of a Welsh coal miner family (with Walter Pidgeon and Maureen O’Hara as the parents) centers on the issue of unionization. While Ford retains the focus on the family dynamics and the issue of worker safety, he weaves the many pro- and anti-union arguments throughout the film, leaving the final word to the local minister: “First, have your union. It’s vital to your well-being. When you’re alone by yourself, you’re vulnerable. We are stronger when we work together.”
2. Salt of the Earth (US, 1954)
Directed by Herbert Biberman, Salt of the Earth is noteworthy in film history because practically everyone engaged in creating the movie was blacklisted by Hollywood as part of the Red Scare of the 1950s, often known as the McCarthy Era for Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. The video chronicles the narrative of a 1951 strike in New Mexico against a zinc mining business. The novel is uncommon for the time in that most of the workers are Mexican immigrants; in addition, a key component of the plot is the fight 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 assist the men win the strike. In this debate, who comes out on top? During a strike, the women step up and maintain the picket lines for the striking miners.
3. On the Waterfront (US, 1954)
First introduction to unions for many people in their 30s and 40s was Elia Kazan’s film about the fight on the docks between Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), a ruthless union leader, and a disillusioned dockworker (Marlon Brando). He was clearly trying to make a statement about the courage of standing up for what you believe in the face of tremendous opposition in his testimony before the Un-American Activities Committee, where he mentioned names of probable Communists. The influence of a Johnny Friendly pales in contrast to the power of those who govern the firms that eventually pay the workers, according to union workers. Knowing that Johnny Friendly was based on a real-life ILA leader who was harshly chastised by the AFL for his violent tactics might have been helpful.
4. The Pajama Game (US, 1957)
As a Hollywood musical based on the play of the same name, The Pajama Game appears to be little more than “Steam Heat.” However, a deeper look reveals that The Pajama Game is really a story about a labor-management conflict. In this film, Doris Day plays a factory steward who has been agitating for a wage increase for his or her members. As a superintendent, John Raitt has a lot of responsibilities. These labor and management representatives establish a love affair, but their employment positions separate them, and Superintendent Raitt dismisses Day after she damages some machinery during a slowdown. However, Raitt discovers unscrupulous management practices and manages to lure Doris back (to work and to him), get everyone’s raises, and they all live happily ever after thanks to the magic of the movies. Even if it’s not Schindler’s List, there’s a deeper lesson here. In addition to co-writing the script, George Abbott and Stanley Donen co-directed the film.
5. I’m All Right, Jack (UK, 1959)
Satirical British film director John Boulting made this picture about the plot of an evil company owner who tries to raise the price of his goods by persuading the employees to walk out on their jobs, and then move the firm to a competitor company, which he also secretly owns. With a union boss who has both socialist tendencies and a Hitler mustache, the whole thing is set up to be laugh out loud funny. When it comes to unions and management, it’s clear who has the real power.
6. The Molly Maguires (US, 1970)
A genuine narrative about coal miners in the 1870s in northeastern Pennsylvania was the inspiration for Martin Ritt’s film. Leading the Molly Maguires is Jack Kehoe (Sean Connery), a proto-union fighting for better wages and working conditions against the mine owners. While the Molly Maguires are a hidden society, Connery’s group is more quite willing to use violence to attain their goals. With disastrous consequences, a Pinkerton Detective (Richard Harris) infiltrates the organization and tries to solve its mysteries. Norma Rae, Ritt’s follow-up to the union theme, was released in 1979.
7. Harlan County, USA (US, 1976)
For her on-the-scene reportage of a 1972 Kentucky miners’ strike in Harlan County, USA, director Barbara Kopple won an Oscar for Best Documentary. Even Kopple and her cameraman were assaulted during clashes between striking workers and paid strikebreakers. As depicted in the film, management practices like these were commonplace in 1970s America, and the dream of a workplace where management and labor lived harmoniously was still a long way away from reality.
8. F.I.S.T. (US, 1978) / Hoffa (US, 1992)
Danny DeVito, who also stars in the film, directs this well-acted biography of Teamsters leader J.R. “Hoffa” Hoffa, which stars Jack Nicholson in a stunning performance, is a mixed bag. We learn about the controversial union leader’s good, terrible, and ugly sides, including his unwavering devotion to the workers he represented and some of the awful decisions he made while in power. F.I.S.T., directed by Norman Jewison and starring Sylvester Stallone and released 14 years earlier, fictionalizes the main elements of J. Robert Hoffa’s life story. Stallone confirms that he should stick to the boxing ring with this film, which is not a wonderful piece of filmmaking. The topic of Jimmy Hoffa’s whereabouts is never addressed in either film.
9. Blue Collar (US, 1978)
It was written and directed by Paul Schrader, the author of Taxi Driver, who pushed the “unions are corrupt” narrative in this criminal thriller. To express their frustration with management and their union, Richard Pryor, Yaphet Kotto, and Harvey Keitel rob the Detroit Auto Workers Union. When they open the safe, they discover proof of corruption and connections to organized crime. It’s a small individual vs. huge organization story, but it’s built on stereotypes rather than facts, and the presumption that all unions are corrupt by that point was just that. As is customary in corporate films, little attention is paid to the enormous disparity in power between the claimed “enemy” of the little guys: management.
10. Norma Rae (US, 1979)
For one generation, On the Waterfront set a model for unions; for the next, Norma Rae flipped the script. Sally Field and Ron Liebman feature in Martin Ritt’s film about a union organizing drive in a southern textile mill. Along the way, we see a love story between Field and Liebman that takes place in “two separate worlds,” a peek at family life and how to deal with the poor salaries of textile industry, and a glimpse of what it’s like to work in a textile mill. However, in real life (especially in right to work states), the pro-union vote was just the beginning of a long and arduous journey.
11. Silkwood (US, 1983)
Meryl Streep stars in this suspenseful thriller directed by Mike Nichols about a plutonium industry employee who discovers some severe flaws in the radioactive products. It is evident that Streep’s union stewardship at Kerr-McGee underlies most of her activities in the second part of the film, despite the script’s efforts to keep union references under wraps. Union stewards’ interactions with coworkers at work and at home are vividly depicted in this moving documentary. This leads Silkwood to resolve to blow the whistle, but he is killed in an accident on the way to a meeting with the reporter. Even though the movie implies the “accident” was murder, no one knows for sure.
12. Matewan (US, 1987)
There is a fictitious reproduction in which Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones, and Mary McConnell play coal miners in West Virginia in the 1920s who try to better their lot by forming a union and the owners (and their hired thugs) who wish to continue exploiting them. Aside from exploring the owners’ determination to take any means necessary to reclaim power, John Sayles, the writer and director of Matewan, also explore the tensions between black and white employees, men and women and a foreigner (Cooper, playing a UMW organizer) and the natives. Sayles managed to complete the production on a shoestring budget despite assembling an impressive ensemble cast and staging some visually stunning fight scenes.
13. Roger & Me (US, 1989)
This amusing account of Michael Moore’s attempts to meet with General Motors CEO Roger Smith became his first big hit as a documentarian and propagandist (presumably to tell him off). Aside from introducing us to the men and women who worked for General Motors over the years in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, Moore also takes us through a few decades of history (mainly properly). Even if Moore has his detractors and his “throw it all up there and see what sticks” style is irritating, his core thesis is sound: that the huge firms that decide to lay off workers and stop facilities or relocate plants overseas are not regulated by the economy – they are the economy. Despite the fact that workers and ex-workers are selling rabbits “for pets or meat,” people like Roger Smith are doing OK.
14. Newsies! (US, 1992)
Disney has released a new labor-themed musical. Christian Bale, Bill Pullman, Ann-Margret, and Robert Duvall all feature in this musical based on the 1899 New York City newsboys strike. The film shows more than simply Annie with newspapers, but it doesn’t explain how the newsboys can sing and dance so effectively on such a meager diet..
15. Germinal (France, 1993)
This adaptation of Émile Zola’s novel about French coal workers in the 1860s was directed by Claude Berri, who also wrote the screenplay. A well-intentioned strike soon devolves into a riot under the leadership of Gerard Depardieu. As a result, an anarchist miner, Depardieu’s arch-enemy, attempted to assassinate him in the mine. I’m not going to give anything away about how the story ends.
16. Office Space (US, 1999)
Modern workplace absurdity, particularly in the business office, has been a constant theme in the work of Mike Judge, whose contemporary comedy has nothing to do with unions. There are enough “TPS reports, flair, etc.” to keep the audience entertained until the conclusion, despite the fact that the concept and characters are better than the plot. There’s a Jennifer Anniston cameo for whatever reason. Also, can someone please return my stapler to me? Trimline, the red one…
17. Bread and Roses (UK, 2000)
Filmmaker and recorder of working-class life in the United Kingdom A janitors strike in Los Angeles inspired Ken Loach to travel to California to recount the dramatized story of two Central American immigrants. Based on SEIU’s Justice for Janitors strike in April 1990, the video also touches on racial and ethnic concerns as well as immigration. As a union lawyer, Adrian Brody is excellent.
18. Made in Dagenham (UK, 2010)
A unionized sewing machinist in a Ford plant in England, Sally Hawkins, an underrated British actress, gives an excellent portrayal as one of many such women. Eventually, Hawkins and her union led the women on a strike based on the fact that male and female workers were paid differently. On the Dagenham Ford plant in 1968, real-life events were depicted in the film. Nigel Cole was the director. In addition to Bob Hoskins, Miranda Richardson, and Rosamund Pike, the cast included a slew of other actors.