Politics & Policy

Union on Film

Putting Labor Day in your Netflix queue.

You’ve got the extra day off. You might as well use it to appreciate the “labor” in Labor Day. Here’s one way: Click over to Netflix and order up some union classics. One warning: There’s only a remote chance you’ll like what you see.

Since people don’t talk as much about unions as they used to, here are some recommendations: On the Waterfront, Norma Rae, and the Academy Award–winning documentary American Dream. Between them there’s corruption, violence, strikes, shady organizing tactics, and Marlon Brando before he swelled to the size of the labor movement.

First up is the defining moment for labor in film, On the Waterfront. It’s not a spoiler to remind you that this flick featured the young Brando who “coulda been a contender.” The movie has it all, including a corrupt union boss up to his neck in organized crime, and violence toward those who don’t go along with the program.

How times (and the docks) haven’t changed.

Off-screen, the federal government is currently pursuing racketeering charges against the union that inspired the movie. Unfortunately, progress hit a speed bump when a key witness turned up dead in a car trunk. The International Longshoremen’s Association had a $10 million operating shortfall last year, and union assets were down 34 percent from 2005 to 2006. Lawyers’ bills will do that. Meanwhile, the union’s president managed to pay himself more than $580,000, and his son grabbed another $292,000 last year.

Fast forward to Norma Rae.

The heroine, played by Sally Field, inspired her co-workers to rise up against a nasty employer. In this case, the process involved employees organizing themselves, with the help of a well-meaning union.

Unfortunately, times have changed. UNITE HERE is the real-life successor of the union depicted in the movie. Its old style of organizing — focusing on employees’ needs — has pretty much dried up along with Sally Field.

The union is now the perfect picture of modern union organizing, warts and all. It relies on a “top-down” model, which is little more than attacking a company until it helps deliver its own employees up for union membership. No vote — just mandatory dues.

The change in tactics hasn’t been good for working Americans. In the last couple of years, UNITE HERE officials have been found guilty of invading employees’ privacy by illegally running their license plates through the DMV so they could find where they live and make unannounced visits. And a jury ordered them to pay $17 million for defaming medical professionals after union officials falsely told expectant mothers their babies could be in danger at a hospital caught in the middle of a labor dispute. To top it all off, UNITE HERE may be liable for $75 million after union officials tried to steal life insurance benefits from their own retired staff. The staff sued the union when they saw their key retirement benefits cut by 95 percent.

Maybe the union’s secretaries need their own Norma Rae.

Time to pop in American Dream, a documentary highlighting a disastrous strike by food-plant employees and a key split in Big Labor’s playbook. It’s arguably the most relevant union movie in decades.

The film follows two factions within the United Food and Commercial Workers during a contract showdown. On the one side is the grizzled leadership at the top of the union who want their members to take pay cuts to meet the demands of a changing industry. On the other side was a group of local union leaders and their hired gun, Ray Rogers, who is the godfather of the “corporate campaign.”

Movie Spoiler Alert: The community is torn apart, everyone looks terrible, and the union’s bosses are exposed as failures.

Real-World Spoiler Alert: The UFCW didn’t seem to learn anything from the story. The union has failed in its traditional organizing, losing 75,000 members in the last five years. It led its own members on another disastrous strike in 2003, leading to 4.5 million days of lost work, lost homes, broken marriages, and even a few suicides.

Since then, UFCW has turned into the largest abuser of the “corporate campaign” model, with a p.r. smear machine currently targeting the nation’s largest meatpacker and largest retailer. They have chosen to ignore the words of their union’s former meatpacking-division chief, who warned, “They are not going to win if they continue the way they’re going. They’re going to become bigger losers than what they are right now. It is going to cost them their jobs.”

It turns out he was right. Yet given UFCW’s continued reliance on the shady tactic, it’s clear that the movie hasn’t made its way up the Netflix queue for today’s union leaders.

This Labor Day it’s worth unwinding, rewinding, and remembering some of Big Labor’s most famous movie moments. When it comes to their worst scenes, it’s good to know there’s always an “eject” button.

Bret Jacobson is a founding staff member and senior research analyst for the Center for Union Facts.


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