Happy Labor Day!
Between the pool parties, barbecue and football preparations, take a moment or two — or maybe even more — to consider the people we all have to thank for this particular 3-day weekend: the working men and women of America, and in particular, the labor unions.
That’s right, labor unions — the people who fought, and in some instances, died for labor rights such as 8-hour work-days and 40-hour work-weeks, overtime pay, benefits and pensions, as well as safer working conditions. Let’s not forget that without labor unions, we might still have 12-year-old miners perpetuating a cycle of familial poverty.
Me. I grew up in Texas, a so-called “right-to-work” state, where the word “union” was spit out like an expletive (often preceded by one), so it wasn’t until I joined the workforce that I began to grasp the importance of organizing and collective bargaining. That did not prevent me realizing the importance of labor unions in the economic evolution of our country.
So here’s some suggested union-related movies for your viewing this Labor Day.
Norma Rae (1979)
Sally Field won the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress for this tour de force of a Southern working-class woman rising up to fight for union protection for herself and her fellow factory workers.
John Sayles’ evocative dramatization of critical events leading up to the Battle of Blair Mountain brings the issues that fed that struggle to life with vivid and moving details. Though hard to find, this one’s well worth the hunt.
9 to 5 (1980)
Yes, a comedy, and no, not directly related to labor union struggles — but you get to watch Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin exact their revenge on despicable boss Dabny Coleman while making the workplace more efficient by supporting workers rather than oppressing them.
Dramas and comedies aside, here is a link to the 1976 documentary, Harlan County USA, about an often bloody, year-long struggle in the mid-70’s between coal minters and the mine management that refused to sign a contract recognizing the United Mine Workers.
I’ve just listed a few Labor Day movies, there are plenty more worker-related movies.
To be sure, there are multiple overlaps in these lists, but there more than enough films appropriate to the holiday to let you binge-watch the day away.
Or maybe you’ve got holiday plans and no time for movies today. That’s okay, as there are several labor-related songs for you as well, shorter and punchier but still potent reminders of our the sacrifices of our working mean and women:
Joe Hill — Paul Robeson
Written by Phil Ochs to commemorate the murder of labor leader Joe Hill (who coined the phrase “pie in the sky” in his own song, “The Preacher and the Slave.”)
“The copper bosses killed you, Joe.
They shot you, Joe,” says I.
“Takes more than guns to kill a man,”
Says Joe, “I didn’t die.”
Says Joe, “I didn’t die.”
“There is Power in a Union” — Billy Bragg
Written in 1913 by Joe Hill himself, revived here by modern singer Billy Bragg.
There is power in a factory,
Power in the land,
Power in the hand of a worker.
But it all amounts to nothing
If together we don’t stand —
There is power in our union.
16 Tons — Tennesse Ernie Ford
Merle Travis took a line straight out of his coal miner father’s letter to craft this song, popularized by Tennessee Ernie Ford in this #1 hit from 1955.
You load 16 tons and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
St. Peter, don’t call me, ’cause I can’t go —
I owe my soul to the company store.
Or perhaps you DO have plenty of time to dive into the historical background of our 3-day weekend. If so, here’s some reading materials on just a few incidents from our hidden labor history to get you going.
- Bay View Massacre — Wisconsin, May 1886 — National Guardsmen who had been ordered to “shoot to kill” at crowds of workers striking for an 8-hour, kill seven people, including a 13-year old boy.
- Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire — New York City, March 25 1911 — 146 women die, unable to escape the inferno due to illegally locked doors and exits. One of the deadliest industrial disasters in American history, leading to improved factory safety standards and the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU).
- Ludlow Massacre — Colorado, April 20, 1914 — Over 2 dozen men, women and children were killed during the southern Colorado Coal Strike, when militias surrounded worker camps and fired on them and set tents afire.
- Battle of Blair Mountain — West Virginia, late summer, 1921 — America’s largest labor uprising with thousands of coal miners confronting lawmen and strike breakers while trying to unionize southwestern West Virginia coalfields.
For maximum labor day immersion, try the triple-threat treatment of a great story about the struggles of the American poor in the Dust Bowl years — nothing can compare to John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.”
Of course, you should read the original novel.
If that’s too much effort for your holiday, John Ford directed Henry Fonda’s stirring performance in the 1940 movie version, with this memorable monologue towards the end.
After reading Steinbeck’s story, folksinger and labor advocate Woody Guthrie condensed it into the song “Tom Joad,” performed here by Country Joe McDonald.
Working men, women and children fought and have died for better conditions for workers, so enjoy your weekend off.
So let’s remember to keep the “Labor” in Labor Day.