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Labor Films

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Labor Film Series logo, design by Scott McCarney

The popularity of silent film in the early 1900s began to offer a real alternative to the lyceum. As a socialist lecturer noted in 1911, “I give a lecture for free and I get maybe a hundred people coming to listen to me. I look out across the street at the nickelodeon and they’re paying a nickel to get in and there are thousands of people lined up to pay to see these things. We’re doing something wrong in mass movements. We’ve got to change.”

Organized labor recognized the opportunity. Already in 1908 the Boot and Shoe Workers had made a film to be used in an organizing drive and the AFL in 1911 paid for production of A Martyr to His Cause, to raise funds to defend John McNamara, accused of dynamiting the Los Angeles Times. In 1918 the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen bought a studio and produced a newsreel that made the case for nationalizing the railroads.

In Rochester, the Central Trades & Labor Council (CTLC) newspaper noted such early films as A Martyr to His Cause (1911), What Is To Be Done (made in 1914 about the Ludlow massacre), and The Jungle (based on Upton Sinclair’s exposé of the meatpacking industry, released in 1922). In 1923 the Council’s newspaper initiated a short-lived “motion picture department” and soon the CTLC itself was presenting labor films including The New Disciple (a film advocating worker cooperatives, produced in 1922 by a film company supported by the Seattle Central Labor Council following the 1919 general strike); Labor’s Reward (produced in 1925 by the AFL’s Union Label Trades Department); and, in 1926, The Passaic Textile Strike, a documentary made by the International Workers Aid, which chronicled a major strike from the workers’ perspective.

By then the first labor film festivals had been held in New York City in 1922 and in Detroit and Chicago in 1924 — screening films made by workers dealing with worker and union issues and shown in union halls and working class theaters. Although the AFL underwrote production of Labor’s Reward to further its union-label campaign, the national body rejected a proposal to establish a studio whose films would depict “the true principles, objects, and activities of organized labor,” and turn its 1500 labor temples into a national chain for showing labor films.

Meanwhile the AFL grew increasingly concerned with the depiction of labor in commercial films. At its 1920 convention the AFL adopted a resolution that branded the screen as “an instrument of misrepresentation in the campaign against labor and labor organizations.” The owner of Rochester’s American Theater, a union man, declared he would not show “certain pictures which are plainly a new type of propaganda against labor and labor organizations.” This sort of pressure forced the film industry to adopt a policy to “stand neutral” on labor issues.

But the very success of worker films like What is To Be Done, which Rochester’s labor paper described as “one of the very best films depicting class struggle that has yet been shown in the movies,” drew hostile attention from the authorities: films were confiscated, audiences were intimidated, censors demanded excision of objectionable material, and J. Edgar Hoover prevented Labor Film Services from publishing a planned Labor Film Magazine. In 1922 the New York State Federation urged repeal of a film censorship law, arguing that films are publications and any attempt “to abridge or restrain such publication in any degree is a violation of our constitutional rights.”

During the Depression labor subordinated cultural work to organizing, and economic hardship created a thirst for the escapist films with which Hollywood inundated the nation. Soon Rochester’s movie theaters showed nothing but such films and the CTLC paper announced them with glamor photos of the stars.

Labor films returned to Rochester in 1989, when Education Committee chair Jon Garlock persuaded George Eastman House film curator Chris Horak to work with the Rochester Labor Council to bring in a labor audience to see films depicting workers and their struggles. The Rochester Labor Film Series, cosponsored by the RLC and the Eastman House, became an annual event which, in its seventeen years, has screened over 150 films before a total audience of more than 16,000 — half of them from the labor community.

Eastman House curator Jim Healy noted in 2003 that “few films show people at their jobs” and described the annual Labor Film Series as an antidote. “The films in these series have not exclusively been the kind that celebrate the joys of work. Many have been about complex and fascinating issues: conflicts between personnel and management, strikes and their sometimes not-so-rosy outcomes, the widening gap between the rich and the poor. Some of the films even discuss revolution.”

All films screened at the film series have been introduced by someone from the labor community, a member of the Eastman House film department, or someone connected to the film. Audiences are thus provided context in which to consider the filmmaker’s intent as well as the film’s significance.

Some of these films are classics, in which workers’ struggles to organize into unions and to fight for adequate pay, safe working conditions, rights and equality in the union and in the workplace, etc. are central: Norma Rae, Matewan, The Organizer, Harlan County USA, Grapes of Wrath, Salt of the Earth. One film series actually screened Labor’s Reward and The Passaic Textile Strike, the only two worker-made films from the silent era that have survived to the present. Another series included the Labor Council’s own 2002 documentary, Struggle in Smugtown.

Increasingly, labor films have begun to focus on issues of plant closings and redundancy, privatization, the migration of workers from one economy to another, and other effects of globalization: Roger & Me, Navigators, Brassed Off, La Ciudad, Bolivia, Alambrista, H2 Worker, Mondays in the Sun, From the Other Side.

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