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Web Letter

Did no one see the irony in this article? Could there possibly be a connection between the union takeover and the fact that J.P. Stevens now has essentially no manufacturing in the United States? So when Sally Fields tells her kids that she wants things to be better for them when they go to work in the mill, she actually ensures that there won't be a mill. And since the same thing has happened all over (got any General Motors stock?), about the best they can do is work at the 7-11. There's an improvement worth fighting for.

Unions once addressed an important need in this country, but they have long since become bloated parasites that suck the blood from the manufacturing sector. I can't wait for the sequel to this movie--you know, the one where the mill closes, Sally and her mom go on welfare, and the kids start having babies at 15. Now, there's human interest.

Tom Hafer

Arlington , VA

Nov 15 2008 - 11:25pm

Web Letter

Somehow I missed this article till now!

I remember a time during the Reagan years when we workers were told we were about to become, in essence, "entrepreneurs" which was shorthand for a new minimum sense of responsibility employers were going to be permitted to take for their employees. That has come to pass, I think--in fact, a large percentage of the work force has not known it any other way.

Workers don't really identify themselves as workers anymore--each in his or her own way is pursuing a dream, the American Dream some might say, but I think not. The American dream was practical, assumed a kind of happiness in ordinary life: a house, a car, the ability to provide for a family--a chicken in every pot. Today we workers are placing our hopes on American Idol, the lottery, the flimsiest kind of dreams.

Likewise, I am a Berkeley carpenter who has won awards for poetry and published a book called Hammer about the construction industry which was well-reviewed in the New York Times Book review: Mark Turpin.net.

Mark Turpin

Berkeley, CA

Mar 5 2007 - 4:27pm

Web Letter

As a former union organizer (now working with low-income residents), I often look for positive representations of working-class people, and their struggles, on television. And while this is rare, there is currently a fantastic show about the glory of a hard day's work, Dirty Jobs.

While I have never seen the union aspect of the working men and women portrayed on the show (though this may be a good thing to keep the show up and running), the reality is boldfaced and beautiful. We now live in a society wherein we consider being a mid-management paperpusher more integral to the world and more dignified than the work done by those folks who actually impact the world around them.

I always like to ask myself a question when thinking about jobs and their standing in society: What if they all went on strike? If there were no more ad executives or market researchers or web designers, would my life suffer? What about if there were no more garbage collectors or tomato pickers or bus drivers or cops or fireman or retail clerks? I think the answer is obvious.

And that's what Dirty Jobs is all about. I think the show's tagline says it all, "I explore the country looking for people who aren't afraid to get dirty—hard-working men and women who earn an honest living doing the kinds of jobs that make civilized life possible for the rest of us."

Peter Masiak

San Francisco, CA

Mar 2 2007 - 9:19pm

Web Letter

Hollywood has always been big business. In the socially conscious '30s the only movie to actually show physical confrontation between management and labor was Black Gold, starring Paul Muni.

Movie makers then did not want common people to fully realize just how badly they had been screwed over by big business.

Even progressives like Warner Bros. were careful not to be too explicit in their excellent socially conscious movies.

So the common American in the '30s continued to believe the financial disaster that had befallen him was his own fault. Failure to be able to work and provide for his family was unendurable. But yet he endured.

J.D.Smith

Bowling Green, Ohio

Feb 28 2007 - 6:30pm

Web Letter

Wonderful article. Wanted to second the recommendation of Matewan and North Country (New Zealander directed). I also would highly recommend Blue Collar with Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel that also effectively portrayed working class people and dealt with race issues as well. Also, how about The Pursuit of Happiness (Italian director), Real Women Have Curves (albeit more mainstream, we take what we can get in dealing with struggles or poor working people) or The Wire (albeit a TV show, wait for it to come out on DVD if you don't have HBO) These deal with homelessness, working lives, and issues of inner cities?

I was batting around this theory that we do not see these working class-issues-oriented movies being made b/c many of the up-and-coming filmmakers and writers seem to come from privileged backgrounds. Does anyone else notice this in reading the bios of the new filmmakars and many creative artists? Funny you should quote mogul Goldwyn--his grandson, Tony is making movies today and it's not Matewan 2.

I know this will be controversial but I have this theory that maybe many of the well-off artists who have never experienced the real insecurity of unemployment (w/o benefit of a trust fund or parent's resources to back them up), homelessness or a state close to it, not having money for a prescription, etc.; they, as artists, are wary of portraying issues like this b/c they fear doing an dishonest or inauthentic job with it. (Or possibly they have no interest, I was giving the benefit of the doubt.)

Now I believe that some would say that a true artist could transform an emotionally wrenching experience of say, watching parents go through a divorce, and attach that emotion to the insecurity of a man or woman dealing with unemployment. That's true, but I find that most artists out there would just rather portray the experience that is most accessible to them and would just literally portray the parents in divorce (see The Squid and The Whale) rather than thinking about the emotional insecurity of that experience and relating it to something outside their experience. I hope this makes sense.

I do not want anyone to think I am saying that only artists from lower-class backgrounds can do an authentic job of portraying working-class issues. I don't care who does it, as long as it gets done. I'm just offering another perspective that tries to explain why it appears the Norma Rae of 2007 isn't being made. What I am talking about deals with artistic issues, the chances people with access to the opportunity to make films wish to take, and the lack of media and creative access for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. All this being said, this unfortunately assumes that those from working-class backgrounds, once they have access, would have an artistic interest in portraying experiences from their own backgrounds.

Jen Hinton

Chicago, IL

Feb 27 2007 - 6:47pm

Web Letter

While reading this article, I was looking for a mention of the John Sayles film Matewan, made in 1987.

It's another movie about unions that might fit in this discussion. The ending is more downbeat than that of Norma Rae, but it is a positive portrayal also rooted in history.

Bert Stevens

Kanawha, Iowa

Feb 26 2007 - 11:01pm

Web Letter

How you can manage to write an article ostensibly about movies involving corporate labor relations without mentioning North Country is nearly incomprehensible to me. Of course the real villains in that movie were the unionized men, as well as the corporate management types. So I guess that makes it off-limits.

What's more, why would anybody go to a tenplex to see a message movie? Tenplexes exist for teenage kids to see large-scale video games in which things explode. Message movies are watched by their elders at home on the small screen at an affordable price.

And although I know nothing about film industry unions (except that Ronald Reagan emerged from one), perhaps they have some responsibility for preventing filmmakers from romanticizing organized labor. Certainly the luster attached to unions in American lore by Woodie Guthrie et al. was ruined for me by my real life experience of unionized construction labor with its corruption and its active hostility to seeing any work get done at anything but the slowest of artificial paces.

When unions are respectable, they get the respect they deserve.

Steve Feldman

New Harmony, Utah

Feb 26 2007 - 11:22am

Web Letter

As a non-union type and staunch critic of unions in general, and union corruption and union violence specifically (I thought liberals opposed torture) I nonetheless truly enjoyed Norma Rae, and can't pass it up whenever it appears while I'm channel surfing.

The movie captures the essense of what unions once were and ought to be.

The reason why Hollywood doesn't make more such movies is that most rational Americans know what unions have devolved into, and most irrational types don't care because they just want to be mindlessly entertained, or are going to vote Democrat anyway.

Also, consider who runs Hollywood: Greedy, limousine liberals who often film in Canada to avoid high labor costs!

Scott Bernard

Plant City, Florida

Feb 26 2007 - 8:25am

Web Letter

I really appreciated this fine piece about Norma Rae. I am a union industrial building tradesman and a half-baked writer. I've been struggling with the issues explored in Norma Rae ever since I first saw the inside of a steel mill. In no particular order, here is why it is a great film:

It portrays American workers realistically, with all of our complicated love, loyalties, malice and fear. Always the fear--fear of injury or illness, of change, of losing the job and one's place in the neighborhood. (The town motto in Norma Rae could be the same as the one for the Chicago building trades: "You're lucky to have a job.") There is also the fear of dying, undignified, in harness, and in a quietly brutal scene that happens to Norma's wonderful dad.

The people in the movie are real and imperfect. I know some smart people who appear to work at being ignorant, and I know others who seemed like lumps of clay right up to the minute I realized they were beautiful guys. They are in Norma Rae. Norma is no saint (but she's in the choir), and the scene where she wakes up her children to tell them about her past and prepare them for the coming storm--well that scene just stole my heart. I was a freshly minted journeyman back then, and I envied the Beau Bridges character, because he had a good union maid and he could tell her that "there's nobody else in my head."

Finally, Norma Rae shows the crushing minutiae of a certain kind of workplace, and what it takes to make that work meaningful. I have worked in many places that are far worse than the factory in Norma Rae and the experience can be overwhelming and degrading. (Physical danger is par for the course.) You can see that in the faces in the film, and how they realize that the company's prime interest is only in the machine, not the person. In this milieu, the only way to become an individual is to band together to fight for the marginal changes that accumulate into a better life and community. A few extra dollars, more time off, a cleaner and safer shop floor--these things add up, and without them life can get pretty undignified.

We should remember, though, that in both the fiction and reality of Norma Rae, almost half the workers voted against the union. In today's economy the union would probably lose. Voting for or against a union is no longer a real civil right, and the modern obsession with business and money and success at any cost makes (as the writer Thomas Geoghegan puts it) the love of the union the only love now that dare not speak its name.

Thanks to Ms. Mort and Mr. Nathan. Great piece--nobody wants to write about us anymore.

Bill Doyle

Valparaiso, Indiana

Feb 24 2007 - 1:49am