Welcome to Season 2 of Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how Hollywood uses history to talk about today.
I’m Lia Paradis.
And I’m Brian Crim.
Last episode we talked about social revolution, a different thing altogether from the sort of violent political upheaval bringing about regime change or throwing off the yoke of western imperialism. Women’s suffrage and the slower, incremental struggle for equal rights is no less revolutionary, but it’s what some might call a permanent revolution. In this episode we stick with social revolution, but the focus is on labor. There’s a lot of violence associated with workers’ rights, at least at the beginning of the century, and like women’s rights – it is a work in progress. If anything, we’ve probably taken steps backwards since our featured films were made.
Our three films were produced within a decade of each other, 1979 to 1987, when labor faced immense struggles in the face of the Reagan Revolution. Not only did Reagan fracture the normally reliable Democratic coalition of voters, peeling off many blue collar workers, his administration slashed and burned decades of meaningful worker protections in basically every industry. We start with John Sayles’ Matewan (1987), a film about the infamous 1920 coal miners strike in West Virginia. Next is Norma Rae (1979), Martin Ritt’s film starring Sally Field and based on a true story of a North Carolina textile worker who pushes for unionization. And then a darker story, Silkwood (1983), about Karen Silkwood, the nuclear power whistle blower and union activist who died under mysterious circumstances in 1979.
So, what are our lies agreed upon in this episode? Well, the first is that history is a story of progress. A lot of it just, well, isn’t. And workers’ rights in America is a case in point. Unions are weaker today than they were when these movies were made. And they were made in response to an active campaign to reduce workers’ rights and vilify unions during the 1980s.
Our second lie is tied directly to the first but gets a bit more specific. It’s that dangerous conditions for workers are a thing of the past, relegated to Dickens’ novels and the sweat shops of the turn of the last century. Students are assigned Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (about meat processing plants in Chicago circa 1900) or taught about the Triangle Factory Fire (when almost 150 women were killed in a sweatshop fire in New York in 1911) largely so that we can congratulate ourselves that we no longer subject workers to those conditions.
The historical truth is that efforts to protect workers from exploitation have never been adequate. And that employers are always favored over labor by the lawmakers who should be protecting them. These statements sound political. But if we simply look at the historical record, we see quite clearly that they are statements of fact. The politics can come into the philosophical discussions of whether and what we should do about it. But the history is starkly clear.
Matewan is a brilliant writing and directorial effort by independent filmmaker John Sayles. It stars Chris Cooper as Joe Kenehan, the union organizer who comes to town amid increased tensions between coal miners and the all-powerful Stone Mountain Coal Company. James Earl Jones, and boy its great to see him in the flesh acting, is “Few Clothes” Johnson. All of us Mary McDonnell fans will be happy to see her as Elma Radnor, who runs a boarding house and is mother to Danny, an aspiring preacher and young coal miner who actually is providing the voice over from a perspective decades removed from the 1920 event. Danny is played by singer-songwriter Will Oldham, aka Bonnie Prince Charlie in some circles. Another one of our favorites, David Straitharn is the pro-union police chief Sid Hatfield (as in the Hatfields and the McCoys), who is caught in the middle of the impending violence.
The film begins with Joe, a United Mine Workers representative, arriving to town to organize angry miners facing wage cuts. The company imports Black and Italian workers to break a strike, setting up major conflicts within the town over who deserves to be unionized and who doesn’t. We see just how powerful Stone Mountain is – controlling every aspect of Matewan, even if Chief Hatfield is itching for a fight with their hired goons. Stone Mountain plants a mole in the union, played by perpetual villain character actor Bob Gunton (he’s the warden in Shawshank Redemption and we just saw him as Woodrow Wilson in Iron Jawed Angels), who turns people against Joe and urges the miners to get violent. This would justify using force and crushing their efforts.
All of this drama and intrigue comes to a head when a private army of union busters arrives and the inevitable confrontation turns into an all out gun battle in the center of town. The Matewan massacre, of which Joe is a victim, is the precursor to the most violent episode of the Great Coalfield War that started in 1912. A year after Matewan, the Battle of Blair Mountain pitted 10,000 miners against 3,000 armed lawmen and mercenaries, resulting in 100 dead. It was the largest armed uprising in the US since the Civil War. Have you ever heard of it?
Every film this week dramatizes both the conflicts between labor and management as well as internal divides over race, gender, and even age. A lot of these union efforts happen in the Jim Crow South and workers often had to overcome their learned prejudice to see the bigger picture. When James Earl Jones walks into a union meeting hoping to join his workers with the miners, Joe has to do some convincing. Let’s listen to him start to bridge this divide.
Norma Rae is a 1979 film, directed by Martin Ritt and written by the married writing team of Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch from a 1975 book, Crystal Lee: A Woman of Inheritance, by NYTimes reporter, Henry Leiferman. It won Field an Oscar and a Cannes award for Best Actress, and was nominated for Best Picture. Despite the movie poster image of Field making the film look like it was a rom-com, Norma Rae is probably best remembered for the iconic image of Sally Field standing on a workbench on the factory floor holding up a huge sign reading “UNION”. It also starred Ron Liebman as union organizer, and Beau Bridges, as Norma Rae’s husband. The always great character actors Pat Hingle and Gail Strickland, round out the cast.
Boiled down, Norma Rae is the story of a young woman with not much education taking on the ownership of a textile factory in rural North Carolina. Working conditions are poor and the health of her friends and family suffer because of it. Her growing anger at the situation coincides with the arrival of Rueben, Rob Liebman’s character, a New Yorker from the national union tasked with organizing a chapter way down South.
Unlike the overt brutality and danger in Matewan, here we see how anti-union action has become more sophisticated and passive aggressive in the decades since the 1920s. It takes us through the very real, nitty gritty details of unionization efforts, including the pettiness, the intimidation, and the exploitation of racism and misogyny by the owners to undermine the pro-union efforts. And it’s not just the owners. Officers come from the national office to try and sideline Norma Rae once they hear rumors that she’s – in the parlance of the time – a whore. More on that later, when we talk to our first guest on this podcast.
Norma Rae is not as explicitly grounded in the language of class warfare and socialism as Sayles’ Matewan, as you might expect, but it is effective in showing how high the stakes are, how much poor people are conditioned to accept their fate, and how hard it is to get a diverse group of people to join together in common interest. Here’s a scene with Ron Liebman urging the textiles workers, some Black, some young, some old, to tell their stories about premature deaths, illnesses, and the indignities of working under bad circumstances.
When watching this scene, you can almost see the revelation on people’s faces as recounting their own miseries makes them realize just how poorly they’re being treated.
Silkwood should be a more remembered film than it is. Released in 1983, it stars Meryl Streep, Cher, and Kurt Russell. Based on the 1981 book, Who Killed Karen Silkwood? by Howard Kohn, the screenplay was written by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlin, and the film was directed by Mike Nichols. The pedigree is incredible. Both Streep and Cher were nominated for Oscars, and Cher won (deservedly) the Golden Globe. Quite frankly, her performance in this reminds me of just how fantastic she was as an actress and what a shame it is that she chose to get huge amounts of face-freezing plastic surgery and focus on her concert show instead of continuing to give us incredible performances like she did here, and in Mask, and in Moonstruck.
Silkwood is different from our other two films because it takes on what was seen then as a relatively new industry. Coal mines, textile mills – these are where the modern proletariat came into existence. And yet, the plight of workers in unsafe conditions pales in comparison to the accidental death of millions should things go wrong at a nuclear power plant. Silkwood is as much about whistle-blowing and the perils of deregulation as it is about the eternal struggle between labor and capital. The Kerr-McGee Fuel Fabrication Site, which operated in rural Oklahoma between 1965 and 1975, seems to be filled with sick people. Workers are regularly “cooked” by radiation and scrubbed raw in showers as if that helps. The implications go beyond their safety, but the newness of the industry means the classic measures of unsafe conditions don’t even really apply.
Like Norma Rae, unions get involved and in this case don’t have the workers’ interests at heart, seeing the impending disaster at Kerr-McGee as a publicity opportunity. Given Karen’s access to documents and X-rays proving the plant was working too fast and sloppy, shipping faulty fuel rods, the union uses her to gather documentation and expose the company in the press. The film ends with Karen driving to meet a reporter, but she sees headlights bearing down on her. Officially, Karen was killed in a one-car accident, but the film (and the book it is based on) implies she was “silenced” for being a whistleblower.
After visiting Washington with other union reps to testify before the Atomic Energy Commission, some union sponsored doctors show up in Texas and scare the Hell out of the workers, finally telling them the truth about their prolonged exposure to plutonium. After that bomb drops, Craig T. Nelson confronts Ron Silver, the union rep, and lays bare a common theme in our films – is it better to have fair and safe jobs or no jobs at all? Let’s play that clip:
Honestly, he has a point when he asks Ron Silver, where were you years ago? Why now? Unions, at least the management or national offices, are not always cast as heroes in these films.
While Matewan was a small, independent film that didn’t get much screen time upon its release, what Norma Rae and Silkwood remind us of is that Hollywood used to make character and plot driven movies about and for grown ups. And they were both critical and commercial successes. We miss those days. I think the starpower and resources behind films like Norm Rae and Silkwood have to do with the country’s turn to the Right, culminating with the Reagan Revolution which ushered in an era of giddy, reckless deregulation and attacks on unions. Breaking the unions and deregulating almost every industry are enduring legacies of the Reagan era, I think it is safe to say.
Look, we all know Hollywood’s reputation for liberal elitism, although what’s more corporate than the film industry this last 30 years, This was before the rise of independent films – like Matewan – when studios still had a stranglehold on production. Why did they do it then? But being openly liberal and progressive in the 1980s contradicted the Zeitgeist, and challenged the status quo. For every Rambo and Schwarzeneggar flick you have a Silkwood or a Norma Rae. There’s a market for dissenters in times of great political realignment, right? Think about how popular West Wing was in the Bush years. Some of us wanted to live in a world with a liberal academic president who easily won two terms. You know, Science Fiction.
Labor is all but broken today, but how did it get that way, and why were the 70s and 80s a turning point. Let’s dig a little deeper into that story. The formation of the AFL-CIO in 1955 might be considered a high point for the modern labor movement, stringing together a series of wins from collective bargaining. For example, manufacturing workers tripled weekly earnings between 1945 and 1970. But even, then, just a third of wage earners were unionized.
As we see dramatized in all three of our films, however, women and minorities were not always welcome in unions. Or, at the very least, their problems were not prioritized over strictly economic gains. The AFL-CIO did push for civil rights and backed Lyndon Johnson’s push for the Civil Rights Act, seeing in it a chance to promote labor. But what changed between the 60s and 70s?
Neither of us are labor historians, so let’s cite our sources here. I’m summarizing information presented in Foster R. Dulles and Melvyn Dubofsky, Labor in America: A History. From the early 1970s onward, new competitive forces swept through the heavily unionized industries, set off by deregulation in communications and transportation. This was an era of industrial restructuring and the beginning of cheap goods from foreign markets flooding the country. This just decimated the unions, prompted tons of closings, and led to more concession bargaining. This is when unions give back pay and other benefits in exchange for job security.
With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, there came to power an anti-union administration the likes of which had not been seen since the Warren Harding era. Between 1975 and 1985, union membership fell by 5 million. In manufacturing, the unionized portion of the labor force dropped below 25 percent, while mining and construction, once labor’s flagship industries, were decimated. Only in the public sector did the unions hold their own. By the end of the 1980s, less than 17 percent of American workers were organized, half the proportion of the early 1950s.
Reaganomics is synonymous with the unproven but enduring trickle down argument – cut taxes for corporations and watch them invest properly and for the good of all. Still waiting for that one. It is also about deregulation, which just underwent another wave during the Trump years. Let’s listen to former Labor Secretary RObert Reich explain what we’re up against. And yes, we know Reich is a big leftie and this is overtly anti-Trump, but the information is accurate.
And to move this away from Democrats vs. Republicans, Reich’s old boss Bill Clinton was no friend of unions himself. The world changed and it probably won’t go back to those post WWII days of unions achieving incremental progress for all.
Neither Norma Rae or Silkwood mention the words Occupational Safety and Health Administration, because hey, it’s not that exciting, but it definitely is part of the story. Passed in 1970 during the Nixon administration (and for all his faults, the guy created the EPA as well), OHSA provided much needed protections for workers by creating some federal guidelines.
The issue here is the ‘chemical revolution’ and the danger industrial chemicals posed to clean air and water, let alone workers exposed to them every day. Whether its textile mills in North Carolina or the poorly regulated nuclear power industry in places like Oklahoma, OHSA was intended to provide a modicum of protection for all of us. A film from 1979 (Norma Rae) and 1983 (Silkwood) dramatizing WHY such an agency was needed is not surprising, although it doesn’t do so explicitly.
The Reagan era was also the period of increased Cold War tensions. Nixon signed the SALT I nuclear weapons limitation treaty in 1972, but by the 1980a, Not only Reagan, but also his buddy Margaret Thatcher, were fearful that the SALT II nuclear weapons limitation treaty that Jimmy Carter had signed with Brezhnev in 1979 was a sell-out. The duo believed that Brezhnev was ramping up weapons production because the USSR felt increasingly isolated in a world where Eastern Europe was being forcefully kept in line and China was friendly with the US.
Brian and I can certainly tell our listeners that when we were growing up, we firmly believed we wouldn’t survive to adulthood. A nuclear war was going to end it all. US-Soviet belligerence in the 1980s was at an all time high. And Hollywood responded with a series of movies that looked at nuclear warfare directly, and nuclear power as an indirect critique. The same thing happened in Britain. Movies like Testament, about a family in California in the aftermath of nuclear war, and TV movies like The Day After in the US, and Threads in Britain, covered the same story. And activists like Dr. Helen Caldicott had their voices amplified through documentaries like If You Love this Planet. Let’s listen to a bit of that here. She’s addressing a room full of very scared looking young adults as she talks about the Cold War nuclear arsenal.
So it’s in this geo-political environment that the critique of nuclear power safety is happening with movies like Silkwood and the China Syndrome. Criticism of one was supposed to also help halt the other.
So, how do our films address the lies agreed upon? Let’s review those. First, one of the most common myths Americans believe, especially, is that history is a story of progress. It may be incremental, but things improve and we become more enlightened, and all that. Workers’ rights and unions are actually weaker today than they were when these movies were made.
Second, and Robert Reich kind of got to this, is that unsafe and unhealthy worker conditions are a thing of the past. Tell that to Amazon warehouse workers peeing in bottles, or basically any worker in the meatpacking industry who, it has to be said, are completely unprotected by the law because of immigration status. They can be coerced to work 24/7 to break our supply chain problem and contract Covid at alarming rates and there’s hardly a peep out of the then Trump-run regulatory regime.
Matewan is a tragedy, a real life massacre, and John Sayles’ 1987 film is meant to remind us of just how difficult it was to achieve the most basic protections for workers. The fact that the Stone Mountain company paid you in vouchers you could only spend in their stores, mandate that you live in their houses, compelled you to rent equipment they owned to do the job, and threatened you with a private army and police force any time you got out of line is not fictional. This was the status quo in early 20th century America.
Here’s James Earl Jones and other Black miners getting the run down from a Stone Mountain boss. It’s pretty remarkable:
As for the second lie, of course coal miners died early from black lung and perished in easily preventable accidents. Matewan shows this as well. Matewan is about shining a light on this 1920 tragedy in 1987 to highlight the dangers of this industry being deregulated once again.
Rather than discuss Norma Rae between ourselves, we thought we’d bring in an expert on the subject instead. What follows is a conversation Lia had recently with Joey Fink, an Assistant Professor of History at High Point University whose scholarship just happens to be on the real life JP Stevens unionization effort in Roanoke Rapids.
Silkwood is not really a story about union organizing. But it is a movie about labor, this time combining the long-standing problems of management disregard for worker safety despite the existence of a union, and the fears about nuclear power and nuclear war that was central to the zeitgeist of the 1980s. It’s main character is also a whistleblower, which is a role that seems to be more and more in the media spotlight today, which maybe should tell us something about how broken our checks against corporate, government, and military malfeasance are today.
Her story is a tragic mystery to boot. And the union here is not cast in a positive light. The union calculates that the health and safety of workers is less important than any publicity you generate from exposing corporate malfeasance. In Silkwood, no one is on your side – the town, the company, your co-workers, the Atomic Energy Commission, or the union you look to for protection. When it comes to complicating the lies agreed upon, Silkwood gets an A+
Special thanks to our guest, Dr. Joey Fink of High Point University