What to Watch

14 labor union movies to organize your summer

It’s a hot labor summer. It’s never a bad time to celebrate organized labor and collective action, but it just feels right this June. So we’ve collected a group of movies on that topic and theme for you to enjoy at home.

Some of the most legendary labor movies (like Matewan and Norma Rae) aren’t currently available to watch at home, as well as The Crime of Monsieur Lange (ed note: one of Pete’s all-time favorite movies). But there’s still no shortage of great labor- and union-focused movies available on streaming platforms and digital VOD services. We’ll start with some movies explicitly about labor unions before moving onto others that fit for thematic or narrative reasons.


Strike

Three men standing in front of a gigantic gear.

Image: The Criterion Collection

The legendary Soviet master Sergei Eisenstein is perhaps best known for his role in the theory and development of montage as a film technique, and for his 1925 masterpiece Battleship Potemkin. But Potemkin was his second film of 1925, following his terrific and powerful feature debut, Strike.

The movie presents a strike by factory workers at the turn of the 20th century, and the brutal measures the owners turn to in an attempt to suppress the collective actions of the laborers. Eisenstein creates evocative visual imagery throughout, often comparing the treatment of the workers to the treatment of cattle, including an infamous scene where violence towards the workers is interspersed with the slaughter of cattle. A stunning work from one of the greatest and most influential filmmakers to ever live, Strike remains powerful nearly a century later. —Pete Volk

Strike is available to stream on Criterion Channel and on Kanopy for free with a library card.

Harlan County, USA

Image: Janus Films

One of the finest American documentaries ever made, Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA follows a 1973 strike by coal miners in Kentucky, the brutal measures the company takes to break the strike, and the community effort led by the miners’ wives to win better working conditions.

Kopple and her team spent years embedded with the workers and their families, painstakingly painting an immersive portrait of their lives and their struggle. A moving film that simultaneously depicts a ground-level view of worker oppression and some unbelievable events that made national news, Harlan County, USA is, quite simply, a masterpiece. —PV

Harlan County, USA is available to stream on HBO Max and Criterion Channel.

How Green Was My Valley

Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon) and Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowall) in How Green Was My Valley.

Image: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

John Ford is often recognized for the Western movies he made with John Wayne, but this 1941 family drama may be his finest work in a career filled with terrific films. How Green Was My Valley follows the Morgan family and their fellow residents in a fictional Welsh village. The Morgans and many others are miners who are faced with cruelty from the mine owner and the apathy of the changing world around them. Powerful performances from Maureen O’Hara, Roddy McDowall, and the rest of the cast are coupled with beautiful imagery from the gorgeous Welsh countryside and a moving, sentimental script to create an unforgettable classic movie that is undeniably human to its very core.

How Green Was My Valley beat out Citizen Kane for Best Picture in 1941, and as someone who loves both movies: The Academy was right! —PV

How Green Was My Valley is available to stream on Criterion Channel.

The Killing Floor

Frank Custer (Damien Leake) speaking through a handheld megaphone in The Killing Floor.

Image: Criterion Collection

Bill Duke’s 1984 film The Killing Floor is a powerful cinematic portrait of the intersecting forces of race and class at the turn of the 20th century. Originally broadcast on PBS via the “American Playhouse” series, Duke’s film follows the story of two Black sharecroppers who journey from Mississippi to Chicago in the wake of WWI in search of jobs. After gaining a job at a meatpacking plant, Frank Custer (Damien Leake) is asked to join a union — a privilege which many of his fellow Black workers had previously been denied — right as racial tensions across the city begin to flare in the months and weeks leading up to the Chicago race riot of 1919.

Navigating the union-busting machinations of the plant owners and the lingering animosities of his fellow Black workers, Frank is forced to choose what matters more: his dignity, or a paycheck? The animating idea at the heart of The Killing Floor can be summed up in a sentence spoken to Frank near the beginning of the film: “Any worker who fails to join the forces of organized labor has a grudge against himself.” —Toussaint Egan

The Killing Floor is available to stream on Criterion Channel and on Kanopy for free with a library card.

Newsies

A group of newspaper boys holding up newspapers pronouncing a strike.

Image: Disney Plus

Kenny Ortega’s 1992 movie Newsies is one of the all-time great illustrations of how generational tastes change and how that affects a film’s popularity. Newsies flopped at the box office and was derided by critics, based on the mildly ridiculous conceit of a musical retelling of the New York City newsboys’ strike of 1899, and Ortega’s squeaky-clean, energetic Disney-musical execution. Years later, those same things turned it into an infamous cult movie. And years after that, kids who grew up watching the clips online — after being primed by High School Musical and Glee to love exactly this flavor of heart-on-the-sleeve sing-along entertainment — embraced Newsies unironically for all the positivist energy, purity of vision, and idealism that earlier viewers found too treacly and sincere. Wee baby 17-year-old Christian Bale stars as an NYC newspaper hawker who helps organize a strike of the city’s child workers after New York World publisher Joseph Pulitzer attempts to shift the rising costs of his business over to them. It’s a perfect Disney story: The poorest kids in the city take on its powerful media moguls and win, thanks to some dancing and singing (with songs by The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast songwriter Alan Menken) and some good old-fashioned solidarity. It’s the perfect movie for reaching kids about unions and labor disputes, and also selling them early on sincerity and heart in their screen stories. —Tasha Robinson

Newsies is available to stream on Disney Plus.

Brassed Off

Ewan McGregor in Brassed Off, playing his brass instrument.

Image: FilmFour Distributors

Like the miners at the center of its story, Mark Herman’s Brassed Off faced circumstances beyond its control — this poignant film about the devastating reverberations of the pit closures in Britain was marketed in the U.S. as a zany romantic comedy (by Miramax and, ugh, Harvey Weinstein) after opening the Sundance Film Festival in 1997. The overlap with The Full Monty, which was its own critique of Margaret Thatcher, probably didn’t help matters.

But the truth is Brassed Off tells an alternately mournful and rousing story about small but meaningful acts of protest in the face of monetarist practices, and a government indifferent to the destruction of communities. The great cast includes Ewan McGregor and Tara Fitzgerald — whose chemistry makes the marketable ploy somewhat understandable but ultimately unforgivable — as well as Pete Postelthwaite, whose final-act speech found its way into “Tubthumping.” —Danette Chavez

Brassed Off is available to rent on Amazon, Apple, and Vudu.

Support the Girls

Haley Lu Richardson, Regina Hall, and Shayna McHayle scream their feelings out on a rooftop in Support The Girls.

Image: Magnolia Pictures

Andrew Bujalski (Computer Chess) wrote and directed this day-in-the-life comedy about a group of women who work at a Hooters-like restaurant. The movie’s central character is general manager Lisa (Regina Hall, in a terrific leading performance), whose main priority is the welfare of the girls that work for her (and fending off her idiotic boss, who is constantly threatening her job).

A funny and inspiring movie about solidarity at work and found communities in struggle, Support the Girls also includes memorable supporting turns from Haley Lu Richardson, AJ Michalka, Brooklyn Decker, and Shayna McHayle (also known as the rapper Junglepussy). —PV

Support The Girls is available to stream on Showtime, for free with a library card on Kanopy or Hoopla, or for free with ads on Pluto TV or Plex.

Modern Times

Charlie Chaplin is a cog in a machine, travelling through gears in Modern Times.

Image: United Artists

Is there a more famous image of Charlie Chaplin than him traveling through the gears of a machine in Modern Times? It’s a perfect encapsulation of what made him one of the greatest movie stars that ever graced our planet: a deeply silly gag that doubles as an apt metaphor for a very human struggle.

In Modern Times, Chaplin’s famous Tramp character suffers a nervous breakdown from poor working conditions on an assembly line. He then gets arrested when he accidentally takes part in a Communist protest, and then accidentally breaks out of jail (before accidentally stopping the jailbreak). When he meets an orphan (Paulette Goddard, who was in a relationship with Chaplin at the time and later married him) wanted by police for stealing bread, the two forge a deep bond.

Modern Times was Chaplin’s last time playing The Tramp, and it was the first time his voice was heard in a movie. It’s one of his many masterpieces, and its reputation as one of the greatest films ever made is more than well earned. It’s also just a straight-up hilarious time, filled with unforgettable gags and Chaplin’s unique screen presence that has not been equaled since. —PV

Modern Times is available to stream on HBO Max and Criterion Channel, or for free with a library card on Kanopy.

The Devil and Miss Jones

A man and woman with hats look at index cards in a box.

Image: RKO Radio Pictures/Olive Films

A sort of fictional Undercover Boss situation is the central conflict in The Devil and Miss Jones. John P. Merrick (Charles Coburn) is the richest man in the world. One of the many things he owns is a department store, whose employees are unionizing.

While it lacks the teeth of some of the other movies on this list (and the ending is a jarring tonal shift that feels very much like a studio requirement), The Devil and Miss Jones is nevertheless a very funny comedy with pro-worker sentiments (for most of its running time). Directed by Sam Wood, who worked on some of the Marx Brothers’ movies, you can expect some joyous slapstick scenes to go along with Jean Arthur’s delightful performance as the charismatic store clerk Mary Jones. —PV

The Devil and Miss Jones is available to rent on Amazon, Apple, and Vudu.

The Pajama Game

Doris Day riles up the troops in Pajama Game.

Image: Warner Bros.

The sexual politics in George Abbott and Stanley Donen’s 1957 musical The Pajama Game are creepy and endlessly primeval, and the songs mostly range from unmemorable to embarrassing. But oddly enough, its look at labor negotiations is a real highlight, and they’re fun to watch even when the rest of the film gets dreary. Doris Day single-handedly drags the whole movie toward functionality as a union rep at a pajama factory where the workers are edging toward a strike to try to secure the seven-and-a-half-cent-per-hour raise that would give them parity with other workers in their industry. John Raitt plays the management stiff who romances Doris in the grabbiest, grossest, “consent in this era means the woman damn well better consent to whatever the man wants” way possible, while being baffled and sulky whenever she doesn’t want to get cozy with the guy who’s helping block union efforts for a living wage.

But look past their icky, unromantic romance (and the jealous stalker whose repeated attempts to beat and then murder his ex are played for laughs!), and The Pajama Game has some terrific sequences, choreographed by Bob Fosse. The song reprise where the pajama-makers agree to a work slowdown, and start doing their sewing and stitching in balletic slow motion, is a hoot. And the rousing union-rally final number, where the whole ensemble sings about what a raise would mean for their blue-collar lifestyles, is a catchy sing-along earworm. It’s bizarre to think about labor action being the highlight of a comedy musical, but it’s absolutely true here. —TR

The Pajama Game is available to stream on Prime Video and for free with ads on Tubi.

9 to 5

Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin cross their arms in 9 to 5.

Image: United Artists

Colin Higgins’ 1980 comedy about three women who secretly kidnap and imprison their sexist, abusive boss and run their office in his stead certainly wasn’t planned as an answer to The Pajama Game, but the two movies sure do make for a coincidentally interesting double feature. Dolly Parton’s endlessly catchy theme song “9 to 5” easily outpaces any of the songs in the 1957 musical, but otherwise, this film feels like an answer to the sexist assumptions about women’s wants and roles in the earlier movie. 9 to 5 came out early in the era of the women’s lib movement hitting the mainstream, and modern audiences may have a hard time believing how radical it seemed at the time as a fantasy about women seeking equal treatment in the workplace, rising to executive positions, and even introducing radical innovations like flextime and day care for employees. It’s culturally dated, but it’s still funny and resonant, with Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, and Jane Fonda’s friendship and alliance against bad boss Dabney Coleman feeling like the conceptual grandmother of the Girlboss movement. —TR

9 to 5 is available to rent on Amazon, Apple, and Vudu.

Outland

Sean Connery, standing behind a glass pane with another person, talks on the phone as a body in a space suit floats on the other side of the glass.

Image: Warner Bros.

Now for something a little bit different: a science fiction labor drama. Sean Connery stars in this extremely fun Peter Hyams (Timecop) space Western set on one of Jupiter’s moons. Connery is William O’Niel, a federal marshal who is assigned to the mining outpost on the moon. The miners are terribly overworked and deal with brutal conditions on the moon, but the boss (Peter Boyle) is happy because of record productivity. Miners start having psychotic breaks, and O’Niel investigates (against his disgruntled boss’s wishes).

A slick space Western with a highly skilled director and cast, Outland was also the first use of Introvision, a short-lived technology also used on Stand by Me and Army of Darkness, among others. Introvision was a style of front projection used instead of a blue screen, which let Hyams use more miniature sets in the film, better immersing the characters into the miniature sets that were built to represent the mining colony. —PV

Outland is available to rent on Amazon, Apple, and Vudu.

A Bug’s Life

a black widow, two pill bugs, a gypsy moth, a ladybug, a stick bug, a caterpillar, a praying mantis, and a rhinoceros beetle pose

Image: Pixar

Now, I’m not saying this animated children’s movie is an allegory for class warfare perpetrated by the wealthy and unscrupulous and a demonstration of the necessity of solidarity and collective action as a bulwark against tyranny, but I’m also not not saying that. —TE

A Bug’s Life is available to stream on Disney Plus.

Sorry to Bother You

Lakeith Stanfield sits in a glass booth under purple lighting in Boots Riley’s SORRY TO BOTHER YOU.

Photo: Annapurna Pictures

All Cassius Green (LaKeith Stanfield) wanted was a paying gig so he wouldn’t get kicked out of his uncle’s garage. However, when Green takes on a job for an unscrupulous telemarketing company, he gets way more than he ever bargained for — including a much-needed lesson in class solidarity and the importance of unions. Boots Riley’s directorial debut is full of hilarious nuggets of wisdom, but my absolute favorite is the line spoken to Cassius after he fails to publicly condemn his former employer and bring them to justice: “If you get shown a problem but have no idea how to control it, then you just decide to get used to the problem.” —TE

Sorry To Bother You is available to stream on Netflix.

You may also like

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.