Labor Movies For Labor Day

If you’re not yet supporting the Hollywood strikes, these films will get you on the worker’s side

The Writers Guild went out on strike on May 2. Still not back at their keyboards.

SAG-AFTRA took to the picket line on July 14. They continue to not act.

And while there are still yet-to-be-seen films and shows in the proverbial can, odds are the studios are going to be loath to bring them out because strike rules prohibit SAG-AFTRA members from doing personal appearances, premieres, screenings, and other promotional events on behalf of films.

All of those things generated what’s now known as “earned media,” previously known as “free publicity.”

Less public visibility equals less box-office traffic.

Something the studios aren’t interested in.

According to recent polling by Gallup, 72 percent of Americans support the members of the WGA while only 19 percent support the studios. And while the actors don’t get as high numbers, support is at 67 percent for them and 24 percent for the studios. If, for some reason, you find yourself in the minority, you should be asking why. So here are some films that you should watch this Labor Day weekend to sufficiently energize yourself to support the WGA and SAG-AFTRA.

Blue Collar

Paul Schrader was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on the other side of the state from Detroit. That notwithstanding, General Motors opened a factory in Grand Rapids, which to this day builds things like axles for trucks. So in Schrader’s oeuvre, it isn’t surprising that he directed and co-wrote 1978’s Blue Collar because UAW-represented workers were part of his early environment. Blue Collar is his directorial debut. The plot has Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto as auto workers in Detroit who rob their union (union officials were more interested in themselves than their members) but discover that they’ve also walked away with a ledger with all manner of valuable information that they might be able to use for purposes of persuasion. (Coincidentally, Justified: City Primeval, set in Detroit, includes a stolen ledger as part of its plot, so evidently ledgers and dodgy Detroiters are a phenomenon.)

This film checks plenty of boxes from Detroit’s past, from the mob to drug dealing to thugs to elements of working-class struggles. Schrader shot scenes in various factories, including the Ford Rouge Complex in Dearborn—where they are now making electric vehicles, a factor in the current UAW contract negotiations.


One of the most famous things that Jimmy Hoffa did was disappear. In July 1975, upon leaving a restaurant in suburban Detroit, Hoffa, the former long-time president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (1957-1971) vanished, which gave rise to more conspiracy theories than even Oliver Stone could have imagined. Stone did not direct 1992’s Hoffa; Danny DeVito, co-star of the film along with Jack Nicholson, did, based on a script by Chicago’s David Mamet, who knows a thing or a dozen about dubious dealings at all levels.

While it might seem that a movie about a guy who led an organization of professional truck drivers would be uninteresting, given Hoffa’s actual real-life biography—“alleged” involvement with organized crime, testifying in front of a Senate committee and taking the Fifth 140 times, taking on the AFL-CIO as it was ousting the Teamsters from its ranks, being legally pursued by attorney general Robert Kennedy, convictions for things ranging from jury tampering to wire fraud, having his sentence commuted by Richard Nixon—it would be hard not to make an interesting movie about the guy. Jack Nicholson undergoes a remarkable transformation into the character—both in terms of appearance and mannerisms. Although Blue Collar is Detroit-centric, Hoffa still shows a lot of the city, given the importance of the Teamsters in relation to the Big Three.

It is worth noting that Al Pacino portrayed Hoffa in Martin Scorsese’s 2019 mob movie, The Irishman. That movie explains Hoffa’s disappearance because the mob became increasingly annoyed with the union leader. They send Frank Sheeran, played by Robert De Niro, to Detroit to put Hoffa on the wrong side of the grass—and one of the places where Hoffa is allegedly buried is under the old Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands.

Norma Rae

The textile industry was once burgeoning in the U.S. before it gave way to outsourcing (China is now the biggest source of textiles). Automation also took a number of people out of the mills (they don’t complain). But when things were up the upswing, mill operators wanted to maximize output. Which meant, in many cases, such as the one chronicled in 1979’s Norma Rae, that the workers had to work longer and harder than they were already working. And there is the non-trivial problem of byssinosis—brown lung disease—that mill workers contract when they inhale cotton fibers.

Somehow none of this would seem to be a subject that Sally Field, at least as the world knew her up to 1979 (she was Gidget and the Flying Nun, not a perspiring North Carolinian), would turn into a Best Actress performance. But she did, in part because of a plucky scene in which she stands on a table in the mill and holds up a cardboard sign with the word “Union” written on it. Her character—based on a real woman—ends up in jail for her corporate impertinence. One hesitates to use the word “powerful” to describe a movie. But Norma Rae is.


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Stephen Macaulay

Stephen Macaulay writes about the music industry for Glorious Noise ( began his career in Rockford, Illinois, a place about which Warren Zevon once told a crowd, “How can you miss with a name like Rockford?”

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